As Vincent Cassel’s ballet director Thomas Leroy paces a rehearsal space filled with dozens of dancers, stretching and unsure whether to be overjoyed or fearful of a tap on the shoulder, he announces to his company his choice of what they will soon be performing: “‘Swan Lake’ – done to death, I know. But not like this.” A guiding principle for Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” a complete reinvention of Tchaikovsky’s famed ballet was assured when the director hired the New York City Ballet’s Benjamin Millepied as his choreographer. A sample is here:
“Dance films don’t come around that often and they’re not usually that good,” admitted Millepied, which is probably just as well since he hasn’t had much time to spare since studying under Jerome Robbins in his teens to gone on to become one of the world’s most prolific and accomplished dancers. However, as a fan of Aronofsky’s (“‘Requiem for a Dream’ had a big impact on me as a young adult”) tasked with turning “Swan Lake” from a classic fairy tale into a tremulous fever dream, his screen debut intends to change all that.
“It was a really exciting collaboration because most of the time as a director, I’ll say something to an actor and they’ll turn it into emotion and in the case of Benjamin, I would say something and he would turn it into movement,” said Aronofsky, who happened to first meet Millepied as he was putting together a ballet about birds scored to the Kronos Quartet.
Soon, Millepied was arranging for the director to see “Swan Lake” in London and for Natalie Portman to work with the Paris Opera for a day in preparation in between perfecting the pas de deuxs and pirouettes of the largely untrained leads of Portman and Mila Kunis. And though one only gets hints of what a Millepied-choreographed “Swan Lake” would look like – the film features snippets of ten sequences that he created – it’s the cumulative effect of Millepied’s efforts, aided by a skilled group of ballet luminaries, that makes you believe in every move and the passion behind it. Recently, I got a chance to talk to Millepied about the difference between choreographing for the screen instead of the stage, his own foray into film directing and whether he should worry about Cassel giving French ballet directors a bad name.
Was it different choreographing something for film rather than the stage?
Completely because when I work for the stage, I’m my own director. Here, I was part of a larger project. [I had to take into account when] there was a principal actor being filmed, whether we would be a tight shot or a wide shot or the sort of energy that Darren wanted. Specifically when all the girls were running at the end, behind [Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers], that’s very much something I wanted to create, a whirlwind, which Darren and I talked about. It’s very much something that George Balanchine does in his own production of “Swan Lake,” so we had a lot of running in the last act, which we shot a hundred times. I remember the one night we finished that scene, girls were in tears because there’s nothing worse than running in pointe shoes. It was horrible.
Did you have much input beyond choreography?
Once stuff was choreographed, I was in the room when shots were being blocked, so I was there to change things if needed. But I did have a role in bringing ideas or scenes from old movies, or things like that to Darren, especially I showed this film of “Swan Lake” by Mariinsky, which was shot on a shiny black floor that was super striking — he loved that and we used it in the film. There were things like that. I was there to feed him with ballet stories and ideas and Darren was doing his own research as well with other people. It wasn’t just me. He was questioning everybody. But I very much had that responsibility to make sure things were credible.
You actually get a couple of the film’s best lines. How did your role as the dancing partner to the actresses offscreen become an onscreen part?
We didn’t have a lot of time and I was partnering with Natalie and Mila and they were comfortable with me, we were working together every day, so it was the easiest thing because the partnering was a big part of how I made them move. I manipulated them. Once you put them in the real dancer’s arms and they’re really manipulated and moving and doing the extra movement, it made it look more real. So the idea to bring in an actor and have to teach him how to partner, which is extremely difficult, I think Darren quickly realized it would be easier to put me in the film.
It would seem that beyond learning the choreography, an actor might be asked to express emotion differently as a dancer.
Yeah, definitely. It was also like she can do this well, but she can’t do this well, so I have to do a lot of that and use their qualities to make it look good. So that was very much something that required observation. But Natalie works very, very hard and went from being an amateur dancer to look like a ballerina on screen, which was really satisfying. As we were working, I would film her on camera and how she looked and what worked. I would play with filming her upper body and her arms and seeing what angles and what didn’t work, so that’s how I did it with her. I very much observed what would be interesting, what could make her succeed in portraying this ballerina.
I’ve read that you watched Baryshnikov’s “White Nights” a lot when you were growing up. Was your vision for “Black Swan” shaped by other films you had seen?
I think those films were an inspiration as a dancer, as an artist, and wanting to move to America and see where Baryshnikov was dancing maybe or be a part of that, that’s really what it is. I don’t think seeing those films did much for me in terms of [this particular film]. I love film and I’ve taken photos as a hobby for a very long time, so I think there was a cinematic sense that was very much exciting to me to be a part of. I’ve played around with moving with a camera with a dancer, using the camera as a third viewpoint, like a third dancer, which Darren excelled very well at in the film.
I understand you’ve made a short film of your own recently.
Yeah, after “Black Swan,” there’s a friend of mine, Asa Mader, and we had talked about making a film together for a long time, so we co-directed this film [“Time Doesn’t Stand Still”] that we shot in Paris. It’s really about a relationship from beginning to end and things that happen in this apartment. We concentrate on gestures to link the film and to tell our story, but it’s not a dance film. So it was super exciting. I was in it as well, with Lea Seydoux. She was really a knockout.
I’m going to make another short in the next year that would be a kind of exploration of dance in film. I think there is a lot to do still and I’m excited about exploring it. I’m working on two commercials in Europe as well and it should be really fun because it’s interesting to really set dance in our time and present it in film, not in a way that it’s cut from reality. It’s not like we act/we dance, but really make it a natural link where it really could go from one to the other. Make it a more natural, pedestrian language, which is what I’m working on.
Did you find much truth to the way dancers were portrayed in “Black Swan”?
Oh yeah. There’s a lot of what we call bunheads. There are these girls that live with their parents and are determined to become ballerinas and sort of have no life beyond the life they have in their dancing careers. And pushing others – it’s a very typical thing. Very. You see it in documentaries that have been done on dancers. It can be very extreme. Parents want their child to become a ballerina and be extremely pushy. It’s typical. It happens a lot.
Do you fear Vincent Cassel’s Thomas Leroy will give a bad name to French artistic directors?
[laughs] Time will tell. I don’t know whether we’ll have less ballerinas in ballet schools or more. I’m not so sure. We’ll see.
“Black Swan” is now playing in limited release.