Why We Care About Natalie Portman's Dancing, Or Lack Thereof

First, Natalie Portman's dance double Sarah Lane complained about not getting enough credit for her work on Black Swan. Then Benjamin Millepied stepped up to defend Portman's dancing prowess. Then Fox Searchlight did. Now Darren Aronofsky has. All these defenses raise a question: why do we care how much Portman danced?

It makes sense for Lane to ask for credit where credit is due, and to speak up against the notion, created by the film and its attendant hype, that you can become an accomplished ballerina "in a year and a half." And to whatever extent that's not Portman's body doing the more complicated moves, the studio and Portman herself should acknowledge it. But would it be such a scandal if Lane — an actual trained dancer — did a significant chunk of Portman's dancing? Why did Aronofsky feel the need to pile on with a shot-by-shot breakdown of the two women's appearances ("There are 139 dance shots in the film. 111 are Natalie Portman untouched. 28 are her dance double Sarah Lane")? Does Portman have to be a ballet virtuoso in order for us to appreciate the film?

Coverage of Black Swan when it opened seemed to imply that the answer was yes. A.O. Scott's review of the film opened with a description of its treatment of ballet — "bodies, in particular the bodies of young women, are stretched and twisted into unnatural postures, and the cost of the fleeting, breathtaking grace they attain is reckoned in close-ups of battered, bloody feet and tendons pulled almost to the snapping point." And he called the film "an inky, unhinged fairy tale, a swirl of intuitions and sensations visited upon and realized through the body of its star, Natalie Portman." This focus on Portman's body, what it did, and how it suffered was central to much writing about the film. I fell into the pattern too, writing that due to her famously rigorous training regimen, Portman got to experience the real stresses of ballet, and "the film is both more problematic and more powerful for it."

But Lane's point is that Portman didn't actually go through ballet's real stresses, that drawing a direct connection between her struggle and her character's may be a mistake. The fact that Millepied, Fox Searchlight, and Aronofsky have all felt the need to declare her wrong brings up a problem with the film: without all that backstory, Portman's role might not really be that interesting. As Scott points out, her character has "very little personality of her own and almost no ability to articulate her own desires or feelings other than by trembling, perpetually, on the verge of tears." That's not Portman's fault, and no one — not even Lane — is accusing her of failing to give the performance her all. But absent the compelling tale of a famous actress turned skilled — and emaciated — ballerina, the often-weepy Nina Sayers just might not have been Oscar material. And all the assurances that Portman really did her own demanding moves may be, at least in part, efforts to escape this fact.

'Black Swan' Director Darren Aronofsky Defends Natalie Portman In Body-Double Controversy [Entertainment Weekly]

Earlier: Defense Of Natalie Portman's Black Swan Dancing Continues
Did Natalie Portman's Pain Make Black Swan Great?