Black Swan: A Ballerina's Perspective

2011-02-07 17:47
Burnise Silvius
It is every ballet dancer’s dream to perform the dual role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. This iconic ballet is probably the most popular ballet in the world and the dual role of Odette (the White Swan) and Odile (the Black Swan) provides dancers with an enormous challenge. Portraying two very different characters in a full-length ballet is not only technically demanding but also emotionally taxing.

I found the portrayal of this strong desire to perform the ballet very well depicted in Black Swan and one that I could relate to.

The scene where Nina (played by Natalie Portman) phones her mother in the bathroom once the cast list has been announced hit close to home and shows just how important the role is in the ballet world. In the movie, although it is not implicitly stated, I imagine that Nina most likely holds the rank of a Soloist or Senior Soloist (as opposed to the highest rank of Principal, i.e. dancers who would generally be cast in the lead of a ballet) and so being cast in the Principal role of Odette/Odile was a significant career break for her.

Femme fatale

She is still climbing the ranks of the fictitious company and yet was cast in the lead – on opening night to boot. This effectively made her the first cast, the ultimate achievement.

Initially I, too, found it difficult to portray the two characters. Odette must imbue the choreography with a vulnerability and sweetness – Odette is ultimately the 'victim' of the ballet and she needs to draw the audience into her turmoil. Between Acts II and III, I literally have about ten minutes to change my costume and headdress, adjust my make-up and become the femme fatale that is Odile for Act III.

Odile the seductress is a role I enjoy performing as it’s so far removed from my real character! I can become someone I am not on stage and it is fun. Still, unlike Nina, I know when to 'switch off' and become Burnise again! I strive to achieve balance in my life as ballet can become all-consuming as dancers constantly strive  for perfection – a perfection which is so fleeting.

Muscle memory

As a Principal dancer for The South African Ballet Theatre (SABT) for the past 10 years, I still find the biggest challenge of Swan Lake would be overcoming the ballet’s technical demands. The infamous 32 fouettées in Act III are especially difficult but the audience is not paying to see me struggle through the role and so I must get all the choreographic challenges under my belt before I can explore the characterisation. I am thoroughly rehearsed by the SABT Artistic Team for months before an opening night and must be well prepared by that stage. Because I have rehearsed for so long before a performance, and if I 'blank' or feel nervous, muscle memory kicks in.

A dancer must be 200% secure in her technique before tackling a role such as this – this is why we see the scene in Black Swan where Nina goes home to practice her fouettées in her room the night before the rehearsal. By the time she gets into rehearsal the next day, the choreography must be the vehicle for the story and not an obstacle.

I also found that the use of the famous Tchaikovsky score throughout the movie very creative – even Nina’s cellphone has the Swan Lake theme ringtone!

Classical ballet

I was pleased to see that director Darren Aronofsky had paid tribute to the 'oral history' legacy in classical ballet by working closely with Georgina Parkinson, who was brought on board as the Head Trainer for Black Swan. Ms Parkinson was Ballet Mistress at American Ballet Theatre for 20 years as well as a dancer with the Royal Ballet.

This is typical of the reverence held by the ballet world for experience and knowledge. For Swan Lake, (which was my first three-act ballet), I was coached by well-loved PACT Ballet ballerina Catherine Burnett. We spent a lot of time training all week (as well as on Sundays) in preparation for my debut.

I am pleased that Black Swan has exposed the public to the rigours and hard work that goes on behind the scenes in our profession. As Mila Kunis (Lily) said "I think ballet isn’t given enough credit as one of the hardest sports in the world".

Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder, is currently on circuit.

* Burnise Silvius is the Principal dancer at The South African Ballet Theatre and appears in the lead role of Romeo & Juliet, opening May 27 at the Joburg Theatre. Bookings through Computicket.


  • Alexis75 - 2011-02-09 12:28

    I thought Black Swan was excellent. The dedication required to be a ballerina is incredible!

  • motneets - 2011-02-09 13:33

    Natalie Portman's performace was brilliant and deserves an oscar!! as for the story, it was a complete shock to the system and I have no idea why someone would put thier mind and body through such an ordeal, Me, I would rather have root canal treatment than go through watching that again.. talk about 2 hrs of excrutiating pain!!

  • Fern - 2011-02-09 15:37

    Fantastic interview, Burnise, from a superb dancer. (If you haven't had the privilege of seeing Burnise dance, don't miss her in Romeo and Juliet in May at the Jo'burg Theatre.)

  • JudithNkwe - 2011-02-09 22:18

    You have made me certain that I will go and see this film. I have been fortunate to see Margot Fonteyn dance the roles

  • Marie Ferrari - 2011-02-13 16:55

    Have to watch this movie at least another 10 times. I was gob-smacked!

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