Darren Aronofky's Black Swan has won praise for lifting the curtain on the ballet world, and much has been made of the fact that lead actor Natalie Portman, who's so far nabbed a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for the part, trained for an entire year to play a prima ballerina. But how's a regular viewer supposed to know a perfect plié from a subpar pirouette, or what the workings of a company are really like? Go to the pros, of course. Bridgett Zehr and Zdenek Konvalina, principal dancers with the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto, attended a screening with The Globe and Mail and talked about where the ballet slipper fits and where it completely misses the pointe.
If Natalie Portman joined one of your rehearsals tomorrow, would she fit right in?
Bridgett Zehr: I can tell by her arms a little bit that she's not a dancer. Especially for Swan Lake, you really need fluid arms, and she's a little bit stiff. And she doesn't have the right muscle tone. It's isn't what a dancer's looks like.
Zdenek Konvalina: It's also the sensitivity in the fingers when she's dancing. They're kind of stiff. Losing that stiffness is hard. It's something that you acquire through years and years of training.
How good can someone get with a year of training?
Konvalina: One year is really not that long. As professional dancers, when we prepare for Swan Lake, if we didn't play it for a long time and are getting back to it, we need about five or six weeks just to rehearse and be ready. And that's somebody who knows the role.
Zehr: I started dancing when I was 7, and I'm still not where I want to be. That's the thing, we all are perfectionists. You have to be a perfectionist to be in this field. The work never stops. I like how they showed that, how she's driven to be perfect. You keep trying to reach that unattainable thing. A year isn't much.
There's a scene where Vincent Cassel, who plays the company's artistic director, walks through a rehearsal and explains the story of Swan Lake to the dancers. Would that ever happen?
Konvalina: There are certain clichés about the director being so dominant and talking about the ballet. That doesn't happen. The director will never come to a rehearsal and tell us the story of the ballet.
Zehr: We all know the story.
How did you feel about Barbara Hershey's portrayal of a controlling ballet mother?
Zehr: I don't think normal 26-year-old girls live with their moms still and have stuffed animals.
Konvalina: We know ballet moms. But that seems like it's really extreme.
Where do you think the movie really nailed it?
Zehr: Her clothing, her leotards, the kind of tights she wears - those are all things that we actually wear. Usually, in other dance movies, people wear things a professional dancer would never think about wearing.
Konvalina: I liked it when the camera was from her perspective and she turned and the camera stopped on him [Cassel] And she turned and the camera stopped on him. Over and over again. Because that's how we see it. You have to keep a spot when you're turning like that, otherwise you get lost completely.
The company in the movie is presented as a wickedly competitive place. Is that what it's really like?
Konvalina: Once you get a role and you have the pressure, and you get the opportunity to go up on stage, and everybody's hoping that you do well and so the pressure builds up. There are other people who would like to get the role, and even though they are supportive, sometimes you don't read that well and you question their supportiveness. Especially when you get your first big opportunity.
How did you feel about the relationship between Portman's character and Cassel's? Is there ever any romance between a dancer and director?
Zehr: Zdenek laughed when she finished her black swan solo and she left the stage and went to make out with him and then came back out to bow.
Konvalina: That just doesn't happen.
There are a lot of scenes that show how punishing ballet is on a dancer's feet. Did the movie overdo that part?
Zehr: When she wakes up in the morning and pops her feet - that's just what you do. Or when she saw the physiotherapist. I looked around and people were jumping in their seats when they heard a crack. But that's normal.
Over all, how good a job do you think the movie does of showing the world of ballet?
Konvalina: I thought it was really well done. I think that we're able to distinguish what's exaggerated and what's not. But most of it is pretty accurate. A lot of it seems exaggerated, but it's actually very normal.
Zehr: It's exaggerated and kind of silly at times, but I appreciate so much that somebody was willing to go into our world and show a little bit of what it involves.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Bridgett Zehr and Zdenek Konvalina will next dance in the National Ballet of Canada 's winter season, which features Don Quixote (March 9 to 13) the return of Onegin (March 17 to 20) and Theme and Variations & Apollo & Russian Seasons ( March 23 to 27).