Four local dancers reveal their familiarity with “Black Swan”
By Caroline Shannon-Karasik
When someone claims to be a “perfectionist,” it’s quite easy to view such a statement as an endearing quality. Give them a pair of pointe shoes and a few delusional characteristics, however, and it’s easy to see where a quest for perfection can easily turn ugly.
At least, that’s the premise of “Black Swan,” a psychological thriller directed by Darren Aronofsky in which ballet dancer Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman) slowly loses her mind in her quest to nab the lead role in “Swan Lake.”
But it is her need for perfection that ultimately drives Nina to harm her body, alienate herself from friends and family, ignore her natural good intentions, and engage in other unhealthy behaviors. Making a complete onscreen transformation, Nina sheds her once delicate nature – similar to that of the White Swan, Princess Odette – and instead embodies the characteristics of the Black Swan, Odile, stepping right in tune with the film’s title.
“Ballet dancers have a very driven, perfectionist, ‘Type-A’ sort of personality usually,” said Katie Keith Dettling, dancer at Dayton Ballet. “The scary thing is that there is a very fine line between that and [becoming] completely unbalanced.”
“I know when I go home for the holidays and talk about what my life is like, my family definitely thinks I’m a bit nuts,” said Dettling. “That being said, I feel that some of the movie went too far into the realm of ridiculous, making movie-goers disassociate from the reality of the situations.”
So, what, then, is the “reality?”
“I think ‘Black Swan’ more accurately depicts the life of a ballet dancer in New York in the 70s than now,” Dettling said. “Things have improved considerably for us since that era, although elements of everything that goes on in the movie definitely still exist. The mental, physical and emotional demand is very great. What kind of artist are you if you don’t completely give yourself over to it?”
And that black and white nature (pun completely intended) of the art form is the exact roundabout that leads this discussion back to square one (i.e. seeking perfection has not yet been taken out of the running).
“The quest for perfection is real and ongoing,” said Barabara Pontecorvo, director of Gem City Ballet and founder of Pontecorvo Ballet Studios. “We always feel we should be able to make our bodies do exactly what we want and if we can only find the exact way to put ourselves, then those five pirouettes or that 180-degree extension should be there. Then, there is the emotional side, where sometimes, no matter what you do, you cannot please the choreographer, but you just keep trying.”
It’s easy to see the similarities between Pontecorvo’s words and the relationship Nina has with the director of her company, Thomas, in the film. Throughout the scenes, she consistently struggles to meet his demands, often focusing more intently on what he thinks of her abilities rather than her opinions of herself.
That sometimes harsh role directors or choreographers can play only sends sadistic behaviors on a downward spiral. Eating disorders and exhaustion may ensue, and the result is maybe not quite as dramatic as Nina’s chaotic behavior, but can be harmful nonetheless.
“Many dancers do seek perfection and it’s challenging to not get caught up in that – the body does have its limitations, and no dancer dances the same,” said Amy Jones, dancer at Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. “But when you let the perfection of the ‘step’ take over, it takes all the joy out of dancing, which is what we dancers love to do.”
Still, Jones relays a story about a fellow college dancer who was told by a professor that she needed to lose 10 pounds from her already slim, 120-pound frame.
“She ended up losing much more than that and dropped to about 80 pounds,” Jones said. “Her health became so bad that she had to seek professional help and stop dancing. It was very sad to see a healthy, vibrant 18-year-old girl go [lose that much weight] in a matter of six weeks.”
“She lost her personality, passion and ability to dance like she did when she first came to school all because of what her professor said,” Jones explained.
Ashley Sass, who is the co-assistant artistic director at South Dayton Dance Theater, agreed with Jones, adding that it is difficult to witness other dancers experiencing the tolls the art form can sometimes take, especially, because many of the issues are often overlooked.
“Sometimes people just use the excuse that a dancer is ‘naturally slender’ or that she does eat, but in reality, for all the physically-demanding work her body is doing, she isn’t getting enough nutrition,” said Sass, who grew up as a young dancer in Dayton and moved on to accomplish a professional dancing career. “I feel like if you begin to mentally and physically damage your body to achieve something that isn’t natural for yourself, then it’s too far.”
“It takes a mentally strong person to not take judgment personally. You have to take your feelings out of the equation – nothing in life is worth losing yourself over,” said Sass.
And, perhaps, that is where Portman’s character jumped head first over the proverbial tipping point; the moment she lost herself for her art form was the exact moment her dance performance wholly consumed her.
“The tipping point has to be when your love for something is overshadowed by your love to get recognition for something,” said Canada-based Keltie Colleen, author of the popular blog “High Kicks & High Hopes” and a former Radio City Rockette. “Being great isn’t enough; you have to be a star. That is when things get ugly.”
But somewhere in the midst of “ugly” and “sugar and spice” lies the fairly typical modern-day dancer’s everyday evils: Bloody feet, swollen ankles, aching muscles, painkillers to get moving for the day, ice baths – you name it. And then, of course, come the moments when every dancer really does have to suck it up for the love of their art and, sometimes, that devotion translates quite literally.
“I once had to perform [‘The Nutcracker’] with a bad flu for an entire weekend,” Dettling said. “There was a lift where my stomach was over my partner’s shoulder – he popped me up and I flipped over. I threw up in my mouth and had to swallow it onstage to keep going.”
That’s right: It’s not always tutus and chivalrous princes.
Jennifer Williams, a Cincinnati native and former professional ballerina with BalletMet Columbus, said her regular dancer routine consisted of small meals and long days, and then nights spent soaking in Epsom salts and rubbing alcohol, bandaging injuries or toes and taking pain relievers to stop her body’s persistent throbbing.
“It can be a dizzying cycle,” WIlliams said. “I think I always took good care of my body and was able to not suffer severe injuries. But, you have to eat, you have to rest, and you have to let go of some things. Once I stepped away from that world, it was easy to look back and see how crazy it was.”
And of course, the dancers joke ironically about the fortitude it takes to don the oft-revealing garments they do each day, a far cry from the average person’s work attire.
“I mean, spend eight hours a day staring at yourself in a leotard and pink tights, and then try not to want to look perfect – impossible,” Colleen said.
Dettling seconded that gripe, adding, “I think every dancer is eternally frustrated by the aspects of themselves that are not perfect. We all train with this ‘text book’ image of ballet in our heads. However, most of us just don’t have that ‘by the book’ body.”
But for the most part, many dancers easily say they wouldn’t swap any of those dirty details if it meant giving up dancing.
“When those rough patches do come up, – and, oh, they do come up – I pray and ask God to help to remind me of why it is I do what I do, and how hard I have worked to get to where I am today,” Jones said. “I try not to take things for granted and to remember how truly blessed I am to be able to do what I love for a living.”
Leaning on solid support teams seems to be a necessity within such a rigorous profession. Keith said her parents, and husband and fellow dancer, Grant Dettling, help keep her grounded, down to Earth and “not so serious!”
“My mom insisted that I work with a nutritionist when I was younger and struggling with weight issues,” Dettling said. “She also serves as my psychologist of sorts whenever I need to talk things out. Oh, and how could I forget my favorite way to keep balanced? Bikram yoga!”
Like Dettling, Sass said her husband and family help to keep her centered, but it is also her passion for dancing that helps her to push forward when things seem difficult.
“You have to always be yourself and show the world who you are as an individual, and never try to conform and be something you aren’t,” Sass said. “The dance world needs individuals who have something new to bring to the table, and that’s what I try teach my students every day.”
Pontecorvo, who was a professional dancer for 20 years with five ballet companies, including Dayton Ballet, said she works to convey a similar message to her dancers, telling them that “it is a give and take.”
“Not all companies are going to like you and you have to search for the one that does,” she said. “Then, you must keep the director interested in you by taking chances and learning every role you can. I also tell them to listen to their bodies and get help when they need it. And know a good physical therapist – and masseuse.”
Colleen said a group of friends who are not in the dance world has also given her professional life a different perspective.
“It helps to share stories about horrible auditions, or mean teachers and long rehearsals days, and to see that this world that is driving you so mad, is not the only world that exists,” she said.
And, ultimately, Jones said, if a dancer is lucky enough to work with a director who relies on positive reinforcement as her leaders do at DCDC, then any difficult situation is instantly made less stressful.
“[Instead] we focus on the art of dance and not the drama that is sometimes associated with it,” Jones said.
And, perhaps, that true focus, laser sharp, like when a dancer must spot her head when pirouetting, is when a dancer can look at her art form and say, in true Nina Sayers’ style: “It was perfect.”
* Front cover photo by Kidtee Hello, cover model Katie Keith Dettling, cover makeup and hair piece by Jenn White.
Reach DCP freelance writer Caroline Shannon-Karasik at Caroline Shannon-Karasik@daytoncitypaper.com.