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Black Swan Choreographer Benjamin Millepied on Teaching Natalie Portman to Have Swan Arms

When the world finally sees Natalie Portman as a surprisingly convincing ballerina in Black Swan today, they’ll largely have Benjamin Millepied to thank. Millepied, an accomplished choreographer and principal dancer with New York City Ballet, worked with Darren Aronofsky, Portman (now reportedly his girlfriend), and co-star Mila Kunis on the film’s dance sequences and portrayal of the ballet world. Millepied spoke to Vulture from Prague, where he’s choreographing a commercial for the French high-speed train.

How were you first brought on? Did Darren tell you why he'd singled you out?
First I was contacted by one of the producers; they said he was looking for a choreographer and wanted to come in and watch rehearsals of a new ballet I was working on. I didn’t know what they were looking for at the time, they were very secretive! He didn’t say much, but since the ballet had a bit of a bird quality it appealed to him. It was funny that the modernist score would appeal to Darren; the recording was of the Kronos Quartet, which recorded Requiem for a Dream. But he really liked what he saw, so they brought me into the office and said, "Read the entire script in a room." I couldn’t take it with me! So we talked about it, he said we’re in business, next thing we have to do is meet Natalie and see how you guys get along, because obviously she had to be comfortable with me.

The relationship between dance partners is a really intimate one based on a lot of trust — difficult to develop even between longtime members of the same company. How did that evolve with Natalie?
We got along right away; she’s very, very professional, not difficult — there’s no attitude there. Mila entered later — Darren was looking for someone for a while and then one day he called me and said, “There’s this girl, she’s perfect for it, she’s saying she’s done some dancing, but I’m not so sure it’s true!” He’d already hired her [laughs]. I had to find a coach for Mila, but Natalie already had one for six to nine months, from City Ballet. It was funny, the first steps of me seeing them both in class, we did it through Skype. I was just watching to try to get a sense of the level they were at.

From a dance perspective, what did you think of the film, initially?
I was taken with it in the sense that it was a page-turner; I wanted to know what was going to happen. It was a lot different then; it had more clichés, it was more campy, but as Darren got closer to the film, he talked to a lot more people in the ballet world, and things really evolved quite a bit. I saw a lot of cool choreographing opportunities, but I was nervous about it. Swan Lake is the most difficult thing to portray for a female ballet dancer; it really requires such specific qualities of articulation, agility, strength, and the arm work is something that takes a lot of training. I wasn’t necessarily thinking it was going to be a piece of cake.

Natalie seems to have worked herself ragged …
Natalie was doing cardio every day, swimming in the morning. Even when we went to bed at eleven, she’d get up super-early, work out two hours before getting back on set, just to get herself going for the day, and to tone her arms. It was really very impressive discipline. She had a right-hand person to make sure she was always warm, not going to hurt herself, to remind her of everything she’d learned throughout the process. To me, what was very much a relief was that Natalie was a sponge — the first class, I gave her very strict basics about the body, and you have to do it every day for the body to catch on, and I was really happy between the first and second day she assimilated extremely quickly. She has that spongelike intelligence with her body. She’s obviously smart, but there are a lot of smart people who can’t move.

It's fairly noticeable that Mila doesn't do much actual, er, dancing in the film, and she herself has admitted she has two left feet. Your thoughts?
Well, Mila was different from Natalie. She simply didn’t have as much dancing to do; I think that’s the way the part was written ... I saw her lose weight throughout the process for the part — she wasn’t exactly not thin before. She worked a little bit, but it wasn’t nearly comparable to Natalie. But she doesn’t have two left feet! But she did like being lifted. Natalie on the other hand is a physical person; she’s been interested in dance for a long time. So it came more naturally to her. It was more difficult for Mila.

What was the hardest thing to learn for both girls?
I think a lot of the wrists and hands were an issue with Mila. Bending and having fluid arms. And I would say probably what I was most on Natalie’s case with was also bending her elbows. She did hours and hours of exercises to get the swan arms right.

At what point was the decision made that you’d actually be in the movie, playing Natalie’s partner? Did that come directly from Darren or Natalie?
I was reading the script and partnering every day, and one day I called one of the producers and said, "I don’t want to be presumptuous, but it’s a very small role, do you think I could mention it to Darren?" And they were like, “Well, it’s a low budget film … ” But Natalie and Mila were comfortable with me at that point, and it made it so much easier — I was like a puppeteer to some extent sometimes. The kind of partnering we did in the film, it’s a lot of movement, and it helped having a real dancer behind them. It would have made things impossible for me to teach an actor to partner. Whether it was me or not who did it, Darren was smart to allow it. I think he’d already thought of it by the time I mentioned it, so it was just a matter of making it happen. If the role had required some acting, it would have probably gone to someone else, but I didn’t have to do any reading for Darren till the day I was on set.

The back-stabby dynamics of the girls in the company seem somewhat over-dramatized in the movie — are they?
Listen, it’s hard to be a girl in these companies … it’s obviously not quite the way it is in the film, but I’m not going to say there isn’t a lot of competition in the corps of a big company. People knock on the director’s door all the time, everyone thinks they should be a principal dancer, there are broken dreams. Most dancers have no awareness of how they look; half of them think they’re fat. There is anorexia in the ballet world; there are those things. It’s all things that are very alive, but the film’s of course campy at times.

You've obviously had a taste of fame with this whole experience — is it odd to go back and forth between the ballet world and that of the red carpet? Or are your worlds more integrated now?
It is a back-and-forth, and there’s really work in both; it’s basically hard to stay in shape to dance. But I’ve been learning a lot of other things; the kind of precision of how much thought goes into a scene, what it has to convey, the amount of questions these people ask themselves. Directing is very close to choreography; you deal with space, time, emotions, lighting, making beautiful images. There is a definite tie. It’s been nice to have that experience; you can get so closed-minded in the ballet world, it can become the only thing that exists, that matters. I’m starting to get back in shape now — now I really miss it, actually. It’s been too long!

Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images