We Ask a Real Ballerina if Dancing Swan Lake Really Makes You Crazy

NYC Ballet dancer Megan Fairchild (inset) dissects movie dancer Natalie Portman.

Many dancers have weighed in with their reviews of Black Swan, but they have concentrated on whether this accurately portrays the macro view of ballet: its general pains, joys, and struggles. But after seeing the film, we had some more pressing micro questions. Do they really rehearse in such creepy environs? Do they favor bloody cheeseburgers as a snack? And, most important, does a combination of ballet fame, Swan Lake, and oppressive stage mothering really turn you into a hallucinating, self-mutilating wreck? As the company in the film looks remarkably similar to the New York City Ballet, we recruited a City Ballet principal dancer, Megan Fairchild, to join us for a screening and then give us a reality check.

Has a role ever driven you crazy?
I went a little crazy when I first did Theme and Variations. I’d just been promoted to principal, and for some reason it was a specific ballet I really put on a pedestal. When it came, I didn’t know how to deal with it. My mom was like, trying to help me get over the fear of it; I couldn’t eat or sleep normally, I completely lost myself a little bit in the fear. I remember being up at 4 a.m. just staring at the computer screen, bored out of my mind, unable to put my mind to rest. I ended up going to a spa upstate, and everybody else there was like, divorced, and dealing with real-life problems [laughs] and I’m like, “I got promoted!”

Do you often find yourself stretching in dank, spooky corridors?
No. That was a really dark and spooky space they found! With the cement walls and stuff? It was so masochistic. I mean, we have a good time at work. We all think we should have a reality show because we think we’re so funny.

Mirrors seem to play a big part in Nina’s increasing madness. Are mirrors that dangerous to a ballerina’s mental well-being?
Some mirrors of ours are not cute-looking and you’re like, “Oh my God, I hate this mirror.” It’s something you just get used to. But it is kind of a weird thing, to go to work and stare at yourself all day.

How about backstage hallucinations — ever had one of those?
No! We don’t see things. Because we’re not throwing up in the bathroom; we’re eating food, so we’re not hallucinating!

Speaking of food, let’s discuss the symbolic bloody cheeseburger Lily eats in one scene. Do ballerinas eat cheeseburgers?
I’m not a ballerina that eats cheeseburgers; my food of choice is cookies, my favorite if I’m going to be bad! But there are ballerinas who will go to a bar and get a beer and a cheeseburger, and it’s not weird, because we all eat and need to because we’re dancers, though I’m always like, “Wow, I wouldn’t ever crave that!” It’s kind of badass. Like wow, good for you!

Nina’s mother, as played by Barbara Hershey, is quite a nightmare. Have you met ballet stage moms like her?
I’ve met a lot of crazy ballet mothers, both here and when I do gigs elsewhere … I don’t think it helps at all. I remember one time, I was on a Nutcracker gig and a mom asked me, “What’s the best advice you could give my daughter?” and I was like, “At this point” — she was like, 15 — “let her be as normal as possible. Make her eat, let her be a normal kid.” And then right after, I went to the reception, and the mom was there with her daughter, and there were these little mini-cupcakes and she was like, “Oh no, you can’t have that!” and I was like, yes she can! She’s 15, it’s ridiculous!

Nina’s Swan Lake director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), recommends masturbation as a method to find inspiration for her role. Is that a common ballet acting technique from directors?
I can definitely say no. [Laughs.] Pretty sure that’s never happened.

Nina’s partner whispers “What the fuck?” to her onstage when she messes up. What kind of things get whispered to you onstage?
Usually my partner is saying “Arriba, arriba!” I think that’s his “go get’em” message when we’re tired. Sometimes your costumes will get stuck together, and you’re trying to talk about how to fix that. Usually it’s a lot of, “Are you okay?” “I’m okay!”

We Ask a Real Ballerina if Dancing Swan Lake Really Makes You Crazy