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Why Natalie Portman’s Black Swan Performance Angers Some Dancers

Why Natalie Portman's Black Swan Performance Angers Some Dancers


  • Natalie Portman’s award-winning performance in
    Black Swan
    stirred controversy regarding her dancing skills.
  • Portman’s defense of her role as a ballet dancer led to backlash from the professional dancing community.
  • The dispute highlighted the challenge of portraying authentic dance skills in film, sparking debate among industry experts.

Arguably the most significant role of her career so far, Natalie Portman‘s performance in Black Swan garnered her a ton of acclaim, including her only Oscar win to date, amid three nominations. The film was a triumph and raked in praise from the moment it was released. An intense, uncomfortable, and highly evocative film, Black Swan was a psychological horror film directed by Darren Aronofsky. It starred Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, a young ballet dancer with the New York City Ballet who undergoes a dark and twisted journey as she vies for the role of the Black Swan for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

Natalie Portman’s performance in the film was terrific, and no one was surprised when she went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. While it was widely known that she worked alongside a double in the form of a professional ballet dancer, Sarah Lane, the film’s intense dance scenes required Portman to undergo grueling training that lasted more than a year. After all that, no one doubted Portman’s dedication to the role in preparing for it.

However, it was around this narrative that the film and Portman thereafter sparked a saga of controversy — one that still gets under the skin of professional ballet dancers to this day. Here’s a look at why some dancers have a problem with Natalie Portman and her performance in Black Swan.

Natalie Portman and Darren Aronofsky Claimed She Did Most of the Dancing

Not long after Natalie Portman won her Oscar for Black Swan, the controversy surrounding her dancing in the film erupted in earnest. However, the build-up to it had begun sometime before when the publicity for the film and its Academy Award ambitions were in full swing. During an interview with USA Today in July 2010, Darren Aronofsky stated in relation to Portman’s dancing in the film that:

She was able to pull it off. Except for the wide shots when she has to be en pointe for a real long time, it’s Natalie on screen. I haven’t used her double a lot.

It was a similar story that was repeated up until the Oscars. After Portman won her award in February 2011 but failed to thank or even mention her double in her acceptance speech, she drew the ire of the dancing community, which began with a blog post by Dance Magazine‘s editor-in-chief, Wendy Perron. In her post, Perron posed the question of why a video clip showing Sarah Lane’s face being replaced by Portman’s, which was previously available online, had been removed prior to the Oscars.

Perron described this as a “blackout” and questioned if it was “planned by the studio’s publicity machine?” The stir this caused prompted Aronofsky and Fox Searchlight to issue a joint statement, again mentioning that Portman herself did most of the dancing featured in the final film. She summed up her annoyance with it all by stating:

We know that Natalie Portman studied ballet as a kid and had a year of intensive training for the film, but that doesn’t add up to being a ballerina. However, it seems that many people believe that Portman did her own dancing in
Black Swan

Sarah Lane Publicly Refuted These Claims

The next week, Perron followed up her post with a second blog and interviewed Sarah Lane on the matter. Lane opened up about giving interviews before the Oscars relating to her role as the double in the film but was politely asked not to do any more until after the Oscars. According to her:

They were trying to create this façade that [Portman] had become a ballerina in a year and a half … So I knew they didn’t want to publicize anything about me.

Jumping Into the Fray

While Fox Searchlight and Aronofsky were both quick to defend their actor, Portman herself mostly declined through her publicist to comment directly on the matter at the time. Even when the issue was mentioned, like during an April 6, 2011 interview with E!, Portman chose to skirt the subject directly, saying of the accusations and her role in the film,” I don’t want to tarnish it by entering into nastiness.”



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On the other hand, her then-boyfriend, Benjamin Millepied, whom she’d only recently begun dating at the time and had met during her training for Black Swan, was a lot more clear in defending her. The pair were later married and had two children together. Millepied, a dance choreographer who worked on the film, caused a considerable stir in early 2023 when reports began emerging that he had been involved in an extramarital affair. Sadly, after separating for over a year, the couple divorced on March 8, 2024.

However, when he spoke to the Los Angeles Times in March 2011, back during all the controversy, he had this to say:

…she [Sarah Lane] just did the footwork, and the fouettés, and one diagonal in the studio. Honestly, 85% of that movie is Natalie.

Despite his vociferous defense of Portman back then, as the saga continued, Sarah Lane later had this to say to The Wall Street Journal:

I did all of the dancing. Natalie and I alternated shots. They would do close-up shots with her, just of her face and kind of from her arms up…And then there were a few shots they did that were closer full body shots, and then they digitally put her face on my body.

What Other Dancers Had to Say

Given all the controversy and back-and-forth comments they sparked, it wasn’t long before other dancers began weighing in. Speaking to The Guardian, the Principal Dancer at the Royal Ballet, Tamara Rojo said this about the film:

The director seems to think that, in a few months, you can learn a profession that it takes years just to understand, let alone be good at. And in the film, Nina is supposed to be awesome.

Meanwhile, not every dancer cared to take shots at the production’s apparent fibs about just how much of the dancing Portman did herself. Speaking to Thrillist, Michele Gifford, who was also a dancer with the New York City Ballet, took issue with how the film depicted the role of the Black Swan character, Odile:

But in the ballet
Swan Lake
, the Black Swan is not a sexual character. I think she just knows who she is. There is no doubt. There is no questioning. I would tell somebody, don’t try to be sexy. That is ridiculous. Find a confidence, find a self-assuredness.

There Are Two Sides to Natalie Portman’s Black Swan Issue

In the aftermath, it became clear that what Sarah Lane and other dancers took issue with the most was that Natalie Portman and those who defended her were actually disrespectful to them by the narrative they pushed. In doing so, the main assertion became that Portman was some ballet savant who had mastered the art in a year, which usually takes professional ballet dancers a lifetime of training to accomplish.


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On the other hand, no one doubts what a truly magnificent actor Natalie Portman is or how much effort and dedication she puts into immersing herself in characters. The fact that she even took on the role and chose to dedicate over a year of her life to ballet training is indeed admirable. Nevertheless, one can’t help but spare a thought for the real ballet dancers out there who were affronted by the film.

After all, most professional ballet dancers begin their formal training around the age of five or six, and most never stop the intensity of their training and quest for perfection their entire careers. Given the immense sacrifices and years and years of pain, dedication, and physical discomfort they endure, it’s understandable why the controversy was deemed to border on arrogance or, at least, a disingenuous narrative.

Despite it all, thankfully for Natalie Portman’s acting standards, the acting world, and her millions of fans worldwide, the controversy never hurt her career as she went on to earn another Best Actress Oscar nomination in 2016 for Jackie and is still a highly acclaimed actress today. While her personal life has sadly been rocky since, no one doubts that we haven’t seen the last of her brilliance on film yet. Black Swan is streaming now on Max.

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