In the upcoming June issue of D Magazine I have a story on Kurt Froman, a Fort Worth native and the current choreographer in residence with the traveling production of Billy Elliot (which lands in Dallas in June). Froman was also a dancer with the New York City Ballet, where he danced with Benjamin Millepied. Millepied, as you may know, was the choreographer on Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, and before production work began on that movie, Millepied called in Foreman to help him train the actresses, including Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, for their roles as on screen ballerinas.
I spoke to Froman some time ago, before the latest brouhaha caused in the media by Portman’s ballerina body double, Sarah Lane. Froman and I spoke at length about his work with the two actors. Since that material didn’t make it into the story in the print edition, and in light of Sarah Lane’s appearance on 20/20, I thought this conversation shed some interesting behind-the-scenes light on Portman and her work as a dancer in Black Swan.
FrontRow: How did your work with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis begin?
Kurt Froman: [Benjamin Millepied] taught me all of the choreography that he had planned. We worked some stuff out because he had to be in France for about seven weeks during pre-production, so it was all on my shoulders to teach them class, to coach them, to basically be in charge of their training.
FR: How many extra dancers were there versus actual dancers
KF: All of the corps was from Pennsylvania Ballet, which is a very good company. We filmed at a hard time to find ballet dancers — December and January — because most companies are doing Nutcracker and everything else. So that company was, oddly enough, for a few weeks they were available to us. Also, we were limited because Natalie and Mila are both 5-foot-3, 5-foot-4, so no one could be taller than them or else they would look like dwarfs. And that company had a lot of shorter dancers who were well-trained dancers.
FR: Were you concerned form the beginning that you were working with untrained dancers, and all the challenges associated with that?
KF: Absolutely, and the fact that they were both movie stars. I met Natalie, she came in the day before we were going to start working, and she just got really, really sick on the plane. So she was so out of commission. She had this major virus that we had to give her a few days to recover from. But she was ultra-sweet when I first met her. Mila, I think the first thing she did was grab my hand and ask me where to get coffee, and she wanted to smoke a cigarette. So I kind of got a good idea of what I was up against with each of them.
But they were fantastic, but in a way it really prepared me for Billy Elliot because working with actresses who are untrained dancers, it is kind of like you have to spoonfeed the information in the same way that I would to a 12-year-old boy: “How can I deliver the information, my 20 years of experience, to them for where they can physical-ize it and pull off what I need them to pull off?” Sometimes, if one angle doesn’t work, I can think of it another way. So you have to be kind of a psychologist a little bit.
But both worked really, really hard — both Natalie and Mila. From the time that preproduction was over, because it kept getting pushed and pushed and pushed, because money kept falling through.
FR: What kind of training did you do with Natalie Portman?
KF: In the early days it would be trying to get her to do these turns correctly, but every time she did it her mouth would open, so I would always would “Natalie close your mouth!” So she was just thinking of so many things, and I just think she did an amazing job. Mila too. They were both very different as actresses, probably as polar opposite as you can get, just kind of like their characters were in the movie.
Mila, and I mean this in the best way, she is such a loud-mouthed kind of broad. You know exactly where you stand with her, if she’s not happy with something. All she wanted to do is smoke cigarettes and drink coffee, where it was like, “Come on Mila, we’ve got to work!” And Natalie was like completely the opposite, in a way. She never complained once. And not like Mila was bad to work with, because I had a fantastic time with her. Mila had the easier time with arm movements, because she had really long skinny arms and a long neck, so automatically she was much further ahead physically towards just the ideal of what you want, it was just more getting her to articulate certain movements a little better.
FR: Did either come in with some dance training?
KF: Natalie had had some dance training when she was a kid, but the minute she’d did The Professional she stopped because she was focusing more on acting. She trained for probably four or five months before she started working with me while she was doing another movie. So she kind of started her conditioning then. Natalie knew that she was going to have to do a lot of dance training to make herself look like an incredible dancer, but she also wanted to be good enough to where she could just think about the emotion. She could break down into tears while she was thinking about her arms and legs and all these things. That’s spinning a lot of plates to be able to do that.
Mila basically worked for probably a month before she started working with me. For probably the last three months of pre-production I worked with them very, very intensely. Mila was the further behind in terms of training. She’s not — she doesn’t have a really good sense of her body, she’s not really a dancer or whatever. We worked so much on making her look virtuosic, and then Benjamin came in and just changed the whole thing. I was like, “Benjamin, you’ve got to be kidding me, I’ve worked with her for three months to get her to do this, and you totally changed the music and changed the whole feel.” And she’s having a s**t fit on one end.
FR: Why did he make the changes to choreography?
KF: He did that because he kind of had to. It was important that Mila’s character be a real threat to her. That she be good enough to look like she could walk away with the part that Natalie wanted. So the original idea was for her to look like this powerhouse technician, to whip out all this really tough footwork — so this really fast choreography. We were going to have her do this big swan dance. And then I think spending more time with the script, what was more important was that she be the sexual one, the one who had the sexual freedom. So he wanted her with her hair down. He wanted her to do the five princesses section, where she’s trying to be alluring and tempt the prince into marrying her, which ultimately worked a lot better. But we weren’t left with a whole lot of time to coach her on it. But ultimately it was the better decision because that was more in line with what Darren wanted. One was the colder, more virginal uptight one, and the other was freer, more sexual. If she makes a mistake, she laughs at it.
FR: How involved were you in the actual filming of the dance scenes?
KF: [Aronofsky] wanted our input — Benjamin and I — and he wanted me alongside him when they were filming it to say what looked good and what didn’t. And in between takes, I would go and tell Natalie, “Be sure and put your shoulder in here, and don’t sickle your foot.” He wanted to make it look as authentic and legitimate as possible.
FR: When you watch the movie, are there things in it that jump out at you, that you notice as a dancer that a general audience wouldn’t pick up on?
KF: Certain takes I wouldn’t have used, but Darren found something special in them. For the most part, I thought it was really, really well done. There are only one or two moments, which is pretty lucky. I think the fact that he surrounds them with other professional dancers, you buy it. And the fact is we worked really carefully. Even though you really only see Natalie from upper body, waist up, there’s one or two long shots where it is completely her from head to toe, without using a double. The first prologue section, when she’s going into the spotlight, you see her from the back, that’s actually her on point. When she’s up on the ramp at the end, before she jumps down, that’s her. And there is a rehearsal scene where it is actually her from top to bottom.
[Aronofsky] wanted to not use the double as much as possible, only when we really needed to. But there’s one or two takes that I would have said, I know there is a better one at least from my end. But he is looking at the big picture, and he understands that while there may be a handful of dancers who kind of see through that every once in a while, the performance is first and foremost.
Image: Aronofsky and Portman on the set of Black Swan (Credit: Niko Tavernise)