03.28.11

Natalie Portman's Black Swan Dance Double Feud

Was Sarah Lane, the Oscar winner's dance double, really the victim of a "cover-up"? In an interview with The Daily Beast, Lane says yes—she did most of the dancing in the film, with no credit. The film's choreographer and director tell a different story, however.

After Natalie Portman won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as a tormented ballerina in Black Swan, her dance double in the film, Sarah Lane, a 27-year-old soloist at the American Ballet Theatre, cried foul, claiming she had been the victim of a “cover-up” by the filmmakers and the film’s distributor, Fox Searchlight, and that only “5 percent” of the dancing done in the film was by Portman. After conducting an interview with Lane, The Daily Beast broke down her argument point by point.

DID NATALIE PORTMAN INDEED PERFORM 85 TO 90 PERCENT OF THE BALLET DANCING IN BLACK SWAN?

SHE SAID: An award-winning ballerina of 22 years and soloist with the American Ballet Theatre, Lane is adamant that she, not Portman, is the one responsible for the bulk of the dancing in the Oscar-winning indie hit Black Swan, telling The Daily Beast, “[Ballet’s] something that takes years of dedication and work and passion to develop into an artistic being, like we are. It’s not just something you can do by working hard.” Lane added, “[Fox Searchlight’s] saying that she did 85 to 90 percent of the dancing, but in reality it was literally about 5 percent of the on-screen dancing.”

HE SAID: Portman’s dashing fiancé, Benjamin Millepied, a ballet dancer and choreographer of international renown, acted as the first line of defense, saying in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “Honestly, 85 percent of the movie is Natalie.” The studio behind Black Swan, Fox Searchlight, echoed Millepied’s claim, telling The Daily Beast, “Natalie herself did most of the dancing featured in the final film.” And lastly, the film’s notoriously meticulous director, Darren Aronofsky, said in a statement released to Entertainment Weekly: “Here is the reality. I had my editor count shots. There are 139 dance shots in the film. 111 are Natalie Portman untouched. 28 are her dance double Sarah Lane. If you do the math that’s 80 percent Natalie Portman.” Portman did, as it were, take ballet classes until the age of 13, before concentrating solely on acting.

DID THE FILMMAKERS USE DIGITAL FACE REPLACEMENT F/X TO INSERT PORTMAN’S FACE OVER LANE’S BODY IN DANCE SCENES?

HE SAID: While the visual-effects studio involved with Black Swan, LOOK EFFECTS, did not respond to several phone calls and emails from The Daily Beast, Black Swan director Aronofsky confessed to Entertainment Weekly, “There are two complicated longer dance sequences that we used face replacement.” Millepied added in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that they achieved long dance sequences without heavy use of CGI “by getting more movement going, which in turn added to the camera movement—that is basically what I did. If we had kept things more classical, more restrained, less fluid, it would have been harder to trick the eye.”

SHE SAID: Lane paints a far different picture, pointing to an unconfirmed behind-the-scenes visual effects video reel [below] that’s leaked on the Internet, showing Portman’s face digitally superimposed over Lane’s in at least three key sequences, including the Black Swan coda. “All of the full-body shots, the footwork and the hard turns, all of the choreography that you can see the full-body dancing, that is me,” Lane told The Daily Beast. “Now, there is one shot that is a full-body shot that is Natalie, and that’s when she’s rehearsing with Benjamin and the director is watching, and he asks her to do it again. That tiny, quick scene where she’s rehearsing with the David character. Otherwise, all the rest is me dancing.”

Video screenshot

DID NATALIE PORTMAN DO ANY OF THE FOOTWORK SHOTS IN BLACK SWAN?

SHE SAID: Lane alleges she did all of the footwork in the film, most notably the fouettés—a move that translates to whipped, or a quick whipping around the body from one direction to another. Lane has not-so-fond memories of two feet-centric scenes, in particular. “With the Black Swan coda, I had to do those fouettés on a mark—on a yoga mat—so with each turn, I made a hole, and we did it for four straight hours, and by that time there was a big hole so it was almost impossible,” she told The Daily Beast. Lane also had a rough time shooting the finale, adding, “I had a dropper with fake blood in it cause they were doing a closeup of my feet, and Darren said, ‘While you’re doing this shot, I want you to slowly, very artistically drop blood on the floor.’ We shot it for four hours but afterward he was like, ‘You know what, let’s just do it digitally.’”

Portman's Black Swan co-star, Mila Kunis, has also leaped to her defense. "She’ll tell you [that], no, she was not on pointe when she did a fouetté [turn]. No one’s going to deny that," Kunis told Entertainment Weekly. "But she did do every ounce of every one of her dances,” she says. “[Lane] wasn’t used for everything. It was more like a safety net. If Nat wasn’t able to do something, you’d have a safety net. The same thing that I had — I had a double as a safety net. We all did. No one ever denied it.”

HE SAID: The film’s choreographer—and Portman’s fiancé—Millepied basically backed up Lane’s assertion, telling the Los Angeles Times, “There are articles now talking about her dance double [Lane] that are making it sound like [Lane] did a lot of the work, but really, she just did the footwork, and the fouettés, and one diagonal [phrase] in the studio.” Director Darren Aronofsky went one step further, saying in a statement released by Fox Searchlight that Portman “did dance on pointe in pointe shoes,” adding, “If you look at the final shot of the opening prologue, which lasts 85 seconds, and was danced completely by Natalie, she exits the scene on pointe. That is completely her without any digital magic.”

DID THE FILMMAKERS, PRODUCERS, AND STUDIO BEHIND BLACK SWAN FAIL TO MENTION LANE’S CONTRIBUTIONS PRIOR TO PORTMAN’S OSCAR WIN IN A “COVER-UP” PLOT?

HE SAID: In a word, no. Although Portman failed to mention her dance double in any acceptance speeches or interviews—as is customary in Hollywood—and there’s no mention of Lane anywhere in a Black Swan featurette that’s surfaced online centered on Portman’s grueling, five-hour-a-day ballet training, in a feature on the film published in The New York Times back on Nov. 26, at least some credit is given to Lane. “The difficult pointe work and turns were performed by a body double, Sarah Lane, the American Ballet Theater soloist,” wrote The Times’s Julie Bloom.

SHE SAID: It’s a “cover-up,” said Portman’s dance double. Lane added, “It’s unfortunate too that [Millepied] doesn’t respect the art form enough to be honest, and to give ballet dancers the credit that they deserve.” She was also critical of the film’s director, Darren Aronofsky, telling The Daily Beast, “I would like [Aronofsky] to have been honest about what happened. He saw me in there doing all these shots that were pretty impossible even for a professional ballet dancer—like a horrible floor with a really bright spotlight on you so you’re completely blinded, trying to do turns and get a closeup of just my foot, not moving even a millimeter off the mark.” Lane added, “Everybody [on set] was like, ‘You’re amazing, Sarah! You can do it!’ So, all of this business with the Oscars… they’re just trying to make a low-budget film an Oscar film.”

IS SARAH LANE JUST A BITTER ASPIRING ACTRESS?

SHE SAID: An accomplished soloist with the American Ballet Theatre—performing in Moscow as this story goes online—Lane told The Daily Beast that acting is “not necessarily something I’m thinking really seriously about,” and, although she admitted she was “slightly disappointed” with Portman, she also characterized Portman as “really sweet,” adding, “I would give her corrections when she would do shots, and she was very gracious when she would do the corrections and very appreciative. We would joke around here and there.” And, back in December, before all the controversy, Lane gave an interview to Dance magazine where she stated, “I’m not really looking for any sort of recognition. The process was a huge learning experience and I got everything I wanted out of it. But she deserves the recognition. She worked really hard.”

HE SAID: While Aronofsky and Millepied haven’t really given Lane much kudos publicly—again, as is customary for body doubles—and she’s only listed in the film credits as “Hand Model,” “Stunt Double,” and “Lady in the Lane” (a brief walk-on role), the studio behind Black Swan, Fox Searchlight, released a statement to The Daily Beast saying, “We were fortunate to have Sarah there to cover the more complicated dance sequences and have nothing but praise for the hard work she did.” And Aronofsky seemingly put the final nail in the coffin, stating to Entertainment Weekly, “ I am responding to this to put this to rest and to defend my actor. Natalie sweated long and hard to deliver a great physical and emotional performance. And I don’t want anyone to think that’s not her they are watching. It is.”

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Marlow Stern works for The Daily Beast and has a master's from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial department of Blender magazine, as an editor at Amplifier magazine, and, since 2007, editor of Manhattan Movie Magazine.