My Black Swan Star Turn

John Epperson, known as the fabulous drag performer Lypsinka, played the “Jaded Piano Player” in Black Swan. He writes of the freezing set and being told, “You’re hot!” by Darren Aronofsky.

The New York Times has written at least three critics’ pieces about Black Swan. And there has been still no mention of the Jaded Piano Player.

That is how my role in Black Swan is, unfortunately, described in the film’s final credits. I had nailed this job at an audition for Darren Aronofsky, the film’s director. Suspecting he didn’t know what I had achieved professionally, I plopped down in front of him the full page spread that New York magazine had run of “ The Personification of Pizzazz,” as Lypsinka insists on being called. It was part of a portfolio of actors the magazine had culled with the utmost care for its 40th Anniversary issue. I then flipped the magazine shut and pointed toward the flap on the bottom of its cover that heralded the stars inside: “Streep! DeNiro! (And Lypsinka).”

“You’re hot!” exclaimed Aronofsky as he leered at the photo.

Intrigued by The Aronofsky Mystique, but all business, I said, “That will have to wait.”

Lypsinka lives the life that glamorous movie legends are supposed to live. But a bit player—even one as important as the rehearsal pianist in a film based on the balletic world—must get up at 5 a.m. in the deepest of winter and take an unglamorous subway ride to the set.

Most of the scenes I filmed in Black Swan were shot in a very cold studio that couldn’t be warmed because the low hum of the heater was picked up too much by the boom mikes. It was so cold—and Natalie Portman, the movie’s star, was dressed in such flimsy dance clothes—one might wonder how the behind-the-scenes events that have played themselves out in the gossip mills could have come true in such a steamy fashion.

Twenty degrees Fahrenheit or not, passion will usually come to the fore, just as it apparently did for Natalie in real life as it finally does in the film for her character, Nina, the repressed ballerina who is given a chance to dance the beloved ballet Swan Lake. The Tchaikovsky ballet is about dual natures: black swan versus white swan, soulful versus sensual. The main theme of the film, moreover, is both the danger and the necessity of finding one’s passionate side. It would seem Natalie discovered hers during the making of the film—but she found a kind of safety there. (And let’s face it, she’s since found a few needed pounds as well.)

We all have our own Black Swan, that creature inside each of us who is waiting to spring its blazing essence on the unsuspecting world. Mine is, indeed, The Fabulous Lypsinka. My White Swan self was—and to some degree still is—a shy, frightened, sensitive sissy boy from the small town of Hazlehurst, Mississippi. I was not so shy or frightened, however, that I couldn’t work up the courage to apply for a job as rehearsal pianist at American Ballet Theatre soon after I arrived in New York City in 1978. Two years later, I was a member of the company and in the studio with Gelsey Kirkland, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Anthony Dowell, Natalia Makarova, Alicia Alonso, Rudolph Nureyev, Carla Fracci, Margot Fonteyn, Cynthia Gregory, and Sir Kenneth McMillan. In her 1986 memoir, Dancing on My Grave, Gelsey did not refer to me as the Jaded Piano Player, only “the pianist” who witnessed the heart-wrenching real-life scenes in which she struggled with Baryshnikov, and—perhaps most of all—her own inner Black Swan.

Lypsinka—like those gals Garbo and Swanson—would love to have her first name-over-the-title talkie.

And now my somewhat worldlier White Swan self can be seen in Aronofsky’s artful horror film, finally walking out on poor, frustrated Nina at her most Nina-esque. Yet my character is one of the few people in the movie who seems to take pity on Portman’s character, urging her not to work too hard. Finally, though, he becomes fed up with her in that same scene and delivers the line, “I have a life,” that audiences find amusing, giving them a brief moment of nervous laughter. But I am most proud of the early classroom scene in which the teacher, played by real-life ballet coach Marina Stavitskaya, pointedly throws the appellation “John” my way.

So there. I do have a name in the movie. And it is my own—as is, to my ear, the piano playing in those scenes. I had fully expected to be dubbed. But Darren—whom I now refer to as Director Dearest—didn’t do it. Seemingly, he deigned to find me quite adept enough.

Hey, Darren. Hey, Dearest. You want to see adept? Lypsinka—like those gals Garbo and Swanson—would love to have her first name-over-the-title talkie. She’s more than ready for her close-up. And I will even get up at 5 a.m. to get her to the set on time every damn day.

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John Epperson is the creator and performer of Lypsinka. He has appeared in the movies Kinsey, Wigstock: The Movie, Another Gay Movie, Angels in America, and Witch Hunt with Dennis Hopper. Author of the play My Deah: Medea for Dummies, he has also written for The Guardian (UK), The New York Times, The Washington Post and Interview. You can find him at lypsinka.com.