Darren Aronofsky vs Benjamin Millepied

A look back at the director and choreographer of Black Swan discussing their danse macabre

Dazed and Confused vol 2 issue 94-2
Darren Aronofsky & Benjamin Millepied Photography by Jonathan Hallam

Since he was 13-years-old, the story of Noah and mankind's demise at the hands of God has obsessed cult director Darren Aronofsky, and we're celebrating his environmental epic with Aronofsky on Dazed – an in-depth look of his work as an auteur of our time.

As physically brutal and emotively raw as The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s follow-up, Black Swan, tells the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), an idealistic prima ballerina in the New York City Ballet who becomes consumed with jealousy, dark desires and delusional visions as she prepares for her first performance as The Swan Queen in Swan Lake. As beautiful as it is shocking, Aronofsky’s paranoid, shadowy depiction of the classical dance world is unlike any other that has been brought to the cinema before, with critics lining up to declare it a modern masterpiece. 

In order for Portman and co-stars Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel to transform into world-class dancers in six months, Aronofsky hired choreographer Benjamin Millepied, the principal dancer for the New York City Ballet company, to take control of their bodies. Regarded as one of ballet’s finest performers, Millepied leapt at the chance to work on the 41-year-old director’s first psychological thriller, and ended up in front of the camera himself in the role of The Prince. 

Darren Aronofsky: Being somewhat of an ballet outsider, the thing that was most important to me was to break through this incredible perception that ballet is effortless. When you’re backstage with the dancers, you see how much work and effort goes into creating such transience. I wanted to show how tough it is to do what these people do. 

Benjamin Millepied: I think that the ballet world is very excited about the film, because it is going to reach out to so many people who would never go to the ballet in the first place. It pays tribute to the difficulties of it and shows it beautifully. 

Darren Aronofsky: I think they finally feel like there’s a film that’s not just a romantic vision of the ballet world, or a documentary. I think it’s not really about ballet; it’s more of a fairytale of a film set around the ballet world. The darkness in the film is in all of those fairytales, and a lot of the dancers are excited at that kind of intensity finally being represented. If you make a film about construction workers, you're going to upset someone. Even in The Wrestler there were wrestlers upset about it. Everyone is always going to have an opinion, but I think there is an excitement that is clear. 

“I think it’s not really about ballet; it’s more of a fairytale of a film set around the ballet world. The darkness in the film is in all of those fairytales”

Benjamin Millepied: Obviously this is a movie, so things are exaggerated at times, but there is definitely a sense of authenticity to it all. 

Darren Aronofsky: Do you remember how worried I was about Mila and Natalie becoming good enough dancers to pull it off ? 

Benjamin Millepied: What, the phone calls I got all the time? The ones where you said, ‘Is this really going to work?!’ 

Darren Aronofsky: Yeah! (laughs) I was very scared! It’s a tall order to ask any actress to become a prima ballerina. They train for 20 years to get to that stage. 

Benjamin Millepied: It was an impossible challenge. 

Darren Aronofsky: I think for normal people the illusion will work, but I think ballet people will think, ‘Wow, those two women are working really freaking hard!’ and they are impressed by that. Most prima ballerinas are six foot tall, and Natalie and Mila are 5’3”, 5’4” – few dancers are built like that. 

Benjamin Millepied: I can relate to the rivalry between them in the film. It keeps you on edge for sure. I remember when I was 19 years old and in Swan Lake for the first time, I wasn’t taught the principal dance in the first year. I was really pissed off, so I went to talk to the director about it. 

Darren Aronofsky: Just like in the movie! 

Benjamin Millepied: Well, we didn’t kiss, it was more like a hug! But those are the things you get really focused on in a ballet company – how many shows you get, if you’re first cast, if you get the roles you want. I would say 90 per cent of the dancers who get into the company think they should become principal dancers, and that’s not the case obviously. Everyone has that same dream. 

Darren Aronofsky: Just to get into the company they have to be the best of the best of the best, and then they get into the company and some turn out to be the best and some don’t. It’s a tragedy, because that’s their whole life. 

Benjamin Millepied: A lot of the women don’t last. A lot of girls stay a few years and they lose their excitement, their passion. 

Darren Aronofsky: Probably because the reality is too hard. There are a lot of stories of people mentally unravelling, but you find those stories in every industry. Personally, I had a lot of stress on this film – it was a really hard one. There just wasn’t enough money. It’s very important to have a tight box to work in because you create a creative vision out of that, but this box was really too small. I’ve had this back-to-back  – The Wrestler was a nightmare to raise money for, but it did pretty well. And then I got a big movie star – Natalie Portman – but we still couldn’t get the money, which was weird. That’s why I’m making Wolverine now (laughs). 

Benjamin Millepied: I wish we could do it all over again; it was such a great learning experience. I really enjoyed watching you work. 

Darren Aronofsky: I feel the same. When someone goes to the ballet the work is really foreign. This film doesn’t even touch the tip of the iceberg of these dancers, but at least it hints at what they are willing to do to create their art. 

“I’ve heard how dancers cut holes in their ballet shoes to collect the pooling blood from their injuries just so they could dance. I think that’s interesting. There’s a beauty to it”

Benjamin Millepied: I think the physical pain people put themselves through is totally crazy. The things I have done in my own career are totally insane. When you’re injured and you have to give up your role, you just won’t, you will go out on stage. I’ve danced with torn abs. Even when I went back to Swan Lake after the movie, I hadn’t danced that much, and I hurt my knee, and I couldn’t walk. But if I didn’t perform then I didn’t perform at all. You’re always looked down at when you’re injured. It’s a very tricky thing. 

Darren Aronofsky: You have to hide your injuries. I’ve heard how dancers cut holes in their ballet shoes to collect the pooling blood from their injuries just so they could dance. I think that’s interesting. There’s a beauty to it. 

Benjamin Millepied: And by the time you’re about 33 years old, it’s over. 

Darren Aronofsky: I think all careers have ageism, and it happens to be the most extreme in the ballet world. By the time you’re 34 if you’re a jumper, you start to become more of a technician. You get a few more years of that, to try and reinvent yourself. 

Benjamin Millepied: In fact, there’s only really one period where you’re really it, and then you get promoted, and then the director pays attention to someone else. You’re the flavour of the month for only a little while. 

Darren Aronofsky: So much attention is attributed to this idea of perfection. Classical ballet has this concept of perfection, it’s kind of implied. To enter that pure state of being in the moment is something that happens for performers and you try to do it as someone who is trying to construct something like that. But it’s really hard to get there. The biggest fear I have is of losing the passion. You see it with so many artists – they lose touch with how to communicate with audiences, and that’s the danger. It's important to keep reinventing yourself and keep challenging yourself. 

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