"We are athletes, and artists as well," says Pennsylvania Ballet corps de ballet dancer Adrianna de Svastich, "and that sometimes gets forgotten - that it is such a physical art form."
But film director Darren Aronofsky noticed, and was impressed. His psychological drama Black Swan, opening nationwide Friday, stars Natalie Portman as a tortured ballerina delicately balanced between triumph and disaster, whose life is immersed in her ballet company. That unnamed fictional company performs at Lincoln Center in New York. But it might as well be called Pennsylvania Ballet.
Aside from the stars, most of Black Swan's dancers are regularly seen on stage in Philadelphia. Fourteen Pennsylvania Ballet members form a majority of the film's corps de ballet, and one of them, Sergio Torrado, is featured both as a company member and as Rothbart, the evil sorcerer in the ballet Swan Lake, the framing device for Black Swan.
In January, between ballet seasons, the dancers traveled to Purchase, N.Y., where Black Swan was shooting. They endured long days and performed the same steps over and over, dancing their feet raw during countless hours in pointe shoes. But to say they enjoyed the experience is an understatement.
"I still can't believe that we're going to be in a movie!" says de Svastich.
And not just any movie. Black Swan has been getting Oscar buzz since it opened the Venice Film Festival in September. The next month, when it opened the Philadelphia Film Festival, Inquirer film critic Steven Rea gave it a four-star review.
Corps member Holly Lynn Fusco says, "It is rare that you see a movie in which you can laugh, cry, and be scared for your life, but I have to say that this was one of them."
Soloist Ian Hussey, a film buff, knew Black Swan was going to be something special, so he was beside himself when he was one of the few men selected by the film's choreographer, Benjamin Millepied, when he saw Pennsylvania Ballet during its November 2009 Nutcracker run at Washington's Kennedy Center.
"I spent the whole day celebrating. I called all my family. I was so excited, because I am a huge Darren Aronofsky fan," Hussey says.
That night, however, he got a call: They didn't need him after all. "It was a bit of a roller coaster. I was actually a bit melodramatic, too," he says.
"But then something happened where someone dropped out, so they asked me." And after all that, he even made it into the trailer.
"There's one shot of Vincent Cassel," who plays the company's artistic director, Hussey says. "If you blink, you'll miss it, literally. It's for less than one second. You just see his face going by, but right behind him my face is right down the middle of his shoulder. It's really funny. It's like the 23d second. You have to pause it really fast."
Torrado made it into the trailer, too. He's also prominently featured in the film's opening scene, sporting a dramatic cape designed by the fashion house Rodarte, a prosthetic mask with a hooked nose, and black contact lenses that cover his eyes completely. Portman wears red contacts in the same scene.
The first day Torrado sat in the makeup chair, it took six hours to apply the prosthetic. "But after that," he says, "they really got the hang of it, and it was four, 41/2 hours."
He wore it for at least 10 hours a day for more than a month, a task that became less onerous once holes were cut in the nose so he could breathe more easily.
The women were featured in many scenes: taking classes, going through rehearsals, hanging out in the hallways. For performance scenes, they wore Swan Lake tutus borrowed from American Ballet Theatre and dramatic makeup.
"Our hands were painted black and we had silver streaks going down our faces, so it added a really cool element to it," de Svastich says.
But the major highlight for company members was Portman, now 29, who had studied ballet as a child and trained for a year for the role.
Everyone has a story.
Hussey bonded with her at the craft services table over a mutual love of Nutella. De Svastich discussed Ivy League academics with her; Portman went to Harvard University, and de Svastich is a history major at the University of Pennsylvania.
Fusco's Portman moment came during filming of the climax of the movie. "Darren was trying to get so much emotion out of her. He was screaming, and he was like 'Do it! Do it!' " Fusco says. "She just started crying, and it was so emotionally riveting that I just started crying, too.
"It was inspiring that somebody not even a professional ballet dancer has so much emotion playing the same roles that we always perform."
De Svastich agrees. "Natalie Portman did an excellent job playing the role of a vulnerable ballerina who has lived her life insulated within her devotion to the dance world," she says. "Given that dancers as artists often struggle with themselves more than with anyone else, the ballet world was an ideal setting to touch upon these facets of the human condition."
As for her dancing, "from our standpoint, you could tell she wasn't a professional dancer," Hussey says, "but she was very, very competent."
Aronofsky, asked to compare Nina, Portman's character, with the Pennsylvania Ballet dancers, says Nina is "a woman stuck in a girl's body. Not that these dancers are anything like that character. . . . These dancers, they work their whole lives to make it look effortless."
Torrado's Portman encounter was unforgettable.
"I was getting my makeup put on, and I didn't really know what I had to do that day on the set." No one would tell him, says Torrado, a native of Spain who was cast for his strong body and dark good looks.
"And then an hour before going up to shoot, they tell me, 'Well, you know you have to be doing a sex scene with Natalie Portman.' And I'm like, 'What? I didn't know!' "
Aronofsky pointed to a monitor where Torrado could watch a similar scene Cassel was shooting with Mila Kunis, who plays Nina's company rival. Next, Torrado would have to do the same thing.
"So we went in there, and Natalie Portman comes in with a bra and miniskirt. And she's very pretty, you know? And right before we're about to shoot, Darren is like, 'It's OK, you can touch anything you want. She doesn't care. Just go at it.' "
Which is how, before a camera and 40 crew members, with zero rehearsal and almost no notice, Torrado made what he laughingly calls the highlight of the movie.
Millepied says that he was impressed with all the dancers' "super-professionalism," but that it is no coincidence so many from Pennsylvania Ballet were cast. The production team decided that dancers who worked together all the time would make for a more polished company.
Millepied, who also dances in Black Swan and is a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, says, "I think it is important, when you have a corps de ballet: A company will have a certain style. Everybody will move a certain way."
Ultimately, though, it was timing as much as talent that made Pennsylvania Ballet Portman's troupe: The company had down time between performances just when Black Swan needed dancers.
As a thank-you gesture, and because he so enjoyed working with it, Millepied offered to set a ballet on the company, allowing it instant access to one of the hottest ballet choreographers. His not-yet-announced piece will be presented in April at the Academy of Music.
"It seemed like it would be nice to see these dancers again," he says.
Meanwhile, the dancers are gearing up for their big Hollywood moment.
"I wish I had more of this, but maybe it's only one time in your lifetime," Torrado says. "Who knows?"