Friday, February 4, 2011

Former ballerina: I was a real Black Swan...and it nearly killed me

HOLLYWOOD star Natalie Portman is tipped to win an Oscar for playing a tortured ballerina in hit movie Black Swan.

But the film has caused outrage in the ballet world, as Portman's character, Nina, pushes herself to the limits - suffering eating disorders, self-harm and depression in a quest for dance perfection.

For former ballerina Ali Townsend, watching the movie was like seeing a younger version of herself.
The mum-of-one had a glittering 18-year career as one of the country's top ballerinas and danced for the London City Ballet and the English National Ballet.

'It brought back haunting memories' ... Ali Townsend
'It brought back haunting memories' ... Ali Townsend

She even tackled the dual role of the white swan and black swan (Odette and Odile) in Swan Lake - the dance which forces Nina over the edge.

Today, Ali reveals herself as the real-life Black Swan.

Now 49, she told The Sun: "There were elements in the film that did bring back haunting memories for me.

"The movie itself was awesome and depicted a realistic account of the pressures and expectations put on dancers not just by themselves, but from directors, choreographers, fellow dancers and the audience."

Ali, from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, had her first ballet lesson at the age of 30 months and was hooked.

She recalled: "My older sister went to ballet class and I'd sit on my mum's knee to watch her. I really loved dancing, even from that age.

"I was talented and that was picked up so I went to ballet boarding school at the age of 11, at the Elmhurst School For Dance, which was then in Surrey."

It was at school where Ali was exposed to the fiercely critical world of ballet and the lengths girls will go to in order to be the best.

She said: "We studied normal lessons as well as ballet, but it was a long, intense day for an 11-year-old.

When I was 12 I came back from the summer holidays and a teacher told me I'd eaten too much pudding while I'd been away.

"That's where my eating disorder started. I can pinpoint it back to that comment.

"I felt like I had let everyone down, when in fact I was a young girl going through puberty.

"That one comment led to years of controlling what I ate. It was my way of dealing with the stress."

Like Nina in Black Swan, Ali strove for perfection in the way she looked and performed.

She explained: "You're constantly looking at yourself in the mirror in class and in rehearsal and criticising your body, wanting to be better.

"You don't even know if you're good enough to get a job at the end of your training, so all you can do is strive to be the best. You always dread you might not succeed."

Making her pointe ... Ali dancing in the 1980s
Making her pointe ... Ali dancing in the 1980s
Students went to extreme measures. Ali said: "Girls used to lie on the floor and put the legs of their bed on top of their feet to improve their arch. One girl left after two years because her feet were so messed up after that.

"I used to go to bed in the splits aged 12 or 13 as I thought it was a cool thing to do to get looser, but I don't remember ever having a good night's sleep like that.

"We would be sitting on people's legs to get their turn-outs better. It was normal in that environment."

As Ali's eating disorder took hold she told her teachers she wasn't hungry at mealtimes to avoid food.

She said: "My parents freaked out when they saw me during the holidays, I was like a skeleton.

"My mum tried to encourage me to eat but I didn't want to eat - it felt dirty if I ate anything."

Ballerinas ideally measure between 5ft 3in and 5ft 7in tall and weigh seven to eight stone.

At her lowest weight at ballet school, Ali was just 4½st - severely underweight for her 5ft 3in frame.

Before leaving school at 16, Ali faced many of the pressures which cause Nina's breakdown in the film. She said: "The point between balancing the stress and tipping over with too much mental pressure is a fine line and it happened to me - I knew I'd gone too far.

"I was at ballet school and it was something I was able to turn around and generally, throughout my career, I coped and was OK.

"You're so undernourished you're not thinking straight and you become obsessed.

"It's a spiral, you work more and eat less. I kept thinking if I eat a bit less tomorrow, I'll be better. Anorexia wasn't really heard of then. It was my way of control, I had no idea why I was doing it. I felt I was better than everybody else."

When she left school Ali joined a ballet company. She recalled: "There are these beautiful prima ballerinas who've been in the company for years, and your confidence drops. I was right down at the bottom again."
Ali fought exhaustion, injuries and hunger pangs to dance. She explained: "I might have half a muesli bar and a coffee for breakfast then a bite of a sandwich and some fruit for lunch.

"I would eat maybe a piece of toast after a performance."

While Black Swan's Nina resorts to self-harm to control her emotions, for Ali food deprivation was her way of controlling her life.

"My sole form of abuse was food deprivation, but I have known people who have tried self-harm, it's just another vessel to exert control."

While Nina's controlling mother is the force behind many of her problems, Ali's relationship with her mum, Mavis, was the exact opposite.

She said: "My mum loved watching me dance. She's very supportive and nothing like Nina's mother in the film. But I have come across some incredibly pushy mothers.

"After their girls have been at dance school all day they go home and force them to learn more techniques, often incorrectly. They think they know it all but they're clueless."

In the film, Portman's Nina explores her sexuality and there are some steamy scenes where she locks lips with co-star Mila Kunis.

Due to the obsessive nature of ballet, and the close physical contact required on stage, dancers often have relationships with each other.

But Ali did not get married until she retired at the age of 35. She explained: "Unless your boyfriend was in the company you didn't meet anyone.

"It's so consuming and you spend all your time with the people you're working with. When I stopped dancing I married the ballet company's production manager.

"He knew how self-critical I was, but he knew the other side of me too and refused to get married until I finished dancing. He wanted me to stop and to relax."

Ali, now divorced, lives and works as a Pilates instructor in Wellington, New Zealand, with her 14-year-old son Rory.

And despite the huge sacrifices, she has no hesitation in recommending ballet classes to any mums whose children have shown an interest.

She said: "Ballet dancing is a wonderful talent to have. It requires such discipline and teaches poise, strength and determination. Ballet gave me the strength to deal with anything."

And she is grateful to the film for propelling ballet into the limelight, adding: "Dancers deserve more recognition. You see their pointe shoes after a performance, covered in blood and their feet are blistered and raw.

"People not in the industry ask why you'd do that to yourself, but there's nothing more amazing than achieving that perfect performance. It's an incredible buzz."


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