In the Footsteps of Pina Bausch Juilliard Student is No 'Black Swan'

Brutal competition and merciless drills: The world of ballet portrayed in the movie thriller "Black Swan" is horrific. For ballerina Daphne Fernberger in New York, however, reality looks quite different. SPIEGEL ONLINE peeks behind the scenes of the legendary Juilliard School.

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Daphne Fernberger has been awfully tired lately. On some days, she says, it's hard to get up and go to a ballet class where she exerts herself to her limit. Yet those are also the days that teach her what truly matters in life.

"Staying positive is essential. You have to stay positive," she says, with a laugh, as if she is embarrassed by such an earnest pronouncement. The tired days, she quickly adds, are rare. "I'm happy to be the dancer I am," she says, "and not to be another."

Fernberger is squatting on the floor of a dance studio at the Juilliard School in Manhattan, one of the world's most prestigious music, theater and ballet schools. Next to her is a backpack, a rumpled folder and a pair of toe shoes, which once were pink. Morning sun streams through the windows. From the hallway comes the muffled sound of Bach.

She sounds like a veteran of the business, a hardened prima ballerina. She talks of the days "when I was younger," and says she feels "older" and "mature" now. "Fear," she says, "is just an inhibiting feeling."

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Photo Gallery: Sweat and Swan Lake
These are words of wisdom, but they are coming from the mouth of a child: Daphne Fernberger is 18 years young. A native New Yorker, cheerful, petite, with huge eyes, she's currently working her way through her first year at Juilliard, where she is majoring in ballet.

The school year started in September, yet she already comes across like a professional. "I certainly feel more grown up," she says. "I know myself better. I have a sense of security in being who I am."

In the Footsteps of Pina Bausch

Fernberger is one of more than 800 students from 47 countries at Juilliard this year dreaming of an international career as a dancer, musician or actor. The school is located next to Lincoln Center and its Metropolitan Opera House, and the ballet students hope one day to follow in the steps of legendary Juilliard alumni: Pina Bausch, Robert Battle, Paul Taylor, and Martha Clarke.

It's a hard school, with hard-driving students. "You're aware of the competition," Fernberger says. "But it's not overwhelming."

Competition is what the ballet world is mostly made of, or rather, known for. Rivalries, despotic choreographers, wicked ex-ballerinas pushing their daughters to chase their own, long-lost dreams -- those old clichés never die. They are there to be seen in "Black Swan," the ballet film and psychological thriller that is currently wowing cinema audiences around the world and raking in the awards.

In "Black Swan," Natalie Portman plays a prima ballerina eaten up by such extreme narcissistic paranoia that things don't end well. For inspiration, director Darren Aronofsky visited Juilliard. "It's a movie, of course," Daphne Fernberger says with a giggle. "Sure there's competition, but not like that."

'That First Drop of Blood'

Fans love the ballet myth of blood, sweat and tears. "The stage is not magic for me," the famous Canadian dancer Lynn Seymour wrote in her memoir, "Lynn," in 1984. "I always felt the audience was waiting to see that first drop of blood."

And, although the dancers can compete fiercely for the few coveted star positions, the only thing bleeding so far for Daphne Fernberger are, occasionally, her toes.

The daily routine of an up-and-coming dancer indeed doesn't much differ from that of any other student -- hard work, little sleep and much naïve optimism. There's little time for the jealousy or self-destruction seen in "Black Swan," especially since the students, for now, remain sheltered by the cocoon of their school. That lasts for four years, and then they are released into the wild beyond.

Fernberger's day begins at eight with breakfast in the cafeteria, an elevator ride from Juilliard's dorm where all of the freshmen live. Even though she was raised in New York, living in the heart of Manhattan, with Lincoln Center across the street, is, Fernberger says, "fantastic."

Laughter, Squeals, and Cheers

Classes start at 9 a.m., either English or music. After that there's ballet for two hours, followed by lunch, more classes (technique, composition, classical, Jazz) and rehearsals, which can stretch into the evening. It's a repetitive routine, far from the glamour presented by Hollywood's many ballet films, such as "The Red Shoes," "The Turning Point," or "The Company."

She's just finished morning class and joins two dozen students, mostly girls and young women, in gliding around the third floor studio, animated by an affable pianist and corrected by their strict, yet gentle, middle-aged teacher, who is busy shouting: "Plié! Glissé! Balance! Battement! Assemblé!"

It is tough work, and soon they are panting from the exertion, with sweat stains spreading across their leotards. Still, they laugh, squeal and cheer. Whenever someone performs a movement particularly well, most of them applaud encouragingly.

"The older you get, the less competitive it gets," says Fernberger, collecting her things later. In the beginning, it had all been about being better, higher and faster. Now her priorities have shifted. "You have to realize the important thing is to be focused on yourself and motivated by yourself, not by your peers," she says.

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