Years before her latest star turn in Darren Aronofsky's ballet thriller, "Black Swan," Natalie Portman was like so many other Long Island girls with a tutu or pair of tiny tap shoes. Yet even then, she stood out.
"I remember seeing her in a classroom and my eyes went right to her," says Madeline Dempster, director of the American Theater Dance Workshop in New Hyde Park, where Portman studied ballet and modern dance for several years as a child.
"It was a musical theater class and the kids, all 9 or 10 years old, were sitting on the floor learning a song, and . . . Natalie's eyes glowed with such intensity," Dempster recalls. "She was there to learn."
Such focus was essential prepping to play Nina in "Black Swan," a ballerina on the brink of stardom . . . and sanity, and without doubt the most physically demanding role of Portman's career.
"It was almost like starting over," the actress told Time Out New York. "My sense of coordination hadn't left me but I needed a lot of work."
Portman, 29, began dancing at age 4, and joined Dempster's academy after moving to Long Island when she was about 9. She was soon taking some six classes a week, and later attended the famed Stagedoor Manor theater camp in the Catskills, and the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts in Wheatley Heights.
"She was shy, but loved to perform," says Dempster.
Portman gave up dancing once her acting career took off, at age 12 in Luc Besson's "The Professional." Other films followed, like "Beautiful Girls," three "Star Wars" prequels and "Closer," which earned her a Golden Globe Award for best supporting actress. (She also managed to graduate with honors from Syosset High School, where classmates voted the nerdy Portman "Most Likely to Appear on 'Jeopardy.' " She went on to attend Harvard University.)
She returned to a grueling dance regimen in 2008, when she began training with Mary Helen Bowers, a former ballerina with the New York City Ballet.
"It was obvious immediately she has a lot of natural facility as a dancer - she has great turnout," says Bowers.
They began slowly - two hours daily of stretching, barre work, simple choreography, plus swimming and cross-training to prevent injuries. Ten months before shooting, she began training five-plus hours a day, six days a week - while working 12-hour days shooting other films.
"Getting her 'en pointe' was the biggest challenge," says Bowers. "When you're wearing pointe shoes, honestly, they hurt - a lot - every day," Bowers admits.
The on-screen result looks effortless, pain-free . . . and just earned Portman a Golden Globe nomination. "She could have been a professional dancer," says Bowers. "She really is gifted."
Dempster is not surprised.
"We've seen thousands of kids go through our studio - and they're all terrific," she says. "But there are always those special ones - they have that drive. You can't miss it - when they have it, they have it. And Natalie was certainly one of them."
'Black Swann' is just ducky
In his 3.5-star review of "Black Swan," Newsday's Rafer Guzmán called the movie "audacious and inventive, a rare example of a film that wants to explore what films can do."
Guzman's opinion has been shared by most other critics: "Black Swan" was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama) and Natalie Portman received one for Best Dramatic Actress. The movie also received a record 12 Critics' Choice Award nominations and is clearly in line for Oscar nominations, when those are announced on Jan. 25.
"Black Swan" opened last week at the Raceway 10 in Westbury and Stadium 10 in Farmingdale. It opens today at several more LI theaters, among them Manhasset Cinemas, Roslyn Cinema, Westbury Stadium 12, Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington and Malverne Cinema 4.