On his toes

IMG_0467From ‘Black Swan’ to ‘Billy Elliot,’ Fort Worth’s Kurt Froman lives to dance

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

When you step into a room with Kurt Froman, you’re so struck just by this gay man’s boyishly handsome face, it crosses your mind the only thing better than chatting with him is if there were two of him. And, to an extent, there are.

Froman, a Fort Worth native, is an accomplished dancer and choreographer. And so is his twin brother. They even pursued the same dream: Leaving Cowtown as teenagers to attend the School of American Ballet in New York.

DANCE 10 LOOKS… 10 | Fort Worth native Kurt Froman, above at the Winspear, has the daunting task of keeping the ever-pubescing cast of Billys, left, in tip-top dance form. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

 

But for this Froman at least, the similarities end there. Even though they used to dance together, Froman has never felt competition with his twin  —“I always think we are so obviously different,” he says — though he admits having a doppelganger who was equally proficient at the same endeavor put him through “a delayed adolescence. We did everything together.”

At least until 2002. That’s when Kurt “left school to do Movin’ Out on Broadway.”

The dance musical, directed and choreographed by Twyla Tharp, was a huge hit and helped Froman establish his break out. Since then, he’s done more Broadway (Pal Joey), TV (Saturday Night Live — he played a Versace boy) and, most notably, the film Black Swan, in which he played the male dancer’s understudy and served, behind the scenes, as associate choreographer. His principal responsibility: Teaching Oscar winner Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis how to move like ballerinas.

“I am a huge fan of Darren Aronofsky,” he says of Black Swan’s director. “To get to work alongside him and [Portman and Kunis] was an amazing undertaking.” (He even had input into the script, developing a dancer who is losing their grip.)

But Billy Elliot, which opens next week at the Winspear as part of the Lexus Broadway Series, represents something new for him: His first national tour.

“When I heard it was coming to Broadway, I sent [them] a reel,” Froman says. “I said, ‘This is a show I definitely want to be a part of.’”

Based on the 2000 film, it tells the story of a working-class British boy who, at the height of unease during the Thatcher regime, makes the unpopular decision to study ballet — something that does not sit well with the men in his community, and gets him labeled a sissy. Elton John co-wrote the songs, including “Expressing Yourself,” an anthem to individuality. The show won 10 Tony Awards in 2009, including the first-ever threefer, with all the boys who alternated playing Billy sharing the best actor trophy.

As resident choreographer, Froman’s job is a daunting one. Most people who travel with shows as a director or choreographer merely keep the vision accurate and help replace the occasional actor whose contract ends. (Froman also understudies the Older Billy role.) But this Billy has five Billys. It’s not just that the role is physically demanding; it’s that all of the boys are at incipient puberty and grow out of the role quickly. Still, teaching the kids is sometimes easier than the adults.

“There’s no ego there,” he says. “They have everything to learn and nothing to unlearn. They need me to make them look the best they can.”

Even if the kids are easier to work with, Froman is still tickled to be touring with Broadway diva Faith Prince in a featured role.

The one-two punch of Billy and Swan this year, though, has been eye-opening for Froman. He sees the depth to both, from “the neverending mindfuck of being a great dancer always subject to being replaced by someone younger [in Swan]” to the passion that drives Billy, Froman can personally relate to what’s being portrayed. Now that he’s in his 30s, many dancers younger than he are coming up the ranks. So, his work with Billy aside, he’s looking forward.

There’s still a lot more he’d like to do: “I’m excited for the next phase of my life, what’s next on the horizon,” he says. “I’d like to have kids.”

And maybe, like Billy, they’d be as interested in dance as Dad.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 3, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

‘The Fighter:’ ‘Rocky 2.0’

With all the homoeroticism (and lesbian subplot) in The Wrestler two years back, I was hoping The Fighter — with an always-buff Mark Wahlberg, above left, as an aspiring welterweight — might, Rocky III-esque, idealize the male form for gay audiences. No such luck. We have to settle, instead, for a gritty and highly watchable character study set in the world of boxing. I’ll adjust.

In many ways, The Fighter is the obverse of Black Swan: One is about a girl in the arts that lures you in with cliches about ballet films, then turns out the be something totally different; the other is about man in sports that avoids a lot of cliches until, about three-quarters through, turns out to be Rocky in disguise. (Both films also have the hand of Darren Aronofsky in them, who also directed The Wrestler.)

Such misdirection works in the film’s favor, because it allows the story to unfold with the immediacy of a family drama, and this family is full of drama. Mom (a fabulous Melissa Leo) coddles her seven useless harpy daughters while offering up her son Micky (Wahlberg, more heartfelt than ever), the only one with potential, in a series of bad bouts.

Even worse: The entire town of Lowell, Mass., idolizes Micky’s crack-addict brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a has-been who spends more time getting high than helping his little brother achieve what he couldn’t.

That may sound like a familiar plot, and it is familiar — you think of On the Waterfront, and are tempted to call it Rocky 2.0 — but the approach is cattywampus, almost disorienting. You think you know where it’s headed, but it surprises you.

With its cinema verite look and painfully authentic performances — especially by Leo and Bale, who’s gaunt and scary as a tweaked-out loser — conjure up everything that’s frightening about poisonous relationships of all kinds. It’s the season’s most unexpected crowd-pleaser.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Three stars
Now playing at the Angelika Film Center — Mockingbird Station

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 17, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Movie Monday: ‘Black Swan’ in limited release

Darren Aronofsky’s ballet movie ‘Black Swan’ luxuriates in weirdness.

Based on my vast inside information about the behind-the-scenes world of professional ballet — which I have culled exclusively from watching The Turning Point, The Company, parts of Fame and now this film, Black Swan — not much about dance has changed over 35 years, at least in New York City. Dancers still live in cramped walk-ups and take the 3 train from Lincoln Center to TriBeCa (or worse, the NRW to Queens) and exit only at ill-lit and ominous stations. They still wear leg-warmers and wrap their gnarled feet in worn slippers. The corps is always led by a shriveled Russian crone, her silver hair pulled tight into a ponytail, her wattle buried behind chunky jewelry. There’s also always a priggish, demanding European choreographer-artiste, possibly the only straight man in all of dance who belittles then sexually exploits every new ballerina.But there’s also always one tortured aspirant, whose drive and talent are her salvation and her undoing.

Yes, in the first half hour of Black Swan, director Darren Aronofsky and writers Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman and John J. McLaughlin, don’t miss a single cliché either visually (uppity versions of Flashdance) or plot-wise. And then something remarkable happens: The film becomes Hitchcockian — or rather, early Polanski, who stole from Hitch better than anyone, and delves into areas of insanity and fantasy you don’t expect. It doesn’t erase all that came before it, but it leaves you with an unsettled feeling that’s difficult to shake.

Four stars. For the complete review, click here.

DEETS: Black Swan. Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel. Rated R. 105 mins. Now playing at the Magnolia and the Angelika Film Center–Plano

—  Rich Lopez

The 5 most famous lesbian scenes on film

Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis in ‘Black Swan.’

CHRISTY LEMIRE | AP Movie Critic

LOS ANGELES — Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis play bitter ballet rivals in Darren Aronofsky’s trippy Black Swan. But the heightened emotion they feel for each other ends up bubbling over into a passionate sex scene that’s had people talking for months before the film’s release.

Well, now Black Swan is finally here, so it’s a great opportunity — and not gratuitous at all, really — to take a look at the five most famous lesbian scenes on film. A side note: Showgirls might have been a serious contender, but it appeared last week among the five most irresistible guilty-pleasure movies. It is tempting to find a reason to talk about Showgirls every week, though …

Mulholland Dr. (2001): The first intimate encounter between Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring is soft and sweet … but because this is a David Lynch movie, naturally the relationship between these two women becomes darker and more complicated. Watts, as aspiring starlet Betty Elms (at this point in the film, at least), gets tangled up with Harring’s gorgeous amnesiac Rita. As the two embark on an adventure, playing girl-detective to solve the mystery of Rita’s past, their fear and loneliness lead to a kiss which leads to one of the loveliest lesbian scenes ever filmed. In a movie full of twists, this is a rare moment of pure, instinctive emotion.

Wild Things (1998): It starts out as a face-slapping, hair-pulling cat fight in a swimming pool and ends up in a make-out session, complete with bikinis and T-shirts being tossed aside with sultry music in the background. Denise Richards plays the naughty rich girl and Neve Campbell plays the naughty poor girl; despite coming from opposite sides of the tracks, they manage to get together to concoct some rape accusations against their high school guidance counselor (Matt Dillon). The fact that this takes place in South Florida makes the whole movie feel even more steamy and tawdry. Wild Things easily could have made last week’s guilty-pleasure list, too. It’s so multipurpose.

• Bound (1996): Before The Wachowski Brothers entered the Matrix, the writing-directing duo made their debut with this funny, tense and sexy neo-noir. Jennifer Tilly plays Violet, the seemingly ditzy girlfriend of a mobster; Gina Gershon plays Corky, the maintenance woman in their apartment building who just got out of prison. Violet’s attraction to Corky is instantaneous, and eventually the two cook up a scheme to steal $2 million in stashed cash from Violet’s boyfriend. A ridiculous amount of contrived meetings and flirting leads to an intense — but artfully photographed — love scene between the two women.

D.E.B.S. (2004): As if it weren’t enough to have a bunch of beautiful, teenage spies dressed in naughty schoolgirl outfits, their leader (Sara Foster) ends up secretly falling for the deadly criminal (Jordana Brewster) who is their primary target. Writer-director Angela Robinson’s film isn’t exactly great cinema but it also doesn’t take itself too seriously, and features plenty of fun, cheeky moments. (Its tagline: “They’re crime-fighting hotties with killer bodies.”) That’s indeed true of Foster and Brewster, who share a few kisses and teasing moments before their eventual playful and passionate hook-up.

Cruel Intentions (1999): The most chaste of the five on this list, but it did earn Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair the highly coveted “Best Kiss” prize at the MTV Movie Awards. In this prep-school version of Dangerous Liaisons, Gellar functions in the Glenn Close role as a conniving and manipulative rich girl who dominates Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Blair is in the Uma Thurman role as a malleable innocent. Since Blair’s character has never kissed a boy before, Gellar’s teaches her what to do during a picnic in Central Park: “I’m gonna stick my tongue in your mouth, and when I do that I want you to massage my tongue with yours.” It all sounds pretty straightforward.

—  John Wright

There will be blood

Darren Aronofsky’s ballet movie ‘Black Swan’ luxuriates in weirdness. Wow

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

MIRROR, MIRROR | Nina (Natalie Portman) sees a lot of strange things looking back at her in mirrors, but none stranger than the movie itself.

4 out of 5 stars
BLACK SWAN

Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis,
Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel.
Rated R. 105 mins.
Now playing at the Magnolia and the Angelika Film Center–Plano

…………………………..

Based on my vast inside information about the behind-the-scenes world of professional ballet — which I have culled exclusively from watching The Turning Point, The Company, parts of Fame and now this film, Black Swan — not much about dance has changed over 35 years, at least in New York City. Dancers still live in cramped walk-ups and take the 3 train from Lincoln Center to TriBeCa (or worse, the NRW to Queens) and exit only at ill-lit and ominous stations. They still wear leg-warmers and wrap their gnarled feet in worn slippers. The corps is always led by a shriveled Russian crone, her silver hair pulled tight into a ponytail, her wattle buried behind chunky jewelry. There’s also always a priggish, demanding European choreographer-artiste, possibly the only straight man in all of dance who belittles then sexually exploits every new ballerina.But there’s also always one tortured aspirant, whose drive and talent are her salvation and her undoing.

Yes, in the first half hour of Black Swan, director Darren Aronofsky and writers Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman and John J. McLaughlin, don’t miss a single cliché either visually (uppity versions of Flashdance) or plot-wise. And then something remarkable happens: The film becomes Hitchcockian — or rather, early Polanski, who stole from Hitch better than anyone, and delves into areas of insanity and fantasy you don’t expect. It doesn’t erase all that came before it, but it leaves you with an unsettled feeling that’s difficult to shake.

Natalie Portman has rarely impressed me onscreen. The Star Wars films didn’t challenge her (and she didn’t disappoint, never rising above the ho-hum scripts and stodgy dialogue), and her stripper in Closer struck me as entirely false.

But here, as Nina — the tic-filled prima donna desperate for success but too repressed to explore the part of her that will allow her to triumph — Portman seems to fit like a foot in a ballet shoe.

Nina craves center stage, and she’s got talent, but she’s also troubled. Her mother (Barbara Hershey), once a dance hopeful, smothers her with expectations; Tomas (Vincent Cassel), the company’s leader, intimidates her; competition from the other girls is fierce, and Nina wants for confidence.

IT ISN’T ROMANTIC | Vincent Cassel’s predictable performance doesn’t clip this ‘Swan.’

But there’s something deeper holding her back, too: She’s paranoid (or is it just overly sensitive?), sensing every overheard titter is cruel mockery aimed at her; she’s obsessed with her body and a rash (or is she self-mutilating?); she sees dangers around every corner, including the fading diva (Winona Ryder), whom she’s in line to replace. And what of Lily (Mila Kunis), the newcomer who acts like her friend and possible lover, but could be pulling an Eve Harrington on her?

It’s difficult to tell what to believe in the world Aronofsky creates; maybe that’s why he echoes so many dance-movie clichés, to get us relaxed in the familiar before he turns out the lights. (Surprisingly, there are some standout special effects.) Like Polanski’s Repulsion and The Tenant — and more recently, Jacob’s Ladder — what we know is filtered through Nina’s mind. It’s never clear what we should trust. Does her mother even exist? Minor things become ominous: He turns the acts of hand-washing and fingernail-clipping into moments of intense terror, with too many bloody digits for my taste.

But to what end? Black Swan is difficult to parse. It’s creepy — a true thriller — that stays self-contained in the world of ballet.

Cassel delivers the film’s most predictable performance (he’s completely uninteresting), but Kunis reveals strength as an actress with a layered turn, and it’s nice seeing Hershey given a juicy role. (If Carrie ever tried to dance, her mom might look like Hershey’s, who elevates passive-aggression to high art.)

But, aside from Aronofsky, the film belongs to Portman. She’s brilliantly unbalanced, portraying a descent into insanity that is horrifying and unnerving but also rooted in humanity and frailty.

The disconnect between the predictability of the dance-driven aspects and the horror of what follows may cause Black Swan to struggle to find an audience. It’s not really a chick flick, but its esoteric discussion of ballet won’t exactly pull teen males into the multiplex. All the more reason to check it out during the crowded holidays — the gays can have the auditorium to ourselves.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 3, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens