“The Red Shoes,” “The Turning Point,” “Center Stage” or “Black Swan” – every generation has its ballet film to introduce a new generation to this mysterious and misunderstood art. Now in the United States, ballet has entered another boom, but this time on the small screen. In the wake of popular contest shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance,” dance has become a hot property on television, and ballet has inflamed the curiosity of both viewers and producers, spawning CW’s “Breaking Pointe” (http://www.cwtv.com/shows/breaking-pointe) or AOL Original’s “City.Ballet” (www.cityballet.com).
“Breaking Pointe” premiered in 2012 and has been successful enough to be renewed for another season. The hour-long episodes (six in the first season, nine in the second), use Ballet West, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, as a backdrop and track a group of company dancers and their struggles.
The show is as much reality TV as a dance show. “We knew the cameras were with us all the time, but we thought it was going to be a ballet show with our stupid little love life on the side,” participant Allison DeBona joked. Now a soloist with the company, she found her on-and-off relationship with fellow dancer Rex Tilton front and center as the audience discussed and argued about the couple’s fights and teary reunions.
Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette rehearse Peter Martins' Swan Lake during filming of city.ballet. Photo by Shannon Sun-Higginson
There’s plenty of professional as well as personal conflict. In the very first episode, a dancer found out on camera that her contract would not be renewed. And augmenting the Rex-and-Allison story, last season’s fixation was Zach Prentice, then in the second company, Ballet West II. He gleefully announced, “I love petty drama,” and you got it in spades as he gossiped his way into other dancers’ romances, and also in his own tense battle with a rival dancer for a company contract.
The show forces the cast into stereotypes: the ingénue, the bitch, the screaming queen, but it does it with an unerring instinct for a formula that works. A general audience doesn’t want to know that ballet is actually 90% drudgery: days filled with endless battements tendus and sewing pointe shoe ribbons.
DeBona got what reality TV buffs call the “bitch edit.” Her scenes on camera were chosen to make her seem aloof or nasty. Yet she’s both one of the show’s strongest defenders – and greatest beneficiaries.
Ballet West Soloist Allison DeBona in Willam Christensen’s The Nutcracker.
That would never have happened without outside help. “I’m fixated on my job here,” she admits, but her younger brother Jared, a recent law school graduate with a natural gift for publicity, took her reality show celebrity and marketed it into a parallel career.
He pushed her on to Twitter, telling her that she needed to “live tweet” during the show. “The Kardashians do it!” he reasoned. But with his aggressive help, her celebrity from the show landed her talk show appearances, teaching jobs and magazine ads.
DeBona argues persuasively that her success is only the tip of an iceberg. In an article she wrote for AGMA, a performing arts union in the U.S., she reported from Ballet West’s development figures that the company’s website got more than a million additional hits in the month “Breaking Pointe” premiered. The summer program for the company’s school quadrupled in size. On tour, there was a strong uptick in young ticketholders ages 8-18, all attributed to their avid viewing of “Breaking Pointe.” Perhaps it proves the adage, “All publicity is good publicity.”
“City.Ballet,” chose a different approach – part documentary, part informercial for the company it showcases, New York City Ballet. The brainchild of actress (and NYCB board member) Sarah Jessica Parker, the show is a webseries, with 12 compact episodes, all under eight minutes. Each deals with a single topic, whether ranks, partnering or the sacrifices dancers make.
Company soloist Georgina Pazcoguin was one of the profiled dancers. Possessing a dramatic gift in a company known for cool abstraction, Pazcoguin is also as much of a realist about mass media as DeBona. “The average person watches something on the Internet for about a minute. Eight minutes is a long time.”
Sara Mearns in a costume fitting for Peter Martins' Swan Lake during filming of city.ballet. Photo by Shannon Sun-Higginson
Pazcoguin praised the filmers, Zero Point Zero, who work with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and understand the difficulties – and discretion – of shooting live. “I didn’t even see the camera in rehearsal,” she said. “I work intensely, and we were working with Angelin Preljocaj, who doesn’t speak English, so you had to work twice as hard. I had no idea the crew even came in and left!”
For her, the funniest moment was when she was asked on camera how she did her hair. “It is pretty much known throughout the building that I have the worst hair in the company.”
Even if filming was a good experience, the dancers were nervous about the result. “I can barely watch myself in a performance in a video,” she admitted. “We all decided one night to watch it together, and did it as a drinking game. Every shot of a grand jeté, we had to drink!”
With shorter episodes and no plotline to fit the dancers into, “City.Ballet” seems more willing to let the dancers be themselves. Pazcoguin agrees. “I come across as the person that I am. That was what I was concerned about at the beginning.”
But in some ways the show is just as tight a box as “Breaking Pointe.” Despite interviewing several gay dancers, the episode on relationships focused exclusively on heterosexual couples. It seems everyone’s still scared of ballet looking too gay.
With reality being so popular, fiction can’t be far behind. The U.S. cable channel Starz has a dramatic series currently in development with the working title of “Flesh and Bone” that aims to show the dark underside of ballet. Over 1,000 dancers have tried out for the female lead – whom the casting call described as like Polina Semionova. “Black Swan” again? From the over-the-top dialogue that’s been quoted from auditions, it sounds as if there’s an equal possibility for ballet’s answer to 1995’s so-bad-it’s-wonderful take on Vegas dancing, “Showgirls.”
One thing you won’t see in any of these shows? A lot of ballet dancing. The complexities of both filming live performances and navigating the thicket rights for choreography, music and performers makes showing ballets on the small screen difficult and expensive. Yet the best legacies of these projects would be not just shows about ballet, but actual ballet in shows.
By Leigh Witchel