No argument there.
Most dancers attempt to deny this hard fact, but there is no avoiding it. We work ourselves into the ground for that one moment on stage, and as quickly as it came, it is gone.
Thursday night’s episode of the CW’s new melodramatic reality series Breaking Pointe attempted to bring the viewers into this desperation of the “now” for dancers. With the company’s spring performance several weeks away, this episode highlighted more of the rehearsal process and the tensions that can arise from casting decisions, likely causing more drama in episodes to come.
All of the dancers, with maybe the exception of tattooed and outspoken Ronnie Underwood—“not your typical ballet dancer”—talk about the all-consuming nature of a career in ballet. We know it isn’t forever, making quick gratification a necessity: we want the perfect pirouette, the role we’ve been coveting, a promotion, and more. As Veruka Salt would say in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, “I want it all and I want it now!”
I’m not trying to say that the dancers are whiney, spoiled little girls; though we do see a lot of tears on the show. Part of the reason for this immediacy is the physical strain that comes with a dance career. Thursday night’s episode, touched on this and the company’s physical therapist had his 15 seconds of television fame. We witnessed Ronnie getting treated for a strained rib and one of the Tilton brothers having his foot examined. Actually, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more focus on the imminent and constant concern of injury.
Thankfully, this week’s episode showed more dancing, taking us into the dance studio for rehearsals of Jiri Kylian’s 20th century ballet Petite Mort (sorry Mr. Sklute, but you were mistaken when you said 21st century. Kylian choreographed it in ’91). The dancers lamented about the difficulty of working with props—persnickety swords and cumbersome, large rolling dresses they must maneuver with grace and ease. A true challenge in any performing arts genre, props can take on a mind of their own and I was happy the show highlighted the complexity of this ballet. The sensuality of the piece was also emphasized and I can’t blame the producers for this tactic; after all, sex sells. However, I could have done without the EMO indie rock track during the rehearsal footage. I wish the series creative team had let the arresting music of Mozart speak for itself.
In those rehearsals, Rex Tilton and Allison DeBona struggle to keep their personal feelings at bay, eventually bringing their relationship woes into the work setting. This is a legit concern with any profession, but, in ballet, it can be more evident due to the intimacy of dancing with a partner. Allison looks on agitatedly as Rex partners another female dancer in a Petite Mort, and Rex’s hurt and frustration cause his focus to wane. Oh Allison, won’t you give Rex a real shot? Additionally, Christiana Bennett’s husband appears jealous as she rehearses with another partner. I think any dancing couple can attest to how difficult it is to keep the two worlds separate.
Then there is our other dancing duo: Katie Martin and Ron Tilton. Katie is off to Boise to audition for Ballet Idaho and Ron has to decide whether or not he will return to Salt Lake City. It becomes obvious that Ron will stay, yet we are left guessing if Katie accepts the apprenticeship in Boise. The young couple in love prevails, but now Katie must finish out the season with Ballet West, feeling unwanted.
“Eat, sleep, dance.”
This is the self-proclaimed mantra of the series’ ‘characters.’ It’s not uncommon for dancers to adopt this lifestyle, especially at the beginning of their careers when they are young and eager to please. Certainly, there were times in my career where particular roles inhabited my every waking and sleeping thought. But, ultimately, does this tunnel-vision mentality make us better dancers? Does sacrificing ourselves for our craft make us better artists? In the case of Nina Sayers in Black Swan, her obsessive nature drove her to her own demise. Her artistry escalated as her psyche deteriorated. However, in the end, her self-sacrificial conquest had an abbreviated return; which is why I’m disturbed by how much the series appears to celebrate this.
Ballet is a selfish career and it is difficult to have friendships and relationships within it. The show capitalizes on all of these aspects., dramatized with the tumultuous relationship between Rex and Allison. But aren’t many careers like this? Americans are notorious for being work-a-holics. Lawyers, doctors, and a number of conventional professions share the same mindset. Then what makes ballet different?
Some of my colleagues have accused me of being too hard on the show. It is possible I am asking too much of the network, but, after having spent a decade in this profession, I feel no guilt in having high expectations. As Candice brought up in one of her latest posts, dancers are among the lowest paid and educated artists. It’s a challenge for us to earn respect in the work force outside of dance. This is upsetting because the reality is that dancers have to be damn smart! We learn choreography for multiple ballets at once, able to change from one ballet to the next easily and seamlessly. We have to decipher/count a variety of music. While remembering the steps and timing, we often have to maintain a relationship or formation with other dancers, learning how to anticipate and react to their movements. Additionally, we think about corrections from the previous rehearsal and struggle constantly to understand our own body mechanics. Outside of the dance studio, dancers are often well read and informed despite having put off their college education. Yet there is still this common assumption about dancers.
Therefore, I’m disappointed that the show doesn’t show the dancers in a less superficial light. I don’t know them personally, making it hard to say for sure; but their personas on the show appear to be scripted. The producers are over-playing each stereotype to amp up the drama. I want to see more depth to these individuals rather than, ‘I dance all day and then I go home to stretch and worry about my weight.’ The exaggerated ‘ballet’ façade doesn’t give non dancers a genuine insight into the profession. Personally, I’d be more interested to know what truly makes them tick.
It’s wonderful that dance is attempting to mainstream and there is a growing interest in the art form. I simply wish the show would address some of the questions I am commonly asked: Why do you still have to take class after all of these years? What is your workday like? How do you remember choreography? When we focus on the drama and relationship fiascos, the series could easily be swamped out with any other CW series…minus the tutus.
Still feeling lukewarm. Come on Breaking Pointe, win me over! I’m rooting for you!