Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Ballet on the Screen: Breaking it Down

You may not know this, but I actually took ballet classes between the ages of 4 and 16, continuously. Ballet is probably the only extracurricular activity that I truly loved that I also was not very good at. Usually for me to like doing something, I have to be able to excel, but this was not the case with dance; I loved it unconditionally. I cannot remember choreography to save my life, and I'm sort of naturally clumsy and awkward. I was also unfortunately tall, so they would always stick me with the beginner/intermediate classes for older age groups, rather than advancing me with my with shorter peers into the higher-level classes, mistakenly thinking I would just want to stay with "people my own age". Oh well, it's all in the past now. On the positive side, I made friends with all the older cheerleaders at my high school through the dance studio, so I almost never got picked on by mean girls. Bonus.

**This space reserved for a picture of me doing ballet, to be scanned when 
I'm in Prescott next week**

My friend Meg and I were texting about ballet TV shows and, as I was making my recommendations, I realized just how much is out there now. Is ballet trendy? I prefer to think of it as timeless and beautiful, and I'll pretty much watch as much as I can, in any form. Bring it on. The trend of ballet in its various forms on TV gives me this opportunity, and I thought I would share a sort of summary and some thoughts on each program, just in case anyone else wanted to check them out.

I think I love watching a sort of behind-the-scenes view of ballet because these dancers work so hard every day and they have very little chance of success and everything to lose. This makes me feel better about my life choices and challenges, you know? At least I'm not as stressed out as I would be if I were a ballerina!

First off, we have some of my favorite ballet documentaries, both of which have very punny names:

First Position

This documentary follows several different young dancers in the lead-up to a national dance competition. These range from a young prodigy, a young Columbian dancer who fought to dance despite the perception back home that "dancing is not for boys," and a teenager adopted out of Sierra Leone, fighting stereotypes about black dancers, whose mom stays up late dyeing the "flesh-toned" straps on all her costumes dark brown. It combines the beauty of dance with the drama and stress of competition and, let me tell you, these kids are amazing. They will take your breath away. Especially the young prodigy, Aran. I think the exploration of what all this dancing does to a child's body and life, and how hard they work are some of the most intriguing parts of this.

This documentary is available on Netflix streaming, along with several others that I have yet to watch. If anyone has seen anything else they love, please share!

Breaking Pointe

This documentary-style reality-ish show airs on the CW and follows several members at different levels of their careers at Ballet West, a professional company in Salt Lake City. The first season is amazing, with competition, suspense, drama, and beautiful dancing. The beginning of the second season reminds me a little more of a reality show, which is not something I would usually watch. The popularity of the show's first season brought in some new characters, who seem to espouse the classic reality tv belief that more drama = more screentime, which unfortunately proves true. After the first couple of episodes, though, it becomes more about the ballet again, and that's the part I love! I really like watching this show with my husband because I will gasp when they make a mistake and he's like "What? What happened? What's wrong?"

On to the scripted TV, which I also enjoy:


Cancelled after one season, Bunheads (on ABC Family) was a show that I definitely watched, but I was always sort of conflicted about. This show was the brainchild of Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore Girls, one of my favorite shows of all time. A lot of aspects of Gilmore Girls are echoed in Bunheads: sped-up talking, small-town characters, comedic allusions, and a strong female central character. The dancing was always enjoyable and the show was funny, but the characters, especially those of the girls in the dance class, left something to be desired for me. They never seemed as comfortable with their fast-talking sassiness as GG characters, and sometimes interactions came off as pure reading of lines, rather than meaningful dialogue. Reading really quickly, but reading nonetheless. The problem with the show being cancelled is that now they will never have a chance to really come into their own as characters. I also never really enjoyed that some of Michelle Simms's lines and references were ripped straight out of Lorelei Gilmore's mouth. For dancing, however, it is always entertaining, and if you have never watched Gilmore Girls, you would probably enjoy it more than I do because you wouldn't have the comparison in the back of your mind.

Dance Academy

Dance Academy is definitely a teen drama, which is a genre I usually tire of quickly. I get sick of the same people breaking up and getting back together again and usually give up after a season or two. With Dance Academy, however, you also get DANCING! Really good ballet and hip hop dance! And did I mention they live in Australia? Cool accents and wallabies and dingos and stuff. Well, it takes place mostly in Sydney, but still, Australia is cool, with or without dingos. And there are kangaroos at one point, trust me. This is the first Australian TV show I have ever watched and it's pretty darn fun. Look for earlier seasons on Netflix streaming.

And lastly, the movies, throughout the ages:

The Turning Point

This is the classic award-winning ballet flick. The story is of the daughter of two ballet dancers turned studio owners who goes on to become a professional dancer in her parents' former company. It is a tale of jealousy, heartbreak, and beautiful dancing. High, high recommend. Mikhail Baryshnikov's character in this movie, combined with his role in Sex and the City, always makes me wonder if he is kind of a dick in real life. His dancing is so beautiful though, who cares? Along with him, this movie stars some awesome people including Shirley MacLaine and Tom Skerritt as the retired dancer couple and Anne Bancroft as the aging prima of the company. The up-and-coming daughter, played by Leslie Browne, is a bit annoying, so be prepared. She is proof that being really good at ballet does not necessarily mean one can act. Also in the category of older classic ballet movies is The Red Shoes, a tragic love story set in a ballet company. The Red Shoes is much more of a tear-jerker, so have tissues on hand.

Center Stage

This is a fun little rom-com type movie that actually repeats a lot of the same plot points as The Turning Point. You'll see what I mean if you watch both. It is a bit less sophisticated, but still fun. Center Stage is one of my favorite movies to watch when I'm sick, or when I need a little pick-me-up. Also in this sort of fun movie + ballet category is Save the Last Dance. Center Stage has better ballet, but Save the Last Dance has really fun hip-hop dancing too.

Black Swan

Black Swan is sort of the black sheep of this set, being a psychological thriller. Natalie Portman is phenomenal in the lead role, and she is surprising good at ballet. Usually, when the studio announces that the actress had never done ballet before I'm thinking duh, she was not that good and I could totally tell when her ballet double was dancing (see Save the Last Dance). Portman, on the other hand, was able to actually give off the air of a real ballerina and had the dancing to back it up. This movie has the added bonus that other, non-ballet-obsessed people will want to watch it because it's really cool and kind of scary.

Back to school work, but I have told myself if I finish all my reading, I get to watch one of these tonight! Let me know any others I may have missed in the comments.


  1. I LOVE Center Stage and Black Swan! First Position has been in my netflix forever. I'm a bit sad that Bunheads got cancelled.


    1. yay! Bunheads wasn't given a chance. The world needs more ballet TV and Palladino!

  2. Black Swan was one of the most intense movies ever.

    And Dance Academy should be called "Quit being so awkward and dumb, Tara!"

    1. I vote for "Quit making a fool of yourself, Tara!" Basically, the first 8 episodes give me the cringes.

  3. I'm going to have to come back to this list in the future as I've only seen a couple of these. Good list!

    I'm sad about Bunheads as well. I think most of the acting issues with the girls is that they were cast as dancers first and most (if not all?) of them had never acted before. They definitely improved as the series went on, and I was looking forward to future seasons. I also reeeeaaallly liked Michelle. After the first couple of eps, I stopped comparing her to Lorelai because Lorelai was so sure of herself in her family and work life (if not romantic life). I definitely identified with Michelle's aimlessness and I LOVED her relationship with Sasha. Really sad it won't get to be explored further.

    1. I would think it would be really hard to find teenage ballet dancers who were talented in that respect, but could also act. All those choreographed scenes! Their work schedule must have been nightmarish.

      Lorelei is like my role model (except not romantically) and Michelle is more like me in real life. Very unsure and conflicted. I'm sad the show did not get a chance to become something awesome. Even though I had problems with it, I would always watch it, because Amy Sherman-Palladino is a genius and Michelle was awesome.

      This is really making me want to re-watch Gilmore Girls for the umpteenth time. Oh man, I so don't have time for that right now!

  4. Totally pinning this for later. I love movies about dancing. Took two years of choreography as part of drama school, but I still dance like RDJ in Iron Man 3. On a good day.


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