Breaking Pointe Episode 2: Nothing is Permanent in Ballet

 In Archive, Dance on Screen

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!

 

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Showing 5 comments
  • Chelsea Wayant
    Reply

    The Petit Mort rehearsal sequence really bothered me because it portrayed the dancers in a Beavis and Butthead manner (Hee Hee, it’s a penis). I think most artists can talk about the use of a phallic symbol in a more sophisticated manner. Clearly, the producers wanted them to reference it that way to appeal to their audience, but still…

    I think the producers are attempting to show the dancers as athletes over artists. For instance, it seems as though everyone is doing push-ups every second they can possible get their hands to the floor. The idea of the perfect moment on stage seems similar to athletes throwing the perfect pitch, making a beautiful basket, watching the arm of a great quarterback.

    In contrast, consider how a musician or actor talks about their motivation and drive. In my experience dancers speak about their work in the same manner. It’s about connecting with an audience and creating a piece of art that exists only for a single moment between the artists and the audience. It is not about scoring. It’s not about a dancers stats. And when a performance does become about that it usually falls flat.

    Everything on the show defines them as athletes, not artists. That’s disappointing to me.

    Also, I think Ronnie is nearly a carbon copy of Ethan Stiefel, at least that is what they want him to be. The drama about whether or not everyone was going to sign their contracts was so boring. Was there ever really any doubt?

    I don’t think you are being to hard on the show, I am right there with you.

  • Rebecca King
    Reply

    Stephanie-

    You’re right dancers ARE very smart! That is definitely one of the aspects of ballet that would be great for the show to highlight: perhaps by focusing on dancers who are attending college while dancing full time. That sort of story would be wonderful for America to be exposed to. But that doesn’t create the superficial drama the producers are looking for.

    I absolutely agree with all of your statements. I, like you, do not know these dancers personally, making it difficult for me to know what is real and what is not. I don’t want to judge them without knowing them. As they are our peers, I believe we owe that to them.

    Thanks for sharing the link with me. I look forward to reading more from DIYdancer.

    Rebecca King
    tendusunderapalmtree.com

  • stephanie
    Reply

    Chelsea, I think the emphasis on the athleticism rather than the artistry is to diminish the stereotype that ballet is only for girls or sissy, which we all know it is not. Maybe I’m wrong, but that is the impression I am getting. It’s interesting because most of the regional company dancers I’ve talked to , both former and current, don’t like the show. I think it’s disheartening for all of us because we hoped it would be a chance to engage mainstream society with our insular world. It fails to do that on many levels. It also fails as a drama, as the stroylines are difficult to follow.

    Rebecca, I completely agree about how the dancers are being presented. I don’t fault them, but rather the production team. Everything feels staged and scripted; the dancers are caricatures of themselves. This actually makes the show boring, not exciting.

    I want to see the drama unfold onstage.

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