“Survival of the Fittest”
Passion. Sacrifice. Obsession. A description of TV watching? Sure, but for purposes of this Keep or Delete, we are talking about the art of ballet.
I am a casual fan of dance. I have never particularly researched or delved into the nitty gritty of what it takes to be a world class dancer at an elite ballet but I know enough to know its physically grueling and emotionally and physically punishing. I know that the lifespan of a dancer is criminally short and that assumes a career free of major injury. Knowing these broad strokes, I have always been able to enjoy the art of dance as a magical experience; that people can do such contortionist movements with their bodies seems unnatural to me while being undeniably beautiful at the same time. With the premiere of The CW’s Summer show, Breaking Pointe, the curtain has been pulled back on the magic trick and for six weeks, cameras were able to capture the proverbial sausage being made. Taped in Salt Lake City, Utah at the home of Ballet West (also, sometimes referred to as the Salt Lake City Ballet Company), Breaking Pointe is shot in a clean, documentary format style, reminiscent of something you would expect to find on a cutting edge PBS piece or an A&E special from the mid-90s.
In this day and age of reality television redux, one is wise to be skeptical of anything shot and edited and shopped as an honest portrayal of its subject matter, but, Breaking Pointe succeeds in setting aside those fears of being duped. There are some obvious stories being told(relationships, catty drama, career obstacles) through editing and “storylines” that will play out over the course of the series’ mini run (it’s a six part series) but the now clichéd “editing a personality” that so many reality show stars complain of seems to be well reigned in by the show’s producers and I think we are getting as honest a look “behind the scenes” of a ballet company preparing for a new production, as you can ever possibly expect. And this makes Breaking Pointe unique among a sea of competition. I think the fact the show is produced by BBC Worldwide Productions helps explain, in part, this ability to avoid American reality show stereotypes. That the BBC allegedly auditioned approximately 15-20 different ballet companies before choosing Ballet West helps confirm there is something interesting about this particular group of people.
Why is the show worth watching? Well, on top of the subject matter being previously unexplored (at least I can’t think of another non-fictional look at a ballet company’s inner workings though, seriously, I was hoping Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows would turn out to be the artistic director of Ballet West. Center Stage? Anyone? No? Ok. Moving on. To be serious, the movie, Black Swan, is being credited in news reports covering the show for serving as the inspiration to want to set the record straight on the underpinnings of the ballet world), there aren’t many serious reality shows (of any topic) that leave you feeling engaged and smarter for what you’ve just seen rather than dirty and dumber (MTV’s Real World had this former quality back in its first and second seasons, The Catalina on The CW? The latter).
Of course, in this day and age of diminished expectations from TV, broadcast TV in particular and reality shows on broadcast TV to be even more specific, Breaking Pointe may ultimately suffer from being too smart for its own good. On the subject of the show’s viability, the premiere pulled a 0.3 rating in the 18-49 demo and just over 900K viewers which is not promising but it’s a CW show which always skews lower in ratings and so I think expectations are just different. By comparison, The Catalina, The CW’s other Summer reality, “behind the scenes,” show premiered the same week as Breaking Pointe and pulled almost identical final ratings numbers (though it had slightly more total viewers which says more about The CW viewership than the quality of the shows in question). After watching the pilot episode and seeing these ratings numbers, I can’t help but think that the show would have performed better had it been on another network or on cable but there is nothing to be done about that now. Back to the show, what exactly is happening here?
Breaking Pointe was filmed during the 2011-2012 season of Ballet West (which season has just finished in real time), a premiere ballet company based out of Salt Lake City, Utah, and follows the professional and personal lives of several members of the dance company as they negotiate the highs and lows of being a world class ballet dancer at an elite dance company. The pilot episode was heavy on introductions though I expect that subsequent episodes will delve more into the dance aspect of these people’s lives with their social interactions being secondary to that principal goal of producing world class ballet. To set the stage, the pilot episode takes place the week that contracts are being given out (or not). As we learn, the ballet world is driven by one year contracts and that if you stall out in moving up through the ranks, you’re more likely than not, going to be shown the door. With that background, let’s meet this cast of talented characters:
• Ronnie (Underwood), Soloist – Ronnie is 30 and the manliest dancer you can imagine. A self-confessed “gearhead”, Ronnie is also a badass dancer and a strong soloist in the company. Ronnie says he has 14 cars and three motorcycles; how well does dance pay? Damn, I have a shitty Honda Civic from 2004. Anyway, Ronnie’s goal is a promotion of some sort because he doesn’t want to grow stagnant. Already a soloist, he’s clearly looking for promotion to Principal. In the end, he is made “First Soloist” which doesn’t have an immediate meaning for him other than it means not being a principal which pisses him off.
• Allison (DeBona), Demi-Soloist – Allison is 28, the object of Rex’s affection and clearly choosing dancing over love (that isn’t me saying that, she actually says that). For what its worth, she has bright future with BW and she’s 28 and I think its totally understandable for her to be setting aside love for career. The dancer’s shelf life is just not long enough to try and do it all … it seems. For her, her relationship with Rex is complicated, long and strange which are not the words you probably want to hear as the boyfriend but I also don’t think Rex is really hearing what Allison is saying, only what he wishes she was saying. This love life tension is all that’s really going on with Allison so far because she gets her contract but isn’t promoted and will remain a demi-soloist (the approximate rung between corps de ballet dancer and soloist) for a second year, which she is outwardly okay with. Inwardly, she is not happy and was hoping to be promoted. She feels her clock is ticking on her career and wants to keep moving up the ladder.
• Ronald (Tilton), Second Company – Ronald is 20 (he must have had a birthday during the course of filming because he says he’s 19 but the title card says 20) and one of 7 siblings, 5 of which still dance. His older brother, Rex, is in the Ballet West and the reason that Ronald joined BW, versus somewhere else. He is also dating Katie Martin and, as a result of Katie’s unfortunate sit down with Adam (see below), its clear that Ronald will be working through his choice throughout the season (stay with Rex in Utah or follow Katie to whatever is next). Ronald gets his contract for “first year apprentice” which is maybe the rung below being n the corps de ballet (its not clear from BW’s website what Ballet West II is or what it means to be in the second company)?
• Christiana (Bennett), Principal (Prima Ballerina) – Christiana is 32 and has been with BW since she was 19 (for what its worth, she hasn’t aged at all and looks amazing after 13 years of professionally torturing her body). Christiana sits in a different position from the other six dancers we meet in the pilot, if for no other reason than her long time with the company allows her two years notice on contract renewals and so she’s not even sitting down with Adam this go around. Christiana seems to have more of mothering sense to the younger dancers than your stereotypical Prima
Donna Ballerina attitude that a movie would cast her with. The show puts her forth as the only Principal but in fact, there is another female principal ballerina and two male principals (including Christiana’s husband, I think). You can check out the dancer bios here. Five seconds with Christiana and you get how she’s risen so far, she is obsessed with perfection and improvement and is always striving for better. As intense as she is, its refreshing to see she understands that she is dancing on borrowed time. There is talk of her being rewarded with the title of “Mega Tron” Principal but that might have been made up. She might also be a transformer?
• Rex (Tilton), Demi-Soloist – Rex is 24, Ronald’s older brother and Allison’s puppy dog love. While she is rather matter of fact about her lack of love reciprocation, Rex is effusive with his emotions and just so you understand, (a) Allison is beautiful, (b) Rex loves her but (c) its all very confusing. Allison doesn’t think its so confusing. She also doesn’t think they’re dating which Rex totally does; he also thinks they have a future. Allison sees none of this. Rex gets a contract for demi-soloist which is his third year in that position. The interesting thing on this stall is that Adam says he has the three qualities that make a male ballet dancer a commodity but that its his inability to block out personal life issues that hold him back. Which is maybe even more frustrating for the viewer who wants to root for him than even himself who maybe is not so aware of his issues. Rex has a moment of clarity when he expresses the thought that maybe he’d be better off if he and Allison didn’t hang out at all but I didn’t feel any conviction behind that statement (though, he is totally correct) so let’s not hold our collective breath on him giving up on Allison and their love.
• Kathleen “Katie” (Martin), Second Company – Katie is 23 and dating Ronald. She’s also the most vocally nervous about contracts week. Which effects negatively her classes leading up to contracts being handed out. Turns out she has reason to be nervous as she is the only dancer of the seven we get to know tonight (I think we’ll eventually meet 2 or 3 more) that Adam cuts in his sit downs. This firing (though she has to serve out the remaining two months of the season which just sucks, right?) sets up her season arc of having to audition for a new position in another ballet company and tension with her boyfriend and the future of their relationship. She should also be worried about her bangs (thought clearly, Ronald likes them). We leave off Katie’s story with her packing for auditions. First stop? Boise, Idaho. Good luck Katie!
• Beckanne (Sisk), New Artist – Corps de Ballet – Beckanne is interesting because she’s 19, she’s a phenom and its clear that when Christiana talks about feeling breath on her neck of younger rivals rising to challenge her for her spot as Principal Dancer, she’s thinking of Beckanne. For her part, Beckanne is totally self-aware that she’s great and that she’s young and that barring any unforeseen catastrophe, she is the future of Ballet West (or which ever company tries to snatch her up). There is no suspense that she will get her contact renewed in her sit down with Adam, but rather, the question of whether she’s promoted and to what level, is what drives her tension. She is given a promotion to demi-soloist which is fairly huge for 19, especially when you look at Allison who is 9 years older and in the same spot. Adam reiterates the pressures that will come from this promotion, namely, being a role model to dancers that will be mostly older than her. Beckanne is an ironic mirror to her BFF, Katie, who had the only other sit down with Adam and was not hired. As the episode wears on and contracts are out and promotions known, we already see some heat coming from Allison though Beckanne is handling it with cool … for now.
• Adam (Sklute), Artistic Director – A former dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, Adam understands both sides of the ballet coin. Right before contract sit downs he tells us that its important to make his dancers feel special but also let them know that they are expendable. That is a tightrope to walk and he seems to carry it off with aplomb. In Adam’s opening voiceover, he makes it clear that his job is to put the most powerful and beautiful dancers out on the stage every night and its clear that he has a singular focus on not only maintaining Ballet West’s reputation but to exceed all expectations. Part and parcel with those responsibilities is making hard decisions and we see that difficulty when he cuts Katie. So far, Adam seems like an involved but all together fair boss and I think being a dancer himself makes that part of his job (connecting with his dancers) much easier.
Why do they do this? Why do they put themselves through this? As the opening sequence tells us, they do it … to be perfect. And after one hour of this show, I think you’ll agree that such desires shine through.
Keep or Delete? A resounding Keep! If you’re going to be watching TV this Summer, you’ll be better off in countless ways for spending time with Ballet West. Breaking Pointe is airing as a six part series on Thursday nights at 8pm (EST) on The CW.