From 'Black Swan' to reality TV: Ballet slowly acquiring a pop culture profile
NEW YORK, N.Y. - "I'm really digging it," says Ronnie Underwood, a buff, tattooed motorcycle enthusiast, auto racer and former football player who also happens to be a ballet dancer.
Oh, and a reality show star. Underwood, 30, is one of the main characters on "Breaking Pointe," the CW series about the lives and loves, trials and tribulations of the dancers at Ballet West, a highly regarded company in Salt Lake City.
The season comes to a finale next week, and suspense is high: Will Ronnie, Rex, Christiana and Allison be ready for their close-up? Or will opening-night jitters, not to mention relationship issues, derail their hard work? But we digress. What Underwood is "digging" is the broader fact that ballet, often relegated to a dusty, forgotten shelf in the general culture, seems to be having its moment in the sun.
Besides "Breaking Pointe," there's the ABC Family show "Bunheads," starring the Tony-winning actress Sutton Foster (the title is dance-speak for ballerinas, a reference to their neatly coiled hairdos.) And hugely popular dance-competition shows like "Dancing with the Stars" have featured guest turns by ballet dancers like Jose Manuel Carreno, recently retired from American Ballet Theatre, and the ballerina Tiler Peck of New York City Ballet.
There's also a popular documentary film garnering praise, "First Position," which tracks young dancers in a global competition. But it's a much more famous 2010 film that gets much of the credit for starting the ballet mini-craze: Darren Aronofsky's cool and edgy "Black Swan," which starred Natalie Portman and brought a whole new vibe to that stuffy classic, "Swan Lake."
"'Black Swan' really did bring ballet into the mainstream pop culture consciousness in a way it hadn't been for a while — and that was great for us in the ballet world," says Rob Daniels, managing director at New York City Ballet.
Daniels says the company sold out its runs of "Swan Lake" for two seasons after the film opened. "And it definitely felt the houses were younger — that young people were coming who'd seen the film and were curious about ballet," Daniels says.
Not that there was any lasting economic boon for NYCB or other ballet companies — like arts institutions, dance companies have had to struggle in a harsh economy.
But those in the dance world say, give it time — they're simply buoyed by the thought that more people may come to know and appreciate the art of ballet. One of those people is Adam Sklute, a former Joffrey Ballet dancer and now artistic director of Ballet West — the company in "Breaking Pointe."
Sklute notes that ballet had a heyday in the '60s to early '80s. Those were the years of big personalities like Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. "But then it calmed down for a few decades," he says. Now, "Black Swan" and the big dancing shows are giving it a new profile.
"My motivation was plain and simple — I wanted people to understand our world," says Sklute. "Because when people start to explore the ballet world, they become fascinated. I wanted to depict it as it really is."
What that meant was shattering some of the stereotypes. One is that dancers are fragile creatures, like pretty ceramic dolls. What "Breaking Pointe" does very effectively is show that in reality, ballet demands an amazing combination of athleticism, physical strength, endurance and sheer grunt work. "People don't realize how down and dirty the work really is," says Sklute.
Showing how hard dancers work was a main mission for executive producer Izzie Pick Ashcroft. "Ballet dancers have a level of discipline that most of us could only dream of," says Ashcroft, of BBC Worldwide Productions. "And their fitness level is really quite shocking." Cameras tracked the dancers for six weeks, showing them training and rehearsing day and night, sometimes caked in sweat or breathless with exhaustion.
This being a reality show, however, plenty of time is spent on inter-company romances, especially the tortured are-we-or-aren't-we duo of Rex and Allison, whose troubles threaten to spill over into rehearsals, to the great concern of Christiana, the top ballerina, who's also married to a Ballet West principal dancer (the show accurately displays how insular ballet companies are.)
And though, unsually, 99 per cent of the company's dancers are straight, according to Ashcroft, there's some equal time given to the one openly gay male dancer, whose ballerina friends take him to a gay bar to find a date.
Another theme that is highlighted and played to the hilt, "The Bachelor"-style: the competition among the contestants, er, dancers. It's all about moving up the totem pole: Corps dancers want to be soloists, soloists want to be principals, principals want to protect their turf and compete with each other for choice roles.
This is no "Black Swan" — the struggle for roles is not, at least yet, literally bloody — but still, the focus on dancers competing, a sure way to make dance-focused entertainment exciting, is a little troubling to some.
"What's ignored is the drudgery of the work," says New York dance writer Marina Harss. "They have to sex it up. It's the same with 'Black Swan.' It's like every moment of the day is consumed with backstabbing. When I've been in studios, it's the opposite of that. It's work. It's not about perfection. It's, 'Let's fix this.'"
Still, Harss says, it's easy to see why ballet dancers would become an object of interest in a culture that values youth and physical beauty (not to mention buff, hard bodies): "Dancers are the embodiment of what this culture values: Youth, beauty, charisma," she says. "I'm surprised this didn't happen sooner."
One former dancer is very pleased about the new spotlight on ballet: Meg Howrey, a former Joffrey dancer, wrote a novel about two professional ballet-dancing sisters that came out last month. She says she's hoping that "ballet dancers are the new vampires."
But Howrey does worry that the emphasis on competition, seen especially in the dance competition shows and also in "First Position," is teaching youngsters the wrong thing about the art form. "Are we teaching people what dance is about, or merely that 10 pirouettes is better than two?" Howrey asks.
In any case, Underwood, the ambitious soloist on "Breaking Pointe," is taking all the new attention in stride. For now, he's on a mission to become a principal. "I deserve it," he says with typical brio. "I'm gonna outwork any dude out there."
Even more, he seems to be on a one-man crusade to show the world how macho a ballet dancer can be. He still plays football and races cars. In one scene, he goes to get his tattoo touched up. "I don't think I've ever done a tattoo on a ballet dancer," says the bemused tattoo artist.
Will Ronnie make it to principal? Will Rex and Allison figure it out? Will there be a second season?
No decision on that last one yet. But whatever happens, artistic director Sklute feels the show is "groundbreaking."
"We're presenting high art here," he says, putting his finger on what separates "Breaking Pointe" from most — or rather all— other reality shows. "Balanchine. Petipa. Maybe this will get people into the theatres."
As for Ronnie, it's even simpler: "We're sharing the passion," he says. "Any publicity is good publicity."