Tiny Pretty Things and the Timeless Allure of Ballet Dramas

Tiny Pretty Things and the Timeless Allure of Ballet Dramas
Image:Christopher Furlong (Getty Images)

Netflix didn’t need a convoluted algorithm to figure out that Tiny Pretty Things was going to be my next obsession. The recently released Netflix drama is about a murder at a ballet school that brings in a new student who must learn to navigate the absolutely bonkers and cutthroat environment that is a prestigious ballet academy.

When I was a tiny pretty thing myself, I had two dreams in life: to be a bus driver and a ballerina. I assumed both could be done at the same time if I just drove the bus in the mornings and was in the corps de ballet at night. Life all planned before 10, I really had it together. The small issue of my feet and knees pointing in the wrong direction eventually kept me from my ballerina dream, but I can always experience the tense, elegant drama of the ballet world in the TV shows, documentaries, and movies dedicated to the art form. Luckily for ballet fans, there is a wealth of ballet content to consume in place of going to an actual ballet and it’s exponentially cheaper than a nosebleed seat at Lincoln Center.

When you’re done with Tiny Pretty Things and want more ballet drama, here are a few recommendations to fuel your new obsession.

Dance Academy

Do you love accents, ballet, mean girls with a chip on their shoulder, and crying? If you said yes to any or all of the above then Dance Academy is designed for your viewing pleasure. The scripted series, set at a dance school in Sydney, Australia, follows six students as they navigate the cutthroat levels of an academy with the hope of getting a coveted position with Australia’s premier fictitious ballet company. The series is an incredibly soapy teen show, think DeGrassi but with dance, with three seasons and one spinoff made for TV movie.

Flesh and Bone, a limited series that premiered on STARZ in 2015, is a dark, moody, and exquisitely crafted drama from one of the writers of Breaking Bad. Actress Sarah Hay stars as Claire, a young dancer starting out at the fictitious American Ballet Company in New York. From the start it is clear that the meek Claire isn’t just a good dancer, she is a prodigy, and a threat to the company’s aging principal dancer, Kiira (Irina Dvoroven). The show follows Kiira and Claire as they compete for the lead role in a newly choreographed ballet by the company’s artistic director. Along the way, Claire is immersed in the nightlife of affluent New Yorkers who like to spend money surrounding themselves with beautiful ballerinas for arm candy. The show is wonderful because it takes so many unpredictable turns. In one moment, you’re simply watching a show about warring ballerinas, in the next, you’re digging into the various non-ballet-related abuses each character has undergone that makes them who they are.

A Ballerina’s Tale

Misty Copeland made history as the first Black woman American Ballet Theatre in New York to become the company’s principal dancer in 2015, shooting classical ballet into a new stratosphere of mainstream relevance. A Ballerina’s Tale, a documentary released that same year, is a glance at Copeland’s daily life as one of the few Black members at the company, following her daily routine of training, rehearsals, and trying to live a somewhat normal life as the new face of ballet.

The documentary feels incredibly intimate, yet sanitary. In Copeland’s memoir, she details her struggles with her mother and the poverty that made it difficult to focus solely on ballet until another family intervened in Copeland’s life. This information is largely glossed over in A Ballerina’s Tale with more of a focus placed on the upward trajectory of Copeland’s career. The documentary also puts Copeland’s rise in the context of ballet history as it pertains to dancers of color, who were rarities in American ballet. Copeland’s personal hero, Raven Wilkinson, features heavily in the history section of the documentary as she is widely considered the first African American woman to dance for a major company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which paved the way for dancers to come.

First Position

For those who love intense competition, First Position is an absolute must-watch. This 2012 documentary follows six young dancers as they prepare to compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, a national dance competition for children and teens frequented by scouts from some of the world’s biggest companies. The Grand Prix is an open competition divided by age group where young dancers perform variations of their choice for a panel of judges. Awards range from trophies to scholarships, to job offers at ballet companies across the world. The documentary shows the regimented lives of child ballerinas, including morning ballet class before school, full school days, more ballet rehearsals, and the painstaking repetition of foot and hip stretches done at home with the help of devices that look like they were once used in medieval torture chambers. It also wonderfully captures the early stages of celebrated ballerina Michaela DePrince’s career before she became a soloist at the Dutch National Ballet.

On Pointe

For a more updated look on the lives of ballet-obsessed children look no further than Disney’s On Pointe. The documentary follows the 2019-2020 school season for the youth division at the School of American Ballet, one of the most prestigious ballet schools in the US. The series follows several different children and a few teens as the school prepares for Lincoln Center’s annual Nutcracker performance, which features children from the school. And while the documentary is limited in scope considering Disney’s need to be extremely family-friendly, what kept me coming back to this series was the dichotomy between students with money and students without.

This comparison is most starkly seen between two children Isabella and Sophia, both from New York. Isabella has to take one bus and two trains to get to Lincoln Center, traveling with parents who speak little English and have never heard of The Nutcracker until her audition. Meanwhile, Sophia and her mom just drive after enjoying a meal in their spacious sparkling white kitchen. At that moment it felt like the producers were laying the groundwork for a conversation on the inequalities in the dance world, though the documentary largely buries the topic. Flaws aside, you’ll find yourself rooting for these kids’ success.

Black Swan

Any list about the best ballerina content would be remiss to overlook the Natalie Portman Oscar vehicle Black Swan. This film, directed by Darren Aronofsky, beats you over the head with its obvious allegories about the human condition—we are all both the black and white swan simultaneously because we contain good and evil within us, fucking thanks, Darren. But the thriller dedicates itself to realism with a performance of Sarah Lane, who was Portman’s dance double and danced scenes from Swan Lake with Portman taking the credit. Lane, who at the time was a principal with the American Ballet Theatre, is the thing that makes this movie watchable, her dancing doing so much work that it pushes Black Swan in the direction of being enjoyable.

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