Is Netflix’s dark, sexy ballet show realistic? We asked SF dancers.

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In Netflix’s new series “Tiny Pretty Things,” the Archer School of Ballet is full of oversexed teenagers snorting cocaine in saunas and lying to police about the night the lead dancer was pushed off the roof of their school. Every scene unveils a new scandal, and the show does not shy away from soap opera theatrics: there are absolutely no tongues in cheeks at Archer.

Based on a novel of the same name, “Tiny Pretty Things” enlisted actors with dance backgrounds to give it a professional look, but how true is it to the real-life world of ballet? According to Bay Area ballet dancers, that’s a complicated question.

“The show gets a lot of things right, but like in any TV drama, the drama factor is amped up to like a hundred,” says Jacob Seltzer, a dancer with the San Francisco Ballet. He never attended a boarding school-style academy like the one in the show, but came up through equally rigorous programs. He says the sex, which is nearly as acrobatic as the dancing, is an exaggeration, as is the sensual chemistry between dance partners. However, the trope of the lecherous choreographer explored in the show is very real, as proven by several recent high profile revelations that have shocked the dance world both locally and nationally.

Casimere Jollette plays Bette Whitlaw in Netflix's

Casimere Jollette plays Bette Whitlaw in Netflix’s “Tiny Pretty Things.”

Sophie Giraud/Netflix

“Between dancers, there’s an expectation of professionalism. We’re working to create an art form. For most of us, it has much less to do with our bodies, and more about the art that we’re making. I don’t think any of us are thinking along those lines. Choreographers, on the other hand, can be very sexually inappropriate — it’s almost a stereotype,” says Seltzer.

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In the show, the young dancers fight through injuries with the help of painkillers obtained illegally and somehow trick their staff doctor into believing their toes aren’t broken. This is unfortunately fairly true to life.

“That’s one of the things within this film that I felt was the least dramatized, how far people push themselves to keep dancing,” says Seltzer. “People will do much worse than that.”

Lindsey Salvadalena, the artistic director at the Bay Area Ballet Conservatory, agrees.

“That’s actually very realistic. I think that is a really prominent issue that dancers aren’t being smart with their injuries. They’re just thinking of this role that’s in front of them… dancers may get a cortisone shot or take too many ibuprofen and just kind of push themselves through the pain when they really should be resting and taking time off.”

Damon J Gillespie, Casimere Jollette, Barton Cowperthwaite and Brenna Clost star in Netflix's

Damon J Gillespie, Casimere Jollette, Barton Cowperthwaite and Brenna Clost star in Netflix’s “Tiny Pretty Things.”

Sophie Giraud/Netflix

In addition to physical injuries, the show also tackles body dysmorphic disorder. Many characters in the show barely eat, and feel shameful when they do. Pop culture more often associates this with women, but the show depicts a male dancer who struggles with an eating disorder, which both Salvadalena and Seltzer noted as important.

“One thing that really stuck out to me that I’ve never seen showcased in other ballet productions for film or TV was how they addressed male body image in ballet…” says Seltzer. “That’s something that I know male dancers have experienced, and something I myself have flirted with on occasion. Not to that extent, but body image for male dancers isn’t something that’s talked about.”

Damon J. Gillespie and Michael Hsu Rosen star in Netflix's

Damon J. Gillespie and Michael Hsu Rosen star in Netflix’s “Tiny Pretty Things.”

Sophie Giraud/Netflix

As far as mental pressures, the show depicts a dog-eat-dog environment where literally any of the characters could have been the one who tried to kill the lead dancer (the prime suspect shifts in every episode). The catty “Mean Girls”-esque environment does exist at times, but manslaughter is a stretch.

“There’s this saying that is generations old: ‘Watch out, they might put glass in your pointe shoes,’” recounts Salvadalena. “It’s historic that all dancers have heard of that, but it’s just a myth, like ‘watch your back.’ But I at least have never encountered anything like that, or heard of anything like that happening.”

Adds Seltzer, “Competition, it’s always there. There’s never going to be a day where you don’t realize the person standing next to you could have your spot…” he says. “At least at my experience in San Francisco Ballet School, people wouldn’t be conniving to sabotage each other directly.”

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In terms of some of the professional dance details, there are certainly elements that didn’t ring true. A dancer would never complain to an instructor about their choice of partner or give another student choreography tips outside of class. In one scene, a female dancer misses her mark and slips through her male partner’s arms to crash to the floor. She’s blamed for the error, but in classical ballet, the male would always take fault for dropping his partner. Another scene shows a wide-eyed dancer walking onto a theater stage in sneakers in a moment between rehearsals, which would earn her a reprimand.

Kylie Jefferson and Barton Cowperthwaite in Netflix's

Kylie Jefferson and Barton Cowperthwaite in Netflix’s “Tiny Pretty Things.”

Sophie Giraud/Netflix

When it comes to the actual quality of the dancing, the people we spoke to had differing points of view. Salvadalena credited the choreographer for realism and cites it as some of the better dancing she’s seen on screen, but Seltzer felt like the technique didn’t ring true for elite performers in their late teens who are on the cusp of professional jobs.

“The show does not do much to inform people to the possibilities of high-quality ballet,” says Seltzer. “That being said, they are still competent dancers… I’m sure they focus on acting as well.”

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