Raising the barre: Disney’s On Pointe puts the bounce back into ballet | Dance
The antidote to tales of the ballet world’s dark underbelly – Black Swan, Netflix’s soapy new thriller Tiny Pretty Things – is On Pointe, a Disney documentary about students at New York’s prestigious School of American Ballet (SAB). Whether following eight-year-olds dashing across the tri-state area after school to cram in nightly lessons or teenage full-timers who obsess about dancing with New York City Ballet (NYCB), the show does not stint on the graft required or the sacrifices (not least of the parents ferrying around their charges).
But On Pointe champions the good news stories, the winners, those seeing their dreams coming true. And it makes a point of showing the solidarity the exists among the dancers who seem genuinely proud when, for example, one of their classmates gets a coveted apprenticeship at NYCB. There’s no back-stabbing here (at least, not in the final edit).
On Pointe is great PR for SAB, which had to deal with an abuse and harassment scandal two years ago. Needless to say that’s not mentioned here. Instead we see the students being schooled in nutrition and discussing mental health, issues mostly ignored in the past but standard in dance training now. And we meet the well-adjusted, modest and hard-working dancers. Their dedication and discipline are enormously admirable but you might also feel envious of how lucky they are: to love ballet beyond anything and to have the talent and the opportunity to do it every day, surrounded by people who love it as much as you. That’s not a hard life, that’s living your joy. As Lucy Mangan wrote in her review: “Monomania allied to proper talent brings, it is clear, rewards like no other.”
The tunnel vision that ballet demands at its top level can create a culture that seems set apart from the real world and in awe of icons past. The staff reminisce reverently about George Balanchine, the founder of NYCB and SAB and the architect of a style that pushed bodies to be faster, bolder, sleeker (also thinner). He was a genius, no doubt, but is cult-like veneration ever healthy? In ballet – and we’re not just talking about Balanchine here – it’s certainly part of the reason the art form sometimes struggles to change and to shift away from outdated traditions.
On which subject, On Pointe takes pains to show SAB’s endeavours to diversify its intake. The staff go into schools to find potential students who might not otherwise think of applying. And they find them. One scene shows the teachers in raptures over the arch of a girl’s foot – and with its steep curve to the floor, it is, in ballet terms, an absolutely beautiful foot. The truth is, for all the hard labour, the body you’re born with is what matters most.
The studio may be becoming more culturally diverse but skin tone aside, all the bodies lined up at the barre look pretty much the same. Among the advanced students, your eyes are immediately drawn to 17-year-old Zoe, a delicately framed, long-necked, pretty teenager whose proportions scream “ballerina”. When there are whispers that someone has been awarded an apprenticeship, it is no surprise who that is. That’s what ballet requires; and the rights and wrongs of that are a whole different documentary.
On Pointe does touch on some of the obstacles in the students’ paths – such as the financial demands of dance training in which students can go through three pairs of $49 pointe shoes every week. Nine-year-old Isabella lives in the Bronx, her family loving and supportive but not rich. Her debut on the Lincoln Center stage awaits but she has never seen a live ballet herself. The cheapest ticket, at $95, “would pay for a couple of bills around here,” says stepdad Luis. (It is worth noting that you can frequently see the Royal Ballet in London for a fiver.)
Then there are injuries, which can cut a career dead before it has started. There’s one telling shot of five girls wearing orthopedic moon boots. And calm, serious, 16-year-old Sam, who’s doubting his future because of a fractured foot. These themes are dealt with lightly; we don’t get close to one of the major experiences for any aspiring dancer: failure. There’s detailed coverage of the epic casting process of the children’s roles in NYCB’s annual Nutcracker, but no lingering on those who don’t get through. This is kinder to the kids involved and more uplifting, but certainly airbrushed. As someone who once failed her own childhood Nutcracker audition and sobbed inconsolably in the dressing room, I can tell you the pain is real.
But even if On Pointe does not offer the whole story, it does deliver a warm and engrossing insight into the lives of these young dancers. And it is good, for once, to overrule the dark and twisted stereotypes that ballet dramas love so much.