I remember when ballet was all about bucking up, scraping shillings together for shoes and sharing ribbons, with parts going to whoever had the most vivid eyes and bounciest hair. Simpler times. Of course, that may be because my sole exposure to the world of ballet was via Noel Streatfeild’s prewar masterpiece Ballet Shoes. Looking back, I can see that the novel’s tale of Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil’s trials and tribulations at the Madame Fidolia School of Plucky Young Things, wherein hard work, honesty and the occasional intervention from Nana solved most problems, probably wasn’t an accurate portrayal of the world of elite dancers, even in 1936.
It certainly wasn’t preparation enough for Tiny Pretty Things, the new Netflix series – adapted from books by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton – about the gruelling, ruthless, hypercompetitive world of a Manhattan dance academy dedicated to turning out Pavlovas and Nijinskys by the dozen, no matter how many stress fractures, cortisol injections and binge-purge cycles it takes. Though the necrotic toenails are perhaps the worst. If I never see one of those being peeled off again in full-colour closeup it will be too soon.
These, then, are the true horrors of Tiny Pretty Things, at least for the uninitiated. The characters are more concerned with the fact that in the opening scenes of the show one of their number – star pupil Cassie Shore (Anna Maiche) – stumbles, or is pushed, during a scuffle with a hooded figure on the school roof and falls four storeys to the pavement below. In her stead comes new girl Neveah Stroyer (Kylie Jefferson, a trained ballet dancer in real life who just happens to be able to hold her own as the lead in a big drama series, her first acting role. America, you have to tell us how you do this).
And let us further note, in a seasonal burst of happiness, that Jefferson trained – as the youngest student ever accepted – at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. Debbie Allen played the mesmerising Lydia Grant in Fame, exhorting all her students aiming for glory to “start paying … in sweat”. Tiny Pretty Things is a mono-discipline version of that 80s beacon and will doubtless stir in adolescent breasts the yearning to BE something in much the same way that its predecessor did – though in these fragmented times, it’s unlikely to become the cultural phenomenon that the kids from the High School of Performing Arts in New York were. Or do as much for pointe shoes as they did for legwarmers.
In many ways, Tiny Pretty Things is a Bunty story made into TV. Neveah turns out to be stunningly talented, despite being from the wrong side of the tracks (though not as wrong as the academy’s PR department claims) and not properly trained, and throws the whole nicely established pecking order into disarray.
Bette Whitlaw (Casimere Jollette) is the queen bee from the Waspiest of Wasp families, with an older sister who has just been made principal dancer and is (unBuntyishly) sleeping with director Ramon on her own terms. Bette is keenest to guard her position and her privilege from Neveah’s commoner depredations. Or is she? For coming up on the inside is June (Daniela Norman), who has reason to engage in underhand tactics to protect herself, as her mother has no love for the dance, and will take June out of the academy if she fails to garner the lead role in the girls’ next showcase.
The first episode’s final “twist” will be no surprise for those who know the rules of voiceover, unless they have been distracted by the script, which sounds as if it has been typed by ballerinas with their feet at the end of a very hard day at the barre. “The piece is in you,” says Ramon (in between receiving anonymous texts telling him they know what he did), “I am just drawing it out!” You may find yourself spontaneously plie-ing in embarrassment.
Overall, it’s fun. A comic-book story with a grim modern edge is about right for our current headspace. You can fast-forward through the dance bits or the narrative bits as taste dictates and probably improve your viewing experience. But I hope the sweat expended by the youngsters in uniformly excellent performances brings them all every kind of success.