OBSESSED WITH: Ballet! Seriously, Why Are Ballerinas So Fascinating?

The only thing better than ballet being in is creepy ballet being in.
Publish date:
January 30, 2013
television, ballet, drama, obsessed

When I was laid up after surgery last summer, one awesome thing happened: I had all the time in the world to watch ballet shows, and I took glorious advantage of that time along with the ability to run free in a trial Netflix account. (I’m too cheap to actually sign up for Netflix, but I don’t mind abusing a trial account for a month now and then.)

It started because my friend abby made me watch “Make It Or Break It” and I ran out of episodes and wanted something that would feed my need for young women in leotards committing fantastic feats of bodily strength, grace, and agility. Then I stumbled on “Dance Academy,” out of Australia, and quivered with delight through the stock of its episodes, and I was unspeakably excited when The CW ran “Breaking Pointe” and “Bunheads” was picked up on ABC.

Basically, it was a vicarious ballet fiend’s dream, like everyone had seen “Black Swan” and decided ballet was in. Was it ever really out, though? I mean, really. I cannot be the only person in the world who wanted to be a ballet dancer when I grew up, and who even went to some classes as a kid before discovering that, bluntly, I didn’t have it.

Not just the body type, but also the coordination, the dedication, and the sheer bloody-mindedness for the discipline. Ballet is serious business, and it starts at a seriously young age; if you want an example of how high pressure, cutthroat and demanding it can be, check out “First Position.”

It's not a fascination everyone shares; as Marianne points out, being a fat kid means that “it was assumed that I would have no interest in dance, much less ballet,” which tells you a lot about how we relate to children and bodies and art.

But ballet is strangely compelling for a lot of people, which explains why ballet drama is such an enduring genre. There's something about watching people sacrifice everything for art that gets some of us all hot and bothered.


So I’m not surprised that Starz is the latest to pirouette out of the wings with a “gritty ballet drama” that is apparently going to be in the vein of “Black Swan,” “Center Stage,” and “The Red Shoes.” Less “Billy Elliot” and “Dance Academy,” in other words.

It’s kind of totally fitting for Starz, which is That Kind of Network if you know what I mean and I think you do. (Speaking of which, I’m not even sure we want to know what HBO would do with the time-tested ballet drama genre; actually, wait, I totally want to know. Someone at HBO needs to get on this immediately.)

The team includes producers from “Kill Bill” and “Breaking Bad,” so if this doesn’t end up being a blood-soaked meth-cooking ballerina death-spiral mashup, I am going to be severely disappointed. There had better also be a shitton of dance, because this is my main complaint about a lot of dance shows: too much blathering, not enough dancing. Give me guts, glory, and a grand jeté or seven, people.

Don’t forget that dance itself can be creepy and compelling within a drama; remember Summer Glau dancing in “Waiting in the Wings”? That was creepy.

The only thing better than ballet being in is creepy ballet being in, because ballet is actually super-creepy. Like, you see all these people flitting around on stage in tutus doing these absurd lifts and spinning around so much it makes you dizzy and you think to yourself that here is an amazing art form, and you can appreciate it as a beautiful and fantastic thing. But there's all this stuff happening behind the scenes to create that, and some of that shit is BANANAS, people.

There’s a reason we view ballet dancers “as superheroes,” as Helena, our resident ballet expert, put it to me this morning. It’s because they kind of are. Behind every amazing stage performance is hours of rehearsals filled with pain, long hours, and the drama that happens when you have a big group of hyperfocused people working in close quarters for extended periods of time.

And there are the years of training before that, committed to from a very young age, that you have to go through just to be able to audition for major dance companies, let alone perform at War Memorial or the Met.


And the ballet world has some serious drama going on. The current situation with the Bolshoi is actually starting to look a lot like a soap opera, and I am dying to see it sneakily (or not-so-sneakily) integrated into a ballet drama, because it’s begging for television adaptation.

For those just tuning in, there’s been trouble brewing at the Bolshoi -- Russia’s “national treasure” -- for months now, as accusations of corruption, greed, and more have been swirling around the organization. On 17 January, the company’s artistic director, Sergei Filin, was attacked with acid while returning home from an event. That was after a series of threats, escalating scary phone calls, and pleas for a personal security team.

As the ballet master at one of the most prestigious companies in the world, he had the ability to make or break careers, and he knew it. When Filin took over at the Bolshoi, it was already struggling with internal issues, and his attempt to get experimental with more modern productions raised hackles. So of course, the natural response was to attack him with acid, an act which a “Spiegel” feature on the tangled situation at the Bolshoi notes was designed to “destroy him” by attacking his looks, targeting the thing that is most precious to dancers.

So yeah, real-world ballet is every bit as filled with melodrama as fictional companies on television and the silver screen, and I’m really kind of disgustingly excited about the Starz production. I can only hope that there will be more epic drama in the true spirit of the darkness behind the stage curtains; the experience on either side of the curtain is radically different, as we can see in this amazing and intimate photo set shot by Henry Leutwyler.

Please tell me I am not the only one looking forward to this. And then tell me all about your favorite ballet drama. Or ballet. Or dancer. WHATEVER.