Sunday in the Park
June 1, 2012
Pretty much, I can’t stand reality television shows. After the novelty of the first season of, maybe, "Survivor," I had no patience for the whole premise.
Until last night.
If you missed the first episode of "Breaking Pointe" on the CW channel, you can watch it on Monday. Filmed in Salt Lake City in February by the BBC, it puts the spotlight on the behind-the-curtain lives of a group of dancers from Ballet West. It has Salt Lake City looking a bit edgy and big city-ish, complete with fisheye shots of TRAX and hip little boutiques and trendy bars and pulsating nightlife. Honest.
In the first episode, we are introduced to eight dancers of different ages and attitudes and levels of skill. It is the time of the annual renewal (or not) of contracts that will hold dancers in the company, elevate them, or release them to work elsewhere.
There are two couples among the eight. The dancers range from 19 to 32 with manly men and fragile, bird-like women. Artistic director Adam Sklute (formerly of the Joffrey Ballet Company) is a thoughtful, kind director who must balance empathy with what is best for the overall company. Or, as he says, "They are all special and they are all expendable."
The BBC has captured not the dark Black-Swan-crazy-pants-dancer but rather the very gritty, uncertain and complicated life of real dancers. Our dancers, from the premier company in the Intermountain West, who will be performing "The Nutcracker" in the Kennedy Center this holiday season. And in an "industry" where just existing is a constant struggle between finding the money to pay the dancers to perform for uncertain audiences who will (or won’t) pay for tickets to support those elegant productions, well, it is all a very delicate balance.
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From "The Red Shoes" to "The Turning Point" and "A Chorus Line" and everything in between, dancers and their sacrifice for beauty in an art form have been a mystery and an attraction to audiences. We love the familiar performances, of course, of "Swan Lake" or "The Nutcracker." And we either embrace modern choreography or we resist it. It is a challenge every day for artistic directors to balance predictability with the exploratory and contemporary.
In the first episode of "Breaking Pointe" we watch a dancer not invited back for another season pack her beat-up suitcase filled with toes shoes and costumes to head to Idaho to audition there, at her own expense. One dancer says something about "relationships and rivalries" and you feel at once how very intimate and insular this tireless world of artists is.
Decades ago, when I worked at this paper, I was at a function for Ballet West where I was at a table filled with people I didn’t know, save for my then-husband. It was an uncomfortable evening. I listened to all the table mates talk with a level of authority about the company.
Fueled by beverage and bad banquet food, I turned to the beautiful young woman next to me and asked if she danced. A hush fell over the table. She was polite and said yes.
"In what capacity?" I continued. Her eyes turned to ice and she replied with measured superiority, "I am the prima ballerina."
I think I replied something like, "Oh, so you get to dance a lot?" There might have been a guttural sound that escaped her lips as she nodded and returned to her partner for discussion.
I honestly had no idea about the whole hierarchy of dance. I never took lessons. We weren’t that kind of people. My mother never took me to a ballet, nor did my school. The first ballet I saw was "The Nutcracker" in San Francisco, when I took my own small children to witness the wonder, and I left just as enchanted as they did. I have had good fortune to have introduced their children to "The Nutcracker" in Salt Lake City. The transformative power of dance isn’t just with the dancer but with some luck, it is with the audience.
And now, I am able to help select dance to bring to Park City ballet, modern, a kind of cirque, and some forms that defy description. A few seasons back we brought Ballet West to introduce its newest choreography, pieces still being tried out on the ballet world. The program is called "Innovations" and it happens in Salt Lake City each spring.
When it happened in our theater we had a posse of folks who had come down from Wyoming to see it. I have no idea how this group came to be. There were large men in cowboy hats and pretty ladies in high heels. And when those Ballet West dancers finished a piece, they were whooping and hollering and tossing their hats like they were at a rodeo or a rock concert. It was one of my all-time favorite nights of dance, anywhere, ever.
Understanding a bit about how those dancers train and isolate and discipline themselves is a reality show based on serious reality, to reflect upon any day like Sunday in the Park …
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.