For those looking for some ballet action after the fall ABT season and before the start of numerous Nutcrackers, check out “city ballet” on AOL On, a documentary series that follows several New York City Ballet dancers in their professional lives. The format is documentary-style footage mixed with interviews and, unlike the CW Network series “Breaking Pointe,” focuses on ballet rather than on dancers’ personal lives. The first city.ballet season consists of 12 segments, each running approximately six minutes.
(My website notmydayjobphotography.com has more photos of New York City Ballet dancer curtain calls.)
The first segment provides an introduction. Artistic Director Peter Martins is an imposing figure, someone you wouldn’t want to mess with if you are his subordinate as he says “Complacency does not exist at New York City Ballet and if it does it’s…” and with an indifferent look, he waves “bye bye.” The segment captures the high-octane raw energy of the company with scenes from company class accompanied by heavy metal thrash music. “They tell you, do it as big as you can and I will tell you when it is too much,” says Principal Dancer Ashley Bouder. “Pushing you to be faster and more musical, just like the city,” adds Principal Dancer Joaquin De Luz. The segment also introduces the hierarchy of dancers in a ballet company: Apprentice, Corps, Soloist, and Principal Dancer. The pressure never subsides as the apprentices struggle to get into the company, Corps members attempt to keep up with the heavy dance load, Soloists try to find their place in advanced roles and move on to the Principal rank, and finally to Principal Dancers as they face the intense scrutiny and expectations of perfection in difficult lead roles such as Swan Lake.
The second segment focuses on the challenges and insecurities of the apprentices, their every move scrutinized to determine whether they have what it takes to advance. Just making it to the apprentice level is a great accomplishment, but advancing further is an even greater challenge. “Apprentices that don’t get a contract (to become a Corps member) that is it, that was your one chance,” Martins says. The apprentices find out if they make it into the company as a Corps member at the end of the company’s Saratoga summer season. The documentary focuses on Silas Farley and Claire von Enck as they eagerly await their meeting with Martins that will determine their fate. “Now the work begins,” says Martins as both make it into the company and face the daily challenges of learning numerous Corps roles quickly.
Soloists are in a no man’s land, “purgatory” according to one dancer, not dancing as much as Corps members and just getting a taste of principal roles. Some are young, at the beginning of their careers as they anticipate bright futures, while some like 34-year-old Craig Hall are in the twilight of their careers, pondering next steps after ballet.
Ashley Bouder, Sara Mearns, and Amar Ramasar are featured in the Principal Dancer segment. The segment on Amar is the highlight as he recounts his growing up in the Bronx, taking classes at School of American Ballet (SAB) while Ashley and Sarah document the pain a dancer goes through, relying on a daily Advil regimen as the camera shows Sara’s swollen and bruised toes.
The segment on relationships reveals the family nature of the company as a number of members are linked by family or marriage: Jared/Tyler Angle, Megan/Robert Fairchild, Abi/Jonathan Stafford; in addition, Megan is married to Andrew Veyette and Tiler Peck is engaged to Robert Fairchild. The piece explains that ballet is an insular world and it can be difficult to make friends outside of ballet. One dancer explains that after a long day of class and rehearsal, the last thing she wants to do is go to a bar to meet people. The closeted nature of the business and the fact that the selection process for dancers results in a company filled with beautiful people makes the company fertile ground for relationships.
Breakups are an inevitable result of relationships, which can be difficult when the former pair must work in close quarters. A dancer remarks, “If you are going to get into a relationship with a co-worker, you better be able to figure it out when you end it.” Veyette comes across as down to earth, irreverent, and funny throughout the documentary as he sits next to his wife Megan and says “We got married because I could not deal with how awkward it was going to be if we broke up, having to see her every day.”
Another interesting segment focuses on the male dancers and their experiences growing up as young dancers. Robert Fairchild recounts how awful it was to be teased as boys saw him dancing at a dance studio; Amar on how difficult it was for his former Marine father living in the Bronx to understand his choice to take up dance. Chase Finley’s strategy was to take the offensive and tease back, explaining to confrontational boys that wearing ballet tights and dancing with beautiful girls beats wearing wrestling tights and grabbing guys. Always irreverent, Veyette says “I walked into a ballet studio and saw the male/female ratio and I said ‘sign me up’” as Megan smiles and rolls her eyes.
I enjoyed the series as it gave me a better idea of the day-to-day struggles facing dancers in a high-level ballet company. Like most ballet audience members, I only see the dancers from a distance of 50 feet when they are on stage and don’t fully appreciate the effort and sacrifices they make. The series is also successful at humanizing the dancers; knowing something about the dancers will make my experience watching them onstage richer.
My suggestions for topics in future seasons: (1) the process of developing a new ballet and working with a choreographer, (2) dancers’ experiences transitioning out of ballet, (3) detail on the company school SAB.
The only cost of watching the series is having to listen to an irritating Citibank commercial at the beginning of each segment about a young girl urging her father to get tickets to a Katy Perry concert. Can’t Citibank rotate commercials?