From December 18, 2020
“But first, a school.” George Balanchine’s famous quotation are the first words we see at the beginning of the first episode of On Pointe, the new documentary series from Disney+ that goes behind the scenes and follows a year in the life of the School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center in New York City, America’s pre-eminent ballet academy.
SAB’s importance to New York City Ballet in particular cannot be underestimated. It may produce almost all of the company’s dancers but its importance goes beyond that. As NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford says, “We wouldn’t have New York City Ballet with the identity it has, without the school.” As 9-year-old student Isabela emphasises, “It is a serious place.”
Shot in cinema vérité form, On Pointe follows students in each of SAB’s divisions through their audition process and training, their home and school lives. Each of the six fifty-minute episodes is filled with testimony from faculty, students and parents as they talk about their hopes and dreams, and indeed fears.
The majority of those studying at SAB are day students aged 6 to 13, from New York City and the Tri-state area. There are around a further 100 intermediate and advanced students, 64 of which live in school residences.
Episode 1, ‘Getting In’, sets the scene and introduces some of the younger and teenage students who will feature in the series. History is never far away. Members of faculty talk proudly about their own experiences, showing photos of themselves as youngsters. SAB Chair of Faculty Kay Mazzo puts stories to several of the pictures, including her memories of auditioning for Nutcracker in Chicago, aged just 8. We also see film of Balanchine rehearsing children for the ballet, a rite of passage for many at the school.
That first programme follows Mazzo and her team into Chinatown, Harlem, Queens and Brooklyn as they audition young children. Around 700 take part, aged 6 to 10, with some 25% taken into the school. Mazzo explains how they look to see if the youngsters might have what it takes. “Ballet is an unforgiving art form. For a 6 and 7-year-old, I can look at their bodies and see if they have what you need to have to study classical ballet.” That’s an arch in the foot, turn out, extension, flexibility, fluidity of movement and musicality.
As for seeing who will go further, Mazzo reckons it takes ten years before you really get an idea. Looking at the advanced students, she says, “You just don’t know until they start maturing a little bit. I always thought I could choose who would be a principal dancer. I have a good idea, but I’m not always right.”
As the focus turns first to Children’s Division students, we see them at first classes and as decisions are made about who will get coveted roles in New York City Ballet’s annual production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at the David H. Koch Theater. There’s still time to drop in on the older ones working seriously towards ballet as a career too, although I expect more focus on them in later programmes.
We catch the youngsters commuting to SAB for classes after school, doing homework on the train or subway, and then in any spare moments they can catch. It’s a trip some make six days a week. Teachers look to start with a clean slate, to “build something from start to finish,” we are told.
As we see the youngsters at home and meet their parents, the diverse make-up of the student roster is clear from the beginning. It’s a real mix of backgrounds and ethnicities. They come from big houses on Long Island and small apartments in the Bronx. And they know their stuff. How nice it is to hear Isabela say that her role model is not a modern-day star but Maria Tallchief. “She was an amazing dancer who was a native American… Because of her, we can all dance now.”
Parents and children discover quickly that there is a fine line between elation and disappointment. The camera drops in on Arch Higgins and Dana Abergel as they watch young students in class and then select those who will appear in The Nutcracker. Although there are places for 126 children in two casts, the reality is that there are not enough roles for all. Some of the youngsters are very honest about their chances. “You really don’t want to be tall,” says one of the girls. As each cut is made, you can see the disappointment etched on faces; parents’ faces too. Balancing hat is the joy of those who get the roles they hope for, and especially those selected to play Marie and The Prince.
The second and third programmes follow the children through rehearsals. There’s a lovely moment when one youngster proudly shows off her Nutcracker pay check. “I’m not totally professional, but in a little bitty way…”
Turning to the older students, we see the Level IV girls receiving their first pair of pointe shoes: a milestone in their dancing life; and an advanced student being offered a much sought after apprenticeship with New York City Ballet.
At all levels, but especially in the senior classes, Mazzo make the point that dedication is so important. “You have to be in there 100%.” And sacrifices are made. The youngsters give up birthday parties, school outings and family events.
Parents and loved ones forego things too. There are huge time and financial commitments. For those whose children move to New York and live in the school’s dorms, there are always worries about whether they are too young to leave home especially for New York City, a very foreign environment for many. There’s also sometimes a sadness at missing out on part of the child’s growing up, even if they are simultaneously helping them fulfil a dream.
Even the most supportive of environments, and SAB is certainly that, will have at least occasional disagreements, upsets, and other issues but, in the first three episodes at least, they remain hidden.
On the technical side, SAB’s focus on Balanchine style is stressed, an approach that can be very different from how students were previously taught. Taela, 15, from New Orleans observes, “Technique is so particular. They want something the way they want it to be done. Dominka, also 15, from Tampa, says, “It’s a very big jump from classical to Balanchine… In Balanchine technique, everything is little sparks of fire… The movement of the hips, the arms, the head, it is all very specific. Most challenging are the details and the movements in between big movements; making it seem clear and seamless.”
On Pointe is not a ‘warts and all’ documentary. I’m sure there are moments when there are issues and things don’t run smoothly. But having been lucky enough to visit SAB on a couple of occasions, to talk with faculty and watch classes, I can say honestly that the school I see in the programmes is the school I visited. The students on film are the delightful young people I met: ordinary in many ways, but very special in many others.
Directed by Larissa Bills, and with the critically acclaimed and award-winning Ron Howard one of the Executive Producers, it should be no surprise that On Pointe is beautifully made.
If you love ballet and a looking for a distraction from the usual Christmas broadcasts of full-length works, On Pointe is just the job.
On Pointe is on Disney+ from December 18, 2020.