Getting to Know “Bunheads”

Being in between jobs, I’m constantly in need of things to fill my time.  Today I caught up on the new ABC Family show Bunheads, a drama that revolves loosely around a ballet studio in Paradise, California.  Although ballet has always been the Western European concert dance style of choice in America (not to mention most of the rest of the world), it seems like the ballet craze has gotten even stronger of late.  I recently watched a new documentary, First Position, that follows a few young ballet dancers competing for scholarships and spots in dance companies at the Youth America Grand Prix, which yes, is a thing.  And it seems ballet has reached its popularity zenith with the CW’s new and cringeworthily-titled reality show, Breaking Pointe.

All this comes on the heels of years of So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Best Dance Crew, and other competition talent shows.  On these shows, I have a near-impossible time classifying what I see as “dance art.”  I choose to dub it “dance sport” instead, owing to the fact that the routines bear more resemblance to a cheer competition or gymnastics floor routine than a profound piece etched onto the surface of America’s soul like Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring.  And yes, that is the harsh standard by which I judge artistic endeavors, regardless of genre.  To me, someone slamming out tons of fouetté en tournant before crawling on the floor like a tormented animal will never be art, no matter the performer’s technical level.  This is flash, this is kitsch, this is virtuosity to no end.  In the words of a great hip hop teacher of mine, this is definitely notfresh.

So when I heard about Bunheads, I knew what it would be before I watched it.  I just knew it.  Inside my mind, I could see tiny prima donnas whirling about, perfectly pointed feet attached to perfectly whittled bodies, producing feats the rest of us can barely dream about.  May I say, it’s nice to be proven wrong once in awhile.  Bunheads is a light flight of fancy, yes.  At times its characters behave in ways real people never would, so that there can be a gag that in the past would have been laugh-tracked.  But where it works, it really works, and that’s in the dancing, so far.

The four young dancers are definitely just that: young dancers.  Each is a fresh face full of hopes and dreams of becoming a pro.  There’s Boo, the studio’s self-professed heavy girl; Sasha, the one with the perfect ballet body; Ginny, the top-heavy one; and Melanie, also perfect-bodied but lacking in interest.  These girls quite neatly tie up a lot of what goes on with young ballet students, and if they happen to be a little one-dimensional at first it’s to be expected.  The series has done a little fleshing out of at least Boo and Sasha thus far, so perhaps it’s only a matter of time.  The real beauty of the casting lies in the fact that each girl is actually a technically accomplished, yet imperfect, dancer.

The series hasn’t shied away from bringing up tough topics, either.  There’s a lot going on about eating of course, because you can’t do a ballet show without body image issues getting in the way.  Boo is the natural vessel: episode 4 features a fairly disturbing scene with her mother, an overweight woman herself, as the two are shopping at a farmer’s market.  Boo is attempting to eat extremely healthily in the few weeks before a Joffrey summer school audition, hoping to suddenly drop enough weight to be taken seriously by the auditioners.  Her mother sends a lovely message when she tells her daughter “You are in perfect shape.  You are perfect.”  Unfortunately, this sentiment comes right on the heels of some strongly disordered-eating statements.  When told Boo won’t stop her from buying dark chocolate peanut butter cups, she pleads, “But it’s more fun if we eat it together.”  My mother struggles with an overeating disorder, and when she says things like that, I am put in an incredibly difficult position.  Partially as a result of this, I deal with the process of reprogramming my relationship to food every day.  I think there must be a way to write that demonstrates to young girls that healthy eating can be a fun, everyday thing, and that their bodies are lovely the way they are, without advocating either anorexia or overeating.  This is close, but not there yet.

But what of the dancing?  The back story of the lead matriarch, Fanny Flowers (a terrible name or what?), is that of a young ballet ingenue accepted into Ballet Russe at age 16.  After a short career as a soloist, she fell in love, got pregnant, and the man ran away, leaving her to raise her child alone.  She does the natural thing and opens a ballet studio, which for all appearances is quite well-known and successful.  Fanny’s life is shaken up when her son returns home from a “business trip” to Vegas with a new wife, ex-chorus dancer Michelle Simms, who as it turns out danced at ABT and was accepted into the company at 17.  Michelle has lost her way entirely, and things go from bad to worse when her new husband dies in a freakish car accident.  At his memorial service in episode 2, the dancers plan and then perform a number to a Tom Waits song that Michelle found in her late husband’s CD player.  This was the first full-fledged dance number that had appeared on the show (and in 4 episodes, the only), and I was intrigued.  In this moment of truth, where would the dancing fall on the scale from classical to contemporary/competition dance?

What the dance delivered is what I’ll refer to as modern ballet.  It was a simple number that gave solo time to Sasha and Boo while nicely integrating the rest of the dancers.  The movement flows nicely, flawlessly integrating modern upper bodies with curved arms or rounded spines on top of classical ballet lower bodies, channeling equal parts Cunningham and Balanchine for an overall effect of timeless charm.  I advise watching the number a few times over, because at least the first two viewings will be devoted to watching the foreground, and the background is not to be missed.  I think this dance fits nicely in the Bunheads universe as the creation of a dance school that comes from a Ballet Russe lineage, which is made up of incredibly modern ballets like The Rite of Spring.  It is natural that these dancers would put together this piece, and they dance it with just the right amounts of joy and reverence.

I’ve gone on long enough for now.  I’ll keep watching the show, and when things strike my interest, I’ll post.  I’m looking forward to seeing more choreography, because where that goes will strongly indicate what tone the show is going to strike in regards to the real-world dance community.  Some of the strongest moments in the series thus far have been centered on dancing, and I hope that focus keeps growing.

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2 responses to “Getting to Know “Bunheads”

  1. It is interesting to hear your take on the show. I have recently been watching another ABC Family show (via Netflix, since the show’s run on TV is over) called “Make it or Break it” about 4 young women who are elite gymnasts attempting to make it to the Olympics. While the show can be a little over dramatic and afternoon special-y, I’m enjoying watching the gymnastics. I’ve been wondering if the girls featured on the show are actual gymnasts and your comments on another ABC Family show make me think that they probably are. I’m also now interested in trying out “Bunheads.”

    I’ve always wanted to ask an actual dancer their opinion on “So You Think You Can Dance.” I can understand your comments and agree with them. But, do you think that the dancing on the show, though it is more showy and kitschy, is still technically good dancing? I’ve always enjoyed watching it because it gives me a chance to see quality dance performances I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to see, and that includes guest performers like Alvin Ailey.

    • A lot of dancers I meet really enjoy “So You Think You Can Dance.” I do too, I just don’t think much of it is ART. I think the dancers are incredible but I don’t think they are being used in an artistic manner. The thing about asking companies to perform, like Alvin Ailey, is great and only happened a few seasons ago. I think that massively improves the show’s ART quotient. I suppose, for me, it comes down to this simple question: is the movement necessary for the piece or not? If the answer is yes, that is the movement the piece is demanding, then it should go in. But if the answer is no, not really, but it looks really f-ing cool when I do it, then LEAVE IT OUT! That’s not art. Most of “So You Think You Can Dance” choreography falls into the latter category, and why not? They are trying to show off and win the competition. Sadly, that means they have to show they can do more turns, higher leaps, bigger extensions, than the other candidates. It doesn’t mean they have to be more artistic or craft meaningful pieces of dance better than the other participants. I think it SHOULD mean that, but then again, the show is called “So You Think You Can DANCE,” not “So You Think You Can CHOREOGRAPH.” Also, I don’t think much of the dancing is actually choreographed by the candidates themselves, which adds another interesting layer to this debate. Basically the LA music video conglomerate is providing choreographers and telling them what to do, or at least what kind of things to do and what notes to hit. This makes it a lot like ice skating or gymnastics, where the athletes have to pick from categories of skills during competition. And those are SPORTS. They are artistically-oriented sports, yes, but still sports. And I would argue “SYTYCD” is therefore also an artistically-oriented sport.

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