How can one episode have both my least favorite and most favorite dance moments? I am catching up on episode 10 of Bunheads, titled A Nutcracker in Paradise, and it proved to be quite a conundrum. It played with my emotions: I was angry, sad, charmed, and amused during the hour. It is the most dance-infused episode of the season and features a lot of the well-known Nutcracker variations including Arabian, Chinese, and Spanish. These are all danced by the same two black dancers, which is important in light of the criticism the series received for being too whitewashed when it premiered. I enjoyed these dancers and wished I could see more of them, as Fanny (the ballet mistress) cut them off with her litany of this week’s complaints. Throughout the episode Sherman-Palladino makes her usual attempt to let the audience know how clever and culturally aware she is, this time through countless movie references that are used to differentiate between dancers who have lives and engage culturally and dancers who don’t. While this is an important point and well-taken by a dancer who believes people produce better work by being well-rounded and culturally aware no matter their discipline, I couldn’t help but feel it came off poorly. This is something I often feel about Sherman-Palladino’s “wittier” writing, so it could just be me and my perception of tone.
The episode opens with Michelle making lots of excuses to Fanny about the “angry rat dance” she was tasked with choreographing. She explains that she “modernized it.” When the dance opened I recognized it immediately as an homage to The Green Table by Kurt Jooss circa 1932. The “rats” or “mice,” as Fanny keeps insisting they be called, are gathered around a table (although it isn’t a green one, thankfully). They strike sharp, angry poses at each other across the table, ending in positions strongly reminiscent of those in the Jooss dance. From there the dance evolves into chasing the Clara character, lots of musical theater-esque leaps and turns, and also features a lot of what I’ll call “extreme dancer face,” or over-exaggerated wild grimaces of facial expressions.
I found this choreography, while technically better and more sound than some of the other bits in the season, to be most aggravating because the writers did not mention Jooss at all. His piece of work was and is groundbreaking to say the least, in terms of strict choreography as well as subject matter. For Michelle to blithely say “I modernized it,” because “they are like Wall Street, get it?” is not good enough. There should have been time to credit Jooss and his incredible contribution to the world, without which this little nugget of choreography most certainly would not exist today. I think thematically the dance fit in the episode, the choreography works well, and it is socially pertinent in today’s culture. It just needed a dedication to the man who paved the way for its creation.
My favorite moment of the season, a Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire tribute danced by Boo and Carl, followed soon after. If you’re not familiar with the characters, Boo is the nicest girl in the dance studio by far and also the taller, heavier-set girl in the bunch. She has possibly the best ballet technique of the studio and shines when she dances. In a previous episode, she replaces Sasha (the skinny, snarky girl with a bad family life, and the studio darling) as Ginger Rogers in a benefit number. When her dance partner quits because he’s a diva and won’t work without Sasha, a character named Carl replaces him. Carl is short, Jewish, funny, sincere, and charming. It turns out he has had a crush on Boo for quite a long time. Boo starts to like Carl back, messes it up, and then (in the current episode) finds herself at the gala opening of the Nutcracker confessing her feelings over a mic to him and the entire audience. After this they share a dance cleverly constructed around and on top of the set. It’s a great setup wonderfully choreographed and filmed, with a lot of Gene Kelly’s influence apparent in the blocking. The two actors are brilliant together, playing off each other’s energy like the real Fred and Ginger. At one point Carl leaps onto a table, grabs a glass of water and takes a drink in professed exhaustion before spinning Boo around and leaping down with her assistance. She, in turn, slides down the bar and extends a hand for him to kiss. I wish I could post a link to the video, but alas, you’ll have to visit ABC Family in order to see it as they have strictly prohibited its upload anywhere else.
The rest of the episode was actually pretty solid, and probably my all-round favorite so far: a “ringer” was called in to play Clara because Sasha had quit a few episodes back. During the performance proper, Michelle and her huge bag of show necessities (all dancers have several of these stockpiled, that much is true), maced all the dancers and then herself accidentally. I belly-laughed out loud at this point, especially when the dancers tried to keep going and fell all over each other in the process. This ruined the performance as a matter of course, and resulted in Michelle’s departure at the end of the episode. This being the season finale, the writers handily placed the characters in a position where we really don’t know where Michelle is headed. Maybe she’ll go on vacation with the young surfer dude character who’s been pursuing her. Maybe she’ll go back to Vegas. One way or another I’m betting she finds her way back to the ballet studio for another season of hi-jinks and banter-filled dialogue. After this finale, I’m intrigued enough to keep watching for awhile.