Arts and Entertainment

“On Pointe”: Behind the Scenes at the Ballet

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Issue 9, Volume 111

By Zoe Buff 

Students. Dancers. The athletes of Lincoln Center and the stars of an exclusive look behind-the-scenes at a preeminent ballet school in the U.S.

“On Pointe,” a documentary series directed and produced by Larissa Bills and released on Disney+ on December 18, tells the stories of several dancers, ages seven to 18, training at the School of American Ballet (SAB), a ballet school affiliated with the New York City Ballet (NYCB) at Lincoln Center. The crew planned to film throughout the year, but due to the city-wide COVID-19 lockdown in March, the series primarily focuses on what occurred at SAB in the fall.

The docuseries spans six episodes, each highlighting a different aspect of life at SAB in both the children’s and the advanced divisions, showing the audience how students train. Young dancers in the children’s division spend the fall preparing for NYCB’s production of “The Nutcracker,” while teenagers in the intermediate and advanced division work to secure a career in dance. George Balanchine, a choreographer and father of American ballet, founded the school in hopes of training children to dance in his ballets. Throughout the series, the students and faculty explain his ballet style, distinct in its precision and sharp movements.

All the intermediate and advanced lessons are conducted on pointe: the students wear pointe shoes to help them dance on their toes. How they dance is graceful and clear-cut, the defining features of the Balanchine ballet style. Outside the studio, the students are giddy and animated, eager to share stories about their lives. The series focuses on the tight-knit community among the young dancers alongside their performances, proving that they are, in some ways, just like other normal NYC teenagers.

“On Pointe” provides an inside look at the inner workings of this prestigious institution. It is rare that those outside the dance world get to see what life is like inside SAB, especially the audition process. Every year, children, ages six to 10, try out for a spot in the school, and the filmmakers were able to show two SAB staff members traveling all over the city to audition hundreds of kids. Another exclusive look the series captures is the audition process for “The Nutcracker”; the filmmakers juxtapose the anxiety of SAB parents in the waiting room with the tension in the audition room, generally witnessed by only the two children’s repertory directors and the pianist.

Most ballet documentaries don’t center on roles children have in various productions. Focusing on the young dancers’ performance of “The Nutcracker,” the filmmakers created a fresh, unique approach that draws the attention of audience members of all ages, especially parents and their children. Throughout the fall season, the docuseries captures the excitement, tension, and craziness of a backstage experience at NYCB. Audience members get to watch over 100 children dance on one of the most world-renowned ballet stages in the world, in a theater comparable to the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia and the Paris Opera Ballet in France.

In addition to honing in on what occurs at SAB, the docuseries reveals what the children’s lives are like at home, outside of the studio. A few SAB families allowed the filmmakers to follow them home and interview them, capturing the hour-long commutes of several children who live in different boroughs, as well as how the older, advanced students spend their time when they’re not busy training or dancing in class. There are multiple interviews in which the students explain what drew them to the dance world and, in the case of the older dancers, why they decided to go all the way.

For the younger dancers, stress comes from the question of whether or not they will be invited back to the school, while the older, advanced students, have to worry about their future. While Stuyvesant students worry about their college applications, teenage dancers at SAB are securing a career in dance. They are driven by one goal only: getting an apprenticeship with NYCB, and if they don’t, they turn their attention to other ballet companies. All the in-depth “behind the scenes” segments allow the audience to appreciate the effort that SAB students put into their work and understand how the future stars of ballet survive in a high-pressure setting. The docuseries demonstrates this especially well by telling the story of one dancer in the advanced division who loses months of training due to a foot injury, and by following other advanced students across the country, to as far as Seattle, to emphasize how much they had to sacrifice to leave their homes to train at SAB in New York.

Though SAB had to shut down as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak in March, the series was able to capture snippets of dancing life at home. The SAB students managed to set up mini-studios for themselves—this filmmakers show to highlight the unwavering commitment of the ballet students—but both the children and parents admitted that it wasn’t the same as interacting with other dancers in the studio. The dramatic shift to Zoom lessons is made all the more evident, since most of the six episodes were filmed in-person, demonstrating ballet life in the studio, as opposed to the imperfect, distanced classes that took place through a screen by the end of the series.

“On Pointe” shows more than the behind-the-scenes at the ballet school; it demonstrates the rigorous, challenging, and sometimes scary side of dedicating one’s life to dance. Through the perspectives of students, parents, and teachers at the school, audiences can see for themselves how intense the training is and how much the students commit to it. During a Zoom interview in December regarding “On Pointe,” Kai, who played the Prince in the Nutcracker the previous year, expressed that he hoped to inspire young kids to respect ballet. “I hope that they can appreciate us and just know that we’re people and we work hard too,” he added. “We’re not like dolls.” There is no better way to convey that message than to spend six episodes fully exploring the lives of children who decided to dedicate their time to ballet, no matter what it took.