19 September 2013
The CW’s Breaking Pointe is such a cool reality series. It’s actually a fairly terribly executed series, but the idea alone that someone not only thought up but pushed through development a reality series about professional ballet I think is just incredibly fantastic. Despite all the stereotypes that might make it seem uncool or uninteresting, ballet, if you think about it, is actually the perfect thing to centre a reality show around. By definition, the people involved are young, fit and passionate- it’s like they’re made for TV. The class system that governs ballet society (principals>first soloists>second/demi-soloists>corps) makes for fascinating power dynamics and there’s amazing drama built right into the process of staging a ballet: Who gets what role? Who gets to dance opening night? Who are you dancing with? To say nothing of the fact that- contrary to popular belief- most ballet dancers are straight, and they have a tendency to date and even marry within the tribe.
All of those things come together to make the story of Breaking Pointe entertaining, even if I remain thoroughly convinced that there are more interesting companies out there that we could be watching instead of Utah’s somewhat middling Ballet West (if the show spent one full season at a company before moving on, they’d never run out of stories or characters). In season one, a lot of the intrigue was focused on the insecure, almost nomadic lifestyle of a dancer, following the journey of charming corps member Katie Martin after her contract wasn’t renewed with Ballet West. She had to leave her boyfriend and her best friend to audition around the country in hopes of scoring a contract someplace else. There was also some frustrating romantic see-sawing between demi-soloists Rex and Allison and snippets of uninteresting jealousy around rising star Beckanne but, for the most part, it was Katie’s arc that carried the season.
For season two, the producers got a little lucky and a little smart. The first lucky bit, harsh as it is to say, came with the brutal injury of one of season one’s central figures- macho leading man Ronnie. Benched for the entire season with his career potentially in jeopardy, the injury meant that we saw less of Ronnie in season two, but what we saw was far more interesting. Instead of a party boy looking to hook up with the company hotties and get his overdue promotion to principal, season two Ronnie was a lost and restless figure, forced to lean on his compassionate and spirited best friend/roommate Silver for comfort and help throwing a great party (Silver, for her part, was a charming character who was added to the cast officially for season two, though we still saw far too little of her in my opinion).
The other way the producers got incredibly lucky was that a character who had been in focus in season one but had always been a little grating (a little cold, a little jealous, a lot wishy washy) suddenly got not only really really interesting but also a lot more likeable. When season two picked up, Allison (of Rex and Allison’s romantic see-sawing) was back with her long-term long-distance boyfriend Jonathan instead of dancing (haha, pun!) around the issue with Rex. The effect was startling. All of a sudden this girl who we knew as the “leave me alone so I can focus on work but continue to adore me please” witch of Ballet West was happy and hopeful and we got to finally see her kind side when dealing with the other dancers (a little compassion for Christiana, a moment of levity with Beckanne) and the joy she got out of dancing. Trouble was, Mr. Perfect wanted her to move to Michigan to be with him, where there is no professional ballet. Some weak explanation was given about how Jonathan felt that Ballet West and Rex and ballet in general had torn them apart and thus he couldn’t handle her being out there but, ultimately, what he was doing was forcing his girlfriend to abandon her career as A Professional Ballet Dancer (!) to live near him while he finished his medical residency. And she was ready to do it, because she loved him and he Clearly made her happier than she was without him and he was cute and sweet and a doctor and all sorts of worthy things. All Allison wanted, before she gave up dancing forever, was for Jonathan to come see her perform in her last show. She left him a ticket for opening night. I was sure, through that entire episode, that Jonathan would come rushing in and fill that seat just as the lights went down or even just a moment too late (Mr. Coulson-style). But he never did. It was legitimately heartbreaking. In the subsequent two episodes, Allison made a massive 180 and bolted back towards (an understandably reluctant) Rex, claiming to have loved him all along. That may or may not be true, but watching her come so close to giving up ballet only to be let down so dramatically was so compelling and humanizing that it almost doesn’t matter.
The smart thing the producers did in revisiting Ballet West for season two was a slight casting shift. With Katie gone, her boyfriend (and Rex’s brother) Ronald was cut from the cast (though he’s still at Ballet West) but instead of replacing him with one person, the producers threw in a whole slew of new faces alongside season one’s Ronnie, Allison, Rex, Beckanne and Christiana. There was Joshua, the young corps member who is the only black kid in the entire company (the moment when sometimes-annoying sometimes-lovely Artistic Director Adam told him why he hadn’t gotten the role of Napoleon in Cinderella was one of the most touching of the season). Then there were Ian and Zach- two rival members of Ballet West II, a training program that feeds into the main company. Zach was clearly supposed to be the underdog character to Ian’s “suck up” Superman but he was so wildly annoying so quickly and Ian was so noble and hardworking (at least as told by the editors) that Zach’s ultimate triumph was a huge letdown.
The other character added for season two was Christopher Ruud, someone who had very confusingly been excluded from season one. Married to prima ballerina Christiana, himself a principal dancer at the company, and director of Ballet West II, Christopher is integral to the story of Ballet West and his inclusion in season two was (paired with Allison’s arc) I think what made this season far superior to its predecessor. What was suspicious, though, was the conspicuous lack of actual scenes between him and Christiana as their marriage fell apart. We saw Christopher mentoring Ian and socializing with the other dancers; we saw Christiana lamenting to Allison and nagging Rex about partnering her in Cinderella (in a fascinating twist, Christopher is too short to partner his wife on-stage); we even occasionally saw Christopher attempt to speak to his wife in the rehearsal hall or backstage. She refused to acknowledge him every time, admitting in interviews that they had agreed not to speak at work and he was being unfair by talking to her.
Apart from these brief scenes (which always made the uber focused prima look crazy harsh and her husband look well-meaning and kind), we only ever heard from the married Chrises in separate interviews. Unlike the younger kids (like the dramatic trio that was Zach, Beckanne and her boyfriend/his bestie Chase), they never let the cameras shoot their actual personal confrontations (or even conversations). What was weird about that choice was that they both talked freely about the dissolution of their marriage in interviews, and they both let cameras shoot their private lives on other occasions (like a staged scene where Christiana blurts her feelings to Allison over coffee or whatever) so the complete lack of scenes between the two of them made it seem like those conversations actually just weren’t happening at all (not just not happening on camera). There had to be more to the story, though. There just had to be. There’s no way that Christopher is as sweet and Christiana is as cold as they came off in season two’s 10 episode arc. But because all we saw was Christiana ignoring him then crying and saying “I need time to myself” while he talks about how much he loves her and wishes he could maker her happy, the whole thing seems confusingly straightforward- one villain, one victim; which is just not real life.
The final storyline was Beckanne’s. The problem with that is that Beckanne didn’t do anything this season. She got herself a cute boyfriend and Zach made some artificial trouble for them. Her cute boyfriend thought he might leave the company, then he didn’t. She felt unfulfilled and down on dance, then she remember how much she loves it- the whole thing was just a waste of story space. The trick, though, is that Breaking Pointe couldn’t possibly cover Ballet West without devoting a generous amount of screentime to Beckanne Sisk. She’s the youngest and the prettiest and the most likely to give the show its Hills-ian vibe, but the important thing is that Beckanne is the star of the company. All of the main cast are lovely dancers (I especially would have liked to have seen Christopher dance more than we did) but Beckanne is the only one who has actual star power. And no I’m not just regurgitating what Adam said on the show; empirically, she’s crazy talented. Beckanne is incredibly young still but she’s an insanely beautiful dancer who could easily hold her own amongst the soloists (though not quite the principals) at a far stronger company than Ballet West (at the National Ballet of Canada- my favourite reference point- in my estimation she’d fall just below the extremely promising Elena Lobsanova). Even if she’s not doing anything interesting story-wise, Breaking Pointe has to follow Beckanne because if there does happen to be a real ballet fan or two watching through all the silly personal dramas, they’d’ve been really sad to miss seeing her dazzling Esmeralda on that incredibly manufactured fundraising trip to Malibu that somehow only involved the Breaking Pointe cast, even those who are injured or just in the corps.
That’s actually the main problem with the show- that manufactured element. I said earlier that, despite the fascinating storytelling elements both inherent in professional ballet and luckily present in certain aspects of this particular company (I mean, the dissolution of a marriage between principal dancers? How evil-psyched must the producers have been to find out that was going down?!), Breaking Pointe is a pretty shabbily executed show. When I compare it to The Hills, I mean that it really resembles the little of The Hills that I saw. All of the confrontation (or even conversation) scenes feel incredibly forced (as though someone said “hey, Allison, I want you to sit down and ask Christiana how she’s feeling about her marriage so we can film it. Okay, Go!”) the producers don’t have quite enough access to their subjects to be able to tell the stories without weird holes (the Rex and Allison saga makes more random leaps than sense and the imbalance in how the Chrises’ separation was presented really hurts the characters, or at least Christiana) and there are so many obvious producer setups (seriously, what was with the trip to Malibu?! Allison and Rex just happen to be dancing a romantic Pas de Deux together? Really?). The best parts of Breaking Pointe are all when the cameras are just rolling and capture something special- a meaningful glance in rehearsal, an honest reaction to the cast list going up, an onstage screwup or- because ballet is amazing, even when it’s not dramatic- a beautifully performed sequence of complicated choreography. Because even when their lives are Ridiculous and the producers do a bad job of telling their personal stories, these are still world-class athletes in a remarkable medium. And it’s amazing just to see them dance.
Finale Grade: B-
Season Grade: B