Ballet West exposes itself on TV
Ballet West is about to reach its "Breaking Pointe," thanks to a six-part TV series by BBC Worldwide Productions. Unlike most dance shows on TV, this isn't a competition. Instead, it's a documentary about competition within the company, closely following 10 dancers, from the corps to the second company through to the principals.
Executive producer Kate Shepherd promises it will be "unlike any other dance show you will ever see."
"We don't have to create drama," said Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute. "The drama is there. All the drama and the joy and everything about being a part of a major arts organization is already there."
The TV show focuses more on dancers than dance. "It's the blood, sweat and the tears," said principal dancer Christiana Bennett. "I don't think anything will be hidden. I think it'll be a true representation of what goes on daily for us. The heartaches, the joy it can switch so quickly."
The film crew from BBC Worldwide Productions captured the company in rehearsals and in performance, but it also interviewed dancers and followed them home.
"This is not just about men in tights and girls dancing around in tutus," Shepherd said. "There's an incredible amount of hard work and dedication. We will get to see what it takes to be a professional ballet dancer. And they will be showing the world the amount of hard work and dedication that goes into performing onstage."
The show offers a portrait of ballet dancers as incredible athletes whose work puts incredible strain on their bodies. Bennett had to quit dancing for a year because of an injury; so did dancer Rex Tilton, who broke his back a hairline fracture brought on by the physical stress of brutal rehearsals and performances.
And within the company, their friends and co-workers are also their rivals.
"They're incredibly competitive," Shepherd said. "They take their art very, very seriously. They're one big family. Some of them live together. Some of them are even married, but they're going up for the same roles."
Which can lead to conflicts with a group that is "very tight knit," according to Bennett, whose husband, Chris Ruud, is also a principal dancer at Ballet West. "We're the most dysfunctional family you'll ever meet, but I think when things like this happen, we really do pull together."
And that's the reason the show is titled "Breaking Pointe." It's not just about the dancers as dancers, it's about them as people. Cameras capture their conversations, follow them home and make them something more than just performers on the other side of the footlights.
"You're just pushed to the brink of exhaustion and you've got to let it out somehow," Bennett said. "Everybody has their weak moment. Everybody has their bad days. That's just part of being people."
Viewers will see dancers in their most stressful moments.
"They'll see us when we come offstage and we've just performed something extremely difficult," Tilton said. "When you see someone when they're tired and beat down, it's a really revealing thing."
And that's where the drama comes in.
"They dedicate and give their lives up to ballet and, at the same time, they have fantastic personal lives, incredible backstories," said Shepherd. "They're all from very interesting places. And there is lots of drama inside and outside the company."
The dancers are used to performing onstage, but appearing on a nationally telecast TV show is something different. Particularly when you're not playing a part, but exposing your own life.
"I'm always surprised when I get recognized in the grocery store, so I can't imagine what it's going to be like now," said Bennett, who expressed excitement and worry about the personal exposure. "I hope that everybody is respectful and realizes that we are real people and we're not living in our Hollywood mansions. I live in Rose Park."
The TV show became a reality after producers approached Sklute last fall. He presented the idea to dancers, who voted to go ahead with the project.
"First thing I thought was, 'Go Ballet West!' That's why I signed on," Tilton said. "This is a company with a lot of pride. And I think that something like this is going to show that."
Bennett thought it was past due time for a documentary look at what happens inside American dance companies. Sklute hopes the TV show will be part of the company's marketing outreach, especially to capture attention outside the state. "I believe that we're one of America's major ballet companies," he said, displaying his flair for promotion. "I'd like more people to see that and know that."
Beyond the fortunes of Ballet West, Sklute is interested in helping viewers understand the reality of the ballet world. That's the stated goal of BBC Worldwide Productions as well, and everyone at the Utah company has put their fate in the hands of the production team.
"I think their real goal is to get what it is to be a ballet dancer, to understand what a real ballet company works like," Sklute said. "Just really get into the inner workings of the real thing. Every time I meet with them, every time I talk to them, they're interested in addressing the actual facts. They don't want to go off and make up stories, they want to see what we're really dealing with."
The dancers admit they're nervous about exposing themselves to a national television audience, but expressed faith in the producers.
"I really do feel like this is an honest view of what our lives are like," Bennett said.
The producers are promising that "Breaking Pointe" will appeal to ballet aficionados, as well as those who know nothing about it.
"I've worked with world-class athletes all my life," Shepherd said, "and I have never, ever seen anything like this. I've never seen people perform and train in the way that these ballet dancers do. So I think people are going to be mesmerized. And they're going to be intrigued in the same way that we were when we started entering the world of ballet for the first time."
P The documentary series premieres Thursday, May 31, at 7 p.m. on The CW/Channel 30.
Ballet West live
The company is performing 'Innovations," its annual intimate showcase of new choreography.
When • 7:30 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday, May 23-26; and 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, May 26.
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Jeanne Wagner Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $50, at 801-355-2787; http://www.arttix.org.
On tap • A restaging of guest choreographer Susan Shields' "Grand Synthesis" from 2008. Plus four works by Ballet West dancers, an expansion of Michael Bearden's "Descent" from 2010; plus debuts of "Eenvondig" by Aidan DeYoung, "With You," by Easton Smith, and "Forces at Play," by Emily Adams.
Review • Read dance critic Kathy Adams' review in the Utah section, or online at http://www.sltrib.com/lifestyle.