The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered dance studios and dimmed the lights on live productions. But despite beloved holiday dance traditions sitting out or opting for a virtual option this year, audiences and dance enthusiasts can still get their ballet fix with new titles from Netflix and Disney+. Tiny Pretty Things, Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker and On Pointe pull back the velvet curtain on the ballet world to reveal updated on-screen representations of the ever-evolving art and help fill the pandemic void for performing arts.
Netflix’s Tiny Pretty Things, which debuted on Monday, takes inspiration from Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra’s book and follows a group of aspiring ballerinas and danseurs as they seek to rid their pre-professional school of scandal and toxicity. Kylie Jefferson, who makes her acting debut as the mature drama’s ambitious and dedicated lead Neveah Stroyer, says the Netflix series brings a Black ballerina to the silver screen she wishes she could have watched growing up as an aspiring dancer.
“There was a certain type of girl that I always wished was pushed to the forefront. If you ever saw a character like Neveah, she was never the main character,” Jefferson said. “She was always the best friend or the seasoning to the mix.”
More than just a side character in the Tiny Pretty Things cast, Jefferson’s Neveah shows that Black ballerinas, as well as other dancers of color, are more than capable of being a captivating lead – an idea that both the classical ballet and entertainment worlds must accept and encourage, Jefferson said. Although more representative portrayals of ballet’s diverse landscape may be new to screen, Jefferson says such depictions are far from unique to the stage, citing American Ballet Theater’s Misty Copeland, former New York City Ballet dancer Aesha Ash, the Dance Theater of Harlem and prolific trailblazer Debbie Allen.
“Black ballet dancers exist and let’s stop acting like we didn’t know they did,” Jefferson said.
While Jefferson, who trained extensively with Allen, takes center stage in Tiny Pretty Things, she also appears in Netflix’s Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker. The Shondaland documentary takes viewers behind the scenes of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy’s global take on Tchaikovsky’s holiday tale, while also documenting Allen’s rise to prominence in the dance world and beyond. In the Oliver Bokelberg-directed title, Jefferson gracefully wraps her body on aerial silks to glide through the air as the production’s Fairy Queen.
Insider access to grand productions and showcasing the true and increasing diversity of a centuries-old art form opens up narratives of the dance world beyond those of tough competition and Black Swan-like dramas. Also putting the creative process and representation in center stage is Disney+’s On Pointe.
Set to debut Friday, the docuseries provides audiences with a clear picture of the evolving ballet world, showing that the dance form has moved beyond its solely “tall, blonde, dancer” image, says director Larissa Bills. From Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Documentaries, On Pointe centers students of the prestigious School of American Ballet as they prepare for their professional careers and navigate the strenuous rehearsals for the New York City Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.
“What’s been really interesting about SAB is that they’ve made efforts to recruit beyond what we consider the standard-issue ballet dancer,” Bills said. “We really wanted to portray the landscape of the school as it is now, which is really diverse, really representative and inclusive of not just dancers from New York but really from all over the country.”
Spotlighting a handful of students who vary in age, background and dance experience, On Pointe forgoes cliché images of old-fashioned dance masters who bang out music counts in favor of an aspirational and inspirational look at the journey of dance, said producer Sara Bernstein. The Imagine Docs producer said the upcoming show also exposes younger audiences, who are now stuck at home Zooming into classes and extra curricula, to a classical art that has engaged generations of kids.
Although Disney+ and Netflix may be competitors in the streaming world, the two platforms come together this odd holiday season to bring much-needed joy to audiences who have faced a year of seemingly endless hardship. With both Netflix’s Tiny Pretty Things and Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, Jefferson said she’s grateful “to be part of the solution” of putting a smile on viewers’ faces and excited to promote ballet in any way possible. In the same vein, the On Pointe team says its series can bolster the appreciation and understanding of Balanchine’s legacy while filling a void left by coronavirus-related shutdowns.
“Simply the joy of being able to witness the behind the scenes of the Nutcracker from the young dancers’ point of view, or watching the older dancers’ challenges and excitement as they contemplate their professional lives…I think there’s something universal about that passion and dedication that the kids and their families experience,” said Bernstein.
Tiny Pretty Things and Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker are both streaming on Netflix. On Pointe debuts on Disney+ on Friday.
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