Breaking Pointe: Riveting Reality TV On Ballet West

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Breaking Pointe's Christiana Bennett. (Photo: Erik Ostling/ ©The CW 2012 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

Breaking Pointe’s Christiana Bennett. (Photo: Erik Ostling/ ©The CW 2012 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

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There’s heartbreak in The CW’s new summer program, “Breaking Pointe,” a show that gives us access behind the curtains to the Salt Lake City Ballet Company, Ballet West. There are no villains as you’ll see in the reality show “Survivor” and you as the audience do not influence who stays and who goes as in other dance reality shows such as “Dancing with the Stars” or “So You Think You Can Dance.” “Breaking Pointe” is about the real world and shot in the style of a documentary.

William F. Christensen (1902-2001) was one of three brothers–the others were Harold and Lew. Born and raised in Brigham City, Utah, as you might expect, they were all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or, as most people know them, the Mormon church.

The three brothers founded the San Francisco Ballet i n1933 as the San Francisco Opera Ballet. The company is actually based in the War Memorial Opera House and currently under the direction of Helgi Tomasson. William staged the first full American production of “Swan Lake” in 1940 and also choreographed and presented the first full production of “The Nutcracker” in 1944. With the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet is considered one of the three major classical ballet companies in America and is among the world’s leading companies.

In the summer of 1948, William (or Willam as he later preferred to be called) went to the University of Utah to choreograph a production. He eventually helped create a ballet department–the first at an accredited university in 1951. He also founded the Utah Civic Ballet in 1963 and served as its first artistic director.

The Federation of Rocky Mountain States chose the company to represent the western U.S. in 1968 and the company responded by changing its name to Ballet West. Willam Christensen retired in 1978 to be replaced by Bruce Marks who had been co-artistic director since 1975. John Hart was the third artistic director and he was succeeded by Jonas Kage from 1997 to 2006. The current director is Adam Sklute.

Sklute danced on the edge. He was an associate artistic director for the famed Joffrey Ballet where he had also been a dance in the 1980s. He appears in the recent documentary on that company, “The Joffrey Ballet: Mavericks of Dance,” and this best explains his willingness to extend is public outreach to a reality TV series.

Sklute is from Berkeley, California, a place that is practically an incubator for radical idealism. According to his official biography, he only began dancing at age 16. He must have been a natural because after only two years of formal training, he was invited to join the Joffrey II Dancers, the Joffrey apprentice company, and two years later he was dancing in the company. Two is a lucky number for Sklute because he was one of the last two artists personally chosen by Robert Joffrey. He also appeared before the cameras in Robert Altman’s 2003 movie “The Company.”

What “Breaking Pointe” intends to emphasize is that ballet is about obsession and the kind of dedication one usually only associates with crazy people and athletes. These men and women are no fluffy flowers who float passively with the wind. They are people who exist under the constant threat of time and rivalry.

The rough cut version of the first episode, introduces us to some members of the company during the period when they’ll learn who stays and who will go. For most of the dancers, their contract with the company is year-to-year.

The only person we meet with a sense of security is the 32-year-old principal artist Christian Bennett. She came to the company at 19 and worked her way through the ranks. She has a 2-year agreement. When she is rehearsing, the others stay quiet and watch out of respect. But she feels “a little breath at the back of my neck,” she tells the camera while watching the 19-year-old Beckanne Sisk.

Soloist Ronnie Underwood is 30 and wants to be promoted. There are two brothers: demi-soloist Rex Tilton who is 32 and Ronald Tilton who is 28. They come from a dance family of seven brothers and sisters, five of whom still dance. Rex is sweet on demi-soloist Allison DeBona. Ronald is a couple with the 23-year-old Katie.

The company has a hierarchy with the principal artists at the top (four positions), the soloists, demi-soloists, artists and Ballet West II members. Because the contracts are year-to-year, the dancers are keenly aware that they will likely not be together for long.

This episode is called “Survival of the Fittest” because this is the week when the contracts come out and the members will learn who stays, who goes and who has been promoted. Sklute wants to keep a company moving to keep it alive and he mixes up the hierarchy. The hierarchy also strains relationships between the dancers as competitors as well as bringing pressure to the possible romantic relationships.

Yet the dancers also have fun, we see them going out and dancing in a bar, celebrating their renewed contracts or trying to consider what happens next. The tension is in the dancers who won’t return and the problematic romantic relationships within the company.

Ballet West permitted the filmmakers to come in for six weeks. From the beginning, we know that getting to be a member is hard, but according to the director Sklute “staying here is even harder.” That sentiment is echoed in the Bennett’s comments.

While movies often give us a happy, even improbably endings (such as “Flash Dance”) and the most recent ballet documentary “First Position” ends on a hopeful note, this first episode sets the tone of hardship and heartbreak. There are no bad guys or good guys. There are just tough decisions for a career that will end in retirement when your average person is in their prime earning years.

This is perhaps reality TV at its best. This is about real life, real problems and real people. If they are performing for the cameras, it doesn’t come off as insincere or over-the-top hamming it up. There’s a sincerity and earnestness in the people we see as they are dancing or addressing the camera, breaking the fourth wall. Yet, because there are no defined types, it can be hard, to keep track of the people and their story lines.

If you or your child is considering a career as a dancers, this reality series will blow away the romantic stardust and bring a heavy does of reality.

“Breaking Pointe” – Thursday’s on The CW at 8 p.m. Pacific time and 7 p.m. Central.

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