I binge-watched the entire AOL On city.ballet. series on the weekend, and it only took 70 minutes. Brilliant! Executive produced and conceived by Sarah Jessica Parker, city.ballet. is a behind-the-scenes documentary series about the dancers of the New York City Ballet. As a retired dancer, I was naturally intrigued by the subject matter, but anyone who’s curious about professional dance will find the docudrama fascinating.
The web series consists of 12 episodes, each between four and seven minutes, and includes a number of bonus episodes featuring Sarah Jessica Parker and members of the New York City Ballet. Each installment focuses on one aspect of company life, such as rankings (Apprentice, Corps, Soloist and Principal), partnering, injuries and relationships.
The show is shot in a contemporary handheld style, mixing rehearsal and performance footage with interviews. Dancers are captured in many environments: at home, in the dance studio, back stage or having physiotherapy. Peter Martins, New York City Ballet’s ballet master in chief is especially entertaining to watch—not because he’s funny, but because he’s so serious about the insular ballet world that he pretty much lords over.
For those who are unfamiliar with ballet, it’s a great primer. The series highlights the athleticism required for dance, as well as the mental strength necessary to survive a tense world of physical endurance, injuries, competition and personal ambition. When you’re only 19 or 20 and already at your peak professionally, it can be a lot to handle.
The dancers are inspiring—they have a deep passion for the art form, they hold themselves to impossible standards, and they’re also human. They crack jokes, drink wine after performing Swan Lake, sometimes have babies, and often get entangled in inter-company romances.
city.ballet. most effectively captures the work ethic of a dancer, a drive matched only by elite athletes. A dancer’s livelihood depends on being the best. It’s a cold, hard truth: If you’re not one of the best, you don’t get a contract. Company dancers push themselves to the brink to stay on top of their game. They make things look easy on stage, but off stage in their day-to-day lives they’re constantly suffering through injuries, painful pointe work and the knowledge that young, ambitious and superbly trained dancers are coming up through the ranks every day.
Sarah Jessica Parker's voiceover sounds unnatural at times, the male dancer attitude is too macho-hetero, and the series just scratches the surface of what it means to be a dance artist in New York. But apart from those minor quibbles, this web series has a lot to offer. Firstly, it's hip and sexy and therefore appeals to youth who need better entry points into the fine arts. Secondly, it clearly communicates that a dancer’s career is valuable and admirable. In New York City Ballet dancers, and perhaps all dancers, you find commitment, drive, determination, and devotion to a rigorous professional life. It’s all kinds of inspiring.I once spent a couple of months in New York and took class every day with many of the New York City Ballet dancers who chose to take an open ballet class instead of their own company class. I noticed that several dancers (usually male) would often leave the studio when they didn’t like a certain exercise at the barre. Then they’d walk back in later for an exercise that was more to their taste. I was aghast. As a student or young professional you never pick and choose which exercises to dance—you do them all, even if you have to modify due to an injury. Dancers are trained to obey, frankly, and they are taught to show the utmost respect for their teachers. (Dancers applaud both teacher and accompaniest at the end of every class, for heaven’s sake.) But when you’re a New York City Ballet dancer, I suppose you dance to a different drummer. And why not—have you seen what they can do? Image still captured from AOL On's city.ballet.