In order for up-and-coming ballet dancers to join one of the most preeminent ballet companies in the country — New York City Ballet — many must first succeed at The School of American Ballet. The challenges the feeder school issues are no easy feat to overcome, and no show understands that more than the new Disney+ docuseries “On Pointe.”
The show follows several students as they embark on their journey to become a part of the esteemed NYC dance company — the younger students going through the audition process for the iconic “Nutcracker,” and the upper-division dancers competing for full-time company contracts. The six-part docuseries premiered on Disney+ in 2020; however, the show itself is not a Disney production and was instead produced by Imagine Documentaries and DCTV and directed by filmmaker Larissa Bills.
“But first, a school.”
George Balanchine’s “self-described edict,” which appears as the opening scene of the docuseries, truly encompasses the essence of The School of American Ballet. Balanchine founded the academy in 1934 with the intention of creating the New York City Ballet, which would eventually come to life in 1948. Throughout the docuseries, the uniqueness of Balanchine’s style of ballet training is emphasized as the dancers recall the adjustments that they made to fit the bill at the academy. One student explains the athleticism and speed of Balanchine’s technique, which is not prominent in more traditional styles of ballet found across Europe. Because of this, the entirety of Balanchine’s empire is truly innovative.
“Even people who otherwise never attend the ballet attend ‘The Nutcracker’; for many, the Tchaikovsky classic is the ballet and the ‘Nutcracker’ supreme is the one choreographed by George Balanchine in 1954 and presented every year by the New York City Ballet,” recounted a The Wall Street Journal article reviewing “On Pointe.”
Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” remains a staple of both the New York City Ballet’s repertoire and New York’s holiday aura. One of the most remarkable parts of Balanchine’s edition is his inclusion of a children’s cast beyond mere “filler roles” that get overshadowed by the professional dancers. Rather, Balanchine emphasized the importance of including young dancers in the core of the production, both to give them a valuable performance opportunity and to magnify the production’s enchanting nature. The magic of performing in the New York City Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” as a child remains as the allure of such a prestigious opportunity, and “On Pointe” does a remarkable job of showing just that.
Each installment of “On Pointe” focuses on a different aspect of daily life as a student at The School of American Ballet and as a participant in New York City Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” Because so many different students are followed throughout the series, they are split into two very separate groups: the younger students vying for their chance to partake in “The Nutcracker,” and the intermediate and advanced division focused on the more professional aspects of their ballet career. Though these two groups of students are in such drastically dissimilar stages of their ballet careers, the series is expertly produced and gives viewers the opportunity to witness the dancers’ progressions through their various milestones.
It is clear to anyone who watches “On Pointe,” even those with no prior ballet knowledge, that the expectations for these young students are undoubtedly demanding. To be a part of such an environment requires immense dedication and passion for the art. In an article for The New York Times, filmmaker Larissa Bills commented on the importance of showing the sacrifices made by students to fulfill their ballet training. Whether it be taking four trains to reach the studios, forgoing birthday parties and school trips or even moving across the world to live alone in New York City as a 15-year-old, these dancers have grit, and they want to achieve their dreams no matter what.
In capturing the daily life of the school’s upper-division students, Bills allows her viewers a glimpse behind the scenes that is rarely, if ever, exposed. For years, ballet lovers and dance communities have begged for a better representation of the realities of professional and pre-professional ballet in mainstream media and television. Often, the dance world is portrayed as a lurid setting seen in drama movies such as “Black Swan” and “Center Stage.” With the release of “On Pointe,” the television industry moved one step closer to the full and accurate representation of the beauty and merit of ballet, both in front of and behind the curtain.
However, some have criticized the lack of drama exposed on the docuseries regarding competition within The School of American Ballet. While tensions will inevitably arise, being that these students are all striving for the same extremely competitive goal, one of the most important aspects of “On Pointe” is its ability to show the importance of community and friendship in the journey of a pre-professional ballet dancer.
Bills’ own childhood was the greatest inspiration behind the production of the series. Growing up in the ’70s, Bills claims to have obsessed over Jill Krementz’s popular book titled “A Very Young Dancer,” which portrayed the life of a 10-year-old student at The School of American Ballet during “The Nutcracker” season — a theme that is ever-present in the 2020 docuseries. This book proved to be one of the most monumental collections of prints for the ballet world at the time and opened the doors for “On Pointe” to come to life years later.
Though she has had an extensive career in documentary filmmaking, Bills was especially excited about the prospect of “On Pointe,” stating that the show “was so special, and it felt so New York-y — and like the New York I moved to when I was eighteen.” Krementz’s documentary-style photo book gave many young hopeful dancers a glimpse into the magical world of ballet that they so fervently sought to enter. Bills hopes that her own masterpiece will open the same doors for aspiring dancers around the world.
The joys of New York City and the beauty of both the New York City Ballet and The School of American Ballet are undoubtedly present in Larissa Bills’ standout docuseries “On Pointe.” Available to stream on Disney+, be sure to catch a wonderful glimpse into the world of ballet, which is not to be missed.