With Ticket Sales to Ballet Flat or Dropping, Can Reality TV Provide Ballet Companies With a Much-Needed Boost?
By Karyn D. Collins
The summer of 2012 may well go down as the summer that “Breaking Pointe” introduced reality television — and its fans — to the cloistered world of classical ballet. Or at least that’s what the dancers and producers behind the show are hoping.
“Breaking Pointe,” for the uninitiated, was a six-week-long reality show in the docudrama vein that followed Salt Lake City’s Ballet West through a portion of its 2011-12 season. The show — produced by BBC Worldwide, the production team behind television’s undisputed ratings king of dance competition shows, ABC’s “Dancing With The Stars” — debuted May 31 on the bottom ranked CW Network. Unlike DWTS and its competition brethren like Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” and MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew,” “Breaking Pointe” didn’t feature a contest where dancers vied for votes from judges and viewers. Instead, the summertime series showed professional dancers of Ballet West, both on and offstage, during part of its just-ended season.
Though the series run concluded a couple of weeks ago, “Breaking Pointe,” which can still be seen online via websites like CW’s and Hulu, has sparked intense discussions about almost every aspect of the show, from its marketing and focus, which was heavily influenced by the infamous 2011 ballet psychodrama “Black Swan,” to the dancing (or lack of it as some have complained), to the wisdom or folly (depending on whom you ask) of focusing on dancers’ personal lives and (straight) romances.
But amid the sometimes heated discussions and Twitter exchanges about the show’s various plot points — most notably (or, according to some, annoyingly) the will-they-or-won’t-they relationship between dancers Rex Tilton and Allison DeBona – is a bigger question for the ballet world: Can “Breaking Pointe” do for ballet what ballet companies have been struggling to accomplish for decades now? That is, lure newer, younger audiences to theaters for live classical ballet?
Key decisionmakers and the Ballet West dancers freely admit that’s the principle reason why the company agreed to do “Breaking Pointe” in the first place. “Looking back on it, I’m very pleased that we did it,” said Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute. “This was not a quick ‘yes’ decision for us to do the series. But I started to think not only what this could mean for Ballet West, but for ballet in general. In giving ballet a broader appeal, I felt this could be very good.”
Sklute said he is generally pleased with the final results, although he lamented that more dancing and background information about the ballets the company was preparing — including Balanchine’s “Emeralds” and Jiri Kylian’s “Petit Mort” — and performing wasn’t provided. He considered it a small victory that he persuaded the producers to allow him 48 hours notice to review each episode so he could correct factual mistakes about the choreographers and works. Other compromises, he said, were a result of budget restrictions such as the minimal use of the actual music while the dancers danced because of the cost of obtaining music rights. And, he added, the producers also had to be mindful of their target audience in putting the show together.
“This show wasn’t being done for PBS. This was being done for the CW, which is a totally different audience,” Sklute said, alluding to the CW’s bread-and-butter program-
ming. The network is best known for shows with particular pop appeal to teenage girls and young women such as “Vampire Diaries,” “Gossip Girl,” and “America’s Next Top Model.” Still, Sklute said, if “Breaking Pointe” was picked up for a second season, he hoped some of these issues, such as the balance between showing the dancing versus the personal travails, and the limited use of music in scenes featuring the dancers performing, would improve. Sklute gave Ballet West’s dancers a say in whether or not they would participate. Many said the opportunity to promote the ballet world outweighed any misgivings they had about allowing cameras to focus on their personal lives. “My initial reaction when I saw the show was, ‘Oh my God, I’m on TV. My personal life is on TV.’ It was a bit of a shock,” said demi-soloist DeBona, who is portrayed as being almost neurotically intense about everything from her relationship with fellow company member Tilton to the tempo for a variation she’s shown performing in “Paquita.” “Then I started getting feedback — emails, on Facebook, on Twitter — from kids,” she said. “I realized that’s the reason why we did this show: to help bring more awareness to ballet.”
Tilton admitted that he, too, was shocked to see so much of his relationship struggles on the show. Yet he said feedback from fans included plenty of comments about the dancing, not just his and DeBona’s on-again, off-again romance. “Every time someone comments on the dancing I take that as a small victory,” he said, “so even if my [personal] life is exploited on TV, it’s a small victory that counts.” He added, “From the reactions we’ve been getting, we know people have really been enjoying ballet and that’s why we did this show … so ballet would become more accessible to the public.”
In the short term at least, the gamble seems to be paying off to some degree. “It’s about exposure,” said dance critic Kathy Adams, who regularly covers the company for the Salt Lake City Tribune. While Ballet West has not seen a huge influx in season subscribers, during the month of June, its website had more than six million hits compared to 1.2 million in May. The company has also gained 2,000 fans on its Facebook page and can’t keep up with requests for worn pointe shoes signed by dancers featured in the show. “We definitely saw an enthusiastic and committed fan base. Not only did we keep a consistent hold on our audience for all premiere episodes and repeats, but our fans really took to Twitter with their love of the show,” said “Breaking Pointe” executive producer Kate Shepherd. “We ended up trending six times [on Twitter] throughout the series, even while up against the NBA finals.”
However, the jury’s still out on how much of a lasting effect “Breaking Pointe” will have on actually bringing new audiences into the theater, even as Sklute noted subscription renewals were up from last year. There also have been some encouraging signs on the touring front, he said. “We received a touring engagement from Fall for Dance [the popular discount season opener series at New York City’s City Center] asking us to bring ‘Paquita,’” he said, referring to one of the ballets the company was seen rehearsing and performing during “Breaking Pointe.” And, he added, there’s been increased attention at venues presenting the company, such as an upcoming engagement of the troupe’s production of The Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. “The Kennedy Center is asking when the casting is coming out because people are asking when they can see Christiana [Bennett] or Ronnie [Underwood] or Beckanne [Sisk] or Allison,” Sklute said. “They want to know when these people are performing. So those are all hugely positive things.”
Sklute noted that anecdotal stories bode well for the show’s reach. One friend of his running a summer dance program reported that in discussing 20th century choreographers the name Jiri Kylian came up. When the teacher asked the students if they had heard about Kylian, no one had responded. But then, Sklute said, the teacher told the students that one of her favorite Kylian works was “Petit Mort.” “When she said that the kids responded, ‘Oh, we love that. We saw it on ‘Breaking Pointe.’ We’re all working to expose ballet to a broader spectrum of audience and we’re all doing it in our own way,” said Sklute.
While the show has been a trendy point of conversation in parts of the ballet world, from a purely ratings standpoint “Breaking Pointe” was not exactly a summer blockbuster, said Marc Kirschner, founder and general manager of TenduTV, a dance centric digital network. Nielsen figures for “Breaking Pointe” showed that the series debuted with just under 1 million viewers. But ratings for the final episode showed a drop-off to 780,000 viewers. While those figures were low enough for him to question the viability of “Breaking Pointe,” Kirschner said it should also be noted that “Breaking Pointe” aired on the generally low rated CW network. And TV industry analysts have seen that summer viewership has been down overall this year. “If they had had even five times those ratings and were on Fox that show would have been canceled after the first episode. With the CW, they have a little bit more leeway. The expectations are lower,” Kirschner said. “It hasn’t been renewed yet, but if it’s an inexpensive show for them to produce they may keep it. It’s all about the numbers and can [the CW] do better with another series.”
“Having said that, for Ballet West it’s all positive,” Kirschner admitted. “All exposure is, I think, good exposure, so I think for a smaller company like Ballet West, this is huge. They’re reaching almost a million people, which is more than they’ll ever reach in years performing live.”
Around the dance world, other companies have definitely taken notice, although few artistic directors and spokespeople will say on the record that they would be willing to follow Ballet West onto reality TV. Gary Tucker, media relations manager for Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Ballet, said PNB had considered proposals for behind-the-scenes shows like “Breaking Pointe,” but said, “When their inspirational reference is ‘Black Swan,’ it gives one pause.” Still, Tucker, who watched the show said the end result could be positive for the ballet world. “If it gets people interested in learning more about ballet, and going to ballets, it’s ultimately a good thing,” he said. “I hear that visits to Ballet West’s website are way up, so hopefully that will translate into some ticket sales as well.”
Septime Webre, artistic director of The Washington Ballet in Washington, D.C., echoed Tucker’s comments about the potential benefits for the ballet world. “While the images may not always be accurate or even always depict a positive view of our work and world, the attention paid is a good thing. It demystifies what we do and viewers of films like ‘Black Swan’ or shows like ‘Breaking Pointe’ may begin to see themselves as viewers of ballet, which is a good thing,” Webre said. He added that while the company declined to participate in a commercial reality series when asked, TWB has been working on a series intended to be shown on PBS.
Long-time observers of the dance world have voiced varying opinions about ballet on reality television. “I’m both bothered and fascinated by [‘Breaking Pointe’],” said Theodore Bale, a Houston-based freelance arts critic and self-admitted reality TV fan, who has written frequently about the genre for popular and academic publications. “I think it’s interesting a company would take this on. I tried to imagine if this was covering Houston Ballet it would probably attract thousands of people to come to see that company who don’t come, so I like that side of it.”
And, Bale pointed out, in the context of reality television, he thought “Breaking Pointe” was well done in terms of its production values and editing. It didn’t, for example, wallow in some of the typical reality show staples such as characters getting drunk and out of control, “blonde moment” close-ups, night cam sexcapades, parking lot fights, or the ubiquitous “frenemies” road trip. “You see the kids talking in a very honest way about things, so it’s fascinating,” Bale said. “But I’m not sure this shows all that a ballet company really is. On one level it’s upholding a lot of myths – that the company is this one big happy, dysfunctional family with the father figure who holds all the power and you have people trying to come up through the ranks and so on. There’s just a certain predictable rhetoric about it.”
Sarah Hairston, a principal dancer with Cincinnati Ballet, said she enjoyed the show as did her students and colleagues at the Cincinnati Ballet’s academy. “I do hear students and company members talking about it,” she said. “I see a lot of discussion on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I think [that chatter] could grow, especially if they are picked up for another season. I feel the show could definitely help the growth of ballet in a positive light. Many times, the general public does not clearly understand what a dancer actually goes through on a day-to-day basis. They do not understand that this is our life, our passion, but it’s also our job. ‘Breaking Pointe’ shows many aspects of this life that are amazing and also challenging in a more realistic way than a movie like ‘Black Swan.’”
While the dance world awaits more solid evidence that “Breaking Pointe” may help the field, there are the merits of the show itself to discuss and dance fans have been doing so breathlessly, furiously, endlessly in online forums and via social media. That in itself is a phenomenon that many longtime dance watchers find as interesting (some might say more) as the show itself. “Normally I don’t like watching most of the dance or singing competition shows on TV,” said Adams of the Salt Lake City Tribune, “but it’s only because none of the judges are capable of providing any insight.” She counts herself as one of “Breaking Pointe’s” fans even though she shared some of the same concerns that others voiced. “I think ‘Breaking Pointe’ is the first time reality TV has elevated the discussion about anything instead of dumbing it down.”
Other “Breaking Pointe” fans include Dance magazine editor in chief Wendy Perron, although she too voiced the same concerns about the balance between showing pure dancing and showing the offstage lives of the dancers. “I enjoyed it more as it went on. I think the show isn’t meant for people like me who are already hooked on dance. It’s meant for people who are not in the dance world to let them see that these are human beings, each with a story of his or her own,” Perron said. “Compared to other television shows that are out there, I just felt this was a more realistic view of dance and working in the dance world and what a dance community is.”
But not everyone has jumped on the “Breaking Pointe” bandwagon. “I think it’s an awful show because you see them dance so little,” said long-time Portland-based dance critic Martha Ullman West. “I think the show gives you the impression [dancers] sit around talking about their relationships most of the time.” Added Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink, “I think it was just distasteful. It’s cheap television. In the meantime, what is it saying about our profession? I don’t think there’s any value to it because you’re dumbing it down so you can make it something people can talk about.”
Ballet West’s Sklute did the risk assessment before proceeding and felt that the company had more to gain than to lose by signing on to do the CW series. He pointed out that for him there isn’t much difference in participating in a reality television show than in producing a brand new ballet based on a popular story like “Alice in Wonderland” or “Dracula.” The goal remains the same: reaching new-to-ballet audiences with the hope that they will return and develop into regular ballet-goers. That’s the same reason companies return to The Nutcracker year after year: There’s always a chance that someone who never saw a Sugar Plum Fairy or a grand pas de deux is in the audience. Besides, Sklute noted, on “Breaking Pointe” viewers were seeing excerpts from the ballet canon — real ballets by Balanchine, Petipa and Kylian. “Companies are doing all sorts of things around the world to attract new audiences,” Sklute said. “We just went about it this way.”
Karyn D. Collins has been a journalist for 28 years. A native of Chicago, Collins specializes in feature writing including dance, fashion, entertainment, and diversity. Her work has been published by the Associated Press, Jet Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, Dance Magazine, Inside Jersey Magazine, Nia Online, The Root, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Newark Star-Ledger, Dance Teacher Magazine, Life and Beauty Weekly Magazine, InJerseyMagazine, and the Asbury Park Press. She is an adjunct professor at Bloomfield College in N.J. and a faculty member at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque, N.J. She is a former chair of the Dance Critics Association and the founding chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Arts and Entertainment writer’s task force.
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