Why is it so hard to show the dance world as it is? This Netflix series about students at a ballet school is yet another cartoonish depiction.
In the opening moments of the Netflix series “Tiny Pretty Things,” a young woman in a white dress spins along the edge of a roof. A voice-over — female and confiding, with the air of a cult survivor — spells it out: “The truth is you only fly for a second or two before gravity takes back what you tried to steal. Because no matter how hard you work, how strong you are or how thin you get, gravity always, always wins.”
Down she goes! Pushed by someone in a hoodie. Splat.
You may feel a similar thud after watching the 10 episodes of “Tiny Pretty Things,” set at the fictional Archer School of Ballet in Chicago. Gravity weighs down your bones. The dialogue, the dancing and the incessant plot twists bring on an exhausted kind of dizziness.
And then there are the voice-overs, each more overwrought than the next. “There’s a wicked paradox in ballet,” one intones. “Great flexibility is expected to blossom in a rigid world. The brutal rules and endless isolation, the messing of your mind, it somehow contorts your natural tendency to stretch into a perverse expression of a miracle.”
But the actual ballet horror starts before “Tiny Pretty Things” even begins, with its demeaning title that implies dancers aren’t people but creatures — things — incapable of anything beyond skin-deep beauty and calorie counting. The show is yet another failure by popular culture to get the ballet world and dance right. The usual clichés are all here, monotonous and spread so thin that they’re more cartoonish than ever.
A refresher: Ballet dancers don’t have minds, only bodies. They are powerless. They exist in a bubble outside of the real world. They sabotage one another. Competition is ruthless. They’re painfully thin, have eating disorders and smoke like chimneys. If they’re men, they’re gay. They have pushy, overbearing parents. And their nails never manage to stick to their toes.
What’s so disconcerting about a show like “Tiny Pretty Things,” which was adapted from a novel, is how it takes stereotypes and pushes them to oppressive silliness without any of the pleasures of camp. In what kind of elite dance school do kids hang out naked in saunas? Why wouldn’t administrators lock the roof after someone fell off it? And why is the lighting so dark? It’s amber for sex or icy blue for nightmares.
“On Pointe,” the six-part documentary about the competitive New York City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet, also recently released, tells a different side of the story. Here, dancers of all ages show the work, dedication — and, yes, friendship — that goes into becoming a professional dancer. It’s not that I would expect “Tiny Pretty Things” to be as thoughtful and nuanced as a documentary or on par with something like “The Queen’s Gambit,” which has chess as its backdrop. But dance — especially because too few people have it in their everyday lives — deserves better.
In cinema, ballet has long served as fodder for settings of horror and brutality. It makes sense: Careers are short, and there is always another dancer waiting in the wings with better feet, a higher jump and — that undeniable thing — youth. But dance is also a way to show emotions and the inner mind without words; a body can lose control. It can appear to be human and transform into something else: eerie, tormented, exaggerated. It can house horror.
“The Red Shoes” (1948) is an opulent look at a young ballerina who rises to the top and dances herself to death. More recent is “Black Swan” (2010), a psychological drama in which another young dancer loses her mind during a company’s production of “Swan Lake.” Stereotypes? Sure. Problematic? Yes. But in the case of supernatural horror, realism isn’t the point.
The horror in “Suspiria,” both the 1977 and 2018 versions, involves witches haunting dance academies; the dancers in Gaspard Noé’s “Climax” are deranged and on drugs. I like parts of all these movies. They’re grown up. So is the excellent “Billy Elliot” (2000), and that’s about an 11-year old boy. It shows dance as a form of catharsis: Billy, growing up during the grim 1984 coal miner’s strike in northern England, had a reason to dance.
But “Tiny Pretty Things” is cheap: It’s like an 11-year old trying to act — and dress — like a grown-up. It’s a dirtier version of “Center Stage” (2000), a popular film that veered toward the corny and that wasn’t well served by its broad characterizations and stereotypes. And add to that some of the trauma and torment associated with “Flesh and Bone,” a 2015 Starz mini-series, and the unending scandal of “Gossip Girl.”
It should come as little surprise that in “Tiny Pretty Things,” rest and rehab aren’t how a dancer overcomes an injury: It’s drugs. One student, Bette, dancing with fractured metatarsal, needs more Vicodin. She tells her mother, “I can limp around on Advil, or you can help me achieve liftoff.”
It gets worse. Much of the hammy dialogue is delivered with a bizarre, manic sense of importance. There are plenty of bulging eyes.
“I’m asking for broken dolls, you’re giving me dying insects.”
“Look, I don’t know a nutcracker from a nightstick, but I know danger when I see it.”
There are even some twists on the usual stereotypes. Instead of the artistic director of the school being a man and having an affair with a girl, the director is a woman who is sleeping with a teenage boy. “Madame and I are tight,” as he puts it. Their scenes together are especially awful.
The dancer with an eating disorder turns out to be a young man, too. Between weigh-ins, starvation and binge eating, he’s sleeping with his girlfriend, as well as his male roommate. Race isn’t left out of the story; a Black dancer (Kylie Jefferson) finds herself dealing with racism on top of everything else. But mostly, there’s sex, sex and more sex.
Much has been made of the fact that the cast members are actual dancers, but the only choreography that really seems to matter at the Archer School has to do with working out in bed. Throughout, there is a soft porn vibe and constant, gratuitous nudity. But that’s consistent with the show’s attitude. As a voice-over implies, dancers are not people. They’re bodies, as detached as possible. “You need to think like a puppet,” one dancer tells another. “A ballet master’s the brain. You’re just the body.”
It’s not as if dancers in real life aren’t subject to degrading stereotypes. And backstage drama is real, too. The recent photo-sharing scandal at New York City Ballet featuring explicit images of young women was shocking both in and outside of the dance world.
Less startling but still troubling was a story told by the City Ballet principal Ashley Bouder in an interview on Megan Fairchild’s YouTube series. Ms. Bouder’s pointe shoes, she said, had been stolen by a rival dancer on a tour. “I’m pretty sure I still talk to this person and we’re friends now,” she said.
The shoes were later found in a bag of lighting equipment. “It’s not funny and no one should ever do this,” said Ms. Fairchild, pointing a finger while holding back laughter.
But for her, it was an important lesson about survival, and maybe regret on the part of the person who did it. And there’s something else about how they talk about the story, as nasty as it was, that is absent in “Tiny Pretty Things”: humor. Dancers are hilarious. Amy Sherman-Palladino, with her fictional series “Bunheads,” understood and embraced this. The dialogue, biting at times, had rhythm; the dancing had wit. That Ms. Sherman-Palladino was a dancer is no surprise. Humor runs through many dancers’ veins, not ice.
In keeping with that, something bright and creative has emerged from “Tiny Pretty Things,” and it’s not the premiere of the show’s “Jack the Ripper” — “a ballet of passion and darkness on the edge of desire,” its seedy choreographer, Ramon says — in which dancers are plied and pulled by unseen forces. Instead, it’s real-life dance humor mocking the show from Robert La Fosse, who posts prize-worthy, lip sync monologues from its characters on Instagram.
A veteran choreographer who danced with both American Ballet Theater and City Ballet, Mr. La Fosse mouths the lines with just the right ferocity: “You’re young. You’re hungry. You’re strong and you’re eager. But none of you are consistent! And in ballet that is everything. You can’t be wildly good one day and then a train wreck the next.”
Forget the sex and the drugs, the rape and the murder. For all of its busy menace, “Tiny Pretty Things” takes no risks. Tiny? Pretty? In ballet, that can add up to boring. A consistent, technical dancer has nothing on a wild one.