Disney+ pulled back the curtain in mid-December, releasing a docuseries following a season with students in the School of American Ballet, a prestigious dance academy in New York City.
“On Pointe” is divided into six episodes running around 45 minutes each. As a former pointe dancer myself, I was excited for this backstage look into the school and the New York City Ballet.
SAB was founded by George Balanchine in 1934. As a child, Balanchine was a student of the Imperial Ballet School in Russia. His exact, detailed technique and quick-paced choreography distinguished him as one of the most respected choreographers in American ballet. The New York City Ballet has performed his version of “The Nutcracker” since 1954.
Disney took an original angle for its original program. Rather than try to shape the content into a reality TV format, the series is presented in traditional documentary style. Each episode begins with a spam of quotes detailing opinions, dreams and goals from SAB students and faculty. It almost feels as if a series of mini news feature story packages were sewn together into a longer, stand-alone project. The dancers, their parents and SAB faculty provide interviews and voice-over narratives to explain and supplement each scene.
The storyline follows members of the children’s division as well as advanced dancers. We meet many younger students, such as Isabela, 9, Kai, 10, and Sophia, 11, whose main goals are to be cast in “The Nutcracker.” We also meet older students from across the country who live in dorms at the school, including Sam, 16, Ruby, 16, and New Orleans native, Taela, 15, who have the ultimate goal of earning an apprenticeship with the New York City Ballet.
Throughout the series we follow these main characters along with a few others, as they audition, rehearse and perform.
The first episode details auditions for the school, which take place across all five boroughs of New York. The second episode focuses in on “The Nutcracker” production, detailing casting. The third is more of the same, switching between practices and social lives.
Episode four “Sacrifice and Support” lived up most to my expectations for the series. The latter half was really worth watching. Viewers learn the ins and outs of “The Nutcracker” rehearsals, which include both dancers from the children’s division and professional members of the New York City Ballet.
The first piece to truly catch my attention was the Polichinelle rehearsal. In the Land of Sweets in Act II of “The Nutcracker,” Mother Ginger, ruler of the Land of Amusement, performs a dance with her eight children, the Polichinelles. The scene is especially challenging to pull off without incident, as all eight of the girls must fit under an 85-pound skirt worn by a male dancer on stilts.
From there, we witness the Hoops rehearsal and are given the great privilege of a behind-the-scenes peek into the wardrobe department.
Episode five focuses on the advanced students for the first half and then moves into the children’s dress rehearsals, providing the perfect segue into the final installment of the series, where viewers get to see magical scenes from “The Nutcracker” production.
The last episode ends with classes at SAB cancelled due to COVID and a short closing about how the dancers we met are adjusting to dancing from home. A second season has not yet been confirmed.
True to its title, the series strived to be “On Pointe.” I appreciated the accuracy and lack of scripted, stereotypical drama with which most dance shows are plagued; however, at times the action did feel a little slow, with a few scenes and comments being repetitive. The series took us beyond the doors of the studio and into the homes of the students. I understand the writers wanted to show the support, sacrifice and commitment of the dancers and their families, but the constant emphasis on commutes and scenes shot in the subway were boring. There were lots of pet cameos to get you through the at-home family scenes.
Although I was slightly disappointed, this may be due to the fact that the series seems to be directed mostly toward younger audiences. The documentary succeeds in providing a positive message of inspiration and encouragement for children to follow their dreams, no matter how young they are. The show did have some merits for older viewers, especially those who were dancers themselves. Although it lagged at times, overall, the documentary has many interesting facts and tidbits dispersed throughout.
Taking it for what it was, I would say “On Pointe” meets the barre.