How Accurate is the Ballet Plot of "This Is Us"?
If you're like me and have sobbed through every episode of "This Is Us" since the show premiered back in 2016, you might have been taken aback when a ballet plot was introduced absolutely out of nowhere earlier this season.
We'd gotten to know the fictional Pearson family pretty well by that point, though we hadn't yet explored Beth's past as exhaustively as we had that of her husband Randall, and his siblings Kevin and Kate.
But the show had never mentioned Beth's dance background when it gave us a flash-forward that seemed to depict Beth as the director of a large ballet school.
Since the flash-forward, the show has been putting pieces of the puzzle together through flashbacks: Beth was a serious dance student as a child, but gave it up in her teenage years when her father died. In the present day, Beth—who was recently fired and had been struggling figure out her next steps—returns to the classroom and begins teaching dance.
But the show's ballet scenes have been a bit...iffy. So we decided to fact-check them, moment by moment.
Half True: Susan Kelechi Watson's Dancing
Actress Susan Kelechi Watson did ballet until she was 13 and then quit—much like her character—so she decided to do her own dancing in the episodes. But there's been some controversy around the quality of her dancing. (Check out some of the Instagram comments on the above post.)
She's a capable mover, though many have commented on her subpar technique. But others have pointed out that her rusty dancing accurately reflects what it would be like to come back to the studio after 20+ years away. So we'll say that her dancing itself is realistic, but the idea that someone who hasn't danced or taught in 20 years would be hired to teach is not.
Questionable At Best: This School's *Extremely* Impressive Track Record
Screenshot via nbc.com
In the flashbacks, the ballet school where young Beth has been accepted seems to be legit and somewhat prestigious. So when Beth's mother balks at the cost of attending and the amount of time Beth will need to commit, the director of the school tries to explain that, for talented students, the time and expense can be worth it: "Our featured soloists go on to have careers at the New York City Ballet, The Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi," he says.
Either the director is scamming Beth's parents or the writers of "This Is Us" didn't do their research about who gets into these companies. New York City Ballet has historically hired the vast majority of dancers from the affiliated School of American Ballet. (Beth's school could be a fictionalized version of SAB, except for the fact that it doesn't seem to be located in New York City.) You can count the number of Americans who've danced with the Bolshoi on one hand (the first was David Hallberg in 2011) and the Royal has employed only a slightly larger number of Americans over the years.
What he says next does sound pretty accurate, though. Beth's parents ask how many students make it professionally each year: "It varies," he says. "Some years eight. Sometimes two."
True But Misleading: Subtle Misty Copeland Reference
During the same conversation, the director tells Beth's parents that "American Ballet Theatre has never had an African-American principal dancer in their 53-year-old history." This is totally true, but feels a bit anachronistic in this context.
No, ABT hadn't yet had a black principal dancer on their roster, but neither had most major ballet companies at that time. Singling out ABT seems to be a reference to a recent piece of dance history that has become mainstream knowledge: Misty Copeland's promotion to principal dancer at ABT in 2015. (She is the first African-American woman to hold this position, but Desmond Richardson preceded her as the first African-American principal dancer in 1997.)
Pants on Fire: Baryshnikov's Supposed Time-Traveling
In one flashback scene shortly after Beth begins at the school, the director tells her: "When I was about your age I saw Misha for the first time in Giselle."
Based on the director's comment about ABT's 53-year-old history, this scene is happening in 1992. (Though we have some questions about this timeline: It would make Beth around 12 years old, and she seems much younger in these scenes.)
The director seems to be in his mid-forties, which means that when he was Beth's age, it was the late '50s. Mikhail Baryshnikov was born in 1948. He was a prodigy, but we don't think he was doing Albrecht at age ten.
Actually True: Lauren Anderson at Houston Ballet
They got one ballet reference totally right: When Beth's teacher encourages her to try out other dance styles because she doesn't have the right body type (sadly, the depiction of the white ballet teacher telling the young black dancer that she doesn't have the body for ballet rings true, too) Beth brings up Lauren Anderson, who was told the same thing and still became a principal dancer at Houston Ballet. Beth is a teenager now, so it's the mid '90s, and Anderson became a principal in 1990.
Probably False: Beth's Magical Teaching Abilities
Present-day Beth feels like she's finally found her calling in teaching. And she's good at it—too good. She tells Randall that one of her students was only doing five pirouettes a few weeks prior, but under her tutelage is now doing seven.
Seven?! Even under the best of teachers, it's highly unusual for a ballet student to be able to perform seven pirouettes with correct technique. And considering Beth has no training in ballet pedagogy, we're not sure she's the best of teachers.
Conclusion: This Plotline Is Fun But Mostly Unrealistic
It's television, we get it. We're not saying that "This Is Us" needs to hire a ballet consultant. (Though if they do, I'm available.) But a few quick Google searches in the writers' room could have helped the many dancers watching the show suspend our disbelief a bit more wholeheartedly.
It seems the show has more important matters to attend to, such as making us cry for an hour every Tuesday evening.
A little over a year ago, I wrote an op-ed for Dance Magazine about the grueling, oppressive grant cycle. It was crying into my pillow, really. I was complaining and desperate to share my story. I was fed up with 10 years of applying for grants and having never received one for the research or development of my work. I was tired of the copy-and-paste rejection letters, the lack of feedback, and what seems to be a biased, inconsistent system.
I couldn't stand that I was made to feel as if I had to ask for permission to be an artist.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
The connections dancers make in college are no joke. For recent alum Gabrielle Hamilton, working with guest choreographer John Heginbotham at Point Park University put her on the fast track to Broadway—not in an ensemble role, but as the lead dancer in one of this season's hottest tickets: Daniel Fish's arresting reboot of Oklahoma!
We caught up with Hamilton about starring in the show's dream ballet and her delightfully bizarre pre-show ritual.
Last Friday, through an appeal to an independent arbitrator, the American Guild of Musical Artists successfully reinstated NYCB principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, previously fired for allegedly circulating sexually explicit texts containing nude photos.
AGMA opposed Ramasar and Catazaro's terminations in order to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent that would allow dancers to be fired under less understandable consequences. But we cannot allow future cases to dictate the way we handle this situation—particularly a union committed to "doing everything in [its] power to ensure you have a respectful environment in which to work."
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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But according to the H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, one in every three dancers in New York City lives under the poverty line, and may lack the resources to purchase the ingredients they need to make nutritious meals.
Not to mention the fact that dancers are busy, and often running around from class to rehearsal to performance to side hustle, grabbing whatever they can get to eat on-the-go.
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."