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
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.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
We knew that Ivo van Hove and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's production of West Side Story would challenge our preconceived notions about the show.
But a recent Vogue story gives us a taste of just how nontraditional the Broadway revival will be. Most notably, van Hove is cutting "I Feel Pretty" and the "Somewhere" ballet, condensing the show into one act to better reflect the urgency of the 48-hour plot. (The choice has been approved by the West Side Story estate, including Sondheim, who has "long been uncomfortable" with some of the "I Feel Pretty" lyrics.)
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.