And even with this pandemic, Netflix never ceases to surprise us. We will have a new series about classical ballet entitled “Tiny Pretty Things“. It will be based on the book of the same name by authors Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, which was released in 2015, while a sequel was released the following year, entitled Shiny Broken Pieces.
Perhaps a teen mix of the Black Swan movie and the Pretty Little Liars series where the plot of Tiny Pretty Things is set in the world of a ballet school that shows young dancers in their ups and downs. As the only elite dance school in Chicago, the Archer School of Ballet serves as a bridge to the city's renowned professional company: City Works Ballet.
The story has several main characters and will show the details of their experiences whether they are from rich and poor families and talents from the north to the south of the country. Sharing the same passion daily to achieve the longed for a professional career.
The series is made up of many professional dancers who have joined other internationally renowned companies or even Broadway. As well as new talents, that are emerging as Juliano Nunes, a Brazilian now living in Germany where he is working as a freelance choreographer in several companies and projects around the world and who is on the rise with beautiful choreographies.
Today I was able to talk to Jennifer Nichols, head choreographer and dance consultant on the show, also known for choreographing other projects and TVs shows , which I had the opportunity to work with her several times in Toronto, Canada.
G.L: Jen, tells us about your experience in the upcoming series. How was the choreographic process? I believe that choreographing for normal ballet performances should be different than choreographing for TV since there are details and focusing with lights, shadows, angles…
J.N.: Yes, absolutely it is a different process creating movement for the screen than for the stage. Some aspects are the same, some are very different. When you’re not choreographing with a ‘proscenium’ stage view in mind (which is very flat), you have the added challenge but also the benefit of showing the choreography from a 360 degree perspective. We can create shapes and patterns that may be seen from overhead, from a bird’s eye view, which is stunning. Film also shows the choreography not just in the wide, but close up. The nuances of partnering, the emotional connection between the dancers, and the extreme angles and intensity of the physicality is amplified close up. So, I suppose you could say that it is a two part process: first, you have to create with the whole picture in mind, and second, with the possibilities of showing the movement more intimately and from all angles. There is even more to play with after the shooting is complete, in the edit suit. I sat with the editors and helped figure out the most effective and stunning ways to show the work.
The directors are also involved in the process from the beginning. They each have their own artistic approach to the shots, and will first sit with me to present their ‘vision’ for how they see the scene playing out. We talk about the shots and angles they will be putting on film, and we collaborate on the best way to achieve that. They will often come to watch a few rehearsals, and review videos I pass along of the rehearsal process. Sometimes this changes what they had planned, as the choreography inspires different ideas. It’s very collaborative and I find this really satisfying.
G.L: Are we going to see more classical, contemporary dancing or a little bit of everything?
J.N.: You’re definitely going to see a bit of everything! One of the things that excited me the most about the direction the show runner, Michael McLennan, wanted to take, was that he wanted to present a ‘true to life’ picture of a professional classical ballet school set in the United States of America. Of course the foundation of the dancers’ training is classical ballet, and this is the priority of any professional ballet school. But the reality of these schools in 2020 is that other forms of dance are also taught and developed. These additional forms of dance are no longer just ‘character’ dance focusing on folk dances of Europe and the western world. They encompass neo-classical and contemporary dance, as well as jazz and hip hop. Many ballet schools are also starting to offer classes in traditional dances from a wide variety of cultures around the world.
Of course, as I said, the foundation and focus in these schools is classical ballet, but many graduates of professional ballet schools go on to join contemporary dance companies, rather than traditionally classical companies. Furthermore, classical companies are now expanding their repertoire to include contemporary works. The story ballets are beautiful, but they are no longer enough to keep most companies running. This means that professional ballet dancers must be versatile enough to interpret both classical and contemporary. To get hired, they have to be strong in both.
We’ve demonstrated this in the show, and we also remind our audience that many ballet dancers live to just DANCE, whatever that means. So, outside of their daily curriculum you’ll see them exploring many other genres of dance. Dancers are dancers. They are hungry for movement of all kinds!
G.L: During the pandemic and with social networks on the rise, many dancers exposed in their profiles the realities of many dance companies and schools regarding the issue of diversity in classical dance.
We will see a little of this representation in the series, which is so much needed in the ballet industry?
J.N.: Yes, the dance world is going through the same reckoning as the rest of the world when it comes to racial diversity, equal opportunity and representation. This is a particularly important time for the classical ballet world, which has for centuries been a white-centric and European art form. We have a long way to go, but I am excited by the breakthrough in awareness and what this could mean moving forward. Our show speaks to this and I hope enforces the message that ballet is an art form for ALL. It can be enjoyed by all and pursued professionally by all. Our lead cast is racially and culturally diverse, and this is a true representation of where we are starting to move in the ballet world and where we MUST continue to go, to ensure that our stages are platforms of equal representation. The shift in our social consciousness is absolutely vital in the ballet world, and long overdue.
G.L: We know that the paths of classical ballet and the choice to be a professional dancer are not easy. This includes hours and hours of classes, rehearsals, pain, injuries and we saw that many movies or series are already known portraying dance focusing on this bad side, forgetting to show that dance has many positive sides. What will the series show besides the dramas of being a dancer?
J.N.: You’re absolutely correct. The films and television shows we’ve seen that are based in the ballet world have typically overemphasized the difficulty, the pain, the dark side of the profession. Of course it would not serve the art form well to sugar coat the process and represent it as just tiaras and standing ovations, however I feel that the negativity has been taken too far. We cannot forget that there is a very real reason why young people become enchanted with the art form, why it feeds their soul so much that they are willing to make extreme sacrifices and face so many challenges! If it was all bad, we wouldn’t have so many dancers graduating from professional schools and fighting for a place in a company.
I feel that the show strikes a fine balance between the light and the dark. There are scenes where the ‘transcendent’ moments of dance are clear, where the combination of the music, the connection between two dancers or the incomparable feeling of flying through the air are breathtakingly evident. There are scenes that remind us that while there is always competition between ballet students (competition for a spot in the school, for a role, for an opportunity to be considered for the company), the tight bonds, support and camaraderie in these institutions is unparalleled. The students truly form their own family. As with all families, there are ups and downs, but at the end of the day, they love and are there for each other!
Also, pursuing a professional career in dance provides a focus and discipline for young people that is completely unique. I think the show reminds the audience that although the training asks these young dancers to grow up fast, to face adult challenges much earlier than most, it also gives them the opportunity build character and strength that will carry them through life, whether they do pursue a career in dance or not. Ballet school is hard, but it builds artists and warriors!
G.L: And to finish, what do you think this series is different from other series and movies related to dance? How do you think it will impact the dancers who are going to watch?
J.N.: I think what will set this series apart, is that while it is set in a ballet school and it is rich with dance scenes (dance lovers will certainly be satisfied by the amount of dance on camera!), the narrative is built on so much more than just the daily run down of class, rehearsals and performance. There are so many layers to the show, so much character development that extends beyond dance. There are mysteries to be solved!
Also, as I mentioned before, because we don’t simply show classical ballet, it opens the door to inviting different guest choreographers from around the world. As head choreographer I created much of the dance for the show, but I was also privileged to bring in some of the most inspiring choreographic voices currently in the dance scene. Because there are a variety of voices and dance styles shown, I feel it gives the show a lot of texture. There is not just one ‘tone’ across the season.
Lastly, I feel proud that we managed to stay true to the world and maintain a high level of entertainment without falling into dance ‘clichés’. That has been done far too much in dance movies and tv shows!
G.L: Jen, thank you so much for your time and for providing us with a little bit about Tiny Pretty Things. It's always great to be able to see projects that involve dancing and we can't wait to be able to watch and we wish good luck with the production!
J.N.: Thanks so much, Gio! My pleasure!