Kylie Jefferson (center, back) in "Tiny Pretty Things" (Sophie Giraud, courtesy Netflix)

Netflix’s “Tiny Pretty Things” Faces Ballet Stereotypes Head-On

The pilot of Netflix's dance-centric series "Tiny Pretty Things"—based on the YA novel by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton—will leave you breathless. It touches on, well, everything: love, murder, racism, competition, jealousy, girl cliques, sexual experimentation, eating disorders. And the intricate plot is propelled by equally breathtaking ballet sequences.

Here are the basics of that plot: The Archer School of Ballet is the premiere conservatory in Chicago. During the first three minutes of the episode (no spoilers!), star student Cassie Shore is pirouetting along the edge of the roof of the school when she's pushed off by a hooded man (Her boyfriend? A jealous lover? A ballet master or choreographer?) and dies. Neveah Stroyer, who'd previously been rejected from the school, is flown in from L.A. to replace her.

While the series can verge on melodrama—the pilot does open with a dancer being pushed off a roof, after all—its depiction of the finer details of the ballet world feels spot-on. That was paramount to the production team. "We wanted the dancers to feel represented in their athleticism, and in the sometimes ugly business of making something beautiful," says executive producer Jordanna Fraiberg. "The show encompasses the grit and sweat, before it's wrapped up in costumes and makeup."

Catch "Tiny Pretty Things" streaming on Netflix Monday, December 14.


Finding the Right Cast

To ensure the show would feel authentic, the creators set out to cast dancers who could act, not actors who'd require dance doubles. The process spanned three months and many continents. It often felt—especially when casting two of the leads, roles that ultimately went to Kylie Jefferson and Barton Cowperthwaite—like "trying to find unicorns," head choreographer and dance consultant Jennifer Nichols says. "To be at that level of dance skill is already a huge feat, and to be a brilliant actor on top of that is hard."

Nichols was also tasked with making sure every other element of the production accurately reflected the ballet world. "The team consulted about how the shoe room would really look, how the studio was set up, how to tie a pointe shoe ribbon," Nichols explains. "These are all dead giveaways unless they're supervised by someone in the dance world. I was worried we wouldn't have the time and money to make it all look right, but it was never pushed aside."

A still from "Tiny Pretty Things." Dancers stretch on the floor of the studio. Our focus is on Kylie Jefferson and Daniela Norman, who seem to be engaged in conversation while stretching. Both girls look serious, and face each other. Kylie Jefferson is in a split, and Daniela Norman is in a lunge. Both wear long-sleeved dresses, tights, pointe shoes, and their hair in buns.

Kylie Jefferson (left) and Daniela Norman in an episode of "Tiny Pretty Things" (Sophie Giraud courtesy Netflix)

Ballet-World Realness

"Tiny Pretty Things" explores issues many young ballet dancers grapple with: How do you befriend your biggest competition? How has racism stained the ballet world? How does a young dancer figure out their sexuality? How common are eating disorders among dancers? "In the past, entertainment often hasn't done justice to the dance world," Nichols says. "Not just the ups and downs of it, but also all the difficult work that goes into it." Oren, played by Barton Cowperthwaite, struggles with his sexual identity and an eating disorder. June, played by Daniela Norman, is tortured by a mother who doesn't believe in her talent. Bette, played by Casimere Jollette, lives in the shadow of her more gifted sister, a principal dancer in the company. Shane, played by Brennan Clost, worries that his male lover will leave him for a woman.

Kylie Jefferson, 25, who plays Neveah and earned her BFA at The Boston Conservatory, says her character's storyline reflects her own experiences with racism in ballet from "top to bottom." In the first episode, the head of the ballet school, played by Lauren Holly, glibly claims that Neveah, who is Black, was plucked out of Compton (she wasn't); fellow dancers make fun of a YouTube clip of her dancing hip hop; and her ballet teacher critiques her every move (and clothing choice).

"At the Boston Conservatory, girls were complaining to the head of the dance division about parts I was getting," she explains. "They said I was given them because I was Black. Don't they think I was aware of the stares or forced smiles they gave me when I did more turns than they did, or my arabesques got higher?" She appreciates the show's unvarnished portrayal of the challenges she and many other Black ballet dancers face. "Representation is so important," she says. "I'm grateful to be part of a show that's able to do that—and not just in one light."

Using Dance to Tell the Story

The show's conflicts play out in the dialogue, of course, but dance also plays a vital role in the storytelling. (A pas de deux between two dancers might preview an unexpected love story, for example.) That meant choosing choreographers was particularly important. "We asked ourselves: How can choreography amplify and reflect the inner workings of narrative and the psychology of the characters?" Nichols says. "How can the dance further the narrative without playing second fiddle to it?"

Five A-list choreographers were hired to reflect the show's varied moods and styles: Guillaume Côté, Juliano Nunes, Garrett Smith, Tiler Peck, and Robert Binet. In typical entertainment-world fashion, they had relatively few rehearsals with the cast. Since time with each choreographer was so limited (dancers were often off shooting other scenes), Nichols—who was on set the whole season and choreographed all the in-class segments—acted as a go-between, helping the choreographers understand each dancer's strengths.

A still from "Tiny Pretty Things." Kylie Jefferson and Barton Cowperthwaite dance together in an empty, sun-lit studio. Kylie Jefferson's arms are extended above her head, and her legs are bent, with one extended to the side, on the floor. She wears black leggings and a metallic, geometric-printed long sleeve shirt. Barton Cowperthwaite stands with both legs bent, and one arm extended over his head. He wears navy joggers and a maroon tee shirt.

Kylie Jefferson and Barton Cowperthwaite dance together in an episode of "Tiny Pretty Things" (Sophie Giraud, courtesy Netflix)

Inside the Creative Process

The production process was fundamentally different from what the dancers, many of whom have impressive concert-world resumés, were accustomed to. "I learned that time is money!" Cowperthwaite says. "I'm used to performing onstage. The show goes how it goes, and you decompress and process after. When you're shooting, it's the same kind of pressure, but you have much less time to decompress. On set, you get your six to 10 takes, and you move on."

The camaraderie and professionalism of the stellar cast helped facilitate the filming process. The dancer-actors soon became "best friends," according to Cowperthwaite. "We would shoot all hours of the day and hang out all weekend. The dynamic was something to behold."

The natural chemistry between Jefferson and Cowperthwaite, in particular, made their onscreen dancing feel seamless. "We started filming a scene where they're paired for a Sleeping Beauty pas de deux, and immediately there was a spark between them," Nichols says. "It's written into the script, but it happened in real life, too. We all thought: 'We're really lucky to be able to pair them together.' "

The hope is that the show's clear-eyed portrayal of ballet, and the way it showcases gifted dancers at the top of their game, will hook Netflix's massive mainstream audience on dance. "When I got to set," Jefferson says, "I knew that everything I've been through in my life—everyone who's told me I wasn't working hard enough, every heartbreak that had nothing to do with dance—all of that was to get me there. It was to get me there and to help me keep going."

Meet Two "Tiny Pretty Things" Standouts

Barton Cowperthwaite

Age: 28

Higher education: BFA in dance from the University of Arizona

Hometown studio: Denver School of the Arts and The Academy of Colorado Ballet

Proudest career moments: Performing the lead in Lar Lubovitch's Men's Stories, and going on as Jerry in An American in Paris on tour. "I got thrown on 15 minutes before curtain, when both the lead and alternate called out!" he says. "I'd never done it with lights or costumes or with the female lead. And it was April Fool's. No one believed it!"

How he got the job on "Tiny Pretty Things": "I was in China with An American in Paris. I did a Skype audition from the basement of the theater during the one hour my Wi-Fi was functioning properly. It was a small miracle."

What he's been doing in quarantine: "Working out, and taking ballet online three to four times a week. I'm also reading sci-fi and acting books, and working on my voice. I've been active on social media, supporting Black Lives Matter, learning to be an ally. I'm also involved with Vote Forward, a letter-writing campaign to engage underrepresented and unlikely voters."

His advice to young dancers: "Find your dance instincts, and then train in a style on the other end of the spectrum so you stay grounded and disciplined. My physicality pushes me towards contemporary, but I turn to ballet as my rock, my lightning rod."

What the team says about him: "He's a brilliant dancer," Jennifer Nichols, the show's dance consultant, says. "He's a sinewy chameleon. He can be powerful and snappy, or soft and fluid. He has a lot of training in a myriad of styles, and an extensive professional past. I remember within seconds thinking: 'This kid can do anything.' "

Kylie Jefferson

Age: 25

Major: BFA in contemporary dance performance, with an emphasis in pedagogy, from the Boston Conservatory

Hometown studio: Debbie Allen Dance Academy. At 6, Jefferson was the youngest student to ever be admitted—the cutoff used to be 8. "From the beginning, Ms. Allen kept me close and pushed me beyond my limits," Jefferson says.

Proudest career moment: "Choreographing ScHoolboy Q's 'CHopstix' music video. I was able to hire friends I grew up dancing with—African-American women performing ballet exceptionally on TV. It was the first time the community I grew up with and my craft were aligned. In that moment, it became clear that I would never give up."

How she got the job on "Tiny Pretty Things": "I called so many dance studios in L.A. looking for space to make my audition tape, but they were all booked because so many dancers were auditioning for the show! The only time I could get was 7 pm on the night of the submission deadline. I spent the whole night editing. I was stressed-out getting it to upload!"

What she's been doing in quarantine: "Most mornings I wake up and mourn Breonna Taylor and turn on Lizzo and dance however I want to dance. If I want to put my leg up one second and twerk the next second, I will. I'm trying to set healthy patterns for myself, so I can get out and fight for my future and my future children. I've gotten to a point where I'm not asking for love or protection: I'm going to be that love and protection. I know that my spirit needs it, and I know my friends need it, too."

Advice to young dancers: "You have to show up for your lessons to receive your blessings. Stay 10 toes down in that. Sometimes you are the lesson you have to learn, and sometimes there are outward lessons. When you get shaky—questioning yourself, your confidence—the universe will respond to that."

What the team says about her: "There's an innate grace and purity to Kylie's lines," Jennifer Nichols says. "There was an authenticity to her audition tape: This is Kylie dancing, not a graduate of such-and-such school, where you see their teacher speaking through them. There's a real freedom to her movement. She comes alive when she dances."

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Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.


For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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