Looking for some extra merriment this holiday season? Disney+ is gifting ballet fans with an inside look at the School of American Ballet with its new show "On Pointe." The six-part docuseries, which began filming in summer 2019 and concluded in early 2020 when the school shut down due to COVID-19, follows a season with SAB students. All six episodes will be released on the subscription-based streaming service on December 18.
Pointe spoke with the show's director and producer, Larissa Bills, about what viewers can expect from the show and how she hopes it will inspire dancers.
What inspired this docuseries, and why did you choose to work with SAB specifically?
My executive producer, Matt O'Neill, had fostered a relationship with the school over several years, hoping to develop a feature documentary or series, but the timing was never quite right. Sometime in late 2018, SAB reached out to us and asked if there was still interest. I had been working with Matt on other projects and we started to develop it together, and eventually Matt handed it off to me to direct. I think SAB liked that we would have a small footprint—we'd be a really small crew that would be able to float in and not disrupt their work.
I learned a lot over the course of filming and editing. It was an amazing opportunity to dive into one of the best ballet schools in the world.
Can you give a brief snapshot of some of the dancers we will see profiled on the show?
We follow two tracks of dancers: several intermediate and advanced students, and kids in the children's division.
The intermediate and advanced dancers are primarily residential students from all over the country, ages 14 to 18, who have been invited to SAB to train for professional careers. For most of them, the dream is to join New York City Ballet. Because the school is affiliated with the company, there is a bit of a path to NYCB, but it's not guaranteed.
The younger kids that we feature are winter-term students from all over New York City, ages 8 to 13, who have the opportunity to be cast in NYCB's production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. We follow them through the process of being cast, rehearsing, being fitted for costumes and, eventually, opening night. What's amazing is that while they do 25 shows on the stage at Lincoln Center, they are still going to school and taking ballet class and doing things regular kids do. They are really extraordinary.
SAB children's division students during a casting call for NYCB's The Nutcracker
Do you have a dance background or are you connected to the ballet world in some way?
I took ballet lessons as a kid. My mother had danced well into her teens and had instilled a real love of the art form in me. I loved seeing ballets and reading about them. My favorite book was A Very Young Dancer, by photojournalist Jill Krementz. It was about a girl who went to SAB and danced Marie in The Nutcracker. As a kid I would pore over that book endlessly. I actually dug it up when I started the series, just to try to enlist some of that wonder into the filmmaking.
What do you think makes this series unique compared to other ballet movies and shows?
SAB gave us unprecedented access, and, of course, we documented the process of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker from casting to performance. Just seeing the "machine" of a big professional production like that was amazing, and I think it will be a unique experience for viewers.
Also, the featured students are really telling their own stories, in their own voices. We were truly a fly on the wall—nothing is manufactured or scripted. Things move quickly at SAB and we couldn't manipulate student schedules or do things over to get a shot, so we had to always be at the right place at the right time. Often that meant we needed to study up on our dance and understand how certain classes were taught and even anticipate how variations were going to move so we could capture the choreography on camera.
The dance industry has been really affected by the current pandemic. How do you hope this show will inspire dancers during this challenging time?
Oh, I definitely hope the series will inspire ballet students right now. I know for me personally, just being able to see footage every day of SAB students together in classes, in rehearsals and onstage took on so much more meaning for me once the pandemic hit. It also gave me a lot of hope to know that these students—even the youngest ones—are still doing their tendus, whether it's at a kitchen counter or a barre in their basement or at their hometown studio. To me, dance really lives in the moment it is performed. Even if we don't have live performances (or class or rehearsal), we do have the next best thing, and that is the recorded performance (or class or rehearsal). And it's my hope that audiences will find a bit of joy over the course of the series through those moments we've captured.