Seven years ago today something very special entered the lives of bunheads everywhere. What was it? Well, "Bunheads," the Amy Sherman-Palladino television show that aired on ABC Family for 18 short episodes, until the final curtain fell in February of 2013. Unlike the sadistic pop culture depictions of ballet that sandwiched it (Black Swan in 2010 and "Flesh and Bone" in 2015), "Bunheads" was a wholesome, funny and mostly true-to-life look at what it's really like to be a teenage trina.
It's been over five years since "Bunheads" was shockingly canceled—and we're still not over it. TBH, we'll probably be crying #Justice4Bunheads until we finally get a revival. It was truly impossible not to love the ACB Family series, both because it starred Sutton Foster and because it taught us so many life lessons. Here are 7 of those lessons we still hold dear to our hearts today.
For many dancers, it's a familiar story: A young girl dreams of becoming a ballerina. She's talented—very talented, in fact—but her body doesn't fit the ballet type. She's never quite thin enough; her legs are too bulky, her torso too short. She works hard, because she wants it desperately. But she can't change the realities of the ballet world. And it's not a friendly place for dancers who look like her.
This is the story of Bettina “Boo" Jordan, the unexpected heroine of ABC Family's “Bunheads," currently in the second half of its debut season. It's also the story of Kaitlyn Jenkins, the 20-year-old actress who plays Boo. Before being cast as Boo, Jenkins had quietly decided to table her dance dreams. But thanks to “Bunheads," she's now a professional dancer—not to mention an up-and-coming actress.
“Bunheads," created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, isn't universally beloved by ballet fans. When it hits its stride, however, it's a bewitchingly madcap confection. There's plenty of rapid-fire banter and a gaggle of quirky small-town characters, familiar to fans of Sherman-Palladino's “Gilmore Girls." There are fantastically nutty dance numbers—including a reimagining of The Nutcracker's battle scene as a Wall Street showdown, with shades of Kurt Jooss' The Green Table—choreographed by Los Angeles heavy-hitter Marguerite Derricks. There are also two big Broadway stars: Sutton Foster, who plays former Vegas showgirl Michelle Simms, and Kelly Bishop, as hard-nosed ballet studio owner Fanny Flowers.
Jenkins with the other bunheads (Bailey Buntain, Julia Goldani Telles and Emma Dumont) and Sutton Foster, at right. Photo by Adam Lakey, Courtesy ABC Family.
Ballet fans have been looking forward to ABC Family's "Bunheads" for weeks now, since it advertises—from the title down—that it's all about ballet. But the first episode, at least, had a lot of plot exposition to get out of the way before digging into anything truly "bunhead"-y. A very quick summary: Onetime ballet dancer but current Las Vegas showgirl Michelle (Broadway star Sutton Foster, who is fantastic) is tired of performing in a feathered bikini but unable to get a "real" Broadway job. She impulsively marries a devoted, if dopey, fan ("He wears gym socks with a suit," she laments) and moves to his tiny coastal town in California. Little does she know that he lives with his mother, Fanny (Kelly Bishop, who you'll probably recognize from "Gilmore Girls," which was also produced by "Bunheads" executive producer Amy Sherman-Palladino). Fanny, Michelle discovers, runs a ballet studio. And that's where we begin to get into the ballet side of the story.
Fanny and the young would-be ballerinas studying at the studio are great TV characters. Are they ballet stereotypes? Well, in a way. Fanny danced with the Ballets Russes but gave it up when she got pregnant (even the show admits that's "very Turning Point"). Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins) is dying to dance but frustrated by her technical limitations. Ginny (Bailey Buntain, who is going to be a Megan Hilty lookalike when she grows up) is equal parts fascinated and horrified by her ever-growing chest. Sasha (the gifted Julia Goldani Telles, channeling Eva from Center Stage) is talented but has a bad attitude. They're all at risk of becoming a little two-dimensional, but the dialogue is funny and clever and does a good job avoiding over-the-top clichés.
They girls are all preparing for the big Joffrey Ballet School summer program audition the following week (so real!), which leads to the scene that feels the most off, dancewise. Foster is a Broadway baby all the way in real life, so maybe it's not a surprise that when she finds the girls in the studio, worrying about the audition, she leads them through a verrrry Broadway-like version of what they might have to look forward to. (It involves a mean casting agent and many, many pony steps.) The script does hint at the fact that that might be a little off-base. Snotty Sasha notes at the end that "Next week's ballet, with toe shoes," and when Michelle explains to a skeptical Fanny that she was "teaching [the girls] about auditioning," Fanny asks, "For what?" But wouldn't a dancer who—as Michelle's bio supposedly reads—was once a member of American Ballet Theatre know how to prepare these students for a real ballet audition?
In the end, though, I think this kind of nitpicky study of the dance aspect of this show is besides the point(e). "Bunheads" is not going to tell you anything you don't already know about ballet, and that's fine. It's pretty charming regardless. And if the ballet world ends up a fruitful setting for what seems like it might be a franker-than-usual family drama, all the better. I'm guessing realistic discussions about body issues and ambition are on the way, and that's something to look forward to.
Most of this week’s Bunheads episode was spent following widow Michelle around town and wondering whether or not Fanny was serious about those Dalai Lama cocktail napkins for Hubbell’s memorial. But the show still managed to squeeze in some favorite ballet themes before the proverbial curtain came down.
The most powerful ballet message wasn't revealed until the very end. The ballerinas-in-training finally dance for Fanny and Michelle, and not only are the two brought to tears by the performance, but their estrangement is mended. No, it was not because of Sasha’s never-ending extensions or Boo’s beautiful pencheé (so much for her Episode One arabesque perils!). It was because—as every “bunhead” knows—ballet has the power to speak where words fail. It may seem a little cheesy that a few pirouettes and a port de bras were able to bond a grieving mother and her showgirl daughter-in-law, but Bunheads definitely showed how important self-expression through dance is. Every ballet dancer can relate to that.
In true ballet fashion, “Bunheads” owes a lot to the enduring power of fairy tales. A Broadway princess (Tony Award winner Sutton Foster) wakes up in a town called Paradise (a nice dash of magical thinking there) to find herself in the shelter of a ballet studio run by a fairy godmother—okay, actually godmother-in-law. The princess escapes from a Las Vegas past that separated her from ballet—her first love—to a kingdom of niceness and sincerity.
What makes “Bunheads” an unusual ballet fairy tale, maybe even a truly postmodern one, is the absence of a prince. The new husband who brought the princess to Paradise is dead by the end of the first episode. The few men, like the attractive teenage boys at the ballet studio on whom the camera never lingers, seem merely incidental. Even the handsome stranger Foster met in last night’s episode, a mysterious billionaire, offers advice rather than romance. The princess must solve her own problems, understand her own dreams.
Luckily, she is surrounded by an engaging corps of prima wannabees, all trying to help each other in and out of class while learning ballet. Youthful versions of Foster’s jaded dancer, they strive and dream of becoming ballerinas. And who knows, all that enthusiasm might just be catching. For “Bunheads,” the real question is whether the princess will fall back in love with ballet.
In ballet, there's an eight-letter word so powerful it makes even the most experienced dancers quake. (No, I’m not talking about fouettes!) Audition—it’s a loaded word that brings to mind numerical identities, a whispering panel and hundreds of other bunheads who all seem to have better feet and 180-degree turnout. Last night's episode of "Bunheads" showed that, although many dancers define an audition’s success by whether they get accepted, those who can see the whole picture know that getting in isn’t everything.
The Joffrey summer program audition in Paradise challenged all the “bunheads” in different ways. Fanny struggled to maintain her reputation, Michelle was haunted by dreams of past rejections and Sasha had to decide whether or not to help her competition. However, no one was faced with more obstacles than Boo. From her doubtful mother to the never-ending rounds of cuts, Boo should have lost all hope. Instead, Boo persistently reentered the audition, dressed in Fanny’s guises and determined to show the people from Joffrey everything she had to offer. No, Boo was not accepted into the program, but even after the final rejection, not a tear was shed. She had danced her best and never gave up, and that was all the success she needed. Who knows, maybe she really will have “better luck next year.”
Recitals have their own awkward charm. The littlest dancers always look adorable; the older ones try so earnestly that with every variation’s successful coda the audience breathes a sigh of relief.
Last night’s “Bunheads” episode managed to make recitals seem more inventive and better danced than any I remember sitting through. Fanny, the reliably lively Kelly Bishop, had created an ecological fable of a supermarket cashier, torn between evil plastic bags (danced by various talented extras) and a wholesome canvas one (the elegant Julia Goldani Telles). Political correctness never looked sillier, but when Fanny’s students gave it their all, the small screen momentarily captured the passion and sincerity that so many dance students show when they finally get up on stage to perform. Most likeable, as always, was Kaitlyn Jenkins as the conflicted cashier, bravely partnering Telles through a few lifts and generally adding a dash of genuine enthusiasm to the entire concept. The premise may have been far-fetched—like “Bunheads” itself—but its love of dance never seemed more real.
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Whether it’s as simple as transferring their weight before a pirouette or as complicated as transitioning into a new phase of their career, dancers always need to be on their toes and ready for anything. In this week’s episode of "Bunheads," Michelle did just that, setting aside her apprehensions and assuming an unfamiliar role.
When a spontaneous getaway by Fanny leaves the bunheads of Paradise without a teacher, Michelle is forced to fearlessly leap into teaching. For Michelle, the thought of teaching had always seemed like the equivalent of hanging up her pointe shoes forever. But, as smart bunheads know, choosing to teach, go to college or take on a side job doesn’t have to mean that your dancing days are over. In fact, taking an alternative path might even be good for your career. Michelle doesn’t just walk the dancers-in-training through a mundane barre—she has to learn to think on her feet in uncharted territory, study new forms of dance (if pole dancing counts) and even choreograph a contemporary piece for Sasha that would definitely make Madame Fanny proud. Hopefully, Michelle is starting to see that “just because you teach doesn’t mean it’s over.”
Maintaining a student-teacher bond in ballet requires a balancing act more difficult than any exercise on pointe. Built on a foundation of trust and understanding, dancers must feel comfortable enough to place their budding careers in the hands of their instructor, but not so at ease that boundaries are crossed and respect is lost. During this week’s episode of "Bunheads," Michelle learned that befriending students comes at a cost.
From inviting the bunheads into her home to taking them out for fries with a side of girl talk, it seems that there is nothing Michelle won’t do to gain the approval of her pupils. It isn’t until Sasha “borrows” a shirt from her and disregards several of Madame Fanny’s strict policies that Michelle realizes a line has been crossed. In her attempts to be a favorite teacher, Michelle tarnishes her position of authority and, by doing so, jeopardizes the futures of her dancers. Without a strong teacher and unwavering discipline, a ballerina-in-training can grow into a disrespectful, unruly dancer, something no company director wants. Can you imagine what would happen if Sasha stormed into a company rehearsal late, just as she did in Michelle’s class? She’d be fired! Ballet dancers don’t just learn pliés and tendus from their teachers—they learn to be professional. From now on, Michelle will have to remember that it’s not just what she teaches, but how she teaches it that’s important.
Finding the perfect pas de deux partner is, in some ways, similar to searching for your ideal pair of pointe shoes. At first, you’re tempted to decide based on the shimmer of the satin or the prestige of the brand name. However, you soon realize the need to look beyond the superficial, and choose the something that offers unwavering support and makes you look your best. During last night’s episode of "Bunheads," Boo learned that there's more to a good partner than what meets the eye.
After being cast as Ginger Rogers in the upcoming recital, Boo is waltzing on cloud nine. Not only is she overjoyed to dance the coveted role of Ginger, but she’s thrilled that her Fred Astaire will be Jordan, one of the best dancers in Paradise. Unfortunately, Jordan does not share Boo’s excitement: He drops out of the show, leaving Madame Fanny to replace him with the awkward Carl. Boo is unimpressed. But once they start to dance, she sees that what he lacks in height and technique, he makes up for in passion, dependability and enthusiasm. It’s impossible to tell if someone will make a great partner until you give them a chance and see how you work together. If Boo had ignored Carl, she might have missed out on finding the Fred to her Ginger and dancing what I’m sure will be a magical duet.
The best "Bunheads" episodes—at least from the perspective of us bunheads—are the ones that involve lots of dancing. And the series' Nutcracker-themed summer finale episode last night certainly had plenty of dance, from Boo and Carl's sweet Fred-and-Ginger number to Michelle's fantastic Cabaret dream sequence (more of Sutton Foster doing what Sutton Foster does best, please!). Was most of the choreography a bit on the wacky side, as per "Bunheads" tradition? Well, yes; Michelle's Wall-Street-with-shades-of-The-Green-Table take on the Nutcracker battle scene, while kind of great in its own quirky way, was definitely out there. But the episode did a good job capturing the manic bustle and anxiety of Nutcracker season. Backstage spats? Mary Poppins bags stuffed with emergency show supplies? False eyelash-induced panic attacks? All so real.
What rang most true about this episode was Sasha's showdown with "The Ringer," the technical wünderkind Fanny shipped in when it looked like she might be in need of a Clara. Even if, like Sasha, you're your studio's star pupil, there's always someone who can battement higher and do more pirouettes than you can. Feeling eclipsed, especially when you're used to being the center of attention, is a painful but inevitable occurrence in the ballet world.
Here's hoping we see more of The Ringer next season. Competition is a good thing: It pushes us to get better. And Sasha, talented as she is, could use a little pushing.