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The bunheads of Bunheads. Adam Lakey, Courtesy ABC Family

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.

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Ballet Stars
Kaitlyn Jenkins photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

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.


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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.

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