History in the Making

Ballet Basics: The Documentaries

The arts and culture in general can be seen as elitist and hard to understand; while you might need a little bit of background to enjoy a performance or piece, what I love about ballet is that you don’t need to know any language to enjoy it. I was fortunate to receive a robust and healthy education in the arts myself, but it is never too late or too difficult to dig in yourself! I believe that the arts should be accessible and available to everyone, and these ballet documentaries are wonderful way to start.

Last week I opened this series on Ballet Basics with my favourite ballet books to give you a bit more of a background and history of it- while I know that I love books and they are usually my first go-to, I also know that some people aren’t huge readers. So, this week is all about ballet documentaries! Just pop them on and you are good to immerse yourself in 60-100 minutes of dance, no work needed. I’ve tried to gather a wide range that are available in most countries (with a few on DVD), so I hope you will enjoy!

Ballet Basics- The Documentaries

So you have a little bit more background before diving into documentaries, I thought I would explain a little bit more about the ballet world! Ballet companies are typically fairly structured- you will find the odd company here and there that don’t recognise ranks, but most do. Some companies will have more or less levels but here are the standard levels:
Apprentice– Apprentice dancers will sometimes appear in productions, and sometimes not depending on the size and style, but as apprentice your entire job is to learn and further your technique and experience!
Corps de Ballet– The corps members are those that don’t have soloist roles, and they often act as a canvas for the soloists- for example, the corps in The Nutcracker will be the guests in the party scene for the parents and family to interact with. It would feel empty without them, but they aren’t featured.
Second Soloist/Demi-Soloist– A second soloist may not have a full length featured role but they might be featured in smaller group dances and shorter solo roles.
First Soloist/Soloist– First soloists will have lengthier solos and featured roles that aren’t principal roles; they may occasionally perform principal roles but most likely not every production.
Principal Dancer– Principal dancers have attained the highest rank in a ballet company, and perform featured roles and pas de deux- Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella and her Prince, Wendy Darling and Peter Pan are all principal roles. These are often incredibly difficult roles to perform, not only due to the technique involved but the sheer volume of dancing that you do.
Now that you have little more info, onto the documentaries!

Ballet Documentaries

Ballet Documentaries
First Position

First Position has quickly become one of the most popular ballet docs out there- released in 2011, it follows six different dancers who are entering the Youth America Grand Prix (one of the most prestigious dance competitions in the world). They range in age from 9 to 15, and it gives you a very good idea what these children and teenagers are going through in order to pursue their dream of ballet. Two of the dancers, Miko Fogarty* and Michaela dePrince are now quickly moving up in their careers- Miko spent a season with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, and Michaela is with the Dutch National Ballet and rose from corps member to soloist in just over two years. This is available on Netflix in most countries from what I can see, and can be rented on Google Play for $3.99 CAD (or equivalent price)!
*Update: Miko Fogarty has retired to study medical sciences in the US! What I think is most interesting about that is that ballet dancers are often portrayed as very single-track minds, but a lot of dancers have diverse and varied interests, and I wish that they were given more space to explore them!
Ballet 422

Ballet 422 is a fantastic look at the choreographic side of ballet! I don’t think that the choreographic process and side to ballet often comes out to the audience- it can take weeks, months, or even years for a choreographer to create an entire production. Some have the majority choreographed before taking it to a company to work on, while others will work with their dancers to choreograph- it’s the latter in this case! Justin Peck is now a well-known choreographer in the US ballet scene, in addition to being a soloist with the New York City Ballet. Interestingly, he has been brought into the fashion world, and has contributed to Vogue, Vogue China, Harper’s Bazaar, among other magazines, and also with several different designers. (In case you were thinking that ballet secludes itself from the world!) This also should be available on Netflix in most countries, but isn’t available on Google Play yet (at least not in Canada).
Breaking Pointe

Okay, so Breaking Pointe is a reality show and not a documentary, but I wanted to throw it in here because I think that amidst the edited drama it does an excellent job of showing that dancers are more than we see on stage! Several dancers from Ballet West in Salt Lake City are followed throughout a season, in their professional and personal lives. It certainly is a reality show and you have to take it with a grain of salt, but I think that as an audience it’s hard to imagine a dancer past the Sugarplum Fairy or Odette that you see on stage- it’s nice to see what they do in their off-time and how they interact with each other outside of the studio. I have this show saved, but it may take quite a bit of digging to find it- it’s definitely worth the hunt, though!
Getting to the Nutcracker

Getting to the Nutcracker is definitely a more serious look at the holiday ballet that many of us make a tradition of seeing every year! It follows several younger dancers through the audition, rehearsal, and performance process- almost every production of The Nutcracker features child and teenage dancers and although it is a dream come true for most of us, it’s still a very stressful and involving process. I’ve only seen this one once, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and plan on watching again- it was available to stream through my public library’s app for free and can be rented on Google Play for $4.99 CAD!
Ballet High

This is still one of my favourite ballet documentaries, and I think it will always be- as far as I know, it’s only available on DVD through special order, but I wholeheartedly believe that it’s worth it! It is from 2008, and follows the Level 7 students at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet Professional Division. The Level 7 students are completing their last year of actual ballet schooling and are preparing themselves to go out into the world professional ballet companies. It’s something else to see exactly what these kids go through day in and day out to achieve their dream, and just how hard they work. This is also a very selfish reason to love it, but you can see some of the dancers in the documentary now dancing in the company; Beth Lamont and Alanna McAdie are currently with the company, and Tristan Dobrowney retired at the end of the 15-16 season.

World Ballet Day

In case you don’t know, in the beginning of every year is World Ballet Day, and several leading companies around the globe broadcast classes, rehearsals, workshops, and performances to bring you 24 straight hours of ballet coverage! You can either watch via their website or their Facebook page, or via one of the involved companies. This year it will be happening on Tuesday, 2 October, and you can catch the Australian Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, the Royal Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, and the San Francisco Ballet throughout the day! I will be sharing a lot on my Facebook page, but I would recommend that you take the chance to see some amazing companies and dancers throughout the day!
Have you seen any of these documentaries? And will you be watching World Ballet Day?

Until tomorrow,
The Historian!
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