Filmmaker Larissa Bills wasn’t the only girl growing up obsessed with “A Very Young Dancer” in the 1970s. Jill Krementz’s photo-driven look at the life of a 10-year-old student at the School of American Ballet during Nutcracker season. When she got the green light to make On Pointe, a documentary about the school, she went straight to eBay.
“I just had to see the book one more time,” said Ms. Bills, who grew up in Colorado and Texas. “I loved that this place was there, in New York, and the kids were part of these big productions. As a little kid it was very exciting for me. “
What stayed with her was how the book captured the world of ballet from a child’s perspective. “That’s what I wanted to orientate myself by: to let these children tell their own stories and to show what their daily life is,” she said. “That they drive four trains, buy ballet shoes, have to go to rehearsals six nights a week. But that’s fun, and these kids really want to be there. “
“On Pointe” – a six-part documentary by Imagine Documentaries and DCTV that will be released in full on Disney + on Friday – is like an expanded, cinematic version of “A Very Young Dancer” for this generation. As this book followed a student, “On Pointe” pursues several – Ms. Bill’s subjects range from 9 to 17 years old – at the New York Ballet School founded in 1934 by choreographer George Balanchine and philanthropist Lincoln Kirstein.
Ms. Bills, 50, who has worked in documentaries for 25 years, said most of her projects have been rather depressing lately. “I’ve been to prisons in Oklahoma or OxyContin venues or orphanages,” she said. “It was so special and it felt so New York – and like the New York that I moved to when I was 18.”
It was planned to cover one year in the life of the school (2019-2020) that would follow students on and off the Lincoln Center campus. Ms. Bill’s approach was to maintain a small, consistent crew, “so that we can somehow disappear into the wall and not be so present,” she said. “I really wanted to capture the current work and not distract.”
In preparation, she watched Frederick Wiseman’s ballet films using her fly-on-the-wall observational approach. “We obviously couldn’t be that quiet,” she said, referring to the way Mr. Wiseman resists traditional voice-overs and interviews in his films. “We had to deliver some kind of narrative.”
The solution was for the students to informally tell their own stories in voice-over. “Dance is so beautiful,” said Ms. Bills, “you want to see it, you don’t want to talk about it. That was my feeling. “
Multiple stories are happening at once, but Ms. Bills gives them room to breathe as she switches between the advanced section and the children’s section, where students can appear in productions with City Ballet, including George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. The senior dancers, chosen from auditions across the country and from the children’s section, focus on their education. The school’s mission? To produce dancers who actually get jobs.
Becoming a professional ballet dancer is tedious work. Kay Mazzo, a former director of the city ballet and chairman of the school’s faculty, emphasizes at the beginning of the documentary: “Ballet is an irreconcilable art form.”
For Ms. Mazzo, the documentary shows what the school really is and what Balanchine, who died in 1983, left behind. “The manners, the respect – the respect he had for all children,” she said in an interview. “As soon as those elevator doors open, you are somewhere where you all respect and behave. You see how these children pull themselves together as best they can in these classes, the little ones and the older ones. “
What drives a child to dance? Student focus and engagement were two things that impressed Ron Howard, who founded Imagine Entertainment with Brian Grazer, when he was attending school. It’s not that “these students are going to sign tens of millions of dollars in ten-year contracts,” he said in an interview.
But Mr. Howard was also impressed with the ordinariness of the scene. “There are a couple of kids running around and they kind of hang out in the hall talking and they have their backpacks and they are on their phones and they are joking,” he said. “You’d feel like it was any kind of middle school or high school hallway.”
And then they went to class, “Their bodies are transforming, their movements are transforming, and it’s just an amazing reminder of what people can do when they focus their energies and passions in these really remarkable ways,” he said. “I was blown away.”
No, “On Pointe” is not just another clichéd portrayal of the ballet torture story. “Look, I loved ‘Black Swan’ when I saw it,” said Ms. Bills. “But we didn’t do that. And it wasn’t what I saw either. “
In this pandemic moment when the theaters are closed, the documentary plays a different role. In normal times, the audience will now see “The Nutcracker”. It’s a ritual that ends every year. The documentary by Ms. Bills helps to close this gap: It captures the weeks leading up to the “Nutcracker” in 2019 and shows the rehearsal process in sparkling, honest details.
While filming On Pointe, she was overseeing a five-camera shoot of the ballet, which is shown on Marquee TV. Once you’ve seen the steps taught and roles won, the production – even if it’s not live – somehow completes the story of a lifetime. That’s what all the hours in the studio are for: for the stage. And you understand the enormous amount of putting “The Nutcracker” on stage and the responsibility that the kids have.
Dena Abergel, director of the City Ballet’s children’s repertoire and a former member of the company that works most closely with the young cast, was relieved to see how one of their most difficult days – the casting – was captured.
“I think most outside people assume that getting a role is a very breakneck kind of resentment or excitement,” said Ms. Abergel. But she always tells the kids that being on The Nutcracker won’t change or destroy their lives.
“So many people, including myself, who weren’t cast on The Nutcracker have careers,” she said. “I tell them whether you get a role today or you don’t get a role today doesn’t mean you won’t be a great dancer or a great dancer. Because that’s the truth. “
And just as important are details – in a nutshell – that reveal a lot about the connection between school and city ballet. During a dress rehearsal on stage, Georgina Pazcoguin, a soloist with the city ballet, sews her pointe shoes while she talks to a group of young angels. “Are you excited?” She says. “This is a super fun time.”
An angel seems like she would like to cancel the whole thing. We can’t see her face, only hear her tiny voice as she says, “I’m nervous too.”
Mrs. Pazcoguin turns to her. “Oh, don’t be nervous,” she says. “That’s what you practice for!”
“I know, but there will be thousands of people,” replies the young dancer.
“Look, you don’t have to think of thousands and thousands,” says Ms. Pazcoguin, waving her hands to the seats in a dismissive manner. “You just have to get out there and be true to yourself.”
You see this kind of support and camaraderie in On Pointe, with the young college students and also with the teenagers involved in higher stakes than The Nutcracker. They want jobs, preferably in city ballet, but there are few walking around. Ms. Bill’s original plan was to capture the school’s famous workshop performances, a showcase that introduces the next generation to the world. But the pandemic was in the way.
“I really wanted to go through that process as a filmmaker,” said Ms. Bills. “This is the blessing and the curse of making a documentary in real time. We shot what happened. “
Episode six shows how the school and its students reacted to the New York City closure. “It’s important for the audience to see how this actually works,” she said. “I know it’s difficult, but I find a lot of hope in the way we were able to wrap it up and in the fact that these kids still do it whether they’re around or not.”
A featured student, Gabrielle Marchese, now 12 and accompanying Gabbie in the film, continues her ballet training on Zoom. “I keep telling myself, at least I dance,” she said, “because I know girls who don’t dance at all.”
For them the school is not just a place for ballet; It is also a home away from home. “We have been there for so long, with the same group of people,” she said. “I spend more time at SAB than at home. Although it is a hard working place, it is a safe place for all dancers. “
As for the competition? She shrugged. Yes, the students pretty much all want the same thing – to join the city ballet – but she prefers to see it differently.
“We’re all kids with the same dream in common,” she said. “We want to dance. Most of us will be around for a long time. Might as well make some friends along the way. “