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Arabesques, reality-style: Ballet hits pop culture

Friday - 6/29/2012, 3:00pm  ET

By JOCELYN NOVECK
AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - "I'm really digging it," says Ronnie Underwood, a buff, tattooed motorcycle enthusiast, auto racer and former football player who also happens to be a ballet dancer.

Oh, and a reality show star. Underwood, 30, is one of the main characters on "Breaking Pointe," the CW series about the lives and loves, trials and tribulations of the dancers at Ballet West, a highly regarded company in Salt Lake City.

The season comes to a finale next week, and suspense is high: Will Ronnie, Rex, Christiana and Allison be ready for their close-up? Or will opening-night jitters, not to mention relationship issues, derail their hard work? But we digress. What Underwood is "digging" is the broader fact that ballet, often relegated to a dusty, forgotten shelf in the general culture, seems to be having its moment in the sun.

Besides "Breaking Pointe," there's the ABC Family show "Bunheads," starring the Tony-winning actress Sutton Foster (the title is dance-speak for ballerinas, a reference to their neatly coiled hairdos.) And hugely popular dance-competition shows like "Dancing with the Stars" have featured guest turns by ballet dancers like Jose Manuel Carreno, recently retired from American Ballet Theatre, and the ballerina Tiler Peck of New York City Ballet.

There's also a popular documentary film garnering praise, "First Position," which tracks young dancers in a global competition. But it's a much more famous 2010 film that gets much of the credit for starting the ballet mini-craze: Darren Aronofsky's cool and edgy "Black Swan," which starred Natalie Portman and brought a whole new vibe to that stuffy classic, "Swan Lake."

"`Black Swan' really did bring ballet into the mainstream pop culture consciousness in a way it hadn't been for a while _ and that was great for us in the ballet world," says Rob Daniels, managing director at New York City Ballet.

Daniels says the company sold out its runs of "Swan Lake" for two seasons after the film opened. "And it definitely felt the houses were younger _ that young people were coming who'd seen the film and were curious about ballet," Daniels says.

Not that there was any lasting economic boon for NYCB or other ballet companies _ like arts institutions, dance companies have had to struggle in a harsh economy.

But those in the dance world say, give it time _ they're simply buoyed by the thought that more people may come to know and appreciate the art of ballet. One of those people is Adam Sklute, a former Joffrey Ballet dancer and now artistic director of Ballet West _ the company in "Breaking Pointe."

Sklute notes that ballet had a heyday in the `60s to early `80s. Those were the years of big personalities like Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. "But then it calmed down for a few decades," he says. Now, "Black Swan" and the big dancing shows are giving it a new profile.

"My motivation was plain and simple _ I wanted people to understand our world," says Sklute. "Because when people start to explore the ballet world, they become fascinated. I wanted to depict it as it really is."

What that meant was shattering some of the stereotypes. One is that dancers are fragile creatures, like pretty ceramic dolls. What "Breaking Pointe" does very effectively is show that in reality, ballet demands an amazing combination of athleticism, physical strength, endurance and sheer grunt work. "People don't realize how down and dirty the work really is," says Sklute.

Showing how hard dancers work was a main mission for executive producer Izzie Pick Ashcroft. "Ballet dancers have a level of discipline that most of us could only dream of," says Ashcroft, of BBC Worldwide Productions. "And their fitness level is really quite shocking." Cameras tracked the dancers for six weeks, showing them training and rehearsing day and night, sometimes caked in sweat or breathless with exhaustion.

This being a reality show, however, plenty of time is spent on inter-company romances, especially the tortured are-we-or-aren't-we duo of Rex and Allison, whose troubles threaten to spill over into rehearsals, to the great concern of Christiana, the top ballerina, who's also married to a Ballet West principal dancer (the show accurately displays how insular ballet companies are.)

And though, unsually, 99 percent of the company's dancers are straight, according to Ashcroft, there's some equal time given to the one openly gay male dancer, whose ballerina friends take him to a gay bar to find a date.

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