En Pointe

Spinning through the world of ballet

When I was younger, my parents signed me up for almost every after-school activity imaginable—soccer, softball, volleyball, swim, and yes, ballet. My formative years were spent going to ballet classes twice a week after school, painstakingly learning dance numbers to Disney songs, and then performing them for a theater full of helicopter parents, each zooming in their camcorders on only their own child. Recital season meant brain-squeezing buns, stage makeup hastily applied by harried mothers, and squeezing into expensive tutus that we would never wear again. Fast forward 20 years and let’s just say the training didn’t stick. 

These days though, I’m fascinated by the world of dance. Ballet dancers are models, athletes, artists, and performers all wrapped into beautiful, sinewy bodies. To an outsider like myself, a ballet career seems like equal parts discipline and natural grace mixed with an unbelievable amount of stamina. This week’s Homebodies newsletter is a love letter to those who pursue a life of pirouettes, pliés, and painful toes.

 🎥  Watch: Black Swan

Christmas Day 2010. The day my family decided that Black Swan was the perfect movie to go to together right after church. It’s taken me a while to rewatch Black Swan after the trauma of that outing but once I did, it reminded me of why this movie is a classic. Nina, played by Natalie Portman, straight up loses it, pushed past the brink of sanity by the merciless world of professional ballet. Mila Kunis plays an uninhibited foil to Nina’s uptight, relentless drive determined to land a lead role in a performance of Swan Lake. Watch it but not with your parents. 

Bonus: Billy Elliot Is there anything more heartwarming than a little boy discovering that his passion in life is dance? Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) is an 11-year-old boy growing up in a hardscrabble English mining town with a father intent on making him into a boxer. Instead of duking it out in the ring, however, Elliot dreams of becoming a ballerina. You can probably guess how this story goes but watching little kids achieve their unconventional dreams is always fun. 

 🎥  Watch: Twyla Moves

I watched this soothing documentary on a weeknight when I really needed to unwind. PBS American Masters celebrates the life of Twyla Tharp, legendary dancer and choreographer, and follows her as she prepares for a ballet performance over Zoom during the pandemic. The film switches between historic footage of Tharp dancing in NYC in the ‘60s and ‘70s, traveling around the world with her internationally-renowned dance troupe, and choreographing Broadway shows like Movin’ Out, a 2002 jukebox musical set to Billy Joel music. Also, the footage of Tharp dancing today is amaaaazing—she is almost 80 and can still dance like she’s in her 20s. 

Bonus: First Position Another documentary but in this one children are doing the dancing. First Position follows six young dancers as they prepare for an annual dance competition called the Youth America Grand Prix in NYC. A very insightful glimpse into what it takes from a very early age (some contestants are only nine) to make it in the world of ballet. 

📚 Read: Astonish Me

I read this entire book on a bus ride from DC to NYC, and it completely transported me from my stinky, cramped surroundings to the world of Joan, a ballerina in Paris who becomes romantically involved with a famous Soviet dancer Arslan Rusakov. Joan plays a leading role in Rusakov’s defection from the Soviet Union (imagine a Mikhail Baryshnikov-type character). The book is a beautiful whirlwind that takes readers from Paris to Southern California to New York—the ultimate summertime escape. 

⌛ Longread: The Rise and Rise of Misty Copeland

Unlike most athletes at the top of their games, ballet dancers usually don’t get the type of mass recognition that say, tennis stars or football players do. An exception to that rule is Misty Copeland, the first Black principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, and a maverick in a notoriously uptight industry. Copeland started dancing at age 13, much later than most who rise to stardom and despite having a peripatetic childhood, mastered ballet in an incredibly short amount of time. 

For the New York Times, writer Ruth La Ferla unpacks how (hint: unparalleled determination and work ethic) Misty Copeland became not only a ballet dancer, but a writer, role model, and beacon for young dancers. Really makes you think how many dancers could’ve had equally impressive careers if ballet could’ve dropped the bullshit on being a certain skin color, size, weight, etc. earlier on. 

You can watch Misty Copeland perform choreography by Twyla Tharp in the above-mentioned documentary, Twyla Moves

⌛ Longread: Danse Macabre

Tomorrow is Friday. It’s the perfect time to open your windows, pour yourself a cold glass of white wine, or make a Ballet Russe (see below) and tuck into a comfy chair with this chilling New Yorker account of a Bolshoi Ballet scandal written by Mr. Remnick himself. Here’s how it starts: 

“Sergei Yurevich Filin, a man of early middle age and improbable beauty, sat behind the wheel of his car on a winter night driving toward home. It was 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the center of Moscow, a light snow in the air, snow on the rooftops, snow piled up in the lanes. Traffic was thick but brisk. Nearby, spotlights illuminated the Kremlin towers.” 

Intrigue! Scandal and ballet seem to go hand-in-hand in our collective imaginations but this isn’t a run-of-the-mill principal ballerina sleeping with the director. *yawn* This one is a true nightmare. 

🍸 Drink: Ballet Russe

The Ballets Russes was a traveling ballet company in Paris in the early 20th-century that toured in Europe and the Americas. Despite the name and the fact that the company’s director and many performers were Russian, the company never actually performed in Russia. But in honor of the dance company that has had one of the greatest influences on modern ballet, make a Ballet Russe, a cocktail of vodka, creme de cassis, lime juice, and sugar. When ingredients are mixed, the drink turns a beautiful magenta, served up in a martini glass.