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TV dances with ballet shows, from 'Bunheads' to 'Breaking Pointe'

May 31, 2012 |  3:15 pm

Sutton foster bunheads

As an aspiring ballerina, Amy Sherman-Palladino spent the first 20 years of her life with her hair tucked into a tidy bun. She has joked that if television writing hadn’t come along, she might have ended up playing Rumpelteazer in a bus and truck tour of “Cats.”

As creator of the beloved drama “Gilmore Girls,” Sherman-Palladino modeled a town gathering spot, Miss Patty’s Dance Studio, on the place she spent countless hours as a kid working on pirouettes and plies.

Now she’s leaping fully into the dance world with “Bunheads,” an ABC Family series starring Tony-winner Sutton Foster in which tutus and toe shoes are as much in the spotlight as her signature strong female characters and quip-filled dialogue.

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But the dramedy, launching June 11, won’t be going solo this summer. It’s one of a number of upcoming TV shows that center on classical dance, so there are plenty more bunheads (and their male counterparts) on the horizon.

The CW, looking for a reality hit, is tonight premiering “Breaking Pointe,” a peek behind the scenes of Salt Lake City’s celebrated Ballet West. Arts cable channel Ovation plans “A Chance to Dance” in August from dance impresario Nigel Lythgoe and his son, Simon. The docuseries follows a couple of former Royal Ballet dancers, dubbed the BalletBoyz, as they build an American dance company.

The shows join Australian import “Dance Academy,” a ballet drama airing since February on Nickelodeon, and several projects in development, including Oxygen’s “All the Right Moves,” which will center on “So You Think You Can Dance” choreographer Travis Wall’s attempt to start a new dance troupe.

The sudden interest in classical dance doesn’t surprise many industry watchers, since the dial is already loaded with celebrity dancing shows, urban-flavored competitions and talent searches.

“TV has made dance very audience-friendly,” said Adam Shankman, a judge on Fox’s hit “So You Think You Can Dance” and producer of the “Step Up” dance movies. “It has done wonders to expand the fan base not just in this country but internationally.”

For ballet in particular, TV and pop culture may be feeling “the ‘Black Swan’ effect,” said Shankman, who noted that there were more ballerinas auditioning for “So You Think You Can Dance” in its current ninth season than ever before. The latest in his feature franchise, “Step Up Revolution,” will highlight ballet alongside contemporary dance when it premieres in July, and the newly launched ballet documentary “First Position” has been earning rave reviews.

ABC Family wanted to explore ballet because of the network’s strength with young women and girls, many of whom have dance experience or dreams, said Kate Juergens, the cable network’s senior vice president of programming.

“The first ballet everyone sees is ‘The Nutcracker,’ and the lead character is a princess, and what little girl doesn’t want to be a ballerina or a princess?” Juergens said. “The world of classical dance has such a rich tradition and still so much mystery. It’s rigorous and demanding, yet it has this fairy tale quality.”

At least once during every episode of “Bunheads,” viewers will see a dance number, Juergens said. And the youngsters in the series are trained dancers who can act, not actors who are stepping up to the barre for the first time.

Foster, whom Juergens described as “overexperienced and underexposed,” danced on Broadway for years, as did her costar, “Gilmore Girls” alum Kelly Bishop. Sherman-Palladino “knows this world fundamentally,” said Juergens. “It’s very personal for her — she lived and breathed it.” And to further bolster the show’s dance bona fides, choreographer Kenny Ortega (“Dirty Dancing,” “High School Musical”) will direct an episode. Since he directed several episodes of “Gilmore Girls,” it will be a reunion with Sherman-Palladino.

On the unscripted side, “Breaking Pointe” aims to dispel the notion of ballet being “stuffy and old-fashioned,” said Izzie Pick Ashcroft, executive producer at BBC Worldwide Productions, which created the series for the CW.

“We show them as superheroes, almost, because they’re extraordinary athletes,” Pick Ashcroft said. “They’re like warriors in tights and tutus.”

After “Black Swan,” Pick Ashcroft said she and others at the production company became fascinated with the kinds of people who aspire to be professional ballet dancers. With “Breaking Pointe,” they hope to do for ballet what they did for ballroom dance when they brought the “Dancing With the Stars” format from to the U.S. from Britain.

Because so few people in the states watch live ballet, and probably fewer have thought about dancers’ journeys, the area is ripe for exploration, she said. The ballet world is also filled with hierarchies, rivalries, romance and heartbreak, which mirror the fictional story lines of scripted dramas.

“There’s complexity and passion and obsession,” she said. “And on top of it all are these beautiful, elegant, technically stunning performers.”

The series will also follow the dancers in their off hours, giving audiences a snapshot of their lives outside the studio and, Pick Ashcroft thinks, a relatable window into the subculture.

“They can do things that the majority of us could never do, like stay in the splits for four hours without a bead of sweat on their heads,” she said. “But their dedication, their sacrifice and their personal stories, those aren’t niche. Those cross over, and they’re accessible to anyone.”

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-- T.L. Stanley

Photo: Sutton Foster and Julia Goldani Telles in "Bunheads." Credit: ABC Family

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