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French dancers call out the excesses of onscreen ballet

Real-world dancers say that their field, while competitive, isn't like the cutthroat world of 'Tiny Pretty Things' or 'Black Swan'

Kylie Jefferson and Barton Cowperthwaite in 'Tiny Pretty Things'. Photo via Netflix
Kylie Jefferson and Barton Cowperthwaite in 'Tiny Pretty Things'. Photo via Netflix

Sadistic teachers and murderous levels of competition: from Black Swan to Tiny Pretty Things, the world of ballet seems a place fit only for psychopaths if its screen incarnations are to be believed.

Real-world dancers in France take some exception to this, however.

"Yes, I've seen boys and girls take anti-inflammatories to dance and push the pain to the limit, but that isn't our daily lives," said Allister Madin, a dancer at the Paris Opera. "And yes, there's competition because it's hard to get signed by a company, but we aren't killing each other. Peddling these clichés tarnishes the reputation of dance."

He said he couldn't make it past the first episode of Netflix hit Tiny Pretty Things, whose wannabe ballet stars are forever on the point of a nervous breakdown, facing eating disorders, brutal rivalries and ultimately even murder.

"It's like there's a checklist whenever someone makes a film or series about ballet," said Adeline Chevrier-Bosseau, who teaches American literature and dance studies at Clermont-Auvergne University in central France. "There's always the physical suffering, with an obligatory close-up of toenails coming off. There's the fascination with the masochistic relationship between teachers and pupils, or an ultra-pushy mother."

Oscar-winner Black Swan, US series Flesh and Bone and even kids favourite Ballerina have all recycled these tropes—which Chevrier-Bosseau traces back to depictions in 19th century art and literature, such as the Edgar Degas paintings of "les petits rats de l'Opera". "The ballerina is always either depraved or sexually repressed and does not think of anything else," he said.

Hugo Marchand, a star of the Paris Opera, has just released a book, Dancer, in which he tells of the anguish and passion that drove him from an early age, and the tensions that do exist in companies, especially when it comes to casting. But he told France Inter radio this week that the popular image of backstage antics is often wildly overblown. "There's such fantasy about ballet. We're a lot calmer than people imagine," he said.

Some of the reputation stems from Cold War-era tales of cut-throat competition among Soviet dancers—stories of dancers putting shards of glass in their rivals' pointe shoes, and suchlike. The acid attack on Bolshoi artistic director Sergei Filin in 2013, in which a disgruntled dancer was implicated, suggests the atmosphere has remained rather toxic in the Moscow dance world.

Astrid Boitel, a former Paris Opera dance student, said the ballet world bears part of the blame for its reputation, having fostered a culture of secrecy, as well as silence around physical pain, that has only started to lift this century.

"Just because it's competitive—like any high-level sport—doesn't mean people are always trying to tear each other down," she said. "I've always felt a tremendous solidarity between dancers."

She is artistic coordinator for a new French show L'Opera coming out this spring, which she vows will show the "reality of the job". But she also admits "it doesn't completely break with the myths".

'Tiny Pretty Things' is streaming on Netflix.

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