On the Bunheads Set: A Mad, Chatty World of Ballet

Photo: Carin Baer/Disney

Amy Sherman-Palladino has two passions: dancing and rapid-fire dialogue. Long before she created the WB’s motormouthed Gilmore Girls, she was a dancer who nearly passed up a writing gig on the staff of Roseanne to audition for a touring production of Cats. Her ABC Family series set in a ballet school, Bunheads (which returns to finish its half season tonight at nine) pairs these two great loves. And she’s been adding more dance routines this season because her characters, in her words, “yammer” so fast that they’ve been coming up short, so they need more scenes to fill out the hour. For the last half of this season, they’re experimenting with something new, her answer to the Sorkin walk-and-talk: the yammer-and-plié. “We just shot a scene where the girls are in a spat, and the whole thing takes place during a dance routine,” Sherman-Palladino said last December on the L.A. set of her show. “We built a dance with yammer. A yammer dance. It’s tricky as shit. It wasn’t hard enough to do separately, so I just had to throw it together.”

Critics were enchanted by Bunheads original ten episodes, though ratings never quite took off. The mid-season finale, which aired in late August, drew an okay 1.5 million viewers (a recent episode of ABC Family’s No. 1 show Pretty Little Liars drew nearly double that), but the network appeared to want to give it a shot, picking up an additional ten episodes late last year. Bunheads is especially popular with Gilmore fanatics who have never stopped grieving the loss of that show. Sherman-Palladino is making sure they feel cozy in her new show’s setting in quirky Paradise, which feels like a coastal Stars Hollow: Gilmore’s Kelly Bishop plays Fanny, a dance instructor whose washed-up Vegas showgirl daughter-in-law, Michelle (Sutton Foster), comes to town, joins her school, and entrances her students. Fanny’s dance studio feels just like Miss Patty’s Dance School from Gilmore, just fully realized with paper lanterns and old-timey ballet photos strewn about. And the show is increasingly visited and inhabited by Gilmore alumni: Liza Weil, who played Rory’s friend Paris on Gilmore, will pop up later this season as Milly, the sister of Truly (Stacey Oristano) and benefactor for a new amphitheater. The episode’s director, Chris Eigeman, played love interests for both Lorelai and Michelle, and Todd Lowe, Sean Gunn, Rose Abdoo, and Michael DeLuise have also turned up as Paradise locals.

The one main difference between the shows is, of course, all the dancing. And it is no less grueling being on a television show instead of onstage. When Vulture visited the set, featured dancer Rajahnae Patterson had to halt production for a bit on episode fifteen when a blister on her foot burst. Bailey Buntain, who plays the nervous, boy-crazy ballerina Ginny, said she got kicked in the face by a fellow ballerina during a rehearsal a few days ago. And during the day’s filming of the ballet for Sleeping Beauty’s Waltz, Kaitlyn Jenkins, who plays the loveable Boo, went backstage to have her back bandaged. “I’ve been killing them,” series boss Amy Sherman-Palladino cackled, admiring and unapologetic. The dancers do not seem angry about it, perhaps because they know she can walk the walk … or rather twirl the twirl. At initial auditions for the show, she personally taught the girls a combination, all while wearing her signature boots. “She was up there dancing with us with those phenomenal legs. And that woman has legs,” Buntain says. “They’re very thin but defined. They’re just great. You should check them out. She wears leggings a lot.”

Ballet looks a little different through her eyes, and several journalists cited the crazy excellent “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” as proof as to why potential viewers should tune in. The number was thrown in at the end of episode six and features one of Fanny’s students performing directly to the camera. “It’s so freaking funny that it’s become such a big deal,” Sherman-Palladino laughed. “We were unbelievably short in that episode, so I called our choreographer and said, ‘I need a three-minute dance number. Smudge some makeup on their faces. Let their hair down. Here’s the song.’ It was just this thing that was never even thought about. It’s so weird.” Foster recalled Sherman-Palladino having more confidence in the idea. “She said, ‘We’re gonna do a dance. It’s not gonna make any sense, but it’s gonna be awesome.’ Of course it’s everyone’s favorite moment on the show.” For the opening number of tonight’s kick-off episode, she’s planned a ballet-jazz mash-up set to Björk’s cover of “It’s Oh So Quiet” as sweet and raucous as the showrunner herself. Or rather, it’s set to someone who sounds a lot like Björk. “I tried to get Björk,” Sherman-Palladino fired out. “She said no. I’ve gotten her before. It’s like, Why are you hatin’ me now? We’re Brooklyn buddies! I stalk your house!

While the dances are unconventional, the ballerinas themselves are also far from ordinary. Julia Telles, who plays the acerbic, gifted ballerina Sasha, is relishing playing against the tired ballet types. “I’ve been to so many ballet schools, and there is a very cookie-cutter type of girl who is a very good dancer. She’s usually very dedicated and very enthusiastic. I love that Sasha is not that at all,” Telles said, sitting cross-legged between takes. “She’s bored with the town, she doesn’t think ballet is awesome, she’s sarcastic.” And then there’s her favorite Sasha moment: a delicious rant about the dangers of cheerleaders who cheer on subpar high-school athletes who then grow up thinking they can go pro but wind up confused, fat, old, and wondering what happened. “That was one of the moments I related most to Sasha,” she says. “And maybe this is a very simplistic view of it, but I don’t think that I necessarily appreciate a bunch of girls cheering for guys.”

Apart from the dancing, this season’s remaining episodes will delve more deeply into how Michelle got to be as guarded as she is. When we last saw her, Michelle accidentally maced her dancers, drove away Fanny’s boyfriend Michael, and ran back to Nevada. “I was crying on set when Michelle left,” says Emma Dumont, who plays the feistiest of Fanny’s ballerinas, remembering the girls quoting ”O Captain, My Captain” à la Dead Poets Society. In tonight’s episode, Fanny will begin to pick up the pieces and convince Michelle that her late son, to whom Michelle was married for only a day, believed she was meant for something better than being a magician’s assistant in Henderson. Not that the two will suddenly because best friends. “I’m certainly ready, willing, and able to criticize her at any moment for anything, and I wouldn’t hesitate to do so,” Bishop says of Fanny. “But we sort of seem to be co-conspirators in certain things.”

“Michelle still believes she’s the kind of person who doesn’t get attached and is not someone to be counted on or count on others,” Sherman-Palladino says. “This is a time where she sort of realizes that perhaps that is not the situation anymore. Perhaps people are going to count on her, and perhaps she is going to want them to.” Foster’s brother and fellow Broadway star Hunter Foster will also pop up as Michelle’s brother for a few episodes. “It’s like two gunslingers showing up on set,” Sherman-Palladino says. “It’s fun to see family and get deeper into demons, because there is nothing more fun than fucked-up family dynamics.” Just like Lorelai and her parents. “That’s just good times.”

On Set: Bunheads’ Mad, Chatty World of Ballet