Last year, AOL’s web series city.ballet. caught me by surprise. I don’t usually look to AOL for original content, and while my appetite for dance documentaries in general is insatiable, I generally prefer longer-form, more in-depth pieces. But city.ballet. captured me completely, and the series’ second season, which premiered yesterday, is much of the same: a fascinating, moving, sometimes transcendent behind-the-scenes look at the New York City Ballet. I just wish there were more of it.
The longest episodes of the new 12-episode season are still only clocking in around eight minutes, and while those eight minutes are absorbing and evocative, I need more than a Meatloaf song to really grasp what it means to retire from being a dancer.
I expected the series, and, in particular, that episode, to make a bigger deal about Wendy Whelan’s retirement, but it’s mentioned only in passing. As much as I enjoyed each part of the show, I never felt truly done with any given segment — episodes often feel like really excellent introductions to bigger ideas, but not the actual, full exploration of the idea.
My favorite episode is the one that focuses on principal dancer Sara Mearns. She was a major part of last season’s show, too (in addition to being, you know, an incredibly successful ballerina), and this season, her segments pay a little more attention to her personal life. It’s not that part that I found compelling, per se — it was seeing snippets of Mearns dancing in non-ballet forms. She’s a staggeringly expressive performer, and she tells the documentary crew that she’s the happiest she’s ever been, and you can just see it radiating off of her. Everyone on this show is a world-class excellent dancer, but watching Mearns in rehearsal footage and the brief glimpse of performances, you just want to watch her all the time.
City.ballet.is its most successful when it focuses on the things that make elite ballet dancers different from us Dorito peasants that fill the rest of the world: their discipline, commitment, focus, and passion, for starters. The knowledge that some day, the work you have sacrificed everything else for will no longer be accessible to you. The generalized body horror. This is all great, and dear God, I’d watch a whole separate show about how everyone chooses what to wear to rehearsal. (Sometimes full-on muggle sweatpants; sometimes just a leotard!) But the show struggles a bit when it tries to prove that every single thing dancers do is different and special, and it comes across as needlessly smug. “Every dancer has their own personal things that are special to them, and they need that, as individuals,” soloist Lauren Lovette tells us, as the show lovingly and admiringly chronicles dancers’ hobbies, including dorm-level home decorating, poetry, and Bible study. But waitresses and librarians and barbers and doctors and plumbers also have things that are special to them, and the idea that only dancers need a “release” is bogus.
After devouring this season, I went back and rewatched the first season again, and I enjoyed both tremendously. But I can’t help feeling that a webisode format is hurting more than it’s helping. There’s a weird irony to a show that’s about how all-encompassing something is, and yet the show itself is barely a thimbleful of information. Next season, do it like you really mean it, city.ballet.