Netflix capitalized on interest in The Nutcracker this season when it released two programs about ballet just before the holidays. The fictional Tiny Pretty Things doesn’t appear to have much in common with the documentary Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker besides dance, but the two have similar themes about the challenges young dancers face. Here’s a look at what the two have in common, and what Netflix wants to tell viewers about ballet.
About Tiny Pretty Things
Tiny Pretty Things follows a young, Black dancer named Neveah Stroyer. Neveah is the new girl at the elite Archer Academy, unknowingly chosen to come to the school because one of the other dancers is in a coma. And yes; there was foul play involved. The soapy drama covers all the usual suspects when it comes to plot points: eating disorders, forbidden love, sex, sex and more sex.
The attempted murder and a disturbing sex trafficking storyline round out a fairly run-of-the-mill teen show. The background of dancing is what ups the stakes. Professional ballet is an extremely competitive environment, and each of the young trainees have personal reasons for wanting each solo so badly they might kill for it.
About Dance Dreams: The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker
By contrast, Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker has nothing to do with steamy bisexual sex scenes and murderous choreographers. The wholesome documentary focuses on dancer and actress Debbie Allen’s dance school and their unconventional take on The Nutcracker. Allen and her staff teach kids of all ages every type of dance at the school, and incorporate it all into the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.
The Debbie Allen Dance Academy accepts many BIPOC students, scholarship students and is welcoming to different cultures and ideas. This all culminates in the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker. The show uses some of the traditional Tchaikovsky music and storyline of the ballet, but departs from it in significant ways. The main character, named Cara instead of Clara, dances with the nutcracker prince, but it’s quite different from there on out.
The traditional cultural dances that make up the second half of the show use new music, costumes and choreography that better reflect the actual cultures they are supposed to represent. The numbers include Bollywood, Egypt, China and Candy Canes, an all male hip-hop dance.
What Do They Have In Common?
While the pieces seem to show two different sides of ballet and dance, they hit on similar themes and are more closely intertwined than it appears. First off, the star of the show in Dance Dreams is none other than Kylie Jefferson, who stars as Neveah in Tiny Pretty Things. Great job on the cross promotion there, Netflix. The biggest similarity between the two programs is that they both focus on race and uniformity in ballet. Jefferson, being a rare Black ballerina herself, is at the heart of these conversations.
Ballet is a discipline that’s been whitewashed from the very beginning. Debbie Allen speaks to this in her interviews in Dance Dreams, noting how difficult it was for her to get into ballet school and then break into Hollywood as a Black woman. She learned later in life that she was accepted into ballet school because of her race, and that it put things in a new perspective for her. She opened her school specifically to offer a place for BIPOC ballet dancers to grow. Jefferson was accepted into DADA at a very young age, and has been mentored by Allen most of her life. While she says in Dance Dreams that growing up at DADA made her less conscious of the part race plays in the dance world, some of her experiences do parallel those of her character’s in Tiny Pretty Things.
Neveah struggles with not fitting in at the Archer, not only because of her race, but because she is a scholarship student with a very different background than most of the other students. Allen emphasizes in Dance Dreams that many of her students are at DADA on scholarship. Neveah’s experience at a traditional elite ballet academy is very different. She arrives self conscious of her status as a scholarship student, and also has to comply with the strict rules of the academy to keep it. This is repeatedly an issue for her when the staff of the academy are at times abusive and manipulative towards the students.
Another major issue in ballet are the harsh rules dancers are expected to live by. It’s long been acknowledged that practices in ballet like constantly weighing students and extreme discipline should be banned. Tiny Pretty Things tackles these issues head on, showing a painful weighing in scene and exploring the pressure to be “tiny” in the character of Oren. One of the male dancers, Oren struggles with his weight and bulimia throughout the series. He goes to extreme measures to keep himself as thin as possible, while also building the necessary muscle mass for dancing. The new choreographer for the school, Ramon Costa, is an example of an abusive teacher. He expects perfection from dancers, and one ballerina, Bette, goes to great lengths to make sure she’s picked for a solo. She injures herself, but takes painkillers so she can keep dancing on her fractured foot.
How Are These Issues Portrayed in Dance Dreams?
Although Allen addresses some of these things in Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, the ways of ballet are clearly ingrained in her. The inclusive space that she’s created for dancers is only non-traditional to a certain degree. It’s made clear in the documentary that Allen is a strict teacher, and expects her dancers to follow her rules. Dancers are reprimanded for coming in late, and Allen is depicted raising her voice to students at times. When she is shown teaching a class, she’s demanding and not always nice to the dancers. It begs the question, is strict discipline and lots of it the only way to make good dancers?
Neveah and her friends certainly don’t think so. A majority of Tiny Pretty Things shows the students at the Archer fighting against traditional rules. They stage a coup against their nightmare choreographer and bristle when the head of the school takes credit for a dance video they produced without permission. While both Tiny Pretty Things and Dance Dreams revolve around fighting stereotypes in the ballet world, only the fictional version fully commits. But unfortunately, it remains just that: fictional.