Film and TV representations of the ballet world typically fall under one of two categories. There are the disciples of Michael Powell’s 1948 film The Red Shoes, in which a tortured prima ballerina must choose between love and dance and ends up with the unhappy compromise of death. (You can put Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 Black Swan in that group.)
Then there are the coming-of-age rom-coms that involve a similar tussle between the personal and professional but produce less tragic results. Both genres usually involve a godlike, male director whose hands-on rehearsal style wouldn’t get a passing grade in the era of #MeToo.
So it’s a breath of fresh air to see the CBC airing a web series that approaches the ballet world from a new, and much funnier, angle. Off Kilter takes the trope of the big-headed male choreographer and gives us a more realistic portrait of what he’s actually like behind the scenes.
Filmed in the style of BBC’s The Office, the eight short episodes in the first season follow the comeback of former prodigy choreographer Milton Frank, played by retired dancer Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla (who also created and co-wrote the show with Amy Cunningham). Frank’s career looked promising in his 20s until he cracked under pressure and plagiarized a more established choreographer for a big premiere. Now, in his 40s, he’s trying to put himself back on the country’s dance radar by making a new work.
The series looks great; it’s shot mostly at an east-end Toronto dance studio and the aesthetic is unmannered, natural and bright (six episodes are directed by Clara Altimas and two by Alvarez Cadilla, while the cinematography is by Conor Fisher). The calibre of the dancing is excellent. National Ballet of Canada fans will recognize first soloists Brendan Saye and Chelsey Meiss and principal dancer Harrison James in the cast.
Former Royal Winnipeg Ballet soloist Sarah Murphy-Dyson plays Anna, the fortysomething ballerina who’s coming to terms with the limited shelf life of her career. The choreography is by Shawn Hounsell, another Royal Winnipeg ballet alum, and it’s so interesting and detailed that dance-lovers will only wish there was more of it.
The funniest scenarios come straight from the context of the dancing. If you’ve spent any time in a ballet studio, you’ll be familiar with the bizarre metaphors and analogies that teachers and choreographers come up with in order to put movement into words.
In an early episode, Frank pauses a rehearsal to give Luke (Saye) a few corrections. “You’re like a giant Clydesdale horse and your hoofs are stuck in mud and bubblegum,” he explains. Later, Frank demonstrates the right and wrong way to perform a sequence. Luke and Anna exchange a desperate look. “That looks exactly the same,” Luke protests.
Murphy-Dyson’s character is the most developed of the dancers and some of the loveliest moments come when the camera lingers on her as she warms up in the studio or follows her inside her frenetic home. In episode three, we get insight into her personal life − and her anxiety about aging − as she’s hunched over her laptop in her kitchen, teaching herself how to code.
Her ex-husband shows up to take her son to soccer practice and Anna is forced into an awkward conversation with his new twentysomething girlfriend. The scene is uncomfortable, the dialogue halting, and when Anna’s ex hugs her and thanks her for being “so cool,” it all feels achingly, embarrassingly real.
Other scenarios feel a bit overwrought. The building manager, Gary (Manuel Rodriguez-Saenz), puts Frank through a personalized, one-on-one safety drill; it’s a funny set-up, but the writing plays too hard for laughs. Frank himself can get a little caricatured. Actress Zarrin Darnell-Martin is compelling as Frank’s publicist/producer, but she’s able to reveal the most about her character when she’s not heavily scripted.
At times, I wished the camera would slow down and catch the characters going about their business in a less determined way. Longer episodes would make that possible; the series is off to a promising start, so hopefully that’s the plan for season two.
Off Kilter is streaming now on cbc.ca/watch and on CBC TV app.