Documentaries have provided comfort for Larissa Bills since she watched PBS as a kid, so it’s no wonder she found her way to them professionally.
“It’s like making a patchwork quilt,” Bills says. “You’re capturing footage, and then you have to puts the puzzle pieces together editorially. You find the story as you go. It allows you to be really present with the content. That certainly was the case with On Pointe.”
Bills' Disney+ documentary series On Pointe (premiering December 18) showcases the tapestry of students that make up the School of American Ballet as they prepare for the New York City Ballet’s production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker.
Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, with the assistance of Edward M.M. Warburg, opened SAB with the intention of training young dancers to be cultivated into a professional American ballet company. Their dream came true, as New York City Ballet is now mostly comprised of SAB alumni and very rarely offers dancers who were not trained at SAB to join.
While New York City Ballet and SAB are world-renowned institutions in the performing arts community, the general public rarely gets to peek behind the curtain, making On Pointe a moment of unprecedented access inside the studio and backstage. Over the six episodes, viewers get acquainted with students as they rehearse, audition, and perform in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, getting an up-close look at every battement, rond de jambe, and grande jeté.
While SAB opened in 1934 and 1948 marked New York City Ballet’s first season, it wasn’t until 1954 that Balanchine staged his first production of The Nutcracker. The original piece, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892, and was not considered a success. William Christensen choreographed the first full-length production of the Tchaikovsky ballet in the United States at San Francisco Ballet in 1944, but Balachine’s choreography has become the most prominent interpretation of The Nutcracker, with companies across the country staging his version.
Bills’ first exposure to ballet and Balanchine was due to her mom’s love of the artform and watching Live from Lincoln Center and Great Performances broadcasts on PBS; she soon began taking ballet lessons in her Colorado hometown. Her familiarity with the craft was an anchor in offering a nuanced look at the world of ballet education through On Pointe.
“Our team didn’t want to dumb it down,” says Bills. “Because ballet, and particularly Balanchine, is based on precision and attention to detail, I didn’t want to let it slide. I wanted to communicate that in the filmmaking.”
After the initial approach from and negotiations with SAB, Bills and her team started by capturing footage of SAB classes to get an understanding of how to develop the story, and from there organically found students to spotlight. As director, Bills guided all of the creative elements—from shaping the overall aesthetic to conducting interviews with the students. It also meant navigating how to film in the studio without disrupting class. Bills’ strategy was to maintain the same, small crew “in the field” to create a sense of comfort for the students.
“These students are like Olympic athletes, and their training is taken very seriously,” she says. “We didn’t want to be in the way, so we had the same small crew there every day, so [the students] got to know us and our faces. We eventually just blended into the background.”
The project also provided an educational moment for Bills’ team. The cinematographers did not come from the ballet world, but they were committed to learning about its complexities. In order to understand how to capture dance movements on film, the team watched Bob Fosse’s 1979 All That Jazz, Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger’s 2016 Restless Creature documentary about Wendy Whelan, Bess Kargman’s 2011 First Position, Frederick Wiseman’s 1995 Ballet, and of course, lots of The Nutcracker productions.
But unlike those examples, On Pointe is a series, not a feature length.
“Because the artform is so based around repetition and consistency, and the trajectory of their artistic growth happens over time, we needed to see that time pass,” says Bills. “While you could do that in a feature length doc, I think we benefited [from a series format] because it allowed us to expand the stories. There are a number of different experiences for students at SAB and we wanted to showcase and include as many as we could.”
Of course, Bills and her team ended up with hundreds of hours of footage when they stepped into the editing room, and they set out to translate all of it into an intimate and comprehensive portrait—or patchwork quilt.
“[We were editing during the pandemic shutdown], and being immersed in this footage was so incredible because it was so alive,” says Bills. “It takes on even more poignancy right now knowing there’s no Nutcracker this year, but with the series coming out, hopefully it can give audiences a similar feeling. It’s bittersweet.”
The series may follow several specific stories, but those stories tap into larger and universal themes, offering a profound understanding of the intense commitment and dedication the SAB students have for their craft. It also contextualizes what makes the long, grueling hours and investment—physical, emotional, and mental—worth it for these students. The visual storytelling highlights the pure bliss that comes with wholeheartedly embodying emotion through movement.
“There’s such joy in that artform,” says Bills. “You go into SAB, and the world, the phones, the news—it all stays away. I can’t tell you how often I was moved being there.”
While she has worked in the industry for a number of years, On Pointe, is in fact, Bills first documentary with a director credit. As she steps back and looks at the finished product, there is one vibrant quilt square that sticks out as a favorite memory.
“Being backstage at opening night of The Nutcracker in the beautiful [David H. Koch] theatre at Lincoln Center,” says Bills. “I knew how rare it was to have a camera in the wings—having kids coming off stage, snow flying around everywhere, seeing the machine of that production and the layers of it and the people behind it. It was incredible.”
The cosmic connection of young Bills discovering ballet through Live at Lincoln Center productions to her leading a film crew in the same space is hard to ignore. Nurturing artistic sensibilities early on can only help them grow. The line extends to the SAB students, whose seeds of creativity audiences can now see blossom.
With other ballet-focused properties releasing recently, such as the Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker documentary about Tony winner Debbie Allen’s dance academy and Netflix’s new drama Tiny Pretty Things, Bills sees a promising and progressive future for the artform, “There’s so many different ways to do it. [Ballet doesn’t have to be] rooted in something that is stuffy and old. It’s actually quite new and alive.”