The CW’s critically-acclaimed docu-series Breaking Pointe follows the world of ballet through exhausting rehearsals, gorgeous stage performances and behind-the-scenes drama. With the long, grueling hours, the dancers work hard and play hard, but are always dedicated to Salt Lake City’s elite ballet company, Ballet West. And this season,artistic director Adam Sklute (a former dancer with The Joffrey Ballet) and the dancers tackle their largest and most demanding production to date – “Cinderella.”
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Ballet West’s prima ballerina Christiana Bennett (who joined the company in 1999) talked about how much more intense things were during Season 2, learning to open herself up more personally, getting used to dancing while a crew was shooting them, what’s still to come for the dancers this season, how much pressure comes with being the prima ballerina of a professional dance company, how challenging it is to keep your personal life out of your professional one, the possibility of serious injury, the very real issue of retirement, and what she’d like to do after she hangs up her pointe shoes and her performing days are done. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
CHRISTIANA BENNETT: It was both, actually. It was easier because we were so comfortable with our crew, who are, hands down, the most amazing crew I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. But, it was more intense because we had already seen what we look like on TV. That’s intimidating to me. It’s like hearing your voice on a voicemail recording, but more intense. A lot of us weren’t shy about our personal and professional lives anymore, so you’re seeing more of us being raw, almost, and vulnerable. That part was intense. It’s definitely paying off now, to see it on TV. You relive moments that you forgot happened, and you remember how you felt when something happened. It’s definitely more intense, this time.
Because the first season was more focused on the dance aspect, did you intentionally want to open yourself up more, personally, this season?
BENNETT: I just feel like, this season, I wanted people to know more about me. I wanted them to know my story. And the only way to do that was to open up and allow myself to be vulnerable. So, it was a conscious decision that I made to be more open about things.
How long did it take for you to get comfortable with the cameras, and for the crew to get comfortable around you?
BENNETT: The first time around, it probably took two weeks total. But the second time, everything worked like clockwork. It was like riding a bike. We all remembered how to do this complicated tango. The cameras, themselves, are quite large. We are moving around so rapidly and sometimes unexpectedly, and we had to maneuver around these big, clunky things. It was just a learning process. The guys who were working the cameras just knew how to do it. One of our studios is much smaller than the other, but even in those studios, the second time around, they knew how to jive with us.
Do you feel like the crew has a new appreciation for what it takes to do ballet, that they didn’t have before they started working with you?
BENNETT: Yes, 100%. We got producers and camera guys in pointe shoes, and we had them trying on tutus. Before, they didn’t really necessarily know about our lives and our art form. When they came back in, the second time, they were curious and wanted to be more hands-on.
What can you say about what’s still to come this season, both for Ballet West and for you, personally?
BENNETT: Well, there’s a lot of high points and a lot of low points. I definitely feel like I was a lot more open, so you’re going to see a lot more “real life” from me. And there’s so much more dancing to come. The rehearsal process and the performance process for Cinderella gets intense, simply because of the demands that are being made of us, for the work that we’re doing. So, there’s going to be a lot more dancing, and there’s going to be a lot more heart-wrenching moments. You’re really going to connect with a lot of people. Hopefully, you’ll really feel what it was like for them to go through certain moments, whether it be finally getting on stage and executing their variation perfectly, to having to make huge life decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.
This season, not only is everyone vying for roles in the show, but you have an outsider who owns the show, adding her opinion to it.
BENNETT: Exactly! That’s when we have to just rely on Adam [Sklute], for him to be our voice and to go to bat for us. I have to say that it’s wonderful working for Adam. He’s amazing! I couldn’t ask for a better boss. It’s intimidating when a stranger comes in and, all of a sudden, doesn’t like you simply because they don’t like your hair or they don’t like the leotard you wore that day. It’s tense. And that is part of the job, but that’s why it’s always good to work for an artistic director who knows his dancers really well.
How much pressure comes with being the prima ballerina of a ballet company? Is it as intense as it seems?
BENNETT: Intense is the perfect word for it. It’s also all-consuming. I’ve probably taken a little bit more to heart than I should have, but I do truly feel like an ambassador for Ballet West. Whenever I’m out in Salt Lake City, or even anywhere in the country, I really try to put my best face forward. Not to be corny, but that’s what it is. I always try to be approachable and look nice and try to answer any questions that may come up. It’s a lot. It affects every aspect of my life. But to be honest, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love my life, and I’m so very happy. It’s an honor for me to represent Ballet West.
Ballet is one of those art forms that people really do strive to achieve perfection in, but no one can ever really achieve perfection. Do you feel like the longer you do it, you get easier on yourself, or do you get more critical of yourself?
BENNETT: I feel like you reach some plateaus. You climb up, and you plateau for a little bit, and then you climb up again. It’s just different levels of your perception of perfection and what motivations you to keep doing it. As you get older, your body starts to fight you and it doesn’t want to do these things that you’ve trained for since you were six. Things just creak a little bit more. So, there is a stronger drive for mind over matter. There is also that, “Okay, I may have achieved my goal for this particular moment, but this is the next goal I’m going for.” I think that’s what pushes every dancer. You just keep pushing to the next level. When you’ve lost that drive, that’s when you need to re-evaluate what’s going on with you, professionally. Maybe this isn’t the thing for you anymore. I think that’s just a blanket rule for any profession. But with ballet, you’re always working against the clock, so it’s a different type of drive.
BENNETT: It’s incredibly difficult. When you get down to the brass tax of it, we’re artists and artists are usually emotional people. So, there is no switch that I’ve found that I can flip when I walk into the studio, and turn off my personal life in my head and turn on the professional voice. But, that is one of my main things that I really, really, really try to do. I use the studio as a sanctuary. I’m there to work towards the common goal of being the best dancer I can be, at that moment, for the upcoming performances. So, as difficult as I’ve just said it is to separate personal from professional, it’s something that I really pride myself on. It is really difficult to see it creep into the studio. We’re human. We get upset, we get happy, we get sad. That will always affect your work. Truly, if someone can find the switch for it, I would buy stock in it. It’s just not there.
How hard is it to see what someone like Ronnie Underwood is going through with his injury?
BENNETT: It’s very difficult. I had quite a traumatic surgery, eight years ago, on my ankle. Just watching Ronnie go through that recovery, and the doubt that you put on yourself and your body, and those demons, it’s hard watching somebody else go through it. It truly is. I’m glad that it’s being shown on TV because this could have been the end of Ronnie’s career. Any of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow, and that could be the end of our career. But to have it happen in slow motion, it really focuses your gratitude. Every day that you spend dancing, you work to your fullest. It definitely is inspirational. You’re like, “Wow, he could have lost his foot to infection.” He had this horrible injury happen on stage. It’s a perfect nightmare. Every dancer’s biggest fear is to be injured on stage, and then have to continue through the performance . So, to watch it on television, it brings up a lot of emotions for me. His recovery was quite long, and it’s scary because there’s foreign objects in his feet now.
At what point did you start thinking about when retirement might have to come? Does it make things a bit more real when you hear someone like Allison DeBona, who is younger than you, talking about giving up her dance career?
BENNETT: It is. It’s a weird thing to hear her saying that, but her life path is so different from mine that it’s just more of an interesting fact to me. It’s a point of view that I’m not familiar with, so it’s more intriguing to me. Retirement is always in the back of your mind. It’s a ticking time bomb. I’ve always wanted to stay ahead of the game. I definitely want to go out on top, or my personal view of that. I started taking retirement seriously probably about a year and a half ago. Now, I’m working towards a goal of getting through this season and doing a certain ballet again, but not much more. I can see the sell-by date, and it’s coming quickly. It’s another thing that Adam and I need to talk about together. I have such an amazing relationship with Adam, and that has to be the next step in our relationship. In the Cinderella performances, I was watching some of the younger girls get their first big chances as fairies, and I felt completely at ease. I was like, “Okay, I’m ready.” It was the first time that I wasn’t threatened and I wasn’t scared, and I didn’t feel like some wounded animal. I just felt calm. I felt like I’m ready to take these younger dancers and motivate them and push them, so they can take my place. They’re the future of Ballet West, and I want to be a positive part of that. I want to cultivate the next generation, instead of being like, “I can’t believe them!” I just was so at ease. I felt like I took the first deep breath I’ve taken, in a couple of years. It was a very interesting experience. It was an, “Aha!,” moment. I started taking retirement seriously about two years ago, but now I can really take it seriously.
BENNETT: I would like to stay involved, in some capacity. I’m not exactly sure what that is, right now. I do enjoy teaching. I enjoy coaching, tremendously. That’s my favorite thing to do. But, I also would like to take a break from this art form. I would actually like to go into event planning. That sounds really weird, but I’d love to work for a non-profit company, in the fundraising department. I think that’s something I’m comfortable doing. I’m not shy about singing the praises of an organization that needs help. I’d really like to do that. I wouldn’t mind starting a family. There’s just so much right now. I’ve opened the door, and now there are so many other doors to choose from, but I’m still in the foyer and I haven’t figured out which direction to go. But, I definitely know that I’m lucky because I have a lot of options open to me.
What do you think would most surprise people about what it takes to be a professional ballet dancer, and what do you hope people who are not in the dance world get out of watching this show?
BENNETT: I hope that people are inspired. This group of people, as dancers, had this dream and we followed it, and we’re following it to the end. We don’t play at ballet. This is our life. It’s all-consuming. I just want people to be inspired and to follow their heart. If there’s something that you really want to do, you should exhaust every possibility to do it. It doesn’t have to be ballet. It doesn’t have to be any visual art. It could be anything. It could be science, math, or whatever. I just want people to be inspired and to know that, if they’re seeing something from far away, like on the stage, to realize that those are actually humans. Those are people who are living their life to the fullest. It’s not always wonderful, and it’s not always shining roses, but there are those glimpses where you inspire and bring happiness to the world.
What was it that led you to ballet? Was it something that you were just instantly hooked on, or did it take you some time to find an appreciation for it?
BENNETT: I fell in love with ballet at two. My mom didn’t let me take lessons until she was pregnant with my brother and needed to get me out of the house and find something for me to do. In those four years that had transpired, I still loved ballet and dove head first into ballet. And then, in high school, I suffered an injury and actually had to quit for awhile. I loved being in high school. I loved my friends. I loved being on student council. I loved having “normal” life. I wasn’t always the bunhead that you see. I had to re-fall in love with ballet, and that happened at 17 or 18. At that point, I was like, “Well, am I gonna get on this crazy train and see how far it goes, or am I gonna always live with the regret of not trying a little bit longer?” So, I got on this train and it’s afforded me an incredible life. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Do you think you’ll take dance classes for fun, once you stop doing it professionally?
BENNETT: Oh, I don’t know! Probably. I’m a really athletic person. I always like to be doing something, like going out to the gym, hiking, biking, or whatever I can get my hands on. I will definitely keep an active lifestyle. I think I’ll need a little bit of a vacation from dance. I would love to be a spectator. But, I’d like to take a good solid year off of dance, before I would go back. I just think I would need a regrouping and a different perspective on it. I think that would be inspiring to then come back. I’ve always wanted to try ballroom. It’s the expression. Using your body to express your feelings is addictive.
Breaking Pointe airs on Monday nights on The CW.