If you’re a fan of Amy Sherman-Palladino and the shows she’s produced–most notably, the WB/CW show Gilmore Girls, and now the ABC Family series Bunheads–the thought of your favorite purveyor of rapid-fire, referency dialogue jumping around a stage in a cat suit is a funny one. But don’t laugh; it could have happened.
At the time she got an offer to become a writer for the hit sitcom Roseanne, Sherman-Palladino was also trying out for a part in a production of Cats, but she insists she wasn’t that close to getting the gig. “I probably wouldn’t have gotten it because I think that there was a lot of gymnastics involved which I lied about in the initial call, but yeah,” she said.
Sherman-Palladino had been training in ballet and other dance styles since childhood, but once she got the Roseanne job, she realized that she no longer needed to do both. “I was still taking class pretty regularly but then I realized one day sitting in the writer’s room ‘Oh, I don’t have to put on point shoes anymore. I never have to do that again.’ So I of course stopped.”
Since you can never take the dance out of the dancer, though, the DNA of her previous life can be seen all over Bunheads, which is currently airing the latter half of a first season that started this past summer. Over the show’s first season, its focus has been split between Michelle Simms (Sutton Foster), a nearly washed up Vegas showgirl who finds purpose and a family at a dance studio in Paradise, California run by her mother-in-law Fanny Flowers (Kelly Bishop), and four of her young students, who love ballet and look up to the world-weary Michelle.
Sherman-Palladino and her co-creator Lamar Damon created Bunheads when ABC Family came to her looking for their own Glee-like musical series. “I just basically said, ‘There is a Glee. If you want to watch Glee, Glee is on Fox. It’s doing very well. They tour.'” She was working on a play about four ballerinas, and “I said ‘You’re looking for something with a bench like that, I would be interested in doing something in the ballet world because that’s a world that I came from,’ and then it spiraled out from there.”
The network initially had a specific actress in mind for the show, but when the dance aspect developed, Sherman-Palladino had to find another lead. This was someone who could not only sing and dance but handle her signature fast-paced, dense dialogue. “Well, my writing is very rhythmic,” she said. “It’s got a very specific beat to it and its part of the reason that our show is pretty much [acted] verbatim, word for word. It’s not just my Mussolini complex. Sometimes you drop ‘and’ or ‘a’ or ‘the,’ it just shifts the rhythm off and it doesn’t land the way it’s supposed to land, and that I think it’s like a dance, almost.”
Because “I always like to see every show that’s nominated for a Tony, so that I can be very angry when my favorite doesn’t win,” Sherman-Palladino saw Broadway veteran Foster starring in Anything Goes. By intermission, she knew she had her Michelle, even before the script of the pilot was written. “There was something about the way she conveyed emotion in moments of her songs and I thought ‘This girl’s really super interesting.’”
Casting the young ballerinas, though, was a much tougher task, especially for two of the roles: the talented but troubled Sasha Torres (Julia Goldani Telles), and the talented but un-ballerina-esque Boo Jordan (Kaitlyn Jenkins). “It was very tricky to cast these four girls. There were not several candidates for each part. It was basically one candidate for each part and especially Sasha and Boo because I needed Sasha to have that ethereal, perfect ballet look, the perfect ballet technique but she had to act.”
The casting of Boo had its own difficulties, because Sherman-Palladino needed someone who didn’t have a “ballet body”; in other words, not petite. “I know that it’s getting better but it’s still [true that] ballerinas are very specific types. And finding a girl who was a little chubby or little big boned or not perfect and yet has that rock star pointe technique, not just the dance technique, but technique on point to be able to dance on pointe like that, that was really, really, really hard to find.”
But Sherman-Palladino’s love and knowledge of ballet permeates the set in ways that the layperson likely doesn’t even realize. “I do think I get picky about things that people are like ‘Really?’ because they won’t give a shit about that,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Well I do.’”
Take, for instance, her mandate that in order to keep the reality of the show’s world intact, any actor who is seen on the dance floor of Fanny’s studio couldn’t be a random extra, it had to be a dancer-actor that they recruited to be on the show. “Even if they’re not dancing, even if it’s a scene before class that they’re just standing there talking, dancers hold themselves differently. They sit differently. They walk differently.”
Sherman-Palladino isn’t shy to let her crew know when something just doesn’t look right, like she did in an episode involving auditions for a Joffrey ballet camp. “We needed a line of kids outside who are not quite in dance clothes yet and they brought in some extras, because I–and I’ve been kicking myself ever since–I literally had to walk down the line of extras and say ‘There’s a girl here who’s wearing her underwear under her leotard; get her out of here.’ You just don’t do that. It’s like there’s a level of reality, and a normal kid is not going to know that. It’s just going to be somebody who’s trained and it is a completely different world.
“I’m not trying to be David Fincher,” she continues. “I’m not trying to be like ‘Oh, the plates on the Titanic have to be the same from 1894.” I’m not trying to do that but in building this world, if the girls don’t seem from this world then how am I expecting anybody to buy into it?” As the show has aired and gotten exposure, she’s filled out her roster with dancers from Los Angeles’ Dance Arts Academy and have found dancer-actors from other parts of the country.
While Sherman-Palladino didn’t set out to write large dance numbers into Bunheads, she’s been finding that the sequences are good for not only filling time but are useful for developing the characters of her show, as she witnessed when she inserted at the end of an early episode a sequence where Telles performs a modern routine to the tune of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” by They Might Be Giants. While it seemed like a random way to make up for a short script that week, it did feed into the dark mood Telles’s character Sasha was feeling in that episode.
“I’m glad that it came across the way it did because it could have come across very different; it could have come across like, ‘Oh, now they’re becoming Fame‘,” she laughed. “Not that I’m putting down Fame; I actually watched Fame as a kid. Now, ‘They’re going to be doing dance numbers for dance numbers sake,’ which is never what I wanted the show to be. But it did work very well and it did open us up to the being able to do within dramatic context more dancing. And the dancing is just fun. I mean, it’s just, it’s fun to do.”
It’s so much fun, that her favorite thing to do is write in the rehearsal studio while choreographer Marguerite Pomerhn Derricks puts the students through their paces. “It’s just more fun and less lonely,” she says. “Writing is a very lonely thing. You sit in a room and you’re alone and you end up looking at a blank page and you’re feeling old and decaying and like you’re out of words. It’s nice to be around a positive, strong creative energy that can only help enhance what you’re doing.”