A Day in the Life of Joffrey Elite: The pre-professional dance team takes the competition stage
by Joseph Carman
At last October’s audition for the Joffrey Elite—the Joffrey Ballet School’s first competition dance team—team co-directors Maximilien Baud and Matthew Prescott surveyed a pack of 130 hopefuls from the school. “This is your moment. Don’t throw it away!” Baud warned them. “There ain’t no booty-poppin’ in ballet,” added Prescott as the dancers moved from the barre to the center.
The web dance docuseries Joffrey Elite covers the process of forming the team, as those 130 dancers were winnowed down to the strongest 30 candidates, and later, to 10 team members and two alternates. And it follows team members taking class, rehearsing, and participating in dance competitions around the country.
“We look for dancers who are really going to encompass what it means to be a professional dancer today.” —Matthew Prescott
The idea for the series germinated when Prescott and Baud—whose business MSquared Talent produces musical theater intensives at the Joffrey School and elsewhere—met a producer from Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos’ company, Milojo Productions. Milojo, in turn, teamed up with YouTube’s AwesomenessTV channel to co-produce the series.
The dance team’s rehearsal and performance season began on January 12, 2017, and the series continued until the 21st episode ran on June 2; AwesomenessTV aired episodes shortly after they were shot. Showing warts and all, the series—now viewable in full on YouTube—documents injuries, frank career talk, dashed dreams, emotional burnout, and competition victories and bloopers.
Baud and Prescott created the team because they felt the need to bridge the world of pre-professional dance training and the rapidly growing competition circuit. “We look for dancers who are really going to encompass what it means to be a professional dancer today,” says Prescott. “They have to be super versatile with a solid ballet base but have to use technique to explore movement in different styles.”
With the Joffrey name at stake, they wanted dancers who reflected the late Robert Joffrey’s vision: an embodiment of an all-star/no-star legacy that represented his democratic, eclectic American outlook. “You’re not looking at 12 dancers who are identical,” emphasizes Baud. (It’s worth noting, however, that the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City retains no connection with Joffrey Ballet or its Joffrey Academy of Dance, which are both based in Chicago.)
Madison Pineda, a compact, effervescent Joffrey Elite dancer who was accepted into the Juilliard School’s Dance Division in the spring of 2017, represents the kind of artist equally at home in ballet, contemporary, and hip-hop. The scrutiny of the camera made this dance experience unique for her and the directors. “I’d never really had an experience where I was being filmed while learning and developing a dance,” she says. “I had to be really specific with the details. When you’re being filmed, you see how you react to choreography and that it’s all possibly going to be shown—especially knowing I’m representing dancers from my school.”
“Cameras don’t lie,” says Prescott. “We would shoot and maybe two weeks later the episode would air. It was a great opportunity to self-evaluate. What are you showing the person at the front of the room? How do we run a studio? How are you presenting yourself? That was very unique to this project because it was in real time.”
On to competition
In the series, the Joffrey Elite participate in three national dance competitions: Bounce, Beyond the Stars, and BellaMoxi. Baud and Prescott created the students’ complex dances, which feature bravura technique, intricate partnering (having strong male partners helps the troupe stand out), and the intense performing style that competitions demand.
One piece, Baud’s Still I Cry, uses a heartfelt song composed and sung by one of the dancers, Harrison Flint. The dance featured three emotional pas de deux and impressive pointe work. Additionally, the directors gave Pineda the opportunity to choreograph a piece, to a new song by Flint.
“When I was choreographing, I was taking movement from improv and seeing how it feels good to me while also creating shapes that look good,” says Pineda, who had only choreographed a solo and a contemporary group piece before this. “I had to explain to Harrison what I thought. I saw a dance in my head and then I got the music. Usually I have a storyline, but I feel I grew a lot. I was glad I got that experience.” (Pineda’s piece took the runner-up prize in choreography at the BellaMoxi competition.)
Prepping for the competitions resembled other pre-performance situations in terms of rehearsals and gathering costume and makeup ideas—but on an accelerated schedule. After each of the competitions, they repeated the process all over again. “The kids had to be really aware of that and shift gears,” says Prescott. “That’s a unique thing in the competition world. There’s quite a bit of output. You have to know how to critique and evaluate it and then move on.”
Pineda had participated in competitions before, but the Joffrey Elite experience brought a different kind of performance pressure. She quickly learned that she had to deliver what the directors wanted or possibly be replaced. “It’s all about creating something in the end that’s going to be a good representation of us,” she says. “And you don’t get a second show to fix it. A lot of us had different nerve levels and had to get through that in each competition. We had to work like professionals and get in the zone and get focused.”
The Joffrey Elite took first place among the group pieces in all three competitions, and the judges and other teachers uniformly praised the training that honed the students’ technical finesse. Prescott fine-tuned his teaching style based on his diverse dance experience, from studying at the Joffrey Ballet School to performing with Alonzo King Lines Ballet and The Suzanne Farrell Ballet.
Baud’s teaching method has a strong Balanchine influence, reflecting his 10 years of study at the School of American Ballet. His choreographic style reflects his admiration for Balanchine’s resourcefulness: “Balanchine used what was in the moment,” he says, citing the famous stories about Balanchine’s use of sunlight streaming into the studio and a student showing up late in Serenade.
“We hope it’s just the beginning of a long journey in educating the world about dance in New York.” —Maximilien Baud
“That’s always been a backbone and inspiration in my choreography,” he says. “I think the best approach is to use what you have in front of you, like on the TV series Top Chef. I know that, to present the best product, especially with the limited amount of rehearsals we have, I use the parts of the dancer that are already built into them aesthetically.”
Perhaps what the dancers gained most was a real taste of professional life in a dance company. “The Joffrey Elite mimics and mirrors the futures of all these students,” says Baud. “Many times as a professional dancer, someone goes out, and in 48 hours you need to know the choreography and perform it.” Winning competitions is great, he says, but the primary goal was to push the dancers to a professional level under time constraints, through changing repertory and pressurized performance scenarios. “There were learning curves for the students as team members,” he adds. “They realized it was more than just class during the day and preparing for a spring show or The Nutcracker.”
By the 17th episode, the series had accrued 3.4 million views. By the end of May, the first episode alone had drawn more than 800,000 hits. According to Baud, AwesomenessTV targets Generation Z, a post-millennial audience, and this series has drawn many people who are unacquainted with dance.
“The comments below [the videos on the YouTube website] are eye-popping from those who are wowed at what it’s like to be a dancer here in New York City and to chase that dream,” says Baud. “We hope it’s just the beginning of a long journey in educating the world about dance in New York.”
At the BellaMoxi competition, one dance mom thanked Prescott and Baud. “She had binge-watched the entire series and was so grateful as a parent,” says Prescott. “She said, ‘Now I have a much better idea of what it takes for my son to do this.’ It’s a genuine look into the lives of dancers.”
Many of the students have received Instagram messages from dancers as far away as China. “Students from other countries are talking about how relatable the kids are,” adds Prescott. “They can see themselves in these kids.”
One of the challenges of dance in this millennium is to attract, cultivate, and secure future audiences. “We want to showcase dance in the best possible way and build audiences,” says Prescott. “Kids who are 12 or 14—they’re going to be buying tickets in the next 20 years.”
At press time, AwesomenessTV had not yet commented on the possibility of a second season, but the dance team directors are open to it.
“We are grateful for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity afforded to us with the first season, and would love a season two of Joffrey Elite,” says Baud. “Another season would only help increase the visibility of the lives of dancers in pop culture by highlighting these incredible dancers who sacrifice much in search of their dreams.”
Ballet, ballet, ballet! Showy moves won’t get you far without a solid technical base. “To really stand out, you need to pay attention to technique, and you get that in your ballet classes,” says Prescott. “Do not skip that. It’s important. It will set you apart in the long run.”
Stuff happens: Snafus are inevitable. If you make a mistake in competition, “the world does not end,” Pineda says. “It’s not always about just about being perfect.”
Attitude is everything: Approach competitions with a spirit of discovery and a respect for the process: “I always learn a lesson in these projects and competitions,” says Pineda. “For competition dancers, just always be excited to learn and dive into something, and not just for the end product.”
Former American Ballet Theatre dancer Joseph Carman writes about the performing arts for numerous publications. He received a BA in journalism from The New School in New York City and lives in Palm Springs, California.