Every episode of Bunheads, which I wrote about in Issue 9, contains at least one performance—some interpolated into the narrative action, others standing alone as a dream sequence or some more abstract indicator of an emotional state. These songs and dances have come to be the signature flourish of the show. Unlike those on, say, Glee, the performances in Bunheads take place in real, defined spaces, with constant diegetic sounds that remind the viewer of the effort being put forth. There is no fancy edit-bay trickery providing the illusion of superhuman capabilities: the dedication which Bunheads shows to capturing the real-time grace and impact of bodily motion is equalled, in modern television, only by that of sporting broadcasts.
Here are five of the best performances from the sixteen-episode first season.
Episode Two: The bunheads dance to Tom Waits’s “Picture in a Frame”
The series’s first public performance is this dance, organized by Sutton Foster’s Michelle Simms, but choreographed by the teenage dancers. It pays tribute to the late Hubbell Flowers at the funeral service that had threatened to become the site of a power struggle between his mother (Fanny Flowers, played by Kelly Bishop) and Michelle. Waits’s maudlin gruffness is perfect funeral material, of course, but the grace and coordination of the dancers, who are putting aside their own bickering and positioning, makes the piece sing.
Episode 10: Michelle sings “Maybe This Time” from Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret
Michelle’s thwarted dreams of singing-and-dancing stardom—in an alternate universe, she’d kill to have Sutton Foster’s career—serve as a through-line for the first season. But she rarely got the chance to show what she was truly capable of until this dream sequence, in which she finally nails the audition that, in the pilot, set off the chain of events bringing her to Paradise. Singing and moving live, without overdubs, Foster nails both Michelle’s neediness and her triumph with one of the most enduring songs of stage-hopefulness in Broadway history.
Episode 12: Cozette dances to “Cuckoo” from Britten’s Friday Afternoons
The first half of the season aired in the summer of 2012; when the show returned this past January, it introduced Frankie and Cozette, a brother and sister who seemed to exist in order to threaten the core quartet of bunheads’ sense of identity. Cozette, played by So You Think You Can Dance winner Jeanine Mason, proves herself to be a superb modern dancer, an idiom which no other characters have attempted. Newness, in both television and life, is often interpreted as a threat; here Cozette demonstrates that, friend or foe, she is a force to be reckoned with.
Episode 13: Sasha dances to Erin McKeown’s “You, Sailor”
The most physically expressive dancer among the bunheads, Sasha performed her first abstract, emotionally revealing dance in Episode Six: After learning that her parents were going to divorce, she performed a dance of ruthless control and sublimated rage, set to They Might Be Giants’ cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” Seven episodes later, they’ve essentially washed their hands of her, and left her to fend for herself. The terrified vulnerability she expresses in this sequence, in which she both struggles with and clings to a sense of orderly community as represented by the other dancers, is deeply affecting if you’ve seen her journey from bitter ice queen in the pilot to this moment. But this dance gives even those viewers who haven’t watched since the beginning all the necessary information.
Episode 16: The bunheads dance to Sam Phillips’s “Makin’ Whoopee”
Teen sexuality (and all its attendant heartbreak) has reared its head among the ivy-covered cottages of Paradise, and there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle. Sam Phillips, whose smoky “la-la”s have punctuated the entire season, performs a slyly sultry version of the 1928 Eddie Cantor classic, and the bunheads (and their choreographers) pull out all the stops, using the entirety of the studio set for a Chicago-style showpiece on the fraught emotional double bluffs that accompany adolescent sex, gesturing towards razzle-dazzle but with one eye always on each other. It’s not for nothing that the worldly Cozette takes center stage for much of it, but the final tableau suggests that there are many more stories to be told in future episodes.
Download Issue 9 of Maura Magazine, which contains Jonathan Bogart’s piece on Bunheads, at the iTunes Store.