All throughout quarantine—especially during these winter months—we’re constantly searching for the next binge-worthy television show, a series to pick us up out of our own seemingly dystopian world and entangle us in another one filled with dreams and aspirations, conflict and overcoming, intimate human connection, complex relationships, relatable characters, unpredictable twists and turns, and that shiny glimmer of hope.
When a full series drops on a streaming platform (as now seems to be the “new norm”), that makes it all the more captivating and, sadly, all the more frustrating when the finale ends. As much as our parents may have warned us of the perils of “too much TV,” there’s something magical about what a television series can do to help us connect more deeply to ourselves and to each other.
The latest show on our “to-watch” list was a long-awaited ballet drama series entitled Tiny Pretty Things. If Center Stage and Flesh and Bone had a love child, that would be this new Netflix show. Adapted from the young adult novel by the same name (and the sequel, Shiny Broken Pieces) by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, Tiny Pretty Things follows the lives of students training at the elite Archer School of Ballet in Chicago. The stakes are high, to say the least—and they extend beyond the barre. The pilot episode opens with one dancer—Cassie—falling from the roof of the school building. Had she tripped? Did she jump? Was she pushed? No one knows. Life at the Archer continues as the mystery of Cassie’s fall unfolds. But in this ballet bubble exploding with competition, lust, secrecy, and expectation—no one’s hands are completely clean.
Without giving away any spoilers, we’d nudge you to move Tiny Pretty Things to the top of your Netflix queue. For bunheads and ballet aficionados— the dancing is legit, and the authenticity of life at a ballet boarding school is pretty spot on (with some added melodrama, of course). And for non-dancers, the series still completely wraps you up in its “whodunit” tale enmeshed with contemporary issues of racial discrimination, sexuality, and mental health.
To get a behind-the-scenes look at how Tiny Pretty Things made it from novel to Netflix, The Ensemblist spoke with series star Tory Trowbridge. In the show, Trowbridge plays Delia Whitlaw, a graduate of The Archer School and rising star in the ballet world. Along with being a principal dancer, she’s also the family prodigy—Delia’s younger sister, Bette, is currently a student at The Archer and, despite her unyielding drive to succeed, feels stuck in her sister’s shadow. Oh—Delia is also dating Ramon Costa, the visionary yet controversial new choreographer at The Archer. Cue the #drama.
We chatted with Trowbridge about her work on Tiny Pretty Things, her diverse performance background, and what’s kept her going during quarantine.
TE: Where did you grow up and when did you begin dancing? You’ve graced both the screen and the Broadway stage as an actress. But from what we’ve seen on this series, you must have had some serious ballet training.
TT: That is very sweet of you. I grew up in Los Angeles where I started dancing when I was 4 and got the singing and acting bug not long after. I was so fortunate to grow up in a city with public schools that offered art as part of the curriculum. Even though I had to audition for high school (which I went to for opera), it was completely free. I would sing and act at school, grab a Red Bull (not proud), and then head to the dance studio for hours and hours. So, I had a really great blend of the arts growing up. I also went to the HARID Conservatory—a ballet boarding school—for my senior year of high school. That was a bittersweet experience that led me back to acting and musical theater.
TE: Who were some of your dance icons as a kid? Were there any shows or movies that particularly inspired you to pursue a career as a performer?
TT: I know I am not alone in saying that I would stay up way too late on school nights searching videos on YouTube: Ann Reinking, Sylvie Gulliem, Julie Kent, Rachelle Rak doing “I Gotcha” in Fosse, and anything and everything that Anna Netrebko and Rollando Villazon touched. In high school I also saw “La Vie en Rose” at a French film festival with my mom—it still inspires me to this day.
TE: Who are some of your go-to ballet teachers in New York City?
TT: When I started training for Tiny Pretty Things, I was also performing on Broadway in The Cher Show eight times per week. That gave me a small window of when I could take class over at Steps on Broadway…I was always excited when it was with Nancy Bielski.
TE: What was the audition process like?
TT: My friend was actually reading for one of the roles and told me that I might be a good fit (cheers to supportive friends!). Once I got my hands on the Delia sides, I was entranced. I knew I had my own take on her and where she would sit in my body and in my heart. But I was petrified of the pointe work! Once again, cue my terrific friends who said I would be a fool to not put the dancing on tape. I shot the audition before a two-show day and sent it in with my scenes. Once I got the callback, I knew all I had to do was trust myself for the rest of the audition ride.
There was something magical about being in a Broadway show and being in the same orbit as everyone in the building. I had an incredible support system who stood beside me. I was really lucky.
TE: How did you feel about playing Delia?
TT: Absolute gratitude. Researching, crafting her character bible, and tracking where she went each episode was a process that I found so addicting. I got to experience an incredible amount of empathy and humanity in Delia. My coach and mentor, Jamie Carroll, says, “Replace judgment with curiosity.” When a character doesn’t behave the way you would, it’s important to explore rather than judge. Playing Delia was like embodying a pressure cooker—which I feel a lot of us can relate to. I hope her very real struggles and pain can help make viewers feel less alone.
TE: Did you read the TPT series? I ask because the series differs quite a bit from the original two novels.
TT: Yes, and it is quite different! The show is an adaptation, so we had an incredible writing team that took the roots of the novel and made it its own entity.
TE: While the show is certainly a bit of a melodrama, it also brings up many topical issues in the ballet world today. Why do you think it’s important to draw back the curtain on what seems to be such a pure and pristine performing art?
TT: I personally find that so many fascinating stories and performances are those that look behind the curtain, whether it surrounds a career, relationships, or something else. The storylines in Tiny Pretty Things are the product of significant research on our writers’ and show-runners’ part that a lot of us felt authentically portrayed our training. I believe that we can’t move the conversation forward if we glorify the circumstances. So, when the only way out is through, showing all these storylines is really the only option.
TE: Having attended a ballet boarding school yourself, how does The Archer School compare?
TT: The stakes were high at my school, and they are certainly high at The Archer School. I think the writers did a great job of creating a world with high stakes and weaving in all of these stories that they took from dancers’ lives. It’s also cool to see things played out that you maybe hadn’t experienced yourself. But knowing that it still happens is part of the journey and part of telling the story.
TE: The show’s creators were adamant to hire dancers who could act – rather than requiring dance doubles. How did this add to the authenticity of the show?
TT: I think it really worked to our advantage. It added so many layers of exhaustion and camaraderie that we needed as actors. And then it was also fun for the audience to know we were actually dancing it! There are so many wonderful stories that use dance doubles, but this cast was magnificent, and I am so glad we all had the opportunity to use every part of our artistry. You know, I look at this whole cast and I just want to scream, “Keep the multi-faceted artistry alive!”
TE: Six choreographers were involved in creating the incredible dancing in Tiny Pretty Things. Who did you get to work with? Why do you think it was critical to have Jennifer Nichols on set not only as head choreographer, but also a dance consultant throughout the series?
TT: I got work with two brilliant choreographers, Juliano Nunez and Garrett Smith, throughout the series. And Jennifer is not only a wonderful person, but she was our rock and our life force. We could always count on her to make sure we didn’t shoot until we were properly warm, rehearsed, and looking our best. Jennifer would give me corrections while filming the scenes on stage, and I would say, “Oh my goodness! I am so glad you caught that before we wrapped!” She was there for us, and we also had wonderful producers who really listened—it was a team effort and such a gift.
TE: Can you tell us a behind-the-scenes story or something to look out for when we re-watch the series?
TT: There is a scene with my partner, Bayardo De Maguria (who plays Ramon Costa), where we are on the roof of a restaurant. We shot most of the series in Toronto, and Canada is cold! Because we had already shot a scene from that day in a lightweight mini-dress and little ankle boots, for continuity purposes I had to still wear that! Bayardo had it a little better, but he was still just in a light jacket. It was so cold that the crew would come and cover us with a robe between takes. It’s a funny memory that we can look back on and say, “Wow, we got through that!” So, if you catch or re-watch that scene, you can laugh knowing Bayardo and I were shivering!
TE: Can we anticipate a Season 2?
TT: We certainly hope so! Right now, we’re just so excited for the world to see the first season. But who knows?
TE: How have you kept busy during quarantine?
TT: I guess it’s kind of two-fold. I spent a lot of time phone-banking with an incredible organization, Knock for Democracy, that has been canvassing since 2018. I was so honored to be a call leader with them. In the past 8 months they’ve reached over 2.8 million voters. I also started a coalition called The Hive for Change with my fellow Broadway actor and dear friend, Tiana Okoye. It started off as a place to write letters to underrepresented voters via Vote Forward but quickly turned into an action and accountability group. We wanted a space where we could amplify grassroots organizations and make activism accessible on a daily basis.
When it comes down to artistry, I had to find comfort in not feeling inspired at all times. I would chase the trance, but it doesn’t always happen sitting in the same four walls day in and day out. I turned to movies, novels, reality TV, challah braiding, class with Jamie, and fighting for justice.
TE: How does dancing (and acting) for TV/film differ from performing for a live audience on Broadway?
TT: I think this differs from artist to artist. For me, they require different techniques and endurance. But at the root of it, nothing changes on the spectrum of where my characters are emotionally or the energy I feel working off of my scene partner.
When it comes to dancing on set, you have a different adrenaline reserve because you don’t have the live audience—but I still find it to be a thrill. And for most of our performance scenes in the series we had a good amount of extras being gracious audience members!
TE: What’s the best advice anyone has given you?
TT: Oh, I am so lucky to be surrounded by fountains of wisdom. Can I give a couple? First and foremost, my mother taught me that silence is complicity, that there is no need to “white knuckle” through life, and that seeing a therapist is a gift.
And, though this wasn’t said to me directly, Jonathan Majors said, “It’s not training, its un-taming…Letting go of the habits we learned to survive.”
Tiny Pretty Things Season 1 is currently available on Netflix. Follow Tory on Instagram @torytrowbridge.