William Keiser is a dancer turned screenwriter, based (for a few more months) in the Washington, D.C. area. He is currently working on a TV show about a gay male dancer navigating life, love, and debauchery at an Ivy League School. Follow him on Instagram (@keiserwilhelm), Twitter (@keiserwilhelm_), and TikTok (@williamkeiser).
When the pandemic shut the world down, I got fired from my first ever job as a professional dancer.
Like many of us, I took refuge in TV. Over 8 months, I consumed Elite, Baby, Skins, Please Like Me, Girls, Euphoria, I May Destroy You, We Are Who We Are, Riverdale, Grand Army, Search Party, Fosse/Verdon, Work It, Looking, The Bisexual, Special, Bonding, Pose, and Dear White People. In my remote-thumbing haze, I began to realize I was actually on a quest. I was seeking the Holy Grail: a triple-threat of nuanced LGBTQ+ representation, quality onscreen dance, and searing teen dramedy.
Enter Tiny Pretty Things.
Sliding in at the #2 most-watched show on Netflix this week, Tiny Pretty Things is a teen drama about ambition, performance, and murder at a fictional elite ballet school, best described as a cross between Black Swan and Pretty Little Liars. Through the main character of Neveah Stroyer (played by dancer Kylie Jefferson), a talented outsider replaces a privileged it-girl ballerina who gets pushed off a roof (in the first scene). Tiny Pretty Things takes the viewer on a journey through the high-stakes world of pre-professional ballet.
At first glance, Tiny Pretty Things seems like a slam dunk for my criteria. It’s got prominent queer characters, professional onscreen dance, curated by renowned choreographers and performed by real dancers, and its plot packs more twists than a bag of honey-wheat pretzels. For the first time, I saw an inkling of myself on screen, and what I saw made me sigh, and it made me squirm.
Let’s start with the most prominent queer character, Shane. Played by Brennan Clost, Shane is a small-town, flamboyant boy-next-door with a dream – to make it as a professional ballet dancer. His storyline is where showrunner and executive producer Michael MacLennan, who comes to TPT from Bomb Girls and Queer as Folk, draws from subject-matter expertise. The gist of Shane’s storyline is that he covers up case-related information, crushes on his closeted bisexual roommate, and falls madly in love with an older, internally homophobic Casanova.
Shane exudes enthusiasm, confidence, and comfort in his own skin. He reminds me of the boys at a ballet summer intensive who first showed me it was okay not just to be a male dancer, or not just to be gay, but to be both, proudly – in a complex, bold, full, unapologetic way. I’ll never forget, one night, when 7 or 8 of us packed into a narrow dorm room, and boys started stating their sexual orientations, one by one. When it was my turn, I announced, looking down at my baggy cargo shorts, that I was straight. Not one person contradicted me or snickered. I came out as gay that year.
Where Tiny Pretty Things trailblazes is in its willingness to openly discuss Shane’s struggles within a mainstream format. Though gay male characters are nearly ubiquitous as sidekicks in the largely female-oriented teen dramedy genre (unlike gay women), few shows endow them with realistic problems. A large part of my quest for representation is the desire to see real-life contemporary struggles of young Gen-Z queer men – such as app-related sexual trauma, body dysmorphia, and often violent internalized homophobia expressed in dating – reflected onscreen with dignity and accuracy. Shane in Tiny Pretty Things gets to breathe, strive, be subjected to systemic issues, and cry, separate from any straight woman’s storyline.
One example of the openness with which Tiny Pretty Things treats Shane’s emotional baggage is in the sixth episode, after a dinner date turns into car sex. Shane confides in his roommate, “I’m an idiot. I don’t read books. I don’t go places. I only had one job tonight: don’t have sex! There I was, whipping it out, like he’s every other trick. And I’ve got nothing else to offer. All I am is this stupid body.”
Talk about seeing yourself on-screen. My first time with another man was an anonymous liaison from Grindr, the first of what would become an addiction that played out concurrently to my pre-professional ballet training. I know deeply what it is to feel your body as your only worth, reinforced unceasingly both by the gay “community” and by dance teachers. To see this niche struggle on-screen is life-giving. That said, where Tiny Pretty Things falters also lies in its same unchecked desire to express. The writing sometimes transgresses a guiding principle of film and a requirement of dance: to show, rather than tell. With Shane’s sequences, as with many of Neveah’s, the “other” speaks, but due to time constraints, is forced to spit out centuries of pent-up grievances every time he or she open their mouths.
When it comes to onscreen dancing, Tiny Pretty Things, for its meticulous casting and star-studded roster of choreographers (a cameo from New York City Ballet star Tiler Peck!), similarly struggles to fit in too much, resulting occasionally in visual gobbledygook. Like Work It or Bunheads, Tiny Pretty Things’ creators seem to start with the premise that good dance itself is not exciting enough. Between the first vertiginous scene of Cassie pirouetting on a ledge and the “Jack the Ripper” ballet at the end, Tiny Pretty Things is padded with “arm contemporary,” in which dancers, clad in little to no clothing to accentuate sex appeal, gesture wildly with grotesque facial expressions, accompanied by body rolls and devoid of footwork. The best dancing in the show, and there is multi-layered, professional-quality dancing, is found in Tiler Peck (Sienna Milken)’s duet with Michael Hsu Rosen (Nabil) in Episode 5, Brennan Clost’s (Shane’s) and Barton Cowperthwaite’s (Oren’s) muscular street performance in Episode 3, and a contemporary pas de deux between Kylie Jefferson (Neveah) and Barton Cowperthwaite in Episode 7.
Ultimately, Tiny Pretty Things is a valiant effort to entertain while leading uninitiated viewers further into two cloistered worlds. Despite occasionally frantic dialogue and indulgent movement, it feels close to expressing why young people choose to devote their lives to dance and what problems they really face. It was affirming for me to see, on-screen, the spirit of gay male dancers who have changed my life, and though often unwieldy, the show’s writing contains some powerfully representative moments of two misunderstood universes.
I will end by saying: a place setting is still set for Elijah. There are yet more stories to tell of ballet and queerness within the mainstream, more Shanes to dissect, and maybe, someday, a homosexual main character, and trans, queer, and GNC main characters, too. Hopefully the kind of representation that Tiny Pretty Things symbolizes is not a trend, but a premonition, poised to proliferate in years to come.