Pair the cutthroat competitiveness of the feature film "Black Swan" with the sinister, secretive vibe of TV's "Pretty Little Liars," and you've got Netflix's new drama, "Tiny Pretty Things," which debuts Monday.
If that plot line isn't enough to catch your interest, consider that Chattanoogan Damon Gillespie is one of the six principal actors in this show's cast of 12 regulars.
"Tiny Pretty Things" is a sexy, soapy drama about sabotage by three girls who will stop at nothing to become the prima ballerina at a prestigious dance school after the previous lead dancer falls four stories from a balcony. The show is based on the book of the same name by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra.
Fans of the book will notice a couple of differences in this televised version: the Archer School of Ballet is set in Chicago instead of New York City, and the three female leads on TV are Neveah, Bette and June instead of the book's Gigi, Bette and June.
Gillespie, a 2012 graduate of Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts, is familiar to fans as the youth male lead in NBC's 2018 drama, "Rise." He has since appeared in episodes of Fox's "Empire" and Netflix's "The Society," as well as performed in "Newsies" on Broadway.
In "Tiny Pretty Things," the 26-year-old plays Caleb, whom he describes as a Southern boy from Fayetteville, North Carolina. The fact he is also a Southerner worked to his advantage because the show-runner let him incorporate his accent.
"Caleb's a very strong character. He comes from an Army family. He has a couple of secrets he's holding onto. He and his father are very close, and you start to figure out in the second episode the rivalry between Caleb and another student."
Netflix describes Caleb as a "lean, handsome dancer who uses his humor and undeniable talent to mask his struggles with a profound loss and a secret that could unravel the institution."
Kylie Jefferson, playing Neveah, heads up the cast of 12 dancers who are all legitimate artists with extensive credits to their names. Jefferson is a dance phenom who, at age 6, became the youngest student accepted to the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. She holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in dance performance from Boston Conservatory.
"She is a force! She is not to be played with, and you get to see her shine in the very first episode," says Gillespie.
In fact, all of the cast members are so talented that Gillespie says he felt at times like he was the weakest link in the chain.
"All that ballet was something I didn't grow up doing, and they all did. I struggled the first couple of months with that," he says.
Gillespie, who excels in hip-hop, says he learned ballet from Karen Wilson when he enrolled at CCA .
"Damon is a natural and enthusiastic mover," Wilson says of her former student. "He is very rhythmic and dedicated to detail."
The headmistress of the fictional school for elite dancers is well-known star Lauren Holly. Gillespie is unabashedly enthusiastic about his experience working with the actress, describing her as "wonderful. The kindest person."
"She really is like the mother to us all. She's always giving us advice, helping us whether it's with our careers, press — whatever we needed. She's a wonderful human being."
Gillespie says during the six months the 10-episode series was shot in Toronto last year, each morning began with an on-set ballet class. There was also a physical trainer on set. Everyone does their own dancing in the series, he says. "Tiny Pretty Things" dance consultant was Jennifer Nichols, but Gillespie added that every episode had a different choreographer and, at times, the cast members even choreographed some of the work.
Even though the plot of "Tiny Pretty Things" is fiction, Nichols said in an interview with Dancespirit.com that every effort has been made to realistically present the behind-the-scenes world of ballet as authentically as possible. The choreographer said it took three months to find "dancers who could act" as opposed to actors who could dance. Attention to detail has been paid to every aspect of the set and costuming from how the dance studio is set up to the correct way to tie a pointe shoe ribbon.
In the midst of all the murder and mayhem, "Tiny Pretty Things" will confront real issues dancers face today, such as eating disorders, racism in the ballet world and even how to become friends with the competition.
Entertainment website purewow.com predicts "Tiny Pretty Things" is "about to be the Netflix show everyone is talking about" and believes the drama will "measure up to the likes of 'The Crown.'"
But locally, "Tiny Pretty Things" and Gillespie's role offer a longer lasting legacy: that of inspiration to students who sit in the same classrooms that the dancer did a decade ago.
"It is always the dream of our students to reach for the stars and become a famous artist," says CCA Principal Debbie Smith." Each one enters our school by way of audition because they have a passion for the arts. Damon was no exception, and that is exactly why he chose Center for Creative Arts. We are proud that he began his young career with us, and now he has continued to grow as the artist he always wanted to become.
"Damon has never forgotten his school, and he comes back periodically to share his story with our students. He inspires them to persevere. Knowing that someone who attended their school is on television or performing in their artistic field is a thrill. Maybe someday they, too, will be recognized for their artistic talent."
Email Susan Pierce at firstname.lastname@example.org.