If the creators of Flesh and Bone want to pour all of these formidable resources into another trite soap opera, that’s their prerogative. But they should hush about the “realism.”
Flesh and Bone. Premiered November 8 on Starz; entire season (eight episodes) are available to stream.
By Janine Parker
Flesh and Bone, the newest drama to boast of its authentic take on the ballet world, premiered a few weeks ago on the cable channel Starz, and what creator Moira Walley-Beckett and others involved with the production want us to know is: everything is emphatically not beautiful at the ballet.
The eight-episode show—Walley-Beckett recently told the New York Times that Starz decided Flesh and Bone would be a one-off, rather than a potential for future seasons—stars Sarah Hay as Claire Robbins, a talented but troubled young dancer who auditions for and is accepted into the fictional, New York-based American Ballet Company. The show’s many tropes, whether deliberately or not, conjure other ballet and dance movies. Like Moira Shearer’s character in The Red Shoes, Claire is an inexperienced ingénue-type thrown into the spotlight; like Natalie Portman’s in Black Swan, Claire is subject to the vicissitudes of her jealous peers, and may or may not be losing her mind (poor Claire tortures herself in a variety of ways that include cutting, forcing hairpins into her scalp, and eating glass). Unlike Portman, however, Hay is a professional dancer in real life, and a beautiful one at that.
Even Flashdance gets a shout-out, two actually: Claire hails from Pittsburgh, and, wait for it, ends up moonlighting in a strip club. In that, Flesh and Bone also recalls The Sopranos; though unlike the Bing, this club, run by Sergei (a Russian gangster-type, played by Patrick Page, who happens to love ballet), is portrayed as a “high-end” establishment with discerning clientele.
If none of that strikes your fancy, fans of V.C. Andrews’s book Flowers in the Attic may be darkly tickled by Claire’s big secret involving her big brother Bryan. (Wink, wink.)
In press information and in interviews leading up to the show’s debut, the usual descriptors about the “behind-the-scenes” dancer’s life have been trotted out—variations on “gritty,” “punishing,” and “cutthroat”—while the characters themselves are written with personalities or storylines that take on, to the nth degree, nearly every ballet stereotype or cliché under the sun. (Interestingly, eating disorders are given the least amount of scrutiny, as if that’s such a given in the ballet world that it needn’t be explained anymore. It is, in fact, a problem that is taken seriously, but it’s simply not true that all or even most ballet dancers are suffering from a starving or purging syndrome.) There is, though, one main character who we understand is the model for that issue—as a bonus, she’s also the company “slut.” There’s the “aging ballerina” who doubles as the drug addict prototype; the resident hyper-straight male with his roving eye and hands, and his sidekick, the resident flamboyantly gay male who speaks with the requisite formula of lisp-laced whine. The company women, for the most part, cast nasty, sidelong glances at each other while making nasty, epithet-laden comments not quite sotto voce. Oh, how they swear—here, Flesh and Bone easily gives Deadwood a run for its money, as if to completely contradict any counter-clichés of ballet dancers as pink-scented innocents—and oh, how they traipse about nakedly—the women, that is, excepting one memorable phallus-waving scene.
The biggest character stereotype is reserved for Paul Grayson, the company’s artistic director. Actor Ben Daniels, who dives into the ludicrous dialogue with gleeful mayhem, makes him almost enjoyable to watch. As if union rules or discrimination laws of any kind had never been invented, he stomps through the show, leaving a toxic river of spite in his wake as he yells at, insults, and/or outrageously hits on various company members.
Yes, we are once again being served up the Ballet-is-a-Fucked-Up-Deathmatch notion in which dancers are mostly just a pack of feral cats, all sharpening their nails, circling warily, hissing and spitting at their rivals, then purring and rubbing lasciviously yet calculatedly against those who might give them treats. There is little between their ears except the ability to scheme, but who needs brains with such willing, pliable bodies, right?
If Flesh and Bone were a comedy, it’d almost be hilarious. In fact—aside from those cartoonish characters, their dialogue, and the scenarios they are given, but just those things!—it’s almost a good show. Or rather, many of the elements are there that could have resulted in at least a much better show. To her great credit, Walley-Beckett—a former dancer herself, and a television writer and producer whose credits include Breaking Bad—insisted that professional dancers be cast in all of the roles that required any actual dancing. This indeed makes all the difference in the dancing footage, of which there is a decent amount. The cast is peppered with some big names in the ballet world, such as former American Ballet Theatre dancers Irina Dvorovenko and Sascha Radetsky, as well as several dancers who Boston Ballet fans may recognize. The look of Flesh and Bone, overall, is quite striking, the scenes, whether daily classes and rehearsals in the studios or moments in a drug dealer/artist’s loft often beautifully shot. And, the majority of the acting is fairly good, too; what a shame it’s wasted on such silly material. Any legitimate plot lines are ultimately overrun by the junk.
That’s why I’m bothering to write about this show, yet another over-the-top misrepresentation of dance—and ballet, in particular—that may be amusing for those of us who know better, but just reinforces the stereotypes for those who don’t. I’m not surprised by it, but I am weary of it. Do those types—the anorexics, the sexual predators, the discriminators, the ruthless competitors, the egotists, etc.—exist in the ballet world? Of course: but what profession, what workplace, what extended family, for that matter, doesn’t?
If Walley-Beckett et al. want to pour all of these formidable resources into another trite soap opera, that’s their prerogative. But they should hush about the “realism.”
The reality that I’ve experienced with the majority of dance artists that I’ve known and/or worked with is quite a different one. This show may not directly disregard the daily work involved, but it sure dismisses the work ethic of these physical poets. They are not petulant children. They are professionals.
Since 1989, Janine Parker has been writing about dance for The Boston Phoenix and The Boston Globe. A former dancer, locally she performed with Ballet Theatre of Boston, North Atlantic Ballet, Nicola Hawkins Dance Company, and Prometheus Dance. Ms. Parker has been teaching for more than 25 years, and has a long history with Boston Ballet School. She is on the Dance Department faculty of Williams College in Western Massachusetts, where she has lived since 2003. Janine Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.