The fairly new, Starz network limited series “Flesh and Bone,” aired on November 8, 2015.
I didn’t discover the series myself until several weeks after the fact, rifling through a brief Dance Magazine article which highlighted the series through the eyes of a cast member, and now American Ballet Theatre retiree, Sascha Radetsky. (He plays the character Ross, and you may also remember him from the coveted dance film, Center Stage). I perused the article looking for more information about the series itself, but as it was mostly about Sascha’s experience filming in New York, I promptly forgot about my desire to learn more about ‘Flesh and Bone.’ (Motherhood, coupled with up and coming holiday preparations, had made it easy to forget things that were not on my immediate ‘to-do’ list).
The night that I finally had a chance to watch the first episode of Flesh n’ Bone was one where I desperately needed a “pick me up.” The kids were finally in bed, the kitchen cleaned up, and it was only 8:30. I had made a fresh batch of Paleo chocolate chip cookies, and I had a sudden urge for a hefty dose of television drama, and a glass of Yellowtail.
I remembered the ‘Flesh and Bone’ article I had seen several weeks prior in Dance Magazine, and I immediately became giddy with excitement as I realized the series must be on OnDemand. Several minutes later, I was ready to go with my cookie, a glass of red, and the remote in hand.
When the opening credits started, I was immediately intrigued as to what this series would entail. Images of a ballerina doing fouettes in slow motion then switching to a dancer swinging her leg around a pole to the lyrics “You are my obsession, I cannot sleep, I’m your possession,” played across the screen.
My first instinct was that this was a show that would somehow parlay the professional ballet world with the adult entertainment world. I was excited, because I have sometimes wondered in the back of my mind whether the two worlds ever cross paths in real life.
Perhaps this series would venture into that notion, of ballerinas becoming polerinas. At that point and time, my guess was as good as anyone’s. Either way, I knew I was in for some good drama.
The first episode certainly sucked me in. Starz was smart in that even though I did not have a subscription to that network, I was able to watch the first episode for free. In order to see the remaining episodes, I had to sign up for a subscription for $10 a month, which, you bet I did just that.
I spent the next few weeks sneaking an episode to myself whenever I had a free 45 minutes to get sucked into the gritty/glam world of ‘Flesh and Bone.’ With each episode I found myself saying “What?! No way!” For those of you who have yet to see the series, I won’t be going into too much detail about the events in the series. If you want to know the ins and outs of the first episode, there is a great in-depth recap here.
I will say this however, I was both delighted, disgusted, and disappointed with the series in general. I believe the concept behind the series was an intriguing, believable, and entertaining one: the idea of a tormented dancer who is trying to escape her torrid past, and somehow makes it in a world-class ballet company right off the bat, much to the distaste and jealousy of the other company members.
The series does a wonderful job displaying the fiercely competitive, darker side of ballet: the cliques, the jealously, and even the sub-par financial security of a dancer’s life seems to be right on point. However, being a drama network, Starz certainly takes creative liberty with exaggerating certain aspects more than others. For instance, ABC’s Artisitc Director, Paul Grayson, (Ben Daniels) is not only a tough, ego-centric ruler of all his dancers, but he is also demeaning, possessive, and jaded. He reminded me somewhat of a ballet-version of Jekyl and Hyde, who bounces back and forth between seeking to inspire his dancers to “reach transcendence in artistry,” yet does so through bouts of motivational speeches followed by angry tirades that involves running his dancers into the ground both physically and mentally. There are a few, brief moments where you begin to understand his deprecating personality as you gain a glimpse into his own past, however any empathy felt towards his character is quickly swept under the rug with his next jaded and explosive outburst.
Though maybe not as common place as Flesh and Bone makes it appear, the series does do a good job highlighting the controversial subject of cocaine addiction in the ballet world. One of the supporting characters, Kiira (played by Irina Dvorovenko) plays the role of cocaine-addicted prima ballerina who is quickly loosing her footing in the company, thanks to rising star “angel” dancer Claire. She is virtually unable to function without her regular visits to the bathroom to snort a few lines, and you are led to believe it started from an injury sometime ago that still bothers her.
You are almost left feeling bad for her in a way, as watching her rapid emotional decline throughout the series makes one ponder whether this sort of thing really does happen often in the professional ballet world. How many dancers are addicted to drugs in order to deal with the physical and mental stress that is demanded from them each and every day? Knowing that one’s “role” in a company is never permanent, and there will always be somebody newer, younger, and more talented than you certainly seems like a lot to handle. It is easy to fathom the possibility that some dancers would turn to some sort of substance to cope. In 2012, Pointe Magazine wrote an article on this very subject if you are interested in learning more about cocaine addiction in the ballet world.
The main character, Claire (played by Sarah Hays,) is a confusing role for me to wrap my head around. For one thing, there is this question for the first few episodes as to what the relationship is between her and brother, as she seems to mostly be trying to escape him. At the end of the first episode, there is a scene where he is asking Claire over the phone where she had gone, and how he missed her so much, as his hands are deep down in his pants. That shocker makes you think, oh boy it was that kind of a relationship. And you would be right. The way the first few episodes are written, you believe that is was he who instigated their relationship, that he was the possessive, obsessed brother who forced himself on her and she was just trying to escape his twisted desires for his own sister.
As the episodes progress, though, you see that there is a side of Claire that loves her brother, and desires him in the same way that he does her, though maybe for different reasons. Their unstable, almost tragic past of growing up without a mother, and only a miserable, couch-laden father for a parent figure makes it semi-understandable to see how she might inappropriately cling to her brother for support; the only male role in her life who can be there for her emotionally, and I guess, physically. This comes to fruition in one episode where Claire ventures home for Thanksgiving, and ends up initiating a sexual encounter with her brother that clearly demonstrates her own volition in their relationship. However upon waking, she vanishes and quickly tries to disseminate any sort of contact with her brother. When he tries once again to seek her out in New York, she violently screams at him, blames him for all of her problems, and tells him she never wants to see him again.
I won’t spoil the ending of the series if you haven’t seen it yet, but what really got me about this whole show wasn’t so much the crazy drama and taboo subject matters. Rather, it was more or less two issues I had with this series: 1.) Claire herself, and 2.) the opening credits allude to a storyline that ultimately doesn’t exist.
While the fact that Sarah Hays is in real life, a classically trained dancer (an ABT graduate nonetheless,) she was not actually an actress beforehand. ‘Flesh and Bone’ creator Moira Walley-Beckett was determined to find a dancer who could learn to act, and not the other way around. According to an article on bustle.com, “Walley-Beckett produce(d) a compelling performance from her untrained lead..By not giving her the scripts until right before filming for any given scene began, in order to elicit unrehearsed impulses and natural reactions. “If you don’t know what’s going to happen, I think it’s a little easier to feel it when it does,” Hay explained.”
After reading this article, this explained a lot to me. I have no complaints about Claire’s (Sarah Hay) dancing, but her acting left me unimpressed. Throughout the series I felt her character was devoid of much emotion, save the occasional outburst from her.
While it is true that her character was suffering from traumatic life-events, and as such one could argue that in response she could be somewhat cold and standoffish, I believe her persona was more from a lack of experience (and in this case, a lack of knowing exactly what was going to happen in her scenes) than it was from attempting to embody her character. It kind of reminded me of the movie ‘Juno,’ where Ellen Page remains stoic and unemotional throughout the entire movie, despite the serious matter she was grappling with. I just felt that Sarah Hays could have revealed a bit more emotion and depth to her character than what she portrayed in the series.
My second gripe with ‘Flesh and Bone’ is that the opening credits, which I referenced in the beginning of this post, indicates that there is a connection between the ballet world and the adult entertainment world, when in fact, this series has pretty much nothing to do with the adult entertainment industry. There is Claire’s one friend, Daphne, who is so wealthy that she could really be spending her summers lounging on her yacht with foreign royals, but instead chooses to spend her free time dancing for dollars in a high-end NYC strip club. Long story short, Claire somewhat befriends Daphne, and has a brief fascination with the strip club where she, in a sort of mesmerized trance, finds herself onstage and sensuously stripping down, until she comes out of her trance and realizes what she is doing. She is then escorted off stage and never returns to dance at the club.
The fact that is, not only is it completely absurd that a wealthy, professional ballerina would choose to spend her spare time at a strip club, it is also incredibly unrealistic, given the high physical and emotional demands of belonging to a professional ballet company. As a professional dancer, you take class and rehearse all day long, and then you go out and dance again in to the wee hours of morning? When do you sleep? How is that even physically possible? It seems far-fetched to me, and this, coupled with the fact that Claire only sets foot in the strip club about twice throughout the entire season, makes it questionable to me as to why the opening credits of ‘Flesh and Bone’ so highly alludes to polerinas.
Despite these gripes, the series overall is worth seeing. If you love to watch a few great dance scenes, and would like a glimpse into the world of professional ballet, ‘Flesh and Bone’ does deliver valid content on that end. If you love drama, risqué sex scenes and taboo subject matter, you may also enjoy this miniseries. But don’t expect any more than what you are given. Starz has already said they will not be renewing ‘Flesh and Bone’ for another run.