Dark Arts: Inside the New Dance Drama 'Flesh and Bone'

11-6-15 Flesh and Bone
The new dance drama "Flesh and Bone" stars Sascha Radetsky and Irina Dvorovenko, both former American Ballet Theatre dancers, along with 20 other professional dancers. Starz

The dance world as depicted in Flesh and Bone has a gravitational pull: Every character and storyline is trapped in its orbit. The new Starz show depicts ballet more authentically than perhaps any other fictional show or film to be released in recent years. But while it's steeped in the art form, it's simultaneously about much more—with the power to grip even those who've never seen a Nutcracker.

“The concept started with ballet,” says creator and executive producer Moira Walley-Beckett, best known for her Emmy award-winning work on Breaking Bad. She’s sitting in the Starz offices the day after Flesh and Bone’s red carpet premiere. “But I wanted to populate it with real, three-dimensional characters. There are real human stakes there. These are people who live in the world of dance—and there’s no magical realism, and people aren’t crazy. They’re people trying to navigate their circumstances.”

A series of images opens the pilot of the limited series, which has its premiere on Sunday. The montage points out details in a dark room and, without words, hints at what’s to come. A plastic ballerina ornament—the singular focus. A doll, crooked and eery in the shadows—remnants of a dark childhood. A key sitting on the shelf—home. Plastic hangers devoid of any clothing—imminent departure. A heavy lock bolted to the door—breached boundaries.

The first face to appear is Claire’s, the first voice that of a man calling her name. For a moment, she stares at the door as it jiggles in the frame, rattling the lock. Then she heaves her duffel, her suitcase and herself out the window and disappears down the street along a queue of identical Pittsburgh rowhouses. The next image is of Claire, perched tall on the seat of a train or bus. Rain streaks the window behind her but she is lost in something else. You can see her hearing music through her headphones as the camera pans down from her elongated neck to her hands, delicately conjuring a familiar, comforting variation, dancing the steps her feet normally would.

The episode ends in that same dark room, with that same male voice. Claire has finally picked up one of myriad calls from her brother Bryan. He asks where she is and tells her he misses her as he lays in her bed and masturbates to the sound of her voice. Weeping silently on the fire escape of her new apartment in New York City, only a few days removed from the rattling lock, Claire is fresh off an audition, the newest member of the American Ballet Company.

“She starts as this extraordinary person with extraordinary gifts and extraordinary damage,” says Walley-Beckett. “Her goal isn’t necessarily to be some transcendent ballerina. She wants to dance, but that opportunity, that’s handed to her. What she truly wants is to be normal, which is something that was robbed from her,” she adds. “I wanted to examine someone trying to navigate through life with that kind of wounding.... The backdrop of ballet was perfect for that.”

Claire is brought off the page by Sarah Hay, an American-born soloist with Germany’s Dresden Semperoper Ballett. Hay, who trained at the School of American Ballet and American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and danced with Charlotte Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet before going overseas, is one of 22 current or former professional dancers cast to become the show's fictional American Ballet Company, including Sascha Radetsky, former ABT soloist; Irina Dvorovenko, a former principal dancer with the same company; Raychel Diane Weiner, most recently a member of Ballet Arizona’s corps de ballet; and Emily Tyra, who danced with Boston Ballet before moving into musicals and television.

“I didn’t want to do the show unless I had real dancers,” says Walley-Beckett, who grew up training as a dancer before pursuing musical theater and then a career in writing and television. For the show, she mostly wanted dancers who could act—not the other way around. “Starz and I agreed about that. And they were like, ‘Good luck finding those unicorns.’” She eventually did find her unicorns though, even if for some shooting a television series was a very new experience.

Hay, for example, says her previous acting experience included a children’s film with the Olson twins (You're Invited to Mary-Kate & Ashley's Ballet Party, 1997) as well as portraying characters in narrative ballets. But on the ballet stage, stories are told silently.

“It was incredible the first few times I worked with them because it was a very vulnerable time for them to suddenly just stand and speak,” says Ben Daniels, a non-dancer who plays the company’s artistic director Paul Grayson. “Normally [in dance] there’s loud music playing, [but] when the clapper claps and the director calls ‘action’ there’s a deafening silence on set,” he adds. “What was brilliant was seeing them overcome that and start to tell stories in a different way.”

For Daniels, who recently appeared in the Netflix original series House of Cards, it was dance that was new. To prepare, he says, he watched countless documentaries and behind-the-scenes extras, spoke with dancers and booked a few hours of private lessons (“which was hysterical, sort of squashing myself into a pair of footless tights and a dance belt,” he says).

Walley-Beckett recalls how “meta” it was to watch nearly two dozen dancers from different companies become one troupe and fall into the dynamics of company life—starting with a morning class for the cast and going through long days of shooting.

“A ballet company is a very complicated place to be,” Walley-Beckett says. “It’s high art. It’s athletic. It’s incestuous, in its own way. This is a group of people who have grown up doing and thinking about one thing with one aspiration and they are cloistered. It is a religion.... It’s ripe with fodder for drama.” And the characters and stories throughout the eight episodes of Flesh and Bone unfold in the precise manner they do because of this environment.

The high-stakes environment made the process of shooting the show emotional for some of the dancers behind the characters, she says. When she describes the role of Kiira, the company’s prima played by Dvorovenko, she tears up. “I’m just so amazed to this day that this prima ballerina from ABT, who aged out and was simultaneously sort of drummed out of everything she’d ever lived for, like, came to my stage with open arms and said, ‘I’ll try,’” says Walley-Beckett. Dvorovenko’s character hides an injury, uses pills and cocaine to subdue the pain, and is terrified of being pushed out by new blood (namely Claire). “This is the one thing that these dancers do and dream of their whole lives,” Walley-Beckett says. “And the shelf-life is half your life, if you’re lucky. And then there’s another 50 percent of your life left to go that’s full of uncertainty and that you are completely ill-equipped to pursue, and that leaves you in a state of grief and loss.”

Radetsky, who retired from ABT while filming Flesh and Bone, signed on to do the show in part because of the chance to capture his dancing on film and end his career in ballet with a “last hurrah.” Creating an indelible record is a rare opportunity for a dancer, one that Radetsky had as a 22-year-old corps de ballet member with ABT when he co-starred in Center Stage in 2000. Now edging closer to 40 and stepping off the stage, Radetsky saw Flesh and Bone was an apt bookend.

Inevitably, audiences will measure Flesh and Bone against other works in the dance-on-screen genre (leaving documentaries aside). The most anticipated comparisons, perhaps, are Center Stage and Black Swan (2010).

The former—which also starred Flesh and Bone’s choreographer Ethan Stiefel—was a fantastic dance film that made every 12-year-old bunhead swoon. They watched on repeat and can probably still recite lines a decade and a half later. But few would argue that it’s really a good movie outside the opportunity to drool over ballet (and its attractive purveyors). And Black Swan a decade later may have brought a dance-related film to a wide audience, but it did little to convey realistic ballet dancers. Is ballet really like that? asks every non-dancer. No, ballerinas do not regularly hallucinate or grow feathers on their backs.

It’s true, the fictional American Ballet Company of Flesh and Bone is not an accurate reflection of every nonfictional ballet company in the world. And admittedly, the show might portray a higher-than-authentic concentration of mental health issues (from problems with food to bipolar disorder to psychological trauma) and dramatic events, but what television show or movie doesn’t squeeze in a little more than real life holds? And finally, yes, Flesh and Bone deals in ballet stereotypes. But stereotypes, at least in this case, have a basis in truth. What Flesh and Bone does better than others is give the age-old ballet tropes dimensions and reasons for being.

The new Starz show is also engaging, visceral, cinematic, thoughtfully made television that does an admirable job bringing audiences into a truthful ballet niche while holding its own—not only in comparison to other dance-themed films and shows, but in comparison to other films and shows, period.