Ballet might look graceful and ethereal, but don’t be fooled by the pliés and politesse. The world of professional ballet is brutal and bruising, populated with lecherous taskmasters and sharp-elbowed ingenues. For those who find the basic concept of duality shocking and revelatory, Starz’s new ballet drama Flesh And Bone will make a lasting impression by revealing the ugly truth just beneath the beautiful veneer. But the show suffers from its own surface-and-depth dichotomy, with a seductive premise that has nothing to support it aside from dark cable-drama clichés.
Acclaimed ballerina Sarah Hay stars as Claire, a sullen Pittsburgh girl who sneaks away from home under the cloak of dawn to fulfill her dreams of dancing professionally in Manhattan’s ultra-competitive ballet scene. What Claire lacks in big-city polish, she more than makes up for with virtuosic skill, which immediately draws the attention of Paul (Ben Daniels), the exacting creative director trying to raise the profile of the lower-tier American Ballet Company. Claire’s too talented to scrape and claw for every opportunity, but she faces the opposite challenge, with Paul essentially resting the company’s reputation on her slight, untrained shoulders. The immediate, potentially undeserved attention makes Claire a target for company women like her catty roommate Mia (Emily Tyra), who can’t support Claire’s transition while she’s seized by insecurity, suspicion, and professional jealousy.
There’s more to Flesh And Bone than meets the eye, but not a whole lot more. That’s usually not a problem, since what meets the eye is often a rapturous performance shot with aplomb by pilot director David Michôd. The breathtaking ballet sequences acquit creator Moira Walley-Beckett, best known for her legendary work on Breaking Bad, for choosing the Manhattan ballet scene as the setting for a premium cable drama. It’s a fascinating, insular world that lends itself well to a visual medium, and no storyteller has quite figured out how to turn ballet into compelling, sustainable television. Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Bunheads failed to connect with audiences on ABC Family, as did Breaking Pointe, The CW’s short-lived augmented reality series set inside Utah’s prestigious Ballet West. With the right execution, there’s an excellent ballet show just waiting to happen.
Flesh And Bone isn’t that show. There’s not much of value outside of the actual dance sequences, and even Dave Porter’s high-drama score feels like overkill when it isn’t used to back a performance. The show gives in completely to the gothic overtones that make so many cable dramas too heavy and humorless. Walley-Beckett is all too thrilled to tug at the ballet industry’s hangnails and expose the barely concealed dysfunction behind one of the most rarefied artistic disciplines. But the insights are facile, like the lingering shots of a gored toenail or an emaciated, fully nude dancer soliciting tampons in the locker room. Often the insights aren’t insights at all, they’re predictable personality traits assigned to each character seemingly at random. There’s the girl with the insatiable coke habit, the loud-and-proud nymphomaniac, and the girl who applies her classical dance training to a side hustle at a gentleman’s club. Ballet can be super dark, y’all.
Then there’s Claire, who flees under suspicious circumstances from a home that evokes a working-class version of a V.C. Andrews’ family-with-secrets novel. Something’s afoot with Claire’s sexuality, which involves a secret so shocking, the show can’t go two minutes without reminding the audience that she has something to hide. The physicality and sensuality of dance make it impossible to tell a story about a ballet company without infusing it with sexual politics. And to Walley-Beckett’s credit, she doesn’t lean on the simplistic ideas in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the film to which Flesh And Bone will invite comparison. That film drove home the argument that a dancer can’t truly tap into her talent until she stops being such a prude. That isn’t a problem for Claire, who proves a natural, raw talent despite viewing sexuality with a bewildered curiosity not seen since Scarlett Johansson’s alien turn in Under The Skin. But the ballet industry of Flesh And Bone is still a meat market first and an artistic endeavor second, full of skeevy, 1-percent patrons and horny dancers who should know better than to split where they eat.
Flesh And Bone wins with its casting. Rather than putting an actress through ballet training that would prove insufficient no matter how thorough it was, Walley-Beckett wisely cast Hay, a trained ballerina, even though her only prior screen experience came as a non-speaking background dancer in Black Swan. The cast is stacked with dancers turned actors, some of which have no television credits to their names, and the authenticity of their performances means Flesh And Bone doesn’t have to cheat with body doubles and artful editing. Hay and the rest of the cast, which includes Raychel Diane Weiner and Karell Williams, are the main draw of Flesh And Bone, and if the show manages to ignite interest in the ballet, the world is a better place for it. But whenever it’s not focused on the dance, Bone manages the difficult feat of making ballet look inelegant.
Reviews by Molly Eichel will run weekly.