Ballet Meets “Breaking Bad”

flesh and bone

I don’t know what it is. I. Just. Don’t. The behind-the-scenes world of ballet is so rich with possibility: the physical discipline, the process of moving up through the ranks, the glorious performances and anxiety-ridden backstage scenes, the prospect of retiring. There’s plenty to work with in dramatizing this exotic, sweaty world. So why is it that a decent, REALISTIC movie or TV show as yet to be made about it? (Keep reading to see that we’re getting a wee bit closer….)

Let’s start with The Red Shoes (1948), the movie every budding ballerina (of a certain age) has seen at some point. Gorgeous to look at, but exceedingly cheesy. Because, of course, the glorious Moira Shearer has to hurl herself from a balcony due to some fanatical code which dictates that gifted dancers cannot have both art and love. Like I said: cheesy.

Fast forward to Center Stage (2000) and Black Swan (2010). Oh god, where to start? Both packed in the complete laundry list of dance clichés: abusive artistic director? Check. Clingy “dance mom” living vicariously through her daughter’s talent? Check. Bulimic perfectionist? Yup. Oh brother.

These movies reinforce two familiar memes associate with the dance world. Namely, that you can’t ever be “normal” as a dancer or balance an emotional life with the demands of the art. It’s just way too crazy a scene.

Now comes the latest offering in dance-world drama, Flesh and Bone, a limited series on Starz. When I first heard this was in production, I was encouraged. For starters, they cast real, actual dancers: Sasha Radetsky and Irina Dvorovenko, both recently of American Ballet Theater in New York, are front and center. In fact, the entire company features trained professionals.

The show’s heroine, Claire, is also played by a thoroughly trained dancer, Sarah Hay. Unlike a certain actress who shall remain nameless (cough, Natalie Portman, cough), Hay doesn’t require a dance double. She actually performs – and well. It’s a joy to see dancers doing their thing in a classroom or on a stage without distracting cutaways.

The series hangs upon the creation of a new ballet for the fictional, struggling “American Ballet Company.” The work was choreographed by Ethan Steifel, another amazing dancer; (he was in Center Stage); on the show, they break some ground by showing it as a work by a female choreographer. This plot point is particularly welcome, since most new works these days are done by men. It shines a spotlight on a controversial issue in today’s dance world, one that’s generated quite a discussion on the dance blogs (yes, I read them). For that, the show gets extra points.

But despite these encouraging steps towards an authentic drama about the dance world, Flesh and Bone “goes there” – again – with the usual elements we’ve come to expect. You got your drug problems, sexual abuse, questionable “side jobs” and an Artistic Director who is unspeakably cruel. (Sigh) Perhaps it’s because the show’s creator, Moira Walley-Beckett, was most recently associated with Breaking Bad. So why NOT have a ballerina moonlight as a stripper?

One of my fellow ballet junkies (who danced professionally) made this comment on Facebook: “Are you kidding? We had to be in class at 10 a.m., 6 days a week. Who DOES this stuff?” Word, sister.

But despite some of the easy choices made in Flesh and Bone, there are many things it gets right: the subtly desperate moves of dancers “aging out” of the only life they’ve known (Dvorovenko is surprisingly moving in this role); the constant struggle for a company to remain financially viable (and the enormous amount of ass-kissing required); the sub-par, crowded living conditions many company dancers endure, the grueling rehearsals.

And the dancing. Yup, the dancing – in class and on stage – is authentic, sublime and fun to watch. So for anyone who ever put on a pair of pointe shoes (or wanted to) a little binge watching of Flesh and Bone is a fun escape.

Cindy Grogan

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