An 8-episode standalone mini-series is excellent binge-watching fodder; a mini series about the ballet is even better (when you’re a girl). The fact that Moira Walley-Beckett, of Breaking Bad fame, actually wrote and produced this show, was yet another reason for this girl to spend a few days devouring the eight hour-long episodes. I binge-watched this one back in November but never got around to writing it up, so here goes.
If you want to be cynical about Flesh and Bone, you could say it’s a cross between Black Swan (minus the psychedelic bullsh*t. I hated that movie) and Flowers In The Attic, or maybe a darker version of Center Stage with a lot of drama thrown in.
For one thing, it’s heavy on classic ballet-movie clichés: timid small-town girl goes to NYC to audition for the American Ballet Company and quickly becomes the unlikely choice as the dance troupe’s ingenue who will star in a brand new ballet commissioned especially for the showcase that will hopefully keep the company from financial ruin. The artistic director is over the top, with delusions of grandeur and cheesy lines such as “Don’t tell me what I can and cannot do” and “Everyone and everything here is mine, to do with as I will” and a heavy dose of sadism towards his ‘angels‘. The ingenue is surrounded by jealous, anorexic dancers who resent her immediate claim to prima ballerina status, especially her slutty roommate and the aging prima struggling with an injury. There’s a token flamboyant gay dancer, as well as the rare straight player (it’s Charlie from Center Stage, people! And he hasn’t aged a day!). So far this couldn’t be more like the Amanda Schull guilty pleasure dance flick, could it?
Except Flesh and Bone is much more than the sum of its parts. For one thing, every single dancer in the show is an actual dancer. Lead actress Sarah Hay, who plays Claire, is a soloist at the Dresden Semperoper Ballett in Germany. There are no body doubles used in any of the dance scenes.
Most importantly, there’s a darkness to this show that makes it more akin to the thriller/horror genre than the typical dance movie, despite the plotline introduced in the first episode being similar to just about every dance flick ever made. Spectacular choreography aside, the dance component of Flesh and Bone is not about the glitz and glamour of making it as a ballerina, but about the dark underbelly of the ballet world.
Still, the heart of the show is about the darkness in the characters themselves. Protagonist Claire is emotionally troubled and sexually repressed. As the story unfolds we get to see exactly how damaged this girl really is: having never known her mother, she grew up with an abusive, alcoholic father, and developed an incestuous relationship with her own brother, resulting in a pregnancy that cut her stint short as an apprentice in the Pittsburgh ballet company where she danced. It’s unclear how or when this (heavy on the ick factor and totally reminiscent of the C.V. Andrews camp classic) sibling sexual co-dependency began, but she seems to blame her father for it just as much as she blames her brother Bryan.
None of the other characters appear to be emotionally intact, either, with the possible exception of Daphne, the rich girl who prefers the ABC to her father’s alma mater, Harvard, and dances at a strip club on the side. A strip club owned by yet another cliche: the Russian owner with a secret love for the ballet, whose side business is human trafficking of underaged girls.
Promiscuous Mia, Claire’s roommate, is never actually seen digesting food, except when her malfunctioning limbs start to worry her. She doesn’t exactly welcome newcomer Claire with open arms, and only opens up to Pasha, the company’s pianist. Her ambitious, overbearing mother is the Jersey version of Maureen’s own mother in Center Stage, except Mia has a lot more to deal with than an eating disorder: when she temporarily loses her sight in one eye and sees a doctor, the diagnosis is as bad as it gets, especially for a dancer: MS. Her suicide attempt doesn’t come as a surprise and neither does the fact that it’s Romeo who saves her life, the weird but friendly homeless guy who has designated himself as the building’s protector – but we’ll get to him later. The ballet is her entire life, it’s all she knows how to do, and now she’s faced with the realization that she will never be able to achieve what she’s spent a lifetime working towards. Her breakdown is touching, heartbreaking even, enough for us to at least temporarily forget her mean streak.
Kiira is no less of a mess herself: perfectly aware that the countdown to her retirement has already started, she’s the one most threatened by Claire’s status as ingenue. Her coke habit and time spent with her dealer/enabler Jasper are the polar opposites to the boring – as she undoubtedly perceives it – life with her patient, adoring husband, that awaits her once she quits the ballet. Furious at Paul’s decision to give Claire the prima role, she is willing to jeopardize her health to give the performance all she’s got, which makes her final decision to step back at the last minute all the more powerful and gratifying from a story-telling perspective.
Paul is portrayed as bipolar, but that’s a very superficial description of his character. Unlike Jessica, who does care about the company but whose number one priority is her child and sees her managerial position more as a job to secure her livelihood than a calling, Paul is consumed by the ballet world, and feeds off the energy of his dancers. In one of his rare vulnerable moments, he tells the story of a young boy who discovers that, rather than being a beloved son, he is nothing more than his foster parents’ mealticket. He narrates his hardships in trying to build the company from the ground up; in yet another outburst, he eggs his late partner’s grave, furious at him for leaving him alone. Paul casually sleeps with younger men, urges Claire to do whatever it takes to secure financial backing for the company – even if it means sleeping with a sleazy older French potential investor – and callously fires one of his ‘angels’, who nonetheless joins the rest of the troupe in his surprise Thanksgiving party; Paul gives her a warm welcome only to appear completely non-plussed and disengaged when confirming her termination a couple of hours later.
He’s domineering, cruel and sadistic, but he’s a ballet genius (yet another cliché). He doesn’t hesitate to hire the weird but brilliant Toni Cannava, even when he’s clearly contemptuous of her methods, to create a groundbreaking ballet in order to propel his company into the A-list and secure financial backing. Nor does he place loyalty to his prima ballerina Kiira – who, according to her, made him and the company what they are – above what he perceives as artistic integrity and innovation, by putting his faith in break-out star Claire. Unlike Toni’s gentler methods of teaching, his are strict, technique-driven, cruel and at times downright vindictive; anything to get the best performance out of his dancers. He will break them if he must, starting with doe-eyed Claire, especially when he uncovers her sordid secret.
And what a secret it is. Uncomfortable in her own skin and dissatisfied with just about everything, even when her dream of becoming a soloist comes true, it seems like her love/hate relationship with her brother is what defines her above all else. This incestuous plot point not only borders on camp, but is also unrealistic in the extreme, possibly even more so than Flowers In The Attic. Even if we’re meant to accept that a broken home or an abusive father are enough to push the two attractive siblings towards each other, this isn’t a case of teenagers secluded from the rest of the world, forced to explore their own sexuality with the one person available to them. They’re in Pittsburgh, not locked up in a dark attic for years on end.
Any of them could put a stop to it if they wanted to. If Bryan is the ‘monster’ Claire accuses him of being in the finale, then what does her co-dependency on him maker her? Why not terminate the pregnancy in the first place? Why go through all the trouble of escaping her childhood home, if she can’t help going back to it – and him? While effective in driving the conflict, the entire subplot makes little sense, and at the end of the day is quite unnecessary as a plot device.
As described above, all of the other characters are battling plenty of demons of their own, without having to contend with incest on top of it all. Claire could have been the tortured ballerina with just a history of abuse from her father, and it would have still worked brilliantly. The controversial plot device only helps cheapen the story, as far as I’m concerned (as does the unsurprising choice of books Claire regularly covers herself with in order to sleep – wtf is up with that unconventional security blanket?). It seems that Bryan’s role is only used to facilitate Mia’s downward spiral, and to validate the existence of Romeo.
The homeless weirdo is a bit of a mystery to me. The not-so-subtle allegory, with its culmination in the final stand-off between Romeo and Bryan, goes beyond camp and straight into pulp territory. Much like the incest scenes and generally icky undertone, it just seems unnecessary. Throughout the 8-episode arc, Bryan seems to evolve a little. He tries to distance himself from Claire, realizing she’s doing everything she can to put their history behind her and move on; in the end, it’s her who won’t let him go, so why does this make him the villain who needs to be vanquished by the crazy homeless guy in bottle-cap chain-mail? Everything about Romeo is too cartoonish to fit in with the darkness of the ballet drama, from his not-too-subtle re-imagining of the Velveteen Rabbit to the way he traverses through the building’s apparent abundance of back-alleys and secret passages to reach ‘Clementine’, as he affectionately calls Claire.
Despite its shortcomings, Flesh and Bone is a decent drama, especially if you enjoy beautifully choreographed ballet scenes and gratuitous nudity. First time lead Sarah Hay does a convincing job of playing the wide-eyed, tortured heroine, but at some point her detached look gets to be too much. Instead of making us sympathize with her, she ends up becoming annoying, but her dance performance absolutely redeems whatever acting chops she may be lacking – or maybe it’s the writing and the direction that let me down. Her solo performance is spectacular, as is the final scene, where she finally stands up to Paul, taking her first step into embodying the diva she’s about to become.
Overall, I’d say it deserves a solid 7/10 starz.