For a certain generation, it might be difficult to watch Starz’s Flesh and Bone without thinking of the 2000 film Center Stage. Yet the former quickly makes it very clear that this is not a fun, light-hearted romp where the underdog rises through the ranks, but a rough journey filled with abuse, drug use and potential backstabbing at every turn. Created by Breaking Bad producer Moira Walley-Beckett, the mini-series fits in nicely other recent shows also centered on women that seem determined to prove they can be just as dark as those focused on men.
Flesh and Bone stars Sarah Hay as Claire—said underdog in this tale—who suddenly leaves behind a vaguely troubled family life in Pittsburgh to travel to New York to audition for the fictional American Ballet Company. At first, you think Claire is going to have her work cut out for her; as the only one wearing a beige skirt in a sea of black leotards, she seems likely to make it into the company by the skin of her teeth.
But Claire’s different, we learn, though at first that’s only through the eyes of Paul Crayson (Ben Daniels, last seen as Adam Galloway in House of Cards), the company’s controlling artistic director: when we see her dance for the first time, it’s actually just by watching his face soften, his eyes open wider, his mouth relax. Claire must be amazing to provoke this reaction, you speculate, though it’s not until later when she’s forced to dance in front of the rest of her peers during a rehearsal that what she’s capable of is revealed. Even then, the viewer is rarely a dance expert, and we’re expected to rely on the responses from her peers and instructors to tell what we should think of her; their faces, registering jealousy and excitement, speak volumes.
Those were emotions readily visible in Center Stage, which also starred dancer Sascha Radetsky (Flesh and Blood is choreographed by Ethan Stiefel, aka bad boy Cooper). Though he was nice guy Charlie in that movie, and still has a similar vocal delivery, within seconds we’re taught that his character Ross is a different sort: “I smell a virgin,” he says shortly after kindly greeting Claire for the first time, an indicator he is unlikely to be her white knight.
While Claire may seem to be the Jody of this show, all innocent and unaware of the harsh realities of the world, as the premiere goes on, it becomes clear that perhaps she’s all too aware of the darkness that’s out there. Her coworkers call her Bambi, and with her big eyes it fits, but she’s entirely willing to go to a high-class strip club where her fellow dancer works nights—until it’s too much. Only at the end of the premiere do we get a hint as to how Claire’s upbringing may explain why she waffles between being fascinated by sexuality and fearing it, why her most confident statement is “I’m good at secrets.”
Flesh and Bone tackles all the usual dance movie tropes—the body issues, the drug use, the relative poverty and obsessive nature of the job. It’s a story we’re more used to seeing than that which has been told in recent years in documentaries about the dance world, like Misty Copeland’s A Ballerina’s Tale or the Sarah Jessica Parker-narrated city.ballet., or, even further back, Robert Altman’s half-fictionalized The Company. Those were softer, less sexy stories, their focus landing largely on the hard work and lack of longevity a career in ballet requires.
In the fictional ballet world of Flesh and Bone and its kind, abuse of all sorts is the theme of choice, specifically abuse on women’s bodies. “Why do the tiniest dresses cost the most?” one dancer asks plaintively as they group discusses a work party they have to attend, in which they’re required to “grace the patrons with our presence [so] they feel like they’re brushing elbows with angels.” “Cause God hates women,” another retorts.
The abuse women take, particularly on their bodies, is a theme several of Starz’s shows have explored as of late. Outlander regularly tackles rape, and Steven Soderberg’s television version of The Girlfriend Experience looks to have the same moody lighting and ominous tone as Flesh and Bone. None of these tales appears to deviate from depicting the lives of beautiful white women suffering—which means we’ve seen them before—but at least with Flesh and Bone, that doesn’t make the story drastically less compelling to watch. You get the sense that any tough stuff thrown at Claire isn’t going to break her, but perhaps that’s only because she’s had worse (spoilers at that link). For that, she’s hardly a rarity in this world, but the result is the same as it was watching Jody thrill in Center Stage 15 years ago: you watch to see your lead succeed regardless.
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Images via Starz