"Flesh and Bone": Why Does Hollywood Insist Ballet Is So Dark?
It’s here: The first episode of “Flesh and Bone” is now up for a free preview, and all eight episodes will be officially released on Sunday. Be prepared for a weekend of binge watching. But don't get your hopes too high.
Sascha Radetsky and Sarah Hay in "Flesh and Bone"
It's a treat to see real dancers make up the cast of a TV drama set in the dance world. It’s too bad they were given such a clichéd script to work with. Following in the footsteps of Black Swan, the new series is set in a dark twisted fantasy version of ballet: Claire, a self-harming ingenue with a dark secret, gets hired by a bipolar director of a major New York company who scraps his season of Giselle in order to make her his star by commissioning a fancy world premiere for her. Along the way, we meet a drug-addicted prima, several sex-crazed co-workers and even Russian mobsters.
Why do screenwriters continue to create the same ugly story lines about our field? Yes, ballet dancers are under pressure to remain thin; that doesn’t mean they’re all hungrily salivating over your burger. Yes, ballet is often painful; that doesn’t mean that dancers are self-mutilators. Yes, ballet is incredibly competitive; that doesn’t mean that everyone is out to sabotage one another.
Obviously, the classical stereotype of ballet is all pink and tulle and tiaras and pretty princesses, so it’s fun to poke holes in that façade, and showcase some of the grit behind the glamour. Part of a dancer’s job description is making their work look easy and fun, even when it’s not. So showing the sweat and blood that goes into what audiences see can be fascinating. But it seems like Hollywood imaginations have gone wild in the same direction over and over again. Why can’t we watch characters based off of intriguing, three-dimensional real-life figures—why not write a director like Suzanne Farrell or a dancer like Sergei Polunin? It's not that the show's characters are completely off-base—they're just far too flat (and predictable). The ballet world is full of jealousy and politics and problems like sexual harassment, but it's also full of passion and joy, plus an incredible sense of camaraderie. The show is so heavy-handed on the drama that a viewer might never understand why anyone would want to pursue this career.
The most moving part of “Flesh and Bone” is watching two characters deal with their bodies’ betrayals, one from age and injury, the other from the onset of multiple sclerosis. In the “Flesh and Bone” world of ballerina/strippers and casually naked rehearsals, these struggles are some of the only ones that feel like a real part of the ballet world. They dive into the tragic truth that no matter how great of a dancer you become, at some point your body simply won’t have the abilities it once did.
Because of its graphic content, the show is definitely not for students or anyone with even slightly squeamish sensibilities. But it is fun watching dancers we know, from Sascha Radetsky and Irina Dvorovenko to Alex Wong and Sarah Hay. And the series gives a few glimpses of dancing in company class and rehearsals, and, of course, a climatic final performance with some Rubies footage, plus contemporary ballet-lite from Ethan Stiefel. But as executive producer Moira Walley-Beckett said at a press conference, “This isn’t a show about ballet; it’s a character drama with a ballet backdrop. I’m not telling a story about ballet—I’m telling a story about these characters.” If only the characters actually felt like they belonged in the ballet world.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
It is a great tragedy for dance history that iconic ballet partnerships like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev or Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov weren't able to document their backstage shenanigans on social media. (Okay, maybe not a great tragedy, but you have to admit that you're curious.)
Lucky for us, that isn't the case with today's star dancers—like American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, aka The Cindies. These two aren't just onstage partners. They're serious #BestieGoals. Our evidence, as documented on Instagram, is as follows:
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you: