Will Dance for Food

The dancers working on set. Photo by Myles Aronowitz, courtesy Starz.

It was 6 am on a Saturday, the sun was pulling up a warm summer morning, and the birds were singing just for me. I was “wrapped." I had finished filming “Flesh and Bone" and retired from American Ballet Theatre. I felt like a creature released into the wild, freed into the next phase of my life. Now I could take a breath. Now I could eat carbs.

We'd shot the gritty ballet-themed series over four months, from April to August of 2014. Until my final performance in July, I also danced with ABT. A typical week saw me working Monday and Tuesday on the TV show, Wednesday through Saturday with the ballet company. Sunday was for the gym, for massage, for writing a series of columns about my last season as a professional dancer, for running lines and for preparing for Monday, which would kick off with a 4:45 am pickup (warm-up class commenced at 6) and stretch deep into the night. No man should wear a dance belt for as long as I did on those days.

Radetsky with Sarah Hay in a scene from the show. Courtesy Starz.

The “Flesh and Bone" set was a city within a city, a boomtown of trailers and trucks sprouting overnight on the streets of Manhattan or a soundstage in Queens. It drew a range of industry specialists, from sound engineers to gaffers to the Pomeranian wrangler (whose cloud of canine fluff played the role of Princess). Our job as dancer/actors was to put our best pointed foot forward every time the slate snapped shut and the cameras rolled. A given scene involved multiple takes per camera angle, and each angle required a new setup for lighting, sound and props, a fresh set of marks for everyone, continuity checks/touch-ups for wardrobe, hair and makeup, and rehearsals to sync our timing and movements with the crew's. If the scene called for dialogue, which it often did, we danced to the dull pulse of a metronome instead of music. Our show runners were consummate pros, and went to great lengths to capture the dance sequences with efficiency and concern for our physical well-being. But filming takes time. Given the number of moving parts involved, the pace was inevitably slow and repetitive—the reverse of the adrenaline blitz of a live performance. A quick montage of class exercises, for instance, took hours to shoot. We kicked a few weeks' worth of grands battements that day; the Rockettes had nothing on us, except maybe more convincing smiles.

My fellow dancers on the show hailed from a range of ballet companies, but under the guidance of our terrific choreographer, Ethan Stiefel, we coalesced into a single troupe. The strenuous conditions led to some frayed nerves (and teary eyes), but they also bonded us together. Most of us were thankful for this opportunity to bring dance to new audiences and to document what otherwise lasts only in memory after the curtain falls. We were jostled out of our comfort zones and into collaboration with other types of artists, swept into a heady mix not just of dancers, choreographers and musicians, but also of accomplished writers, photographers, actors and visual artists. Imagine Greenwich Village in the Sixties, or the Moulin Rouge of Belle Époque Paris, only with more nudity.

To shoulder my workloads at ABT and “Flesh and Bone," I had to trim away all distractions. I shut down my social life, and extra-curricular activities largely ceased. I streamlined in a literal sense, too: I hit the gym whenever possible, if only for a manic 20 minutes at the end of a day. Before filming began, I cut sugar, grains and starches from my diet, and eventually phased out cheese and juice, as well. My meals, of lean protein and veggies, were modest in portion, and snacks, of nuts and some fruit, were occasional. I often indulged in a glass of wine, but I didn't drink a beer for five months (that one was tough, but I've since made up for lost time). I was part caveman/part monk, and all nerd.

"Flesh and Bone" premieres on the Starz TV network November 8. Courtesy Starz.

I had danced on camera before, in the film Center Stage. I was 22 when we made that movie, still an ABT corps member, just a sweet-sweaty whippersnapper working on his double-double tours. Then, too, I remember the stuttering pace of shooting, the dancing at extreme hours. But such particulars don't faze you at that age; your body is wondrously resilient, and endless dances yet await you, like flavors arrayed in an ice cream shop. This time around, the stakes were different; the end of the arc was near. A sense of urgency animated my every plié.

There were a couple of late nights on the “Flesh and Bone" set when, numerous takes into shooting a dance scene, with my audience reduced to the stoic black eye of a Steadicam lens and the kinetic joy of moving through choreography long ebbed out of me, my inspiration faltered. But then it would surge back, from places of responsibility and gratitude. I've been fortunate to do what I love, among people I love, for many years, to bookend a rewarding career in ballet with a movie and now a TV show. I could certainly hustle up a few more sauts de basque and press lifts for the camera. Maybe I just needed a carrot to chase—or something heartier, to be precise. Get it together, dude. You can frolic in the sunshine and sleep like a bear and eat vast stacks of pancakes very soon, I'd assure myself, my mouth watering. n

Sascha Radetsky is currently writing fiction as a fellow at the NYU Center for Ballet and the Arts.

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