"Flesh and Bone": Why Does Hollywood Insist Ballet Is So Dark?

November 1, 2015

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.


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