Pain Behind the Art

Flesh and Bone (Moira Walley-Beckett; Starz and DVD, January 2016, 8 Episodes)

Many aspects of the compelling new ballet-set melodrama Flesh and Bone recommend it: its striking realism; twisted psychology; addictions to perfection, competition, and, yes, substances; and its troupe of trained dancers. Rising above all, however, is the stark contrast between the beauty you see on stage and the ugliness that goes into creating the beauty. While at times overwrought, in testament to its melodramatic nature, those entertaining a life in the creative and performing arts might find it a cautionary tale (as potent as conversations with broken and jaded aspirants). Success goes to the few, and they possess more than talent; sad, but the way of things.

Claire Robbins (Sarah Hay, very strong lead) flees her home in Pittsburgh, from a room in which she has installed a padlock on her door. Slowly, over the course of the series, the abuse she suffered reveals itself. She’s running toward the chance to dance but also escaping pain that subsumes her character. As she says, she’s trying to see herself. Dance is one way to escape. The other is to punish herself by variously cutting and pricking her flesh, and putting glass in her toe shoes. Some will find these scenes hard to watch.

In New York, she auditions as part of a cattle call for the fictional American Ballet Company. She almost instantly strikes a chord with company founder and artistic director Paul Grayson (Ben Daniels, superbly devilish and egocentric), who sees her as just the special dancer he needs to revitalize the company.

Since media exposes us to only the most successful and well compensated performers of the day, we like to think of the others living in near or in poverty as existing in something of an idyll, scruffy and grimy, true, but romantic because it’s in service of a noble dream. Not so in Flesh and Bone, poor looks like poor. Which brings viewers to Claire’s company accommodations with assigned fellow dancer Mia (Emily Tyra, sympathetic, competitive, and irritating). Claire, after knocking, walks in on Mia in the throes of sex with a boyfriend. Mia adopts an acerbic attitude that, ultimately, disguises her own sense of inadequacy.

Claire has some quirky ways about her, among them lugging around a suitcase packed with books. These she assembles atop herself when she sleeps, something like amour against what goes bang in the night, or against the door of her old room. Among the collection is the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit, her most prized possession. The connection here is the rabbit’s desire to be real, exactly Claire’s. The Velveteen Rabbit also links her to Romeo (Damon Herriman, quite arresting), a homeless man who lives on the roof of Claire’s building and who, while ingratiating and endearing, is wildly psychotic, a condition that plays out in a way that frees Claire from a literal monster.

When Paul announces that he is commissioning an entirely new ballet with Sarah as the prima, the knives come out, but none are as long and sharp as those of the current prima, Kiira (Irina Dvorovenko). Nobody likes being toppled, least of all a star, not just for prestige reasons but financial, as well, for, as mentioned above, only a few reap the financial benefits of stardom. Not that Kiira needs the money, as she is in a financially advantageous, though loveless (on her part), marriage. Years of punishing dance have taken its toll on her body; to function she needs the support of painkillers and stimulants. Romeo, who upon first meeting Claire and discovering her a ballerina, asks if she might have any Vicodin or Percocet on her, introducing early the idea that in this world much that is distasteful and destructive, drugs, bulimia, anorexia, and the like, are the norm. And so it is with Kiira.

In the highly competitive studio of the American Ballet Company, one dancer does befriend Claire, Daphne (Raychel Diane Weiner, edgy and likable), a rich girl self-alienated from her father, driven to prove herself. Without money worries and possessed of talent, she can pretty much express her iconoclastic side, up to a point. In her off hours, she works as an exotic dancer. She introduces Claire to this world. It speaks to Claire’s sensual side and she soon begins performing in the club, run by Sergei (Patrick Page, a nice self-contained performance). As Claire comes to learn, patronizing and adoring Sergei, who has a Russian’s love of the ballet, is a dark, soft-spoken horror. This side manifests itself chillingly on Sergei’s yacht, when Claire observes some very disturbing behavior that goes directly to her personal history.

These characters, as well as others, interact in ways that propel the story forward, that have you bingeing episodes, that culminate in the resolution of some storylines, but that introduce others, leading you to believe that the melodramatics have only begun at the conclusion of episode eight, with a stunning two-shot of Paul and Claire face onto the camera and the dramatic utterance by Claire of “No.” w/c

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