If the American Ballet Company ever goes under, Paul Grayson can make a career out of rewriting Shakespeare for a modern audience. “Some artists are born,” Paul declares in class. “Some are made. And some emerge from an upside-down, deliciously kinky, terrifyingly mysterious forest of beauty and wonder.” Shakespeare only wishes.
Eccentric choreographer Toni Cannava, who’s been commissioned to choreograph the company’s “edgy modern” piece, is definitely one of the forest people. She breezes through the studio like it’s a college acting class, encouraging dancers who are used to timing their lives in counts of eight to “get in touch with all that is you.” She asks them to walk around the studio. She invites them, if they’re feeling really crazy, to turn and walk the other way. Some dancers pivot as soon as the offer is out there, but Claire just keeps walking in the same direction.
Claire is not one for going against the grain, and she definitely isn’t a hugger: the next item on Toni’s checklist. While some company members fall into warm hugs and others laugh their way through awkward embraces, Claire shakily permits another dancer to put his arms around her, clenching her fist behind her classmate’s back. Any physical contact that doesn’t happen during a performance is a violation, and it’s not hard to understand why. Her brother is abusive, and Paul expects her to trade sex for her shot at the spotlight. We rejoin Claire the morning after her near-rape at Brousseau’s hand; she can’t even bring herself to put on the strappy shoes long enough to walk home.
I think Paul was wrong about artists; all of them are made, even if they’re also born with talent. Claire would have to be a natural to earn a spot in a New York ballet company after three years away from the discipline, especially given that she never received the same prestigious training as some of her peers. But she’s being made now, molded by the expectation that she become the kind of person who can charm interviewers and say yes to benefactors. I’m firmly in the camp that she shouldn’t have to say yes to creeps, but a primer on how to carry on conversations wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Claire is thrown into an interview with a pretentious reporter who gives up on her as soon as she describes her neighborhood of Polish Hill as “Polish and hilly.” (I thought it was a good joke.) The more personal his questions get, the shorter her answers are. Her father doesn’t love the arts; he just loves the Steelers. Her mother is not dead but also did not raise her. When Claire’s only explanation for her dance hiatus is that there were “extenuating circumstances,” the reporter shames her with a Gertrude Stein quote and turns his attention to Kiira, who waltzes into the room with big news: She’s starring in the A Cast of Toni’s ballet.
Whether Paul has made his official decision or Kiira is just sure of herself, the effect on Claire is the same. Rattled, she retreats back to class to be rattled even more. As the other dancers file out, Paul pulls Claire aside to yell at her about how hard he worked to start this company. Brousseau has cut off all funds after what happened last night, and Paul doesn’t care to hear her explanation. What matters is that no one gets in Paul’s way — even baby birds. When the birds on the sill start making a racket during his big emotional speech, he throws the whole nest out of the window.
NEXT: It’s just money[pagebreak]
I’m starting to think that Flesh and Bone is really two shows: the dark, unpleasant drama of Claire’s life and the broad, melodramatic ridiculousness of Paul’s. While it’s good to acknowledge the distance between her reality and his, the gap in tone is a harder one to bridge. I’d like not to feel bad for laughing when Paul glares at Claire like it must be her fault that birds are chirping. He buys a carton of eggs just so he can throw them at his dead business partner’s grave! It’s incredible! Everything Paul does is elevated, but Claire couldn’t be more muted. When the two meet, it’s harder to enjoy how over the top he is, because it requires ignoring her reality — a reality that he’s perpetuating by offering her up to be raped. There is a version of Flesh and Bone that doesn’t take itself so seriously, but it can’t exist alongside the version that, by virtue of its subject matter, really does have to be taken seriously.
So we’re back to that version. Claire takes Paul’s admonition to mean that she needs to get in touch with her sexuality, so she stops by the strip club to talk to Daphne’s boss. Sergei raves about how his life changed for the better when he went to his first ballet, and Claire, without even asking, makes her way to the pole. She’s wearing a button-up cardigan, you guys. This is not her natural habitat. Over the course of one sad, uncomfortable number, Claire strips down to her underwear, then realizes what she’s done and freezes topless in front of the crowd. Daphne and Sergei guide her from the stage and put her in the cab.
Daphne has had a day, hasn’t she? Paul meets with her to talk about the elephant in the room, and it seems for a second like he’s going to go after her for stripping, but he actually just wants $250,000 from her dad. Whew. Daphne shuts down staffer Jessica for assuming that the amount is “inconsequential,” but she agrees to ask on one condition: If she gets the money, she also gets a guaranteed promotion to soloist. Paul accepts those terms, and Daphne pays a visit to her father’s world. Her dad writes off ballet as something to get out of her system, but when he says, “It’s such a rare treat to see you. There must be something you need,” she leaves without asking for the money. She does, however, have a “proposition” for Sergei. Maybe he can help sort this out.
Which leaves us with only one thing left to process. I’ve put it off, but there’s no escaping it: We have to talk about Bryan. Fresh off his murder-adjacent bus trip, Claire’s older brother roams New York eating soft pretzels, spying on other people’s kids, and calling every ballet company in the city. When Monica, the staffer whose pregnancy somehow managed to escape Paul’s notice for the first eight months, admits that Claire is a member of ABC, Bryan sweet-talks her into sharing Claire’s address. Romeo greets him at the stoop, and Mia lets him inside: a whole welcome wagon full of people who don’t know what they’re signing Claire up for.
Claire gets home from the strip club to find Bryan’s army bag waiting by her mattress — and Bryan having sex with Mia. When Claire runs back out into the rain, Bryan grabs her, quiets her struggling, and slips his hands low on her hips. She reaches enough of a truce to let her brother back inside; they eat in silence and call it a night. As Romeo watches, Bryan moves from his perch on the couch to the floor beside Claire, and Claire squeezes her fingernails into her palm until it bleeds. Help us, Romeo; you’re our only hope.
- I feel like Flesh and Bone wants to fight back against the male gaze instead of just depict a world that’s governed by it, but it would help if the girls weren’t whispering jokes about Claire’s night with Brousseau. Shouldn’t they all want to fight that kind of system?
- Ross knows that Kiira is using again, but she chalks it up to jealousy; apparently they used to be an item.
- Taking a vote: Is Ivana’s dog named Fritz or Francis?
- This week in Alex Wong: He loves that hug.
- “You’re Claire’s brother. Oh wow. Wow, the brother of Claire. Claire’s masculine sibling.”
- “I drew a cat and a magic banjo.”