Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A young ingenue dancer tries to make it in a New York City ballet company. But! The reality of her experience falls somewhere in between motorcycle fantasy sequences and sprouting psychological wings, and it comes from the mind of Breaking Bad’s Moira Walley-Beckett. Flesh and Bone is more than those Center Stage and Black Swan comparisons (despite the overlapping talent pool), and it tells its own story. But it is in good company.
Part of the appeal of a good dance story is that it appreciates the art even as it dismantles it. “Look at this pointe shoe,” the show says. “There’s a bloody toe shoved in there. Watch these people tear each other down — and tear themselves down — for just a few minutes on that stage. And yet. Watch them dance. Isn’t it pretty?” You can have your cake and eat it too; you can question what is and is not worth it but still get to enjoy the product of everyone’s suffering.
There’s plenty of suffering to be had in Flesh and Bone’s first hour, but the first thing the premiere does is to place it in context: “Bulling through: to force through an unsafe situation, to extricate soldiers from danger.” The danger is temporary; it has to be faced, but it can also be left behind — which is how we meet Claire (Sarah Hay), running away from home with a heavy suitcase while her brother shakes the padlock on her door. She’s after a spot with the American Ballet Company in New York, and she gets it. Artistic director Paul Grayson (Ben Daniels) is all set to dismiss her, citing her unconventional resume — she left an apprenticeship with the Pittsburgh Ballet at age 18 and hasn’t danced in a company since — but she speaks out of turn, explaining that her situation was a “family issue” and begging for two minutes of his time.
Paul knows an opportunity to own someone’s life when he sees it. “Impress me,” he commands. They’re the only two words he really needs to say all season. Claire will be living in search of Paul’s approval every day she’s in the company, bending over backwards for it only to watch him kick it out of reach. She belongs to him now; everything he says both to and about her is possessive, even when he’s offering her praise. It’s unsettling, unhealthy, and poised to be the dynamic that drives the show.
Her first day in the studio, Claire’s phone goes off. It’s my single favorite moment of the premiere, if only for the familiar way she tenses up: We’ve all been there. It is technically Claire’s fault that she didn’t turn off her phone, but Paul’s reaction is outsized, and it’s that cycle of guilt that defines her life. The artistic director shames his “hard-luck story” and dismisses her from the company, only to call her back at the last minute and make her dance the adagio on her own. Is it all a power play? Did he ever intend to let her leave?
If he did, her performance changes his mind. As the rest of the room looks on, Claire executes a graceful adagio from memory and finishes on the verge of tears. It’s telling that this is the first time we’ve seen her dance; her audition was told entirely through the expressions on Paul’s face, and now he looms over her first chance to really shine. But she does, so much so that the staff gathers in the hall later to marvel at her brilliance (and I’m with them, but isn’t it safe to assume that everyone else in the company is fairly close to Claire’s level of talent? Alex Wong is in the room!). Paul decides to rework the entire season around his new “angel,” scrapping their old schedule whether the board approves or not. Giselle is for commoners and people who like Prosecco, and Paul Grayson is neither one of those.
Now all he has to do is convince benefactor Laurent Brousseau, he of the cheap Prosecco and the Giselle. Brousseau is throwing a gala for the company; if Claire can impress him (so many men to impress), Paul gets the money he needs. He tells Claire that he expects her to “dazzle and enchant,” which seems like a tall order — sparkling conversation isn’t exactly Claire’s strong suit — but who needs an engaging personality when you’ve got “the girls”?
Claire didn’t pack a low-cut party dress when she ran away from home. She didn’t actually pack much of anything, aside from her dance gear and her favorite childhood books. She piles the books on top of her like a second blanket on her first night in New York, sleeping on the couch of the company apartment she shares with new roommate Mia (Emily Tyra). It’s not a bad setup. Mia isn’t warm, but she’s direct, unlike most of the dancers. Principal dancer Ross (Sascha Radetsky) is only kind to Claire when he can use her; prima ballerina Kiira (Irina Dvorovenko) is snorting drugs in the bathroom and possibly sleeping with Paul.
NEXT: Apartment envy[pagebreak]
The only member of the company Mia trusts is the only other person not afraid to be an “out-loud bitch.” Daphne (Rachel Diane Weiner) is rich enough to spend her summers on a yacht with a prince from Dubai, so when she works shifts at a strip club, it’s because she wants to work shifts at a strip club. After supplying Claire with a dress from the single greatest closet known to fiction (I’ll go on record with that), she invites the wide-eyed newbie to join her at the club. Claire might not be great at conversation, but she’s really good at secrets.
Claire is inspired by the sight of Daphne owning her sexuality and less inspired by the man who tries to hit on her. When he tugs her ponytail, she turns and bashes him on the head with a glass without a second thought, working on the raw instinct of someone who’s been in this position before. She doesn’t even have a full day to recover before it’s back to the casual objectification of the dance world, slipping into Daphne’s dress (which, yes, brings the girls) for the company party. Paul instructs her to charm Brousseau and leave him wanting sex; no pressure, but her future and Paul’s are depending on it.
Claire trips on her way to meet Brousseau, and as much as stumbling into the company’s chairman of the board and spilling wine on his tie is an objectively bad idea, I think that’s her plan. It’s stunningly awkward (and sad; R.I.P., Daphne’s shoes), but it’s also brilliant: the kind of thing a person can only pull off if she’s both gorgeous and self aware. Claire knows her limits. She’s not going to charm this guy as anyone other than the shy beauty, so she lets him think the conversation was his idea. Even then, she’s not perfect at it — she hugs herself uncomfortably and at one point seems ready to launch into her own life story — but by the time she takes his tie and coos, “I hope I don’t disappoint,” Brousseau is in the palm of Claire’s hand.
The next morning, Claire is a new woman. She offers an orange to friendly homeless guy Romeo (Damon Herriman) and wins over Brousseau her dancing, pirouetting around the room while Mia watches through the door. Mia reports back to the company what Paul will later confirm: That definitely wasn’t Giselle. If everyone didn’t hate Claire already, they probably do now, but she’s learning to play the game, leaving Kiira’s drugs prominently on the top of her duffel so the prima ballerina can see that she’s onto her. After rehearsal, Paul tells Claire to harness her power as he kisses her shoulder: “And never forget: You’re mine.”
Claire belongs to a lot of people, apparently. Her brother Bryan (Josh Helman) calls that night, having broken down the door to her bedroom. He’s got one hand down his pants and the other around her little crystal ballerina, and he wants to know where she is. She beats her injured toe to stop herself from telling him.
- The most prominent book in Claire’s pile is The Velveteen Rabbit, the story of a stuffed rabbit looking for enough love to make him real. No symbolism there, I’m sure.
- I know Daphne is unimaginably rich, and I still have a hard time believing that she could afford that apartment.
- The actual star of the show is that poor woman on staff who just wants to bring Paul some water.
- “Blood sugar thing? I have a cookie. I bought it fresh yesterday, but I was only planning on staring at it.”
- “I’m not naysaying. I’m saying, and you just don’t like hearing it.”
- “I am a man of vision. I am undeniable. I get what I want when I want” is absolutely the kind of pep talk I believe Paul would give himself in the middle of sex.
- Why didn’t Claire change that ringtone immediately?
- Cold move playing “Yankee Doodle” there, Pasha.
- “I’m not crazy.”