Flesh and Bone isn’t a Black Swan rip-off. Yes, the eight-part limited series focuses on the extreme physical and mental demands set by a New York ballet company, and it stars Black Swan performer Sarah Hay as Claire, a talented young dancer with a traumatic past. But Black Swan was a psychodrama written and directed by men, and its fears about ruthless female sexuality and ambition were clearly rooted in a man’s subconscious. Flesh and Bone was created by Emmy winner Moira Walley-Beckett (Breaking Bad), who, like Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky, recasts the highbrow art of ballet within the lowbrow genre of melodrama. Playing with timeworn ballet clichés, she pits the ingenue Claire against the prima Kiira (Irina Dvorovenko) and sets up the brutal director Paul (Ben Daniels) as a Freudian lover/father figure who stands naked before Claire, shouting, “This is a d—. Now go out there and get one of your own!” But Walley-Beckett understands the way women relate to and compete with one another in a more nuanced way than Aronofsky’s over-the-top movie did. If Black Swan was a horror story about women, then Flesh and Bone is one made for them.
As Claire, Hay perfectly captures a ballet dancer’s impossible coming of age. Claire’s profession requires her to remain a child forever, with a girlish body and a virginal air, while still projecting adult emotions. Thanks to the terrified-little-kid expressions she makes during close-ups and the sexy, confident movements she makes on stage, Hay is an unsettling mix of innocence and experience that eludes easy stereotypes. It’s fitting that Claire is obsessed with a glass dancer figurine that her brother gives her. She’s a lot like that memento: delicate, but sharp enough to cut someone when she’s broken.
Claire’s relationship with her roommate, Mia (Emily Tyra), is just as complicated. When a benefactor hints that he’ll make a donation to the ballet company in exchange for sleeping with Claire, Mia is both disgusted and jealous. As Claire gets ready for her awkward date with the man, Mia strips naked to get in the bath, using her emaciated body to intimidate the not-so-emaciated Claire. Claire counters by lacing up the stilettos the benefactor gave her, right in front of Mia’s face. Each woman is in charge of her own objectification, and it’s no accident that both experiment with self-harm. The strongest woman wins by destroying herself before anyone else can, but that mutual self-destruction also bonds them in a surprisingly intimate way that looks a little like love.
All of this makes Flesh and Bone sound more serious than it is. Consider that it also features strip clubs, catty dialogue (“He jumps like a Chelsea queen when they announce the Barneys Co-Op sale!”), and a hokey homeless guy with a heart of gold. But the show is too thoughtful to be dismissed as kitschy fun. There’s no pleasure in the dancers’ pain, just a deep compassion for their struggle for perfection. They might be masochists, but Flesh and Bone refuses to make sadists of the rest of us. B+