I love me a good ballet drama. I never get tired of Center Stage, Black Swan was my favorite movie of its year, and I still believe Save the Last Dance is Kerry Washington’s best work. So naturally I devoured all eight episodes of Flesh and Bone, which Starz originally conceived as a multi-season series but eventually downgraded to a miniseries, within a week after they were released.
Flesh and Bone was created by Moira Walley-Beckett, a former dancer herself who won an Emmy for writing the outstanding “Ozymandias” episode of Breaking Bad. The premise is classic—the American Ballet Company is struggling, and Artistic Director Paul Grayson (Ben Daniels) needs a miracle to save it from financial ruin. His prayers are answered in the form of a young ingenue with a mysterious past, Claire (Sarah Hay), who quickly steals the spotlight from the aging, injury-plagued current prima ballerina, Kiira (Irina Dvorovenko). It is certainly a premium cable drama—it does not shy away from depicting drug use, eating disorders, occasionally excessive nudity, and even incest.
My feelings on this miniseries are rather complicated. For me, it had the problem of being simultaneously too much and not enough—I found many aspects gratuitous, while there were others I wished the show had explored further. What the show does extremely well is the actual dancing. Ethan Stiefel of Center Stage fame served as choreographer, and the majority of the cast, including all of the background performers, consists of actual professional dancers with little to no prior acting experience. I must say that the cast, particularly Hay, who was given the difficult task of carrying an entire show in her acting debut, did a fantastic job. The dance sequences were lengthy (which I consider a positive thing) and impressive—I particularly loved how much time the final episode spent on the climactic opening night performance that was teased all season long.
My issues with the show primarily have to do with some storytelling choices I found unfortunate, particularly in the latter half of the miniseries. Claire’s character has an incredibly dark, disturbing past that is slowly revealed over time. Understandably, these experiences have affected who she is as a human being, and in many ways drive the choices she makes. I would not have a problem with this if some of the choices she made were not downright impossible to comprehend, even in the context of trauma. I am all for an accurate depiction of PTSD on television, but in this instance I felt Claire’s background was used as a crutch to attempt to justify twists that did not make any sense.
I am going to discuss major spoilers for this paragraph only, so please look away if you have not seen all of the episodes. Claire’s aforementioned dark past, which involved repeated sexual abuse, rape, and eventual impregnation by her brother, made sense in the early episodes—she flees home to escape him, ending up at the American Ballet Company, and appropriately freaks out when he tracks her down. Midway through the miniseries, however, she does a 180 I found rather inexplicable—while home for Thanksgiving, she initiates more sex with her brother, and begs him to come see her perform. On a different yet similar note, in the final episode Claire has a phenomenal dress rehearsal for her dream prima ballerina role, and proceeds to have a completely confusing mental breakdown out of nowhere. While I understand that people who have been through trauma may behave irrationally, I had a very hard time understanding Claire’s motivations at several points. End spoilers.
I wish some of the supporting characters had been fleshed out (pun intended) a little more. For example, Paul is villainous and unhinged in a way that felt a bit too caricaturesque, and his inexplicable mood swings rivaled even Claire’s. Kiira was interesting to watch, and Dvorovenko is a fantastic dancer, but her character arc exists in essentially every ballet-based work of fiction and did not feel particularly fresh. Supporting dancers Mia (Emily Tyra) and Daphne (Raychel Diane Weiner) were a bit more developed, even if their struggles with self-esteem, ambition, and medical problems also felt a bit expected at times. Honestly, the show’s most original character is probably the one who has nothing to do with dance—Romeo (Damon Herriman), the homeless man who lives under Claire’s building and comes to play a major role in the events that unfold. He felt like someone I hadn’t seen before, and helped make the scenes that take place outside the dance studio pop.
Another aspect of the show I ultimately found a bit disappointing was that despite the abundance of complicated female characters, most of them lacked the initiative required for me to consider them strong female characters. In various ways, their fates were often in the hands of men, and some of the show’s more risque scenes felt a bit exploitative and objectifying. While Claire’s struggle to understand and embrace her own sexuality is an important part of her character, it was not explored in a way that felt particularly empowering.
All of that being said, there is certainly something darkly riveting about Flesh and Bone that made me unable to look away. I was ultimately disappointed that there will be no more of it beyond the eight episodes—I would be curious to see how the show would have responded to several plot developments in the final episode, and despite how frequently her actions made me groan, I still felt invested in Claire’s journey. I also ended up caring quite a bit about Mia, whose story took a few rather heartbreaking turns. While it is certainly not perfect and I wish they had made some different choices, fans of juicy drama and stunning dancing will find plenty to appreciate about Flesh and Bone.
Flesh and Bone airs on a weekly basis on Sundays at 8pm, but if you don’t want to wait you can binge all eight on demand or on Starz Play.