Stay Tuned:The dysfunctional world of ballet on ‘Flesh and Bone’

Melissa Crawley More Content Now

“Flesh and Bone” follows a ballet dancer who is trying to survive the cutthroat world of the fictional American Ballet Company. It’s a familiar story about making it and the choices that get you to the top. The stock characters including a temperamental artistic director and mean girl ballerinas don’t help elevate it. But it is the subtle performance of Sarah Hay as rising star Claire that will stick with you.

Claire is emotionally scarred and ballet is her way out of the darkness. Again, it’s not the most original characterization but Hay communicates so much of Claire’s pain physically rather than verbally that she creates a compelling and layered character. In most of the pilot episode, Claire has very little to say. Yet, her facial expressions and body language tell a story of quiet suffering. But something else is there too in the scenes where Claire purposely causes herself physical pain. Rage is just below the surface, waiting for its moment.

The body is a character here as well. Close-ups of dancer’s feet, a focus on the flow of their arms or the arch of their backs as they dance are all used as part of the storytelling. So is sex. Here it is depicted as rough, emotionless and illicit. I’m tempted to say this is expected from a series on Starz but the sex scenes, for the most part, also tell a larger story about Claire and how she sees her body as something both empowering and shameful.

Ballet, says Paul (Ben Daniels), the artistic director, is about making effort look effortless. The dance scenes achieve this and they are beautiful. Add Claire, whose effortless movements mask a larger emotional will to survive the abuse she has suffered, and they take on deeper meanings that make the more cliché moments forgettable.

Claire is a protégé and Paul embraces her for his own agenda. One of the story’s main sources of tension is the jealousy of the other members of the company. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before including Daniels’ portrayal of Paul, an over the top, narcissistic leader who enjoys toying with his dancers’ emotions. But it’s an entertaining performance for what it is.

The ballet dancers are an insecure, dysfunctional family. One tells Claire: “Try not to fit right in unless you want to spend your whole salary on shrinks.” It’s not a kind picture of them but maybe it’s not unrealistic in a world where you are one injury away from shattered dreams. In any case, it gives the story more “villains” so rooting for Claire is easy.

The big bad however, is Claire’s brother Bryan (Josh Helman) and he casts a large shadow over her story. Maybe ballet will save her or maybe she will save herself. Either way, it’s a journey worth taking.

“Flesh and Bone” is on Sundays at 8 p.m. EDT on Starz.