Television Review: Flesh And Bone

Daphne: I’m responsible for dancing to the best of my ability, for keeping my weight a few pounds over malnourished. For showing up to rehearsals on time.

I really wanted to like Flesh And Bone – I’m a lover of dance of all kinds, and I am quite familiar with the Dance Film (sub)genre. If it’s not a genre, it should be. The problem with Flesh And Bone is nothing to do with anything relating to the American Ballet Company, but everything outside it. When I reviewed the first episode, I said that it could have been a really good workplace drama set at a ballet company, and I stand by that. I understand that Claire was the main character, and that she needed some sort of personal life, but what was included in the show didn’t interest me. Furthermore, the parts of the show I thought were best were the things that motivated other dancers at the company, namely Mia, Daphne and Kira. Spoilers ahead, if you’re worried about that kind of thing.

One of my favourite new shows from the last twelve months is Mozart in the Jungle. I know very little about the world of classical music, but the story about the New York Symphony Orchestra had some things in common with Flesh and Bone: it’s expensive to put on these performances, and it’s hard to find donors in a time when this particular art is no longer at it’s peak popularity; there’s a clash of egos as the younger generation of artists is coming up and the older ones are nearing the end of their career. This is all to say that I liked most of the things that happened in relation to the American Ballet Company, and I think the show would have been better if it had focused more on these aspects of running a ballet company.

Claire is the audience surrogate character in that she’s our newcomer to the American Ballet Company, and Sarah Hay plays it well. She’s been out of the game for three years, and even though she spent a year at the Pittsburgh Ballet, she’s forgotten just how ruthless you have to be to make it in this world. This all begins when she meets her roommate Mia (who is surprisingly possessive about her apartment given that it’s company housing), who is incredibly competitive, and is almost the only person unaware that she’ll never be Prima.The current Prima at the Company, Kira, manages to wrangle Claire’s opening night solo from her. Meanwhile Daphne (Raychel Diane Weiner) comes from money, and she’s the company’s ticket to high profile donations, even if her father would prefer that she went to Oxford than be a ballerina. Despite her talent, the donation she obtained for the company secured her promotion to soloist, about which the person responsible for securing funds (also a former ballerina) is bitter. There’s a similar story with the male dancers, as Ross is bumped from a lead role because he didn’t put out for the Artistic Director, Paul Grayson (Ben Daniels). His understudy Trey blackmailed Greyson into getting  the lead in the ballet, and then Greyson exacts vengeance by saying that of course Trey didn’t get the part because of their [non-existent] romantic relationship. Trey isn’t cutting it during tech rehearsals, so Ross is back as male soloist.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking stories in Flesh and Bone are of those whose careers have ended, or are about to end. Paul stopped dancing after he was injured, but he was able to build the ballet company, which illustrates how much dancers are dependent on their bodies for their careers. Kira, who has been the leading female soloist at the Company for ten years, has a foot injury that has led her to take all kinds of drugs to manage the pain while not doing anything to fix it. Meanwhile Mia is having spells of blindness in one eye and numbness in various parts of her body. She thinks it’s malnutrition because she hasn’t been eating, but when an opthamologist sends her to a neurologist, she finds out it’s actually MS (which I guessed, by the way). Her career could be over within five years. After Mia receives her diagnosis (which the audience doesn’t hear until the next episode), she walks out of the office and buys a hotdog on the corner, and she eats as much as she wants at Paul’s house that night, before going home and slitting her wrists. These storylines felt the most real, and Flesh and Bone could have been a fantastic series if it had focused more on the issues of what it means to be a dancer.

Where Flesh and Bone fell flat was in the story of Claire’s ‘troubled past’. Vanity Fair published an article about why Walley-Beckett decided to write this storyline, but I don’t think it worked. It became clear in the first episode that Claire had been sexually abused by her brother, but we didn’t know the extent of that abuse. As Brian stalked his sister to New York and Claire asked him to leave on multiple occasions, it seemed we all knew where this storyline was headed. When she gave the bouncers at the strip club permission to keep beating him, it seemed like a turning point, but in the next episode she’s calling and asking if he’s okay. Then she goes home for Thanksgiving, where it’s revealed that they had a child together, and then she sleeps with him again. I’m lucky to never have been in an abusive relationship, so I can’t speak to this, but it doesn’t make much sense. We’re told that Claire and Brian were close as children, but it’s never shown. All we see of their relationship is what’s happening in the present. It’s obvious that their father wasn’t a good parent, but we have no context for why they’re close. Then, when Claire freaks out she calls her brother, he comes to New York and decides to leave. I understand that their relationship is complicated, but it didn’t make much sense from a narrative perspective.

The other thing that didn’t really fit into the show was related to the incest storyline. As much as I love Australian actor Damon Herriman, his character Romeo had no place in the story outside of Claire and Brian’s relationship. Romeo is the homeless man that lives on the roof of Claire and Mia’s building, , and he’s convinced that the apocalypse is coming. He assigns everyone roles in his apocalypse story, thinking that Brian is the hero, even though it’s clear Claire wants nothing to do with him. He casts himself as the dragon, but after he calls an ambulance for Mia, Claire tells him that he’s actually the hero. Then in the final episode, he sews his collection of bottle caps onto a cape, and confronts Brian to kill him. As much as I wasn’t a fan of the incest storyline, I think it would have been much more effective if Brian had just left, and he and Claire never saw each other again, the confrontation between Brian and Romeo felt too much like tying up loose ends that were already tied up.

After her fantastic performance at the Gala, Paul goes to Claire’s dressing room and tells her to tell him everything she’s feeling, because he wants to relive that experience. Claire just says no, and that’s a terrible ending to the series. Okay, she is thinking for herself, but it doesn’t tell the audience anything new about the character, so why is it there? I ask all of these questions because I think Flesh and Bone could have been a fantastic workplace drama set at a ballet company. The dancing was fantastic, and the life of a ballerina isn’t easy, and there’s plenty of material in that. It’s unfortunate that the other storylines were there, and we couldn’t focus more on the ballet.

Other thoughts:

  • I didn’t touch on the strip club storyline, which felt extraneous at times, but weaved nicely into the future of the ballet company at its best.
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