From afar, it looks like ballerinas are floating on air as they glide along on their toes in beautiful, bejeweled tutus. Even the most uninformed, non-balletomane knows by now that this is merely illusory. Come any closer, and you’ll hear pointe shoes pounding into the floor. Watch any TV show or movie about ballet — even films with happy endings like Center Stage — and you'll discover that they all contain side plots about the pitfalls of the life of a dancer. Eating disorders, self-harm, sexual harassment, and drug abuse are all too common. Sometimes, the story is as simple and haunting as a dancer dying for her art. We’ve seen it in The Red Shoes and Black Swan. The ballet tale as old as time returns again in Starz’s new limited series, Flesh and Bone, which premieres this Sunday, November 8 (the first episode is also available now on Starz.com). This time, however, there’s another, more stifling force than the physical limitations ballet places on a dancer’s body. In Flesh and Bone, a ballerina’s body is not actually her own. Sure, she can starve, drug, beat, cut, and abuse it. But it’s all in the name of being desired, admired, and favored by the male gaze. Also, don’t you dare admit to any man that you engage in any of these self-destructive things. An adult woman must present herself to the world — which for some reason on Flesh and Bone means men — as a supple, available, sexual being. Flesh and Bone is ultimately the story of Claire Robbins (Sarah Hay, who dances for Dresden’s Semperoper Ballett in Germany). The series opens in Claire’s bedroom in what we later find out is Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill neighborhood. We see a padlock on her door, and a man is outside, demanding she open it. Claire’s bags are packed; she’s ready to go. She takes one final glance around her bedroom, which is filled with relics of childhood (including a fragile glass ballerina — hello, symbolism!), climbs out the window, and flees to New York City. Her first stop off the bus is a cattle-call audition for the prestigious (fictional) American Ballet Company. Claire makes it through round after round, until she’s one of four women remaining. She has to make it, right? She’s our protagonist. We haven’t actually seen Claire dance yet, though, which seems odd for a ballet show. We have seen her waiting outside the audition room, pulling off her toenails and then shoving her bloody bare feet into her pointe shoes, not seeming to mind the pain at all. When Claire stands in front of the company’s megalomanic artistic director, Paul Grayson (Ben Daniels), he asks why he should take a chance on a 21-year-old (that’s practically geriatric for an unheard of new company member in the dance world) who spent one year as an apprentice in the Pittsburgh Ballet, then took a leave of absence. Claire asserts that it was due to a family issue and begs to dance. Grayson grants her the opportunity, and you think that maybe the reason we haven't seen Claire dance yet is so that this moment would be truly spectacular and revelatory. Nope.
The camera remains completely focused on Grayson as he watches Claire, robbing her of any glory or self-expression. From his face, it’s clear that she’s good. Really good. He’s found a new talent, but all we get to witness is Grayson taking ownership of Claire. Her story is still a mystery. Why did she need to escape her father in Pittsburgh? How did she keep up her technique after quitting the Pittsburgh Ballet? She must be a phenomenal dancer, because Grayson offers her a place in the company — but her career is completely under his control now. More of Claire’s story falls into place throughout the pilot (and the rest of the series’ eight episodes), but it’s always shaped by male characters. She isn’t just running away from her father in Pittsburgh; she also has a brother, and their relationship is incestuous. On her very first day at ABC, the company’s principal male dancer, Ross (Sascha Radetsky, who viewers will recognize from Center Stage), immediately hits on her in class. Grayson decides Claire is going to be his new star. But in order to assume the position, she must offer her body to the company’s main benefactor and chairman of the board, a lascivious man who appears to view his patronage in the ballet as more of an investment in nubile bodies whose legs will spread if he so commands it. She’s uncomfortable with this proposition. She didn’t sign up to be a prostitute. In Grayson’s opinion, Claire acts too virginal and closed off. His strategy for dealing with this is to call her in when he’s getting a massage, stand in front of her completely naked, shove his penis in her face, and say, “This is a dick. Now go out there and get one of your own!” Feels like a sexual harassment complaint waiting to happen, right? Unfortunately, as artistic director, Grayson gets away with this kind of abuse. Both Sarah Hay and Raychel Diane Weiner, who plays another company member named Daphne, say this rings true to life — although they’ve never witnessed or experienced it to the extreme portrayed in Flesh and Bone. “The artistic director makes or breaks your entire life. If he doesn’t like you, you’re not going to succeed. If he doesn’t believe in you, you won’t get the big roles. It can be something as simple as that, and you can be screwed based on just the opinion of someone. You do have to sort of realize that you’re a chess piece in their game,” Hay told us. As to why everyone defaults to the masculine pronoun when talking about AD’s, “Unfortunately, it is a male-dominated position,” Weiner explains. “It’s unfortunate that there aren’t more female artistic directors, and I’m not quite sure why... That’s kind of how it’s always been.” Is Flesh and Bone (which I’ve started calling Flesh and Boners in my head, because it’s practically Freudian in its obsession with phallus-bearers) meant to be a heavy-handed statement about the patriarchy? The final ballet, which is supposed to be Claire’s star-making turn, is about a young woman’s journey to adulthood and sexual awakening...that apparently revolves entirely around men. Sexuality is a part of life, but on Flesh and Bone, it cannot possibly be experienced as a form of self-empowerment (or on one’s own terms and timeline) — and it certainly cannot be expressed as desire for another woman. Everything on this show is about being admired by men. And I haven’t even gotten to the strip club yet. To make what creator Moira Walley-Beckett (best known for her Emmy-winning work on Breaking Bad) might see as a groundbreaking statement, Flesh and Bone juxtaposes two seemingly disparate dance worlds: ballet and a gentleman’s club. Daphne moonlights as a stripper, and Claire soon joins her in this second-shift pursuit.
At the club, the two women feel admired by men, who can look but can't touch. In the New York City ballet world, what's prized are long, lithe, almost skeletal bodies that are often the result of eating disorders, as we see with Claire’s roommate, Mia (Emily Tyre). But on the stripper pole, Claire's curves are desirable. When I asked Hay if she was nervous about filming scenes with nudity, she said, “I’ve had kind of a struggle with my body as far as being a dancer and having curves. I found it sort of liberating that I could show myself in a different way and have it not be in a bad way. It’s not bad for television to have double D’s... That’s basically why I went to Germany, because of my weight.” Sergei (Patrick Page), the club’s owner, prizes ballet and holds Claire and Daphne in the utmost regard. The club is the only place in Claire’s life where she meets a man with whom she feels safe and whom she actually likes. Is it Walley-Beckett and the writers’ intention to convey that ballet is more punishing, confining, and objectifying for women than stripping in a gentleman’s club? “With Daphne, [dancing at the club is] her release from the tension, where she can let loose and be admired by men...and it’s opposite enough from the frigid, tightly wound ballet world,” Weiner says. “I think that Flesh and Bone is very focused on the female perspective and reiterating that men in general and that kind of attention is a huge issue with many women... The Sergei character is not predatory at all with Daphne and Claire. He’s actually very fatherly, which was a relief.” So yes, it would indeed seem the idea is that a strip club is a safer place for women to dance than the ballet world. And a fatherly strip-club owner. How charming. There’s no problem, per se, with a TV show setting out to explore the male gaze. Ballet presents itself as a very natural setting in which to do so. Since the days of the petits rats of the Paris Opéra Ballet captured by Edgar Degas and the abonnés who were their patrons and more, many men have had trouble seeing the distinction between a ballerina spreading her legs in a grand jeté on stage, and her availability to do the same offstage for his personal pleasure.
I think that 'Flesh and Bone' is very focused on the female perspective and reiterating that men in general and that kind of attention is a huge issue with many women.
Raychel Diane Weiner
The problem is this: Flesh and Bone wants to tell the story of a broken person but can't do it without failing the protagonist. Claire has been part of an incestuous relationship that we’re not sure was consensual, and she’s escaping from her past. She frequently cuts herself, beats herself with pointe shoes, and performs other acts of self-mutilation as an outlet for her inner pain and turmoil. She clings to childhood and innocence in many ways, which is shown through her love of books like The Velveteen Rabbit and Charlotte's Web. She covers herself in her favorite children's books as she tries to fall asleep at night. She’s an extremely complex character with a haunting story. “Her arc is basically a journey to find normalcy,” Hay said. “She’s had [nothing but] dysfunction in her life and a very unhealthy family history. She has to cope with her own shame and insecurities and fear as well as she can... Then to be thrown into the shark tank of the dance world, where you have to be a strong person, fend for yourself, believe in yourself, and know that no matter if anyone tells you you can’t do it, that you [still] have to pursue that... [Claire’s] arc is really tough, but she’s finding her footing the whole way through. Little by little, it’s revealed that Claire is much more capable than you would expect.” That story right there — that’s one I want to watch. Unfortunately, it’s undermined time and time again by men forcing Claire to bend to their will. Even when she first decides she wants to strip, Sergei refuses to let her. Claire is repeatedly denied ownership of her body by men. All she can do to herself is harm and mutilate, then retreat back to a childlike state of innocence and fear. This theme is carried through to other female characters on the show. In the pilot, a dancer stands completely naked and asks if anyone has a tampon in the locker room. “You still get your period?” is the taunting reply. This woman is being punished and laughed at for nourishing herself enough to menstruate, a healthy and natural process that occurs only if the body properly cared for. It’s a confusing message: The internal intricacies of the female body, like menstruation, are used by other women to tear each other down on Flesh and Bone. Women are pitted against one another by men who control their fates. Even when no men are in the picture, this show is completely trapped in the male gaze, and it can't get out. I really wish it could.