Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A young ingenue dancer tries to make it in a New York City ballet company. But! The reality of her experience falls somewhere in between motorcycle fantasy sequences and sprouting psychological wings, and it comes from the mind of Breaking Bad’s Moira Walley-Beckett. Flesh and Bone is more than those Center Stage and Black Swan comparisons (despite the overlapping talent pool), and it tells its own story. But it is in good company.
Part of the appeal of a good dance story is that it appreciates the art even as it dismantles it. “Look at this pointe shoe,” the show says. “There’s a bloody toe shoved in there. Watch these people tear each other down — and tear themselves down — for just a few minutes on that stage. And yet. Watch them dance. Isn’t it pretty?” You can have your cake and eat it too; you can question what is and is not worth it but still get to enjoy the product of everyone’s suffering.
There’s plenty of suffering to be had in Flesh and Bone’s first hour, but the first thing the premiere does is to place it in context: “Bulling through: to force through an unsafe situation, to extricate soldiers from danger.” The danger is temporary; it has to be faced, but it can also be left behind — which is how we meet Claire (Sarah Hay), running away from home with a heavy suitcase while her brother shakes the padlock on her door. She’s after a spot with the American Ballet Company in New York, and she gets it. Artistic director Paul Grayson (Ben Daniels) is all set to dismiss her, citing her unconventional resume — she left an apprenticeship with the Pittsburgh Ballet at age 18 and hasn’t danced in a company since — but she speaks out of turn, explaining that her situation was a “family issue” and begging for two minutes of his time.
Paul knows an opportunity to own someone’s life when he sees it. “Impress me,” he commands. They’re the only two words he really needs to say all season. Claire will be living in search of Paul’s approval every day she’s in the company, bending over backwards for it only to watch him kick it out of reach. She belongs to him now; everything he says both to and about her is possessive, even when he’s offering her praise. It’s unsettling, unhealthy, and poised to be the dynamic that drives the show.
Her first day in the studio, Claire’s phone goes off. It’s my single favorite moment of the premiere, if only for the familiar way she tenses up: We’ve all been there. It is technically Claire’s fault that she didn’t turn off her phone, but Paul’s reaction is outsized, and it’s that cycle of guilt that defines her life. The artistic director shames his “hard-luck story” and dismisses her from the company, only to call her back at the last minute and make her dance the adagio on her own. Is it all a power play? Did he ever intend to let her leave?
If he did, her performance changes his mind. As the rest of the room looks on, Claire executes a graceful adagio from memory and finishes on the verge of tears. It’s telling that this is the first time we’ve seen her dance; her audition was told entirely through the expressions on Paul’s face, and now he looms over her first chance to really shine. But she does, so much so that the staff gathers in the hall later to marvel at her brilliance (and I’m with them, but isn’t it safe to assume that everyone else in the company is fairly close to Claire’s level of talent? Alex Wong is in the room!). Paul decides to rework the entire season around his new “angel,” scrapping their old schedule whether the board approves or not. Giselle is for commoners and people who like Prosecco, and Paul Grayson is neither one of those.
Now all he has to do is convince benefactor Laurent Brousseau, he of the cheap Prosecco and the Giselle. Brousseau is throwing a gala for the company; if Claire can impress him (so many men to impress), Paul gets the money he needs. He tells Claire that he expects her to “dazzle and enchant,” which seems like a tall order — sparkling conversation isn’t exactly Claire’s strong suit — but who needs an engaging personality when you’ve got “the girls”?
Claire didn’t pack a low-cut party dress when she ran away from home. She didn’t actually pack much of anything, aside from her dance gear and her favorite childhood books. She piles the books on top of her like a second blanket on her first night in New York, sleeping on the couch of the company apartment she shares with new roommate Mia (Emily Tyra). It’s not a bad setup. Mia isn’t warm, but she’s direct, unlike most of the dancers. Principal dancer Ross (Sascha Radetsky) is only kind to Claire when he can use her; prima ballerina Kiira (Irina Dvorovenko) is snorting drugs in the bathroom and possibly sleeping with Paul.
NEXT: Apartment envy