How Breaking Bad’s Walter White Inspired Starz’s Disturbing Ballet Drama Flesh …

8 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Far-fetched ‘Flesh and Bone’ on Starz aims for grit, which means lots of sex.

Starz’s latest effort is this eight-hour limited series that follows the efforts of a young ballerina (Sarah Hay) to succeed in a New York ballet company. despite her personal problems and her clashes with the artistic director (Ben Daniels). Several years ago, Breaking Bad writer and executive producer Moira Walley-Beckett was sitting in her seedy, New Mexico motel room, on her day off from filming the AMC drama, when she conceived of a television show that would become Starz’s Flesh and Bone.

I realize that, in some circles, the stripper pole has been reclaimed as a tool of empowerment, a symbol of unapologetic female sexuality rather than servitude.One of the challenging things about Starz’s ballet drama Flesh And Bone is that by the end of the pilot, viewers may think they already know everything important about the characters. Walley-Beckett, who won an Emmy for writing Breaking Bad’s heartwrenching “Ozymandias” episode—considered to be the best chapter of the series and one of the finest episodes of television ever—had always known that she wanted to write about the world of ballet—in which she spent twenty years, beginning at the age of 3. As the opening credits roll, Karen O sings a droning cover of the 1980s hit “Obsession” (“Who do you want me to be/To make you sleep with me”) over a grainy montage featuring dancers and a lot of flying red chalk.

And there is nothing wrong with examining a centuries-old profession that, like ice-road trucking and deep-sea fishing, deserves respect, decent wages and a safe work environment. It already feels as if we were back in the soft core heyday of Zalman King, with David Duchovny about to walk on screen to narrate an episode of “Red Shoe Diaries.” As the eight-episode series progresses (it begins on Sunday night on Starz), that feeling is largely confirmed, though the truer comparison is to “Showgirls,” crossed with a little “Black Swan.” The story of an ingénue from Pittsburgh (invoking another ’80s-’90s bellwether, “Flashdance”) who takes New York by storm, “Flesh and Bone” is a solemn gigglefest, too wintry in its look and deliberate in its pacing to ascend to true camp status, but still ripe for group viewing and drinking games.

Sharon Stone stars in this TNT adventure as the newly elected vice president, who learns shortly after her inauguration that her real job — as laid out in the “secret Constitution” — is to respond to extreme crises by deploying a super-secret agent (Jeff Hephner) only the Vice President, the chief steward and the Chief Justice knows exists. He thrusts her into the spotlight, attracting the eye of a lascivious French investor as well as the ire of the company’s other dancers, especially prima ballerina Kiira (Irina Dvorovenko), who’s hiding both an injury and a drug addiction. Familiar figures from ballet have been brought in, including the dancers Irina Dvorovenko and Sascha Radetsky, who play members of the fictitious American Ballet Company, a scrappy outfit that wants to compete with New York’s finest. When Breaking Bad eventually wrapped, Walley-Beckett sat down and wrote the pilot, which chronicles Claire fleeing her hometown and dysfunctional family for Manhattan, where she resumes dancing after a mysterious hiatus and attempts to navigate a dizzying new cast of defective characters—divas, drug addicts, and predatory ballet patrons included. Even with the script in place though, Walley-Beckett quickly realized what a tall casting order she had placed. “I wanted to find unicorns, essentially,” Walley-Beckett laughs of her ambitious quest to find untested actors who could carry a drama. “There wasn’t any resistance [to my casting requisite from Starz] but there was an enormous fear that we couldn’t find [the right dancers], and we wouldn’t be able to find them.

We really got down to the wire but little miracles kept happening, and I kept finding exactly the right people.” Walley-Beckett ultimately found her Claire in Sarah Hay, a soloist with the Semperoper Ballet in Dresden, Germany who had danced in several films, including Black Swan, but had never really acted onscreen. “I enjoy portraying a character onstage in dance but I never actually thought, ‘Maybe I should go out and try out for a movie,’” explains the 27-year-old, who responded to an e-mail casting notice after Walley-Beckett failed to find her Claire in America. “That wasn’t really the agenda for me, but I’m happy that it worked out like this.” Breaking temporarily from the Semperoper Ballet to act alongside other real-life dancers didn’t prove to be as difficult a transition for Hay as the new series was for Walley-Beckett, who was essentially trading meth labs and the New Mexico desert-scape for dimly-lit dance studios. “It was a shock to the system for sure,” the Emmy-winning writer says. “I felt like I was home, because I spent 20 years of my life in this environment, but part of me was like, ‘Are you crazy, what are you doing back here!?’ I like to joke that, ever since I left dance, I’ve been in recovery, in a multitude of ways. For me, the foundation of the show is a character drama so in that regard it’s not dissimilar from Breaking Bad but in terms of meth wars versus tutus and stage life, it’s very different.” One commonality, however, between the two series is that both Walter and Claire are driven by desperation to disturbing, depraved lengths that are often hard to watch—lengths that Walley-Beckett hasn’t personally explored but somehow still created. “In Breaking Bad, I didn’t know anything about meth. . . but what I did know and we are obliged to know as writers is about human interaction and human behavior, and relationships. The struggle of pushing your muscles and your psyche past their breaking point to get to the top, only to realize that the only place to go from there is down. In Flesh and Bone’s first two episodes, it sometimes feels like a network exec took a look at the script and said, “Yeah, but does there have to be so much dancing?” Sure, there are the obligatory shots of blackened toenails and ruined feet, but every chance it gets, the show rushes away from the studio and into plot lines that make little to no sense for this series.

The pilot introduces a storyline about a ballerina who moonlights as an exotic dancer, and the episode spends roughly as much time in a strip club as it does in the ballet studio. Sitting on the floor, studying her nailless big toe, Claire (Sarah Hay, who appeared as a dancer in “Black Swan”), the newcomer, dabs some blood on her finger, smears it on her lips and then leans over to kiss her reflection in the rehearsal studio mirror. There’s an already tiresome arc about the absurdly courtly homeless man who lives outside Claire’s building becoming obsessed with her; the series even finds time to give some screen time to Sascha Radestky (Charlie from Center Stage), who shows up here as a fellow dancer who just wants to get into everyone’s tights. In a quick pan that could be titled “Stark Contrast for Dummies,” we see it is filled the symbols of childhood — the dolls, the ballerina figurines — and padlocked from the inside.

Later, she’s so turned on by watching her stalker brother be beaten up by the strip club security guards that she’s finally ready to give herself to the nice customer who’s been paying just to talk to her. Though Starz has opted to keep the series contained to a single limited-run season (and is making it all available on their on-demand service) Walley-Beckett already has more projects in the works, including a series pickup still yet to be announced. “Now that I have the opportunity to write for myself, my projects are all pretty personal,” she said. The most ridiculous tasks are reserved for Ben Daniels (“House of Cards,” “Law & Order: U.K.”), who’s fine in his quieter moments as the company’s imperious artistic director but frequently has to bark out the show’s more risible dialogue, and navigate scenes like the one in which he spreads a young rent boy across his desk and has at him while muttering: “I am a man of vision. I spoke with Walley-Beckett as she looked back at the show’s development, her fascination with sex and power, and working with her breakout star, ballerina Sarah Hay. Chris Albrecht has already said the cost-prohibitive production is “not sustainable on a seasonal basis.” And Walley-Beckett is perfectly fine with the limited run.

She almost bombs because the witchy female judge (with, oh, yes, a Russian accent and a fluffy dog) doesn’t like her and the equally witchy (read: gay) male director Paul (Ben Daniels) can’t understand why she bailed on the internship she got at the Pittsburgh ballet when she was 18. You may find yourself throwing things at the screen when the irritatingly tremulous Claire goes to bed and covers herself, head to toe, with books — the only way she can get to sleep.

Paul occasionally treats the company members more like (very flexible) high-priced escorts than professional dancers, and bends his own favorite escort over a desk as “creative inspiration.” Plus, there’s that whole stripper subplot. This may be a commentary on the male gaze, but it’s also very annoying because, as we find out in subsequent scenes, Hay is a powerful and exquisite dancer. She’s obviously been horrifically abused in some way, possibly by her brother, who was recently discharged from the Marines; she seems terrified of men and fascinated with how the other women she encounters wield their sexuality unabashedly. Even emotionally fragile young women do not become a real ballet dancer accidentally, by copying dance moves in their rooms or practicing at the local gym while no one is watching.

Paul exploits her seeming innocence, dangling her like a Snausage in front of the ballet’s chief investor and, in an excruciating scene that spells out things much better left unsaid, telling her exactly what she should do to secure her future at the company. So as tempting as it is to pitch Claire as an ever-flinching, wide-eyed naïf in the Big City, a gal who Just Doesn’t Understand why all those other dancers are being so mean to her, who doesn’t even know to turn her cellphone off during rehearsals of her first day at the American Ballet, it is simply absurd. It’s a storyline that’s been done many, many times before, and it could make sense for the series — but combined with Claire’s history of abuse, it becomes something more akin to emotional torture porn. As Claire, Hay shows flashes of intrigue, moments when you sense a steely, knowing resolve behind her wide-eyed gaze that makes you wonder whether the whole ingénue thing is just a put-on.

None of which is addressed in any meaningful way — the physical demands of ballet are reduced to a few jokes about eating, lots of elegant stretching and one bloody toenail that will shock only those who have never met a young dancer/skater/runner/soccer player. But then she slides back into milquetoast passivity, which makes the character seem unevenly written instead of complicated, and rather frustrating to watch. Fortunately, this pole is found in a club frequented by clientele so high end they appreciate the dance more than the nudity, a club run by a Russian mobster who also worships the ballet and takes the fragile Claire under his wing. Daniels too has moments of brilliance in which Paul reveals the sacrifice and stress high-profile artistry demands, when he is not being scripted into throwing hissy fits.

You get somebody else who’s incredibly thoughtful and talented and invested in the project, and they come up with beautiful additions and new ideas I never would have thought of. I had approached several of my Breaking Bad collaborators, but everybody was busy when my show got green-lit, and I was like, “Oh, crap!” So I took submissions from agencies all over town, and I started reading. Speaking of the punishing environment, Paul is a brute and a bully, and he falls into a tradition of stories about coaches, directors, and managers who believe abusing people will improve their skills somehow. There are companies, within the religion of ballet, run by someone who is at once king, priest, lover, father, and brother, who wields their power and infantilizes the dancers because that’s how they know how to be, and that’s how they think they can get the work done.

She comes in with a very different perspective on how to elicit great work from the artists, by nurturing and asking for authenticity, and for them to commit their true self and invest emotionally, which is the polar opposite of Paul, and the way he commands his troupe. So many American shows are about this power obsession, especially on HBO — at heart, so many shows are about powerful people, usually men, and how they wield power to degrade other people.

Breaking Bad fits the same mold — it’s so entirely about a man who feels powerless, and lets his lust for control destroy everything he cares about. My own journey as a young woman and then as a mature woman, walking through the world, these are issues we’re forced to deal with and are bombarded with. Within the enterprise of meeting and conquering, really, at the heart of it, don’t we all just want to be loved until our fur rubs off, and our whiskers fall out, and we become shabby because we are loved?

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