Flesh and Bone is on Starz, and predictably over the top, and you know it will be from the moment the credits start. A tiny ballerina dances amidst red dust that’s maybe blood, maybe drugs, who even knows, accompanied by a cover of that Animotion song “Obsession.”
Flesh and Bone is a dance story, and as such, it needs a wide-eyed young woman in a new and anxiety-provoking dance environment: sadistic and deeply unhappy gay impresario Paul’s (Ben Daniels) company. The show adds some seriously Black Swan elements of grotesquerie and personal torment, and then its own unique take on compromise.
And that’s what made it interesting to me. Not the dancing, although I like it. And not the relatively few strip club scenes, which is how I got sold on it. I’m interested in the way it works with compromise, or what some would call prostitution. Not just actual whoring—although yes, also that—but the other dictionary definition, the exchange of personal values for some other kind of gain. What do we do for money, the show asks, in between shots of beautiful bodies stretched to improbable limits and monstrous shots of pain and suffering. What’s the price for a chance at success, and what does that cost?
Young ingenue Claire (Sarah Hay) leaves Pittsburgh at night, as an unknown man is knocking on her bedroom door. A drugstore padlock keeps her door shut, and suddenly the knocking and whatever’s locked out is ominous. The need for her to leave, immediately, is like a punch in the stomach.
She climbs out the window and flees to New York and walks into Asshole Paul’s (Ben Daniels) dance company, nailing an open audition. “Why haven’t we heard of you?” Paul asks, and Claire makes her ominous backstory even more ominous by totally omitting it. She had to leave her apprenticeship. Family emergency. Brother went to Afghanistan but now he’s back. That’s not terrifying when paired with the padlock on her door, at all.
Our sad-eyed ingenue is out of that frying pan, for now, but Paul’s company is still the fire. Claire’s appearance is a godsend for Paul, because he looks at her and sees a way to convince Laurent (Stephen Schnetzer), a nouveau riche new backer, to agree to a different lineup than the dry old classics the donor’s been pushing.
You see where I’m going with this: Claire needs to be that girl, the corps girl who sleeps the company’s way to financial solvency and thus guarantees her own future with crass moneybags. Where does a bumpkin from Pittsburgh even get the kind of clothes she needs to wear on a date with a millionaire?
Keeping the company solvent is going to take all kinds of ethical and moral flexibility from a lot of people because Claire, of course cannot cut it. And let’s be real, she wouldn’t have made it as the show’s hero if she could. She can have dinner with him if she’s high (on one pill!), chattering away about how much her dad loves the Steelers to Laurent’s total boredom. He just wants to fuck already. But up in that hotel room, faced with his genuine indifference to whether she has a good time or not, Claire resorts to making herself puke on his fancy hotel bed.
I tried to decide if I thought that would actually work in real life, given what an asshole Laurent is, and I think not. I also thought that in reality, if it meant the continuation of their company, a starring role in a ballet just for them, and fucking some rich man who’d already spent several grand on Loubs for them, most dancers would probably go for it, no pill needed. Our bodies are our morals.
But this isn’t an afterschool special, so Claire isn’t rewarded for her moral and sexual purity. Laurent pulls his funding, Paul loses his shit, and now everyone is trying to whore themselves out for some funding. Meanwhile, Paul, so desperate for all these women to fuck money into his coffers, is spending money on his own hooker, an endearing little twink (Anthony Lee Medina) who is inexplicably in love with him. Another interesting question: for exactly how long can this sweetly loving boy waste his emotions on ice-bastard Paul?
Nothing solves the funding issues, and all the women in the show are left doing backbends while Paul drowns his sorrow in alcohol and his boyishly idealistic hooker. The head of finances hits up Daphne (Raychel Diane Weiner), a promising member of the corps, demanding that she get her millionaire father to donate. Daphne’s whole deal is that she’s the girl from money who is Making It On Her Own, so this is a big fucking deal for her even though actually she’ll be out of a job if the money doesn’t come from somewhere, but okay! I don’t know her family background. I do know she’s getting money from Daddy regardless: no one has an apartment like that on a strippers’ tips.
Because, oh yeah, Daphne is a stripper! She’s the stripper, the one who gets Poor Claire into the sex industry for real. That’s actually pretty surprising to me, because on her first trip to the club Claire breaks a beer bottle over a guy who approaches her yelling “My little pony!” at the bar. I’m not faulting her instincts—fuck a brony—but in my experience Russian club owners especially happen to be really unforgiving when dancers assault people in their clubs.
Instead of asking for a donation, Daphne turns to her surrogate father, Sergei (Patrick Page), the Russian club owner with a penchant for the arts. Sergei, being a strip club owner, is more than good for a several hundred thousand dollar donation to a sinking ballet company.
Sergei loves ballet (of course he does, he’s Russian, duh) and there’s a pivotal scene where Poor Claire and Daphne are doing variations from Swan Lake on his yacht as childlike girls in novice’s pink leotards wander around serving drinks. You don’t have to be a sex work media expert like myself to know where this is going. What’s really surprising is that it took the show so many episodes (five!) to introduce trafficking.
Claire flinches at their presence on the yacht: “She’s so young!” Daphne is rich and an intimate of Sergei’s, she’s already compromised herself, and it’s no surprise when she shrugs that off, as well as the ensuing disappearance of a girl who reaches out to Claire for help. “I bet you put Sergei’s flowers in water,” Daphne points out when Claire asks her to avoid Sergei. Ouch, Daphne! Because not wasting already cut flowers is exactly the same as maintaining an ongoing relationship with an abuser!
The point is, though, Sergei’s not the only abuser. There’s whatever was lurking beyond Claire’s locked door in Pittsburgh, and Paul may not be dumping bodies in the harbor, but he’s a racist asshole who ruins lives and exploits people with as little flinching as Sergei, forcing everyone around him to corrupt their ethics and lower their standards just to maintain their place in his company. A ballet dancer’s career spans about the same timeline as a stripper’s if the dancer is careful and takes care of herself. A retired dancer leaves ballet with about the same amount of career options as a stripper, but less sales savvy.
Paul’s manager, Jessica (Tina Benko), is a former soloist, a single mother who retired into taking care of the finances and the day-to-day details of the company. But even being retired doesn’t free her from him, or from the bullying tactics of men in general. Jessica has a child and a failure of a baby daddy, a jerk who won’t send child support. Faced with her daughter’s expulsion from school because of unpaid tuition, Jessica borrows from the company till to pay it. She still has to come up with the money Paul needs, or lose her job, and once again we watch someone turn to sex work to supply the lack that the civilian world won’t meet.
Media about ballet often emphasizes that women can’t have it all. Women can only excel at something if they repress everything else in their lives. And if they repress everything else in their lives, they’re frigid and in need of sexual awakening so they can blossom like a Georgia O’Keefe vagina into greatness, probably because a man helped them overcome the early trauma that gave them that drive for greatness in the first place. I’m looking at you, Red Shoes! Looking at you, Black Swan!
Flesh and Bone is solidly in this genre. In terms of demonstrating how dancing deforms your body, Flesh and Bone is second only to Black Swan. There’s an excellent moment where our sad-eyed young ingénue—a far cry from Moira Shearer’s starry-eyed and unscarred heroine of The Red Shoes!—pulls off her left toenail. This is lost toenail as a form of penance, but it isn’t the only part of Claire doing penance. Shearer danced in a time before Balanchine stretched his dancers’ bodies to the limits of human endurance, creating a new and improbable art that could only emerge from serious suffering. Worth it, most dancers would agree, but definitely not pain or suffering free.
Flesh and Bone takes Black Swan tropes one step further: Black Swan added sex to its examination of ballet, while Flesh and Bone added sex work, and makes the ballet company a metaphor for, as well as literally dependent on, transactional sex.
The club and the industry are the dangerous spaces in most other media, but in Flesh and Bone the sex industry is the safe space where boundaries can’t be violated with impunity, unlike Claire’s home or the company, where not allowing boundaries to be violated carries serious consequences: loss of love and family support, loss of a job and a career hard won. Not only that, the sex industry consistently supplies the financial support necessary to keep the company—that messy repository of dreams and ambition—afloat. The company and the ballet production they are working on are literally fueled by sex work—individual strippers’ profits, and Sergei’s club profits. You can practically hear the show whispering “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.”
That doesn’t mean that we need to give up and give it all away. In the final scene of the show, after the hurdles are all overcome, the battle is won, and Claire has premiered in the ballet written for her, Predator Paul comes into her dressing room, creepily sweeping his hand over her head and body. “Tell me what you’re feeling right now,” he demands, because he’s an emotional vampire as well as a manipulative abuser.
And Claire looks straight into the camera and says, “No.”