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Starz offers heaping helpings of fear and self-loathing in the ballet miniseries Flesh and Bone


Demonic plague: A puppet master and his budding star. Starz photo

Premiering: Sunday, Nov. 8th at 7 p.m. (central) with all eight episodes immediately available to binge on
Starring: Ben Daniels, Sarah Hay, Emily Tyra, Damon Herriman, Irina Dvorovenko, Raychel Diane Weiner, Sascha Radetsky, Josh Helman, Tina Benko, Karell Williams, Marina Benedict, Patrick Page
Produced by: Moira Walley-Beckett, Lawrence Bender, Kevin Brown, John Melfi

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The Starz company line regarding Flesh and Bone is that its costs and logistics skewered an initial plan to make it a year-to-year series and cut it down to a one-shot eight-hour miniseries.

The underlying story may go like this: Starz took a look at the finished product and wondered whether there possibly could be a sustained audience for this extraordinarily morose, voyeuristic and pretentious treatise about a New York City ballet company populated by cowed, catty, misery-drenched dancers and run by a vain, viciously twisted founder/director.

Premiering on Sunday, Nov. 8th with all eight episodes then immediately available for binge-watching, Flesh and Bone is to the art of the dance what the laughable Showgirls was to the Las Vegas flesh market. Except that the art of the dance in Flesh and Bone also includes stripping to help make ends meet. What emerges is a thorough mess on a grandiose scale. But hate-watchers may want to drink deeply -- both figuratively and literally. Your friendly content provider devoured the whole thing in large part to see if Flesh and Bone could possibly dig its way out of its mountainous pile of debris. It can’t.

The waif-ish little girl lost is Pittsburgh-bred Claire Robbins (Sarah Hay), a severely traumatized but talented ballet dancer who’s delivered unto the hands of American Ballet Company sicko Paul Grayson (Ben Daniels). Claire has fled Steeltown’s “Polish Hill” after being deeply scarred by both her drunken, demeaning father and a brother with whom she was intimate. His name is Bryan (Josh Helman) and he’s now a shell-shocked, granite-faced Afghanistan war veteran who’s desperately seeking Claire.

The American Ballet Company does not prove to be a safe haven. Nor does Claire’s new residence in a walkup already inhabited by fellow dancer Mia Bialy (Emily Tyra), a jealous, bulimic nymphomaniac. Outside the residence and also camped out on its rooftop is the homeless Romeo (Damon Herriman), a supplicant dime store philosopher who aims to please but also increasingly telegraphs a dark side. This cray-cray character never jells, except as a constant irritant to viewers.

Each episode has a military jargon subtitle and definition, just in case anyone might mistake this as a breezy walk in the park. The finale’s tag is “Scorched Earth: Deliberate destruction of resources thereby denying their use to the enemy.” Are we having fun yet?

The tyrannical Paul tends to promote dancers based on the sexual favors they bestow on him or on wealthy ballet company benefactors. A reluctant Claire is given her marching orders in Episode 2, subtitled “Cannon Fodder.” No wonder she’s constantly weepy while the rest of the company either derides her or looks the other way. Even the reasonably well-adjusted senior male dancer, Ross (Sascha Radetsky), briefly preys on Claire sexually before he’s inevitably preyed on by Paul.

Throughout this agonizing exercise in self-mutilation and degradation, it’s Paul who always seems to have the upper hand -- and the most ham-handed lines.

“You cannot conceive of the river of blood, sweat and tears it took to build this company,” he tells Claire before raging, “GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!” This is shortly after he throws a nest of two chirping baby birds out of the ballet company’s upper story window. A disconsolate Claire, weeping anew, later walks by them as a frail little bird juxtaposed against two dead ones. Oh spare us. But no.

Later in the proceedings, Paul delicately tries to console his increasingly moribund, budding new star. “Did some dirty uncle put his funny finger up your Easter dress?” he asks before brandishing his manhood.

This doesn’t seem to work, so Paul goes for the jugular in Episode 7. “You arrived on my doorstep from your grimy, inconsequential hiccup of a life,” Claire is informed. Furthermore, Pittsburgh not only is a “small town,” but a “shitpile of futility you call home.” So yeah, she’d better get with the program.

Flesh and Blood also mixes in a Russian strip club owner who loves both the ballet and teenage sex slaves; an insecure, drug-addicted diva (Irina Dvorovenko as Kiira); a new and edgy choreographer whom Paul very predictably loathes (Marina Benedict as Toni Cannava); a desperate company manager named Jessica (Tina Benko); and Claire’s metaphorical favorite book, The Velveteen Rabbit.

The principal dancers in this drama in fact are real-life dancers, which is a small saving grace for those who have seen sports movies in which the actors are hopelessly unathletic. At least the many rehearsal scenes are convincingly portrayed. And the final centerpiece production has its majestic moments.

But oh what a slog it is getting there. The drama’s principal author, actress turned screenwriter Moira Walley-Beckett, has several standout episodes of Breaking Bad among her credits. In Flesh and Bone, “We ripped the Band-Aid off” the big-time ballet industry, she proclaimed during the summer Television Critics Association “press tour.”

What oozes out, however, is mostly puss. Thinking of a career in ballet? Watch this and you might want to sweep up after the elephants instead.


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