Each year as symphonies, operas, and dance companies plan their seasons, most fit together combinations of classical and familiar work with new or debut pieces. As for a rock band with years of records under their belts, the key is to get the right mix of hits to satisfy the audience and new stuff to satisfy the artists’ desire to grow and evolve.
Flesh and Bone (2015) faces a similar dilemma—to show enough of the beauty and magic of the dance world to feel familiar while mixing in enough of the grit and grime of real life to feel different. This conflict manifests literally and figuratively in the show's first episode: we witness a battle between a major ballet company's creative director and his major donor over whether to stage tried-and-true classic Giselle or to commission a new ballet.
The core of the show is the conflict between Paul (Ben Daniels), the artistic director of the American Ballet Company, and his recently arrived, soon-to-be star, Claire (Sarah Hay). According to creator Moira Walley-Beckett, an Emmy-winning writer and co-executive producer on Breaking Bad (2008), Paul is “priest, king, father, lover. He doesn’t have any boundaries,” with members of the company. Daniels explains his character’s excitement: “The moment this jewel lands in his lap, he will exploit that as far as he can.” Daniels is used to playing to his dark side, having recently starred as a damaged and abusive husband in Masterpiece Classic’s The Paradise (2012). The overbearing and vicious artistic director borders on a cliché, but Daniels’ performance hints at a manic depth that could differentiate Paul from the rest.
Claire, the diamond in the rough (played by Hay, who is a world-class dancer in her own right) is more than just the requisite outsider. She holds a dark secret. Her secret bookends the first episode. In the opening, we watch her running away from her locked-from-inside bedroom in Pittsburgh; in the final scene, we learn why that room was locked. So far, Claire mainly serves the purpose that all outsiders do for a narrative: giving us viewers a way in to a world that is completely unfamiliar to us. But this dark (and it is very dark) secret gives her a uniqueness that separates her from the usual wide-eyed ingénue.
Walley-Beckett calls ballet the “ultimate optical illusion. Dancers make effort appear effortless.” Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the dance company is fraught with infighting and backstabbing divas. This set up, like the familiar dances of the classical Giselle, is a familiar trope. But Flesh and Bone clearly intends to subvert the trope by shining a light in the dark and ugly recesses of the ballet world’s soul -- a sentiment Paul himself voices within the episode. The first episode attempts to establish the show's identity as an original take on the familiar; the remaining episodes will reveal whether Flesh and Bone manages to artfully merge the old with the new.