Ballet as an art form is the purest essence of drama -- an exciting or emotional set of events -- but the medium is often eschewed by mass audiences and viewed as an upper class interest. The challenge for any dance-inspired film of TV series is to pull ballet from its home in the rarified air of the classical fine arts and find stories that appeal to a broader audience.
Flesh and Bone (2015), Starz latest original drama, is set in the professional ballet world of New York City and centers on a fictional company called the American Ballet Company. (This is not merely a stand in for the American Ballet Theater [ABT] or the New York City Ballet, which are both explicitly mentioned in the first episode as competitors for donor dollars.)
Two films that share Flesh and Bone’s dance DNA, albeit for different reasons, are Black Swan (2010) and Center Stage (2000). All three stories examine the conflict and emotional stress caused by the intense, cutthroat competition of a top-notch ballet school or company. Flesh and Bone shares Black Swan’s darkness, casting an almost noir light on the world of the company. Both create filmic worlds that are disorienting and disturbing to the viewer.
Unlike Black Swan, the show uses a real-life dancer (Sarah Hays) as its ingenue -- a tradition established by all-time great ballet film The Red Shoes (1948), which starred renowned ballerina Moira Shearer and is still acclaimed today for its artistic ballet sequences. While the choice to cast a dancer foregoes the fan base of a more established actress, featuring a dancer obviously allows for much greater payoff and flexibility in scenes featuring choreography, and it's reasonable to assume many regular viewers of Flesh and Bone will be tuning in because they enjoying watching dance.
Center Stage — which also featured some real dancers as actors — is lighter in tone and mood, but the fan favorite set in the ABT school shows similarities to Flesh and Bone through the characters. In each story, the central female is an outsider entering the cold, harsh world of professional ballet and facing off against other dancers with more training and experience in that world. Flesh and Bone also shares some dancers and creators with Center Stage: Ethan Stiefel, Center Stage’s Cooper and former real-world ABT principal dancer, is the choreographer for Flesh and Bone. Sascha Radetsky, Center Stage’s Charlie, plays Ross.
Ballet on TV, however, is an entirely different animal than in a feature film. The Flesh and Bone team must build a story structure that engages an audience for far longer than one trip the movie theater. Two recent shows that have attempted to engage TV audiences in ballet tried a different approach—less adult, less dark, less ‘real’—than Flesh and Bone's angle. Dance Academy (2010) — from Australian Broadcast Corporation, available on Netflix — is a young adult program set in the National Dance Academy in Sydney. Like Center Stage and Flesh and Bone, it traces the trials and tribulations of an outsider, in this case a country girl, who succeeds due to natural talent, in spite of her social status and ‘mean girl’ attacks from a vicious rival. In the US, the CW had a relatively modest hit with Breaking Pointe (2012), a reality drama that follows two seasons of performances from Ballet West, a company based in Salt Lake City. Breaking Pointe deals with the more "real" issues facing dancers, like romantic entanglement or injuries, as well as the broader financial and artistic conflicts of the company itself.
Through its fresh combination of elements, Flesh and Bone stands out as a new take on the dance genre, but it remains to be seen whether Starz’s offering will succeed given its darker, dramatic material in the longer format of television.
Meanwhile, what's something all five versions of onscreen ballet do share? Close-up shots of mangled ballerina feet, an obvious but appropriate metaphor for the illusion of beauty that no filmmaker can pass up.