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From 'Bad' To The 'Bone': Writer Behind Walter White Turns To Pirouettes

Claire Robbins (Sarah Hay) left Pittsburgh for the Big Apple, and the big stage — where she now dances for the tyrannical artistic director, Paul Grayson (Ben Daniels).
Patrick Harbron
Courtesy of Starz Entertainment
Claire Robbins (Sarah Hay) left Pittsburgh for the Big Apple, and the big stage — where she now dances for the tyrannical artistic director, Paul Grayson (Ben Daniels).

By now, it should be no surprise that ballet has a grim underbelly — or should that be a flat stomach? The dark side of the art form has gotten its share of depictions on screen, and now it's getting a new one — this time in Flesh and Bone, a limited-run series on Starz.

The new show has been called "Breaking Bad meets Black Swan," and with good reason: It's the first series created by writer and producer Moira Walley-Beckett since her acclaimed work on Breaking Bad, the Emmy-winning series about a high school chemistry teacher-turned-meth cooker. Walley-Beckett wrote and produced "Ozymandias," considered by many to be one of the show's best episodes.

Even she wondered how she could top it. "I have a lot to live up to, that's for sure," Walley-Beckett says.

It was during production of the final season of Breaking Bad that Walley-Beckett says she started thinking about what she might do next.

"I was sitting in my seedy hotel room in Albuquerque, on the side of the highway, on a day off, just mulling about ideas and the muse showed up," she says. And the muse guided her back to her first love: "I was obsessed with dance from an early age and it's always kind of inexplicable. It's just something I really, really wanted to do."

It makes sense that the theme song to Flesh and Boneis a version of Animotion's song "Obsession," covered by Karen O. The music — at once ethereal and ominous — sets the tone for Walley-Beckett's less-than-pure ballet world.

The show centers on a talented young dancer with a troubled family history. Claire (played by Sarah Hay) takes a bus to New York from Pittsburgh to audition for the fictional American Ballet Company. She wows the artistic director, an over-the-top tyrant played by Ben Daniels.

Right off the bat, Claire enters a sinister environment where cocaine, sex abuse, strip clubs, grueling rehearsals and cutthroat competition abound. As the company's aging, principal dancer Kiira tells Claire, "You're not special. You know that, right?"

Moira Walley-Beckett says she wanted to capture the contradictions within ballet.

"Dance is a torturous journey and I think that the ballet world, for the most part, does a lot to create the optical illusion of this glossy, glamorous veneer," she says.

In a scene that might resonate with many arts nonprofits, the company director is furious that the board chair wants to serve Prosecco instead of champagne at a gala. "You seriously expect to entice new patrons into giving us hundreds of thousands of dollars when we're serving them a 99-cent glass of cat piss and a warmed over production of Giselle as incentive," he screams — not at the board chairman himself, but at the ballet company's manager.

Executive producer Moira Walley-Beckett, on the set of <em>Flesh and Bone</em>.
Myles Aronowitz / Courtesy of Starz Entertainment
Courtesy of Starz Entertainment
Executive producer Moira Walley-Beckett, on the set of Flesh and Bone.

The dancers are expected to show up, look pretty, and talk nice at these donor events. "We grace the patrons with our presence and they feel like they're brushing elbows with angels," the dancers explain to newcomer Claire.

There's a kernel of truth to that depiction, says Dance magazine's editor-in-chief, Jennifer Stahl.

"You have to charm the donors," Stahl says. "That's just part of the job as a dancer."

Stahl gives props to Moira Walley-Beckett for casting real dancers in Flesh and Bone, such as Irina Dvorovenko and Sascha Radetsky, formerly with American Ballet Theatre. She was less impressed with its melodrama.

"It was so heavy-handed. You didn't see any of the joy of dancing," says Stahl. "If I did not know dance at all and I just watched this show I would have no idea why dancers would put themselves through this."

Some of the stories and characters that run throughout Flesh and Bone are, says Walley-Beckett, based on her own experiences as a dancer.

"After I left dance I always liked to joke that I was in recovery," she says. Creating and producing the series dredged up memories. "To be back among the company of dancers was thrilling and disturbing all at the same time."

For those dancers, Flesh and Bone is an opportunity to reach new audiences and get a TV-sized paycheck, even if for only eight episodes.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.