10th Nov2015

‘Flesh and Bone 1×01: Bulling Through’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“It’s no big deal. I lost a toenail.”

The smeared boundary line between art and obsession has been rich storytelling fodder since long before Darren Aronofsky’s bloated Black Swan - perhaps the most obvious point of comparison for Flesh and Bone - plié-d joylessly into movie theaters. A new eight-episode Starz miniseries from Breaking Bad veteran Moira Walley-Beckett(writer of Ozymandias, maybe the most viciously tense hour of television in recent memory), Flesh and Bone is a rotten toenail hidden in a sylph-like pointe shoe. The premiere, Bulling Through, digs into wide-eyed and not-so-innocent runaway Claire Robins’ (Sarah Hay) first few days at the American Ballet Company, an exclusive performing academy at the heart of and yet austerely apart from a towering and indifferent vision of New York City.

Each of the series’ eight episodes is named after a piece of military jargon or parlance, heightening the impression that every room, every conversation, every inch of skin is a battlefield. From the cruelty of auditions to the elaborate power games playing out among the ballerinas, no space is a safe one and no relationship without its snares and pitfalls. The handsome dancer who offers Claire a place at the bar during morning warmup sniggers “I smell a virgin” not two seconds later, his generous facade concealing crass hunger and the will to demean without reason. Hay as Robins navigates the battlefield with remarkable nuance in characterization. Moment to moment she’s traumatized, voyeuristic, cruel,  vulnerable, and cunning in equal measure. For most of the episode’s she crouches in the corners of shots, pressing her face into her legs, or else trembles in the compass of her superiors’ scornful gazes, but in watching a lap dance through a foggy transom she unveils a hungry observer with appetites of her own.

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Even more oppressive than the constant hostility is the sense of a dream preserved by elaborate emotional and perceptual self-amputation. Claire’s desire to lose herself in ballet is so total that, like everyone around her, she turns away from the woman who breaks down during auditions rather than acknowledge that failure is possible in this mythologized space of perfection. Even the episode’s opening gives us Claire huddled in a locked room, her then-nameless tormentor just a voice and an arrhythmic pounding on her door. The beauty and escape of ballet, the transcendent remove from the self and the limitations of the body which the camera’s ethereally vacant gaze echoes during Claire’s arabesque in front of the other dancers, is made possible not by the donations of drunk millionaires but by denial(both senses of the word) and self-isolation. Watch how abruptly Claire loses her immersion in Daphne‘s pole-dancing routine when a stranger makes an ugly pass at her. The escape that ballet offers is a perishingly delicate one. Claire’s disturbing phone conversation with her brother Bryan, a muscular and baby-faced Josh Helman masturbating in her childhood bed, takes place on her end on a fire escape. She’s literally hanging over the abyss, her pocket of control so small she has to hunch down to stay inside its boundaries.

Ben Daniels’ turn as aging control freak artistic director Paul Grayson wavers between blowhard caricature and chilling/pitiful Hitchcockian manipulator. Fucking a much younger man over his desk while husking “I am inevitable” digs into the vanity and fragility at the character’s heart much more effectively than his overwritten tantrums. Likewise, watching Paul scrabble in his meeting with Brusseau, opening with avuncular condescension and ending with a desperate “Do you believe in miracles?” is a delightful snapshot of a petty tyrant forced to go begging outside his comfort zone. His whiplash-inducing emotional manipulation of the dancers under his direction feels a bit thick at times, but it’s the sort of thing that will likely feel more natural a few episodes in. His arranged social bid with Claire during the rooftop fundraiser shows a stronger flash of chemistry between the two than his creepy mirror monologue to her or any of his various verbal assaults, and his parceling out the promise of status and fame when he’s the originator of the climate of hostility those things would ostensibly protect Claire from is laid out carefully but without artifice.

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Irina Dvorovenko doesn’t make much of an impression as Kiira, the aging prima ballerina whom Claire upstages, and her canned “You’re not special. You know that, right?” is indicative of a surprisingly phoned-in feel to much of the sniping back and forth between the ballerinas. Only Raychel Diane Weiner as Daphne feels like she has momentum as a character, though it helps that some of the episode’s best camera work frames her haunting apartment and its Gatsby-esque open closet. Her attempt to draw Claire out of her shell, and to titillate her, by bringing her to a strip club to watch her perform is one of the episode’s best sequences, alive with sexual tension and excitement in a way Black Swan never really pulled together.

Sex and the sexual gaze are everywhere in Bulling Through. When Claire first dances we linger on Paul’s face, watching the subtle shifts in his expression, the emergence of desire. That desire is sexual, yes, but it’s also built around art, projected vanity, and power. Claire, too, likes to watch. More than once she takes an opportunity to spy on the love-making of those around her, brittle focus giving way to a heated arousal conveyed with such complexity that it’s, well, sexy. The sex itself is pretty standard Starz fare, though the sequence featuring the love seat has some humanity and fire to it. Still, the episode’s final word on sex is an ex-soldier jerking off in his sister’s bed while she sobs to herself and he demands to know where she is. Desire, Flesh and Bone is telling us, is insanity’s favorite door to walk through.

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