By Bethany Leger
I’m a millennial. I wasn’t born in the 50s. I realize that premarital sex, drug use, eating disorders, domestic violence, stripping, incest, and self-injury are common features of modern day society. But just because my generation created a show out of this stuff, doesn’t mean I’m on board. Oh, and did I mention the main thread that supposedly ties the whole plot together is ballet? If you’re looking for a balanced, realistic view of the ballet world, it would be a grave mistake to form your impressions solely through the lens of “Flesh and Bone”. The show isn’t really about ballet, and despite many a hipster’s passionate argument that it’s about art and life; it’s not a “brilliant”/“genius” creative breakthrough either. It’s all about ratings—just a sweaty pot of debauchery and shock value.
First, I’m a former ballet dancer. I didn’t dance for “the frickin’ Bolshoi”, but I have a long history with NYC and the dance community spanning from coast to coast, and I taught ballet for seven years. I’ve interviewed famous principal dancers, collaborated with artistic directors, danced beside guest professionals, had my toenails fall off from dancing on pointe, lived in many studios, stages, audiences, and in the wings. I know a thing or two. I’ve even seen a few of the show’s stars, Sascha Radetzky and Irina Dvorevenko, perform live. Second, I’m pushing 30, I’m married, I had a friend die from heroin, I struggled with an eating disorder in high school, I had a friend who stripped in her early twenties, I’m fully aware incest and other sexual abuse exists, and I’ve seen slit wrists up and close. Not only do I have experience in the ballet world, (which most of the trolls on the message boards don’t), I don’t live in La La Land either. Life can be rough. “Flesh and Bone”, however, in its attempt to combine all these taboos with tutus, is just all kindsa’ wrong.
If I’m going to play Devil’s advocate, I can see its appeal from a couple of angles: one, non-dancers are genuinely curious about ballet dancers’ lives because the ballet world is largely mysterious. If it weren’t for YouTube and other social media, the everyday operations of a ballet company would be buried along with Balanchine—exclusive and inaccessible. After all, most people don’t wear leotards to work. They want to know if the urban legends of bleeding toes and sleeping with the director are true. I get that. (For the record, dancers toes do bleed, and the casting couch is not an impossibility.)
On the other hand, sex sells. And that’s unfortunately—depending how you feel about it—the problem. Yes, dancers have sex lives and walk around naked in dressing rooms. Nothing inaccurate about that. But when phallic slang, midday romps with boy toys, and pissy naked roommates leave more of an imprint in your brain than the subject itself—ballet—it means the producers are lazy. Seriously, when you spotlight a prima ballerina snorting coke before each class, the masses will automatically be wondering the next time they take their daughter to see the Nutcracker if the Sugar Plum Fairy has a deviated septum. Even if these scenes and story lines reflect some of the realities of the ballet world, the show isn’t an artfully crafted, thoughtful vehicle for educating the outside world about the profession. Rather, it’s one giant, gratuitous cheap shot that plays on the ignorance of the general population. I made it through the first episode only because I had access to a fast-forward button. After half-watching the lead character’s brother tame the dragon to her beloved childhood heirloom, I won’t try to stomach another one.
I’m over my generation’s fascination with the Natalie Portman-ballerina. The tortured ballerina is so passé. If this makes me anti-progressive or un-hip, so be it. I’ll be joining the old folks down at Lincoln Center for some true artistry.
About the Author
Bethany Leger taught ballet for 7 years in Dallas, TX. She is the founder of Ballet For Adults, a site dedicated to educating adults about ballet at Ballet For Adults.com.