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

Nov 8, 2015
Originally published on November 16, 2015 11:10 am

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 Bone is 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.

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 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It has been called "Breaking Bad" meets "Black Swan." "Flesh And Bone," the miniseries about the dark corners of the ballet world, premieres tonight on the Starz channel. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has more.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: There's been a lot of buzz in the TV industry around "Flesh And Bone," partly because it's the first series by one of "Breaking Bad's" most acclaimed writers, Moira Walley-Beckett. She wrote and produced what is considered the best episode of the Emmy-winning series about a high school chemistry teacher-turned-meth cooker.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) I promised you everything.

ANNA GUNN: (As Skyler White) Don't say one more word. Get out of here now.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Skyler.

GUNN: (As Skyler White) Get out.

BLAIR: Even Moira Walley-Beckett wondered how she would follow that.

MOIRA WALLEY-BECKETT: I have a lot to live up to, that's for sure.

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

WALLEY-BECKETT: I was sitting in my seedy motel room in Albuquerque on the side of the highway on a day off, just sort of mulling about ideas. And the muse showed up.

BLAIR: And said, go back to your first love.

WALLEY-BECKETT: I was obsessed with dance from an early age. And, you know, it's always kind of inexplicable. It's just something that I really, really wanted to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OBSESSION")

KAREN O: (Singing) You are obsession. I cannot sleep.

BLAIR: A cover of Animotion's 1984 song "Obsession" is "Flesh And Bone's" theme song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OBSESSION")

O: (Singing) There's no balance, equality. Be still...

BLAIR: A young talented dancer with a troubled family history flees her home in Pittsburgh, takes a bus to New York and auditions for the fictional American Ballet Company.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAIR: She wows the artistic director, an over-the-top tyrant, and then enters a very sinister world of cocaine, sex abuse, strip clubs, grueling rehearsals and cutthroat competition.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FLESH AND BONE")

IRINA DVOROVENKO: (As Kiira) You're not special. You know that, right?

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

WALLEY-BECKETT: 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.

BLAIR: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FLESH AND BONE")

BEN DANIELS: (As Paul) 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. I'm going to lose my mind here.

BLAIR: And the dancers are expected to show up, look pretty and talk nice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FLESH AND BONE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) We grace the patrons with our presence, and they feel like they're brushing elbows with angels.

BLAIR: Dance Magazine's editor-in-chief Jennifer Stahl says there's a kernel of truth to that depiction.

JENNIFER STAHL: You have to charm the donors. That's just part of the job as a dancer.

BLAIR: Stahl gives props to Moira Walley-Beckett for casting real dancers in "Flesh And Bone." She was less impressed with its melodrama.

STAHL: It was so heavy-handed. You didn't see any of the joy of dancing. I couldn't - if I did not know dance at all, I - and I just watched the show - I would have no idea why in the world these dancers would put themselves through this.

WALLEY-BECKETT: After I left dance, I always liked to joke that I was in recovery.

BLAIR: Walley-Beckett says creating and producing "Flesh And Bone" dredged up memories.

WALLEY-BECKETT: To be back among the company of dancers was thrilling and disturbing all at the same time.

BLAIR: And for those dancers, it's an opportunity to reach new audiences and get a TV-sized paycheck. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OBSESSION")

O: (Singing) You're my obsession. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.