Exclusive Interviews with Producer Moira Walley-Beckett and Choreographer Ethan Stiefel
By Chelsea Thomas of Dance Informa.
In late November, entertainment company STARZ announced the original drama series Flesh and Bone, previously publicized as Untitled Ballet Project. Flesh and Bone, currently in development at the network, will be produced and written by co-executive producer and writer of Breaking Bad, Moira Walley-Beckett, who recently won a 2013 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series.
It has been reported that the project has secured some impressive, internationally-renowned dancers as well, including former American Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer Irina Dvorovenko and current Soloist Sascha Radetsky. Ethan Stiefel, Artistic Director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet and former Principal Dancer of American Ballet Theatre, has been named official choreographer for the project. Dancers will likely remember another dance film project Radetsky and Stiefel starred in together – the 2000 dance cult classic Center Stage.
Other dancers that have been cast for the series include Ballet Arizona company dancer Raychel Diane Weiner and Emily Tyra of Boardwalk Empire.
The series will follow a young ballet dancer, Claire Robbins, whose role has yet to be cast. Claire has a distinctly troubled past, as she joins a prestigious ballet company in New York. Described as “dark and gritty,” the series will intimately and unflinchingly explore the dysfunction and glamour of the ballet world.
According to the network, the series is still in the development phase and does not have an estimated time to air.
The network stated, “It is very important to the creative team and STARZ to find the right talent for all the roles. We need real dancers because we are striving for authenticity. The dancing is all important and we don’t want to ‘cheat’ the process.”
The project’s executive producers will be Lawrence Bender (Oscar-nominated for Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction and Good Will Hunting), Kevin Brown (Roswell) and John Melfi (Sex and the City and House of Cards). Bender, Brown and Walley-Beckett all have connections to the world of ballet, which brought them together with STARZ on this project. Bender and Walley-Beckett are former ballet dancers, and Brown’s family is made up entirely of former ballet dancers and their story was the basis for the Oscar-nominated film, The Turning Point.
Here, Dance Informa caught up with Walley-Beckett and Stiefel to ask them a few questions about the series Flesh and Bone.
What is your vision for the show?
Flesh and Bone offers an explicit peek into the inner workings and the underbelly of a New York City ballet company. I want to tell a story that doesn’t feel like fiction. Even in a world as rarified as ballet, the people who work and struggle within it are not merely ethereal visions on a stage. Yes, ballet is beautiful, the music is beautiful and above all the dancers are beautiful, but the reality is that the interpersonal relationships are complicated, the work is consuming, and the mental and physical toll of aspiration is high. Ballet is the ultimate optical illusion. It’s like a magic trick: what you see is almost prestidigitation. A performance is designed to disguise all the supreme effort, dedication and obsession that is required to make the movement appear effortless. Flesh and Bone examines the part of the magic trick that isn’t meant to be witnessed. I’m telling the story through the eyes of one exceptional young ballerina, Claire Robbins, who is profoundly emotionally scarred. She has many more obstacles than most on her journey and I feel that experiencing the world through her particular challenges will provide the highest emotional stakes.
Where did the inspiration for the show come from?
I had the notion to write a show set in the ballet world for some time – I know the world and the stories are ripe for the picking. However, I didn’t want to approach it from an expected angle. I was very interested in traversing it with someone who is seemingly ill-equipped to handle its rigors. After writing on Breaking Bad for over five years, I continue to be fascinated by characters who aren’t what they appear to be and who have untapped resources inside them that they may or may not even be aware of. Claire has enormous advantages and lamentable disadvantages.
What is your relationship with the dance world?
Dance has always been a part of my life. I began dancing when I was three. I studied ballet and jazz. In my teen years, I transitioned into musical theatre and performed professionally for many years. Even though I transitioned away from the dancer’s life, I’m still in ballet class today.
What are some of the themes that will be dealt with on the show?
The series is unabashedly brutal and rigorous in its exploration of themes of power, femininity, sexuality, dominance, love and moral ambiguity.
How did you go about casting Irina Dvorovenko and Sascha Radetsky? What about them caught your eye?
I’m so lucky to have them! Casting Irina and Sascha was kind of a no-brainer. They are an irresistible, intoxicating combination of remarkable dance and acting ability. Irina and Sascha are the full package. They are both perfect for their roles – just hearing them read the parts aloud brought the characters to life for me. I’m thrilled to have them involved.
Is there an update on finding the lead?
It’s very exciting. We’re doing an international search. My choreographer, the brilliant Ethan Stiefel, and my terrific casting directors, Telsey and Company, have been instrumental in bringing in potential candidates. We’ll all meet up in New York in January for another casting call.
Overall, what do you expect the show to accomplish for the dance world?
My goal is to make an outstanding drama. If Flesh and Bone sparks new interest and brings a broader audience to ballet then that would make me additionally happy. I should say that I’m not glorifying ballet nor am I excoriating it. I am, however, pulling back the veil. My goal is to tell honest, complicated, compelling human stories from within the environs of a ballet company.
What about this new project attracted you?
It is a new and exciting step for me, as I continue to take on more creative and choreographic endeavors. I have been provided with a pretty cool and challenging opportunity – creating new works in a different environment than I have before and covering the wide range of material and vocabulary the series requires.
After your success staring in Center Stage and Center Stage: Turn It Up, what do you think film and TV have to offer the dance world?
Naturally, I absolutely love and cherish live performance, but I think that film and TV can potentially give a wider range of people the chance to become intrigued by the art-form. Furthermore, if the show potentially explores different ways to fuse filming techniques and technology, with all of what dance provides, it could be a real source of mutual inspiration. Hopefully, that ultimately translates into more people becoming involved in supporting dance, appreciating how amazing dancers truly are and feeling compelled to attend live performances. Speaking from the experience I had with Center Stage, I did receive letters and feedback from any number of people that said Center Stage was their first experience with dance and couldn’t wait to see more.
To my understanding, the writer and producers really want the dance sequences and repertoire to reflect material that would be presented by a professional company, within the context of a television drama. I believe that offers TV audiences an engaging piece of entertainment, whilst also offering the more knowledgeable dance followers some interesting classroom exercises and performance choreography.
The series has been described thus far as “dark and gritty.” As choreographer, do you think this will reflect in the choreography? Do you have any early ideas for works that will be featured?
It is all early on in the process and the series is still in the process of being cast, so nothing too specific has been definitively decided. With that being said, I believe that some dark and gritty material could be included and there have also been discussions with the creative team that include other themes and cover a broader scope of emotion and aesthetics.
Irina Dvorovenko and Sascha Radetsky have reportedly joined the cast in key supporting roles. How will your prior relations with them through American Ballet Theatre assist in this new project?
I think that both Irina and Sascha are wonderful choices and suit their roles really well. This is due to the fact that they both have dramatic instincts, look good on camera, are high caliber professional dancers and because they consistently displayed a natural affinity for portraying their respective characters, throughout the audition process.
I don’t think my prior ABT experience with either of them has too much bearing, except that I have the advantage of knowing their dancing very well. I am actually hoping to create a new experience with them, through my choreography, that is possibly something different than what they have done before, as I have not worked with them in this capacity before.