Ballerinas are having a moment right now. Five years after Black Swan fever swept America, there’s a new surge of ballet in pop culture. Of course, there’s Misty Copeland, who became the first black principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre’s company history in June. Also, there was the documentary, Ballet 422, following Justin Peck’s journey as a dancer-turned-choreographer for the New York City Ballet.
And now, fiction follows suit. Starz’s newest drama, Flesh & Bone, premiering Sunday, Nov. 8, is a new limited series that focuses on the mental drama and intensity that goes on behind-the-scenes at a company in New York City. It has all the psychological twisted craziness of Black Swan—partly thanks to the creator, Moira Walley-Beckett, a former Breaking Bad writer—only drawn out for eight hour-long episodes on TV.
At the center of the series is Claire, portrayed by real-life ballerina Sarah Hay, who is currently a soloist in the Semperoper Ballett in Germany. In the show, Claire’s story is a traumatic one, and the plot follows not only what happens during the intense practices for the stage but also the penetrating family drama she has going on in the background. Throughout each of the episodes, it looks like she is about to burst into tears at any point. It’s dark and depressing, yet hard to peel away.
In real life, the 28-year-old Princeton, New Jersey native is much more grounded than her character, though she can sympathize with the craziness that actually goes on in the ballet world. “I’ve had to fight a lot, just like Claire,” Hay told us during an interview for our December issue, on newsstands and available for digital download starting November 13th. “But it’s where my confidence comes from, on- and offstage.”
Scroll down to learn more about Hay, and find out how real the show is, how she connects to her character, and why her on-screen nudity is a win.
The show focuses on the professional world of dance. How true to life is it?
It’s authentic in that all the ballerinas are played by actual dancers. I’ve danced since I was 5 and went to the School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center at 7. With the show, you’re pretty much getting what you would see day to day in the dance world as well as all the characters’ personal lives.
There are a lot of dance shows on television, but no dramas like this. How does this fit in?
Over-the-top dance reality shows are hard for me to watch. The real drama in our world is much more emotional, personal, and extreme. There is manipulation and sneakiness.
Has that happened to you?
Yes. I was bullied a lot as a kid. One time, the mother of another student in my dance school wrote a letter to the director saying I was on drugs, which wasn’t true. It’s a really cutthroat world. But, at the same time, nobody is pulling feathers out of their skin.
It’s true. You can see on the show how intense ballet can be.
There is a lot of craziness happening backstage, like dance emergencies and stress. It happens to me. Sometimes I can get so stressed out, then I’ll run on stage with a huge smile on my face. As soon as I’m off, I’ll be crying hysterically because I’m so nervous. Then I’ll go back on and smile again. You just have to push yourself through the adrenaline. You work so hard for just a few shows, so if you ruin them, it feels like a failure.
So have you made mistakes?
Oh, yeah! I’ve fallen on my face before. You just have to pop back up. I’ve made some pretty epic mistakes that have gone unnoticed and I don’t want to tell anyone. The directors can add to the intensity too. I’ve even been screamed at by directors because my shoes weren’t the right color onstage.
Does your past help you connect to your often distraught character, Claire?
Yes, it was easy to tap into her emotions. I’m definitely very critical of myself and I used a lot of my personal experiences to get more depressed for the role. It’s how I gained my confidence. If you have to take crap from people in order to build yourself up, you build yourself to a certain level that a lot of people who don’t fight, don’t get to.
Speaking of confidence, the series dives into intense issues, such as nudity and body-image struggles.
It does, but I’m not ashamed to show that I love being a woman. Women should be happy with their bodies. Not being afraid of yourself is very empowering.
What would surprise us about your ballet lifestyle?
I’m more of a normal person than a ballet dancer. I don’t keep my hair in a bun 24 hours a day and I drink beer.
So, what’s your favorite ballet to perform?
Anything by William Forsythe. He’s a contemporary choreographer and is very scientific. It takes a lot of mind control. You have to find a method in sort of the madness of his pieces.
And how many pirouettes can you do in a row?
In my best shape, I’ve done seven.
Flesh & Bone premieres Sunday, Nov. 8 on Starz. Watch a trailer for the series below.