"Shame and despair turn out to be her superpower": New ballet drama "Flesh and Bone" digs deep into incest, shame and the body in the elite dance world

Salon talks to Emmy-winning "Breaking Bad" writer Moira Walley-Beckett about her new series

Published November 9, 2015 11:59PM (EST)


I came to "Breaking Bad" late, years after everyone else had watched it, and I devoured the episodes, sinking deeper and deeper into the poetic web of violence spun by Walt and Jesse as they entered the world of meth making. The “Ozymandias” episode, which won Canadian writer Moira Walley-Beckett an Emmy, breaks down the poetics of violence and the fine line between threat, intention and action. A writer friend of mine studying with Joyce Carol Oates says the prolific fiction writer invokes Walley-Beckett's work in her class: “Don’t you know anything about timing? You need to watch 'Breaking Bad'.”

Walley-Beckett has an affinity for exploring dark subject matter, and her new show, "Flesh and Bone," which is about a fictional New York City ballet corps, tackles a subject that has rarely been represented in mainstream TV – incest.

I sat down with her this week near Times Square and over coffee we discussed her continued relationship with "Breaking Bad," the origins of "Flesh and Bone" and the complications of growing up as a woman in a body-obsessed culture, especially in a discipline like ballet that is still often as much defined by body type as by talent.

How did you move from "Breaking Bad" to your new show "Flesh and Bone," which is about the ballet world? I know that you are a dancer, and that is something that you carry with you. Had you been thinking about the story for a long time?

Yes, as I like to say, I’ve been in recovery for years. The story’s been gestating for a long time. It dropped into my lap in a fun way. During the penultimate season of "Breaking Bad" Lawrence Bender and his partner Kevin Brown had a chat with Chris Albrecht at Starz to say, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do a show set in the world of ballet?” because Bender and Brown both have ballet backgrounds. Lawrence was a dancer in New York when he was in his 20s and Kevin Brown’s family was the family that the "Turning Point" story is based on. And then they had that conversation about “Who should we get?” And I don’t know who else is writing for cable with a ballet background, but they approached me.

I conceived of "Flesh and Bone" while I was writing and shooting "Breaking Bad." During the penultimate season, I had a day off and I was in my seedy motel room in Albuquerque on the side of the highway, and I got out my favorite writing tools – a white legal pad and an inky blue pen. I sat down and put my mind to it: “What would this be? What story do I want to tell? What interests me within the world?” The way that I like to write and the way that I like to approach things – darkness is a given – the tiny human moments and foibles and the things that make us all real and our secrets is what came to the surface. This crazy thing happened that sort of felt like a lightning strike and the Muse showed up, and I knew what the whole thing was. I started writing it down longhand as fast as I could. By the time I was done, I knew the character of Claire, I knew her brother, I knew how it was going to end. It’s been in me for a long time.

One of the things that is interesting to me is the dance part of the show, which is incredibly strong. You’re using real dancers and creating original choreography. A beautiful part of the show is watching the dances come together. And then that is juxtaposed with the dark part of the show, which represents an issue that I really don’t think many people have approached on TV–incest. How did incest come to be part of the show? When I think about the issue as a woman, a lot of my female friends have experiences with rape or unwanted sexual advances, and we talk about it all the time. One of the things that comes out less frequently is that a lot of times it is someone that is intimate – a family member or a family friend. You tackle it in a way that is complicated. When it is someone that you know or someone in your family, there is also an element of “you’re are supposed to love this person.” Could you talk about that?

I wanted Claire to have extraordinary obstacles and extraordinary wounding, but I specifically wanted that because the series is an exploration into her journey into her feminine self and feminine power and how to navigate the world. All of us have a story of an unwanted sexual encounter, as you say. Thank God that womankind can converse about it with their female friends and that we have a forum to say, “There was a time that I was date raped.” It was a topic that I was interested in examining because it hasn’t seen the light before, and I have people close to me who are incest survivors. It comes with such specific wounding and damage because of the trust issue, because of the secret. It’s one thing to be raped by a stranger, and it is an entirely different thing to have a sexual encounter with someone who you know you’re not supposed to, that is unwanted, and yet within the framework of your household, where all the wires are crossed and confusing because you’re being told to keep this secret and you know this thing is bad, but you love the family member. In this circumstance for Claire and Brian, I was also interested in it because we tend to think that people are monsters, that the perpetrator is a monster. Hands down, how could they not be?

It is easier to think that than to explore the other side of the issue.

What I thought would be fascinating and what I wanted to delve into was: How did this come to be? What was the environment? Is it possible that these two kids were shaped into who they were and shaped into having the needs they had and shaped into the circumstance by the household itself? Claire has a lack of autonomy as a woman and all of her sexual experiences have been distorted. She has no confidence or understanding of who she is as a young woman walking into the world and no ability to navigate it. That interested me.

It is really hard to watch, but it is an important exploration of rape and unwanted sexual encounters because so often there are complications when it involving someone you know or someone in the family, and that doesn’t get explored.

Yes, because you love and hate the perpetrator. It is fascinating and terrible. And then there is the fallout for Claire and her coping mechanism within the story. In speaking to and doing research on incest survivors, there are countless stories of how women comfort themselves and feel safe at night in the aftermath and in years and in the lifetime that follows. I know someone who needs to have three comforters and a blanket and heavy weight on her. One of the themes of the story pertains to the "Velveteen Rabbit." I had the notion of exploring that with Claire with this armor of books.

She protects herself at night by sleeping covered in books. I love that metaphor.

And she explores her feelings of self-loathing and her coping mechanisms for that and ultimately her shame and despair turn out to be her superpower to a certain degree. In the first episode, she is shamed and rejected and humiliated in front of the entire company. Because of how she is feeling, she infuses the dance with that and transcends. I have never talked about this publicly before.

As soon as I saw it, I was thinking about the conversations I have had with women I know about rape. It is a thing that women talk about with shame and in certain circles.

The other step that the incest conversation brings is that being raped by a stranger is one horrible circumstance, being raped on a date is another kind horrible circumstance, but the specific shame that comes with incest and the secret and the love and the hate of the perpetrator is a whole other level of soul killing.

I imagine this is going to provoke a lot of conversation. The other side of the show is related to ballet and the world of ballet and what it means to be a woman, to have a body, and to grow up in that culture.

Yes, and it is also an incestuous environment because your dance company is your family. You’re isolated within that. These are the people that you’re spending all your time with. You don’t have a social life for the most part. Everybody interacts, and everybody is sleeping with everybody else, and it is the same talent pool over and over again. You’ve got this sick king/father/lover/priest, in our show anyways, who is dictating and infantilizing these budding adults and artists. There are these strange parallels in the world.

I don’t know if for people outside of the ballet world the show will seem exaggerated, but I took ballet for many years, and I have friends who are anorexic and who have struggled with that their whole lives, and that started in ballet. You see it even at a level where it is not the New York City ballet, and you see that pressure immediately and constantly. Even when you quit ballet, it doesn’t disappear.

It doesn’t. It doesn’t disappear. The body dysmorphia and the relationship to the physical self and the relationship to the mirror – it is built into the art form to be judged physically, and there is a prototype.

It makes me think of Misty Copeland and all the discussions that her body has brought up. It has been incredible.

It is fantastic. It comes up for Sarah Hay, the actress who plays Claire in our show, because she doesn’t have a classic ballet body type. She has suffered from that in this choice of career. It’s crazy, you start as a little girl and everybody is kind of the same, and we are all teensy-weensy and thin and have yet to develop. You set your sights on a certain career goal, and you have the talent and the ability to pursue it. And then you go through puberty and your body changes and there is absolutely nothing you can do. For Sarah, for ballet, she is a very curvy girl, and that got in her way in the States. A lot of dancers take drastic steps to change if there’s something that they can rectify in order to be in a company that requires a certain aesthetic, but Sarah wasn’t willing to do that. There are some dancers who manage to get through their career in dance unscathed, but there are so many issues with the physical self.

In the show Claire’s foil is the very slim prototypical dancer who is also a cocaine user.

She is taking pain medicine for a secret injury, which also happens all the time. Dancers hide their injuries because they are expendable, and they don’t want to be. They are living for this path that they are on, and they don’t want to miss a performance. Dancers hide injuries all the time. That particular foil, Kiera, is hanging on by a thread. She is aging out of the company. There is only so long you can physically do this.

I recently went to see a flamenco performance, which is a dance form where as you get older you grow into your power. It is a distinct comparison to ballet, which is still an art form that is defined to a large extent by what kind of body type you have.

Plus, a lot of the narratives in ballet are ingénue stories, so not only are you aging out physically with the punishing demands and the rigor of the art form, you are also 40 and playing Juliet. Youth is prized in the ballet world.

Yesterday there was an article in the New York Times about “Why Women Compete with Each Other” and it made me think of the way the girls in the ballet company in "Flesh and Bone" treat each other as enemies.

I certainly know some dancers who are good friends, but you’re being pitted against each other all the time. Somebody’s failure is your possibility. It is interesting how competition among men and bravado and slagging on each other, it’s all very accepted, primal. It is their plumage.

And they are allowed to have plumage.

And the more the better. In the bird culture, female birds are dowdy. Males have to strut and show their plumage. Female culture punishes women for trying to get attention or trying to rise above the rest to be noticed. Somehow it is deemed unfair or not graceful or not sympathetic. We are judged and demeaned for healthy competition.

Or for excelling, if you don’t do it the right way. You have to walk a fine line where you can be really good at something, but you have to do it without ruffling any feathers. You can’t be aggressive.

It is that old thing, and I hear this a lot in my business, that a powerful man who is demanding what he wants is respected. A powerful woman in the same situation is called a bitch. Certainly as I’ve grown up in this business, I’ve been lucky that I’ve been in hospitable environments and gender distinctions never came up in the "Breaking Bad" room. I wasn’t the “chick writer.”

I do want to ask you about being in the business. Currently around 27 percent of TV writers in the U.S. are women. How is that reflected in the writing room?

It is exciting and frustrating that we have to make a movement as a gender to move forward. It is depressing and unfortunate because if you’re a damn fine writer, then it shouldn’t matter what your gender is or what your race is. But there is a comfort level in the way the business has always been. I’m stoked about what is happening right now, especially with writers like Jill Soloway. I’m such a fan. The way she talks about show running is the way that I like to run my shows. You can be in charge and compassionate.

I just read her call to action for women working in film to share their voices.

I love her and we’re speaking the same language.

Is there anything that you hang onto from "Breaking Bad"? What is your level of emotional involvement?

Aside from my entire work ethic and how I was raised there and how I break story? How I do it is the way we broke story in "Breaking Bad," which is in excruciating detail and by breaking the story organically. I hang onto all those things and carry them with me. They are family. We’ve all moved on to other things, but that core is still there.

I’m thinking of "Ozymandias," the episode you won an Emmy for, when Hank gets shot. He has this brilliant line where he tells Walt, “You are the smartest guy I ever met…

... “and you’re too stupid to see he made up his mind ten minutes ago.”

It captures the dark poetics of violence.

I love that you used that word because I am a poetry geek. When we started our final season, “Ozymandias” was in my head. It literally pertains to Walt and to the desert and to the foundations of sand.

Mary Oliver is my favorite poet, and she influenced me in two ways in "Flesh and Bone." There is a poem of hers in one of her collections, "Dream Work," called “Rage” and that was a big inspiration for the Claire and Brian story. It was a big inspiration in my life because, in writing, a fucked up childhood is your best friend. You spend your whole life trying to figure it out, but it is a gift. Mary Oliver has a quote that, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” For me, that is the genesis of "Flesh and Bone."

By Alice Driver

Alice Driver is the author of "More or Less Dead." She writes about feminism, activism, and social movements for Vice, Al Jazeera English, Ms. Magazine, the Texas Observer, and Vela. Follow her on Twitter @DriverWrites

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