NEW YORK (AP) — "Ballet is the ultimate optical illusion," says Paul Grayson, artistic director of the American Ballet Company. "We make effort appear effortless. We make difficult divine."
Ballet's divine difficulty and the punishing world it inhabits are exposed on "Flesh and Bone," an ambitious eight-episode Starz drama that shatters dance illusions even as it makes a viewer ache to be as transcendent as its dancers seem to be.
Premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. EST, this saga is graphic, disturbing and often flat-out exasperating, yet it dazzles with its beauty and dark eroticism. It seems always to be asking whether the dream is worth the cost — with the answer, as conveyed by everyone in its clutches, totally beside the point.
The prism for this inquiry is Claire, who arrives in New York burdened by self-destructive forces and a troubled past even as she vaults into the limelight of American Ballet and its charismatic despot, Grayson.
Grayson is played with feverish fidelity by Ben Daniels (an actor whose immersion in the role is such that the viewer may forget he's not really a dance pro and American Ballet Company doesn't really exist). But the cast is also stocked with tried-and-true ballet performers, most notably Sarah Hay, who stars as Claire.
"Her journey is to find normalcy in this crazy ballet industry," says Hay, adding with an unintended pun, "It's quite difficult for her to find her footing and figure out who she is. It was a beautiful experience taking on a character like that."
Until now, the 27-year-old Hay's sole acting turn was as a member of the dance corps in the 2010 ballet thriller "Black Swan." But she has been dancing, she says, "from the womb." Growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, she began at age 8 at the School of American Ballet, then later trained at New York's American Ballet Theatre.
Along the way, she endured her share of obstacles, including a body petite and curvy at 110 pounds — and thus unacceptable to ballet orthodoxy.
"It's like the modeling industry," she says softly. "They have this cookie-cutter idea of being skinny and tall. I left the country five years ago to reach what I feel is my full potential as an artist" — she currently is a soloist at the Semperoper Ballet in Dresden, Germany — "and I was superlucky. But there's a part of you that still wants to be that skinny, 'perfect' body type."
That real-life conflict has been written into the show as one of the challenges faced by Claire, even as she soars above her fellow dancers.
Hay was first approached about the role during a wide-reaching talent search.
"I got an email that just said 'an audition for a television show' and I thought, 'A reality show? No way!'"
Then she says she checked the project's credits, which include executive producer-creator Moira Walley-Beckett (herself a former dancer and a co-executive producer of "Breaking Bad"), and fellow exec producers Lawrence Bender ("Pulp Fiction," ''An Inconvenient Truth") and John Melfi ("House of Cards," ''Sex and the City").
She recorded her audition "but I taped myself too far from my iPhone and I had to redo it."
That did the trick, and she joined a cast including Daniels (perhaps best known as photographer Adam Galloway on "House of Cards," about whom Hay says, "He's just brilliant, and so real"), Josh Helman, Damon Herriman, Raychel Diane Weiner, Tina Benko and Sascha Radetsky.
Hay's full-blown entry into film has given her "a newfound respect for actors," she says. "The amount of effort and energy that goes into being an actor is something that I can't compare to anything else."
Even so, she found stepping into the role of Claire not too tricky.
"I'm a pinch-and-cry kind of girl, so capturing her at an emotional level came relatively easy. I would play touching classical music before a scene so I could get deeper into my depressions. As a normal person, I try not to ever go into those places, because it's so easy to get stuck."
With filming wrapped, Hay is back in Dresden in her full-time dancing role. But while "Flesh and Bone" is insistently billed as a limited series, "I'm very hopeful that it's not the end of my acting career, because it was so much fun to do."
In the meantime, she calls her series "the most authentic portrayal of dance and the dance world that's been seen so far in drama," and she believes it will captivate the audience.
"Even if people don't know anything about dance, I think the beauty of the dance will attract viewers, as well as the vigor that goes into it, and the trust and the pain. I think that will attract people, because, at some level, all people go through it."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at email@example.com and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore