A Real-Life Ballerina Now Plays One on TV

by Natasha Wolff | November 9, 2015 12:00 pm

If the pirouettes and grande jetés on display in the new Starz series Flesh and Bone[1] look a little too good to be true, consider it a credit to the series’ casting. Instead of awarding the lead role of Claire—a dancer with a complicated past and seemingly limitless future as part of an elite New York ballet company—to an up-and-coming actress, the series instead gave the part to an already established ballerina[2].

Sarah Hay, a dancer with Germany’s Semperoper Ballet, had never performed for television before she took the role of Claire, but if the just-aired pilot for the limited series is any indicator, it’s something she’ll have no trouble getting used to. Here, she explains how she went from the stage to the small screen and reveals just how real the series’ high-tension drama can seem.

You’re a soloist with the Semperoper Ballet, near Dresden. How did you end up on an American TV show? 

They had a wide search and a cattle-call audition in America, but they couldn’t figure out how to find this character—or to find a professional-level dancer who is also an actor, because you can’t really do both at the same time. They had the show entirely cast, but they didn’t have a green light yet because they didn’t have a Claire. I got an email from someone I used to know from school—someone who actually choreographed the show—who was a dancer in New York[3]. It asked if I would be interested in sending a tape from Germany to audition. I put myself on tape a couple times—I didn’t know what that exactly entailed; I had the camera too far, too close, too much makeup—and then, I was invited for the final cut. After three days of auditioning, dancing and reading in front of executives, they just called me right after I had left. The call came when I was having a drink because I was so overwhelmed. 

What made you want to give TV a shot? 

I never really considered acting on film. But it just seemed like if I didn’t do this, I was going to regret it for the rest of my life, so I decided to give it a try. I didn’t expect to get the role, so that was a pleasant surprise. 

How similar to your own experience is Claire’s in joining a top-notch dance company?

You know, there’s a lot of catty behavior and weird competition that you have to deal with as far as the dance world goes. There is always some drama going on—which makes it not at all boring—but I never had to go through anything truly terrible. Emotionally, Claire and I are not really similar. I am definitely more of a goofball and outgoing.

But the hurdles she faces—scheming co-stars and all—are true to life?

Unfortunately, it’s very close. [Write Moira Walley-Beckett] is a former dancer, that’s why she wanted to cast real dancers, she wanted it to be as authentic as possible. In the very first episode, my character walks into the studio the first time and is looking for a place to stand, and she gets shut out by everybody. That’s happened to me in real life, the girls can act that way. Unfortunately, it happens a lot. 

Reliving traumas aside, what was the most exciting part of filming the first season? 

I enjoyed the acting more than I enjoyed the dancing during filming because it was just a crazy experience. I was just learning by doing, and just being on set was probably the most fun for me. 

You’ve said you normally dance eight hours each day. Were you able to practice while you filmed?

I just had to let it go. I was freaking out for the first few weeks—I was crying a lot, saying, ‘I need to take ballet class.’ I am a naturally curvy girl, and as soon as I stop training, I look like I’m this voluptuous woman. It’s nice for a normal life, but in a dance world you have to look a certain way. 

Since you’ve got on-the-barre experience, were you able to give the writers notes on how things in a dance company might really go?

I tried. They were open to few suggestions as far as wardrobe—I wouldn’t wear this, I wouldn’t wear that—but they had a very specific vision.

There have been some great films based on the world of dance. What’s your favorite?

I really liked Black Swan. But that was not real life, the character is having hallucinations and you don’t know if it’s really happening or not. This show is 100 percent real and there are no hallucinations.

  1. Flesh and Bone: https://www.starz.com/originals/fleshandbone/featured
  2. established ballerina: http://dujour.com/culture/misty-copeland-nelson-george-ballerinas-tale-interview/
  3. dancer in New York: http://dujour.com/culture/ivan-vasiliev-natalia-osipova-american-ballet-theatre/

Source URL: https://dujour.com/culture/sarah-hay-flesh-and-bone/