A Star Is Born

Sarah Hay rises in both Dresden and Hollywood

Photo by Nathan Sayers
Photo by Nathan Sayers

On the Starz television series “Flesh and Bone,” Sarah Hay plays Claire, a troubled young dancer getting her first big break in a New York City ballet company. With faraway eyes, she listens to music on a dreary train, escaping some unknown horror at home to attend an audition in the big city. Her hands move expertly through a variation as if in prayer. But when her phone rings during her first company class, she finds herself the focus of ridicule. Forced to perform the adagio by herself in front of the company, she sails through it with sharp technique and emotional intensity, making it clear to the show’s characters that Claire is a dance genius.

Though “Flesh and Bone” is obviously fictional, Hay’s natural acting ability comes across as finely crafted as her dancing. It’s hard not to imagine that Hay had plenty of source material from her own life to draw on for the role. After a slow career start and battles with intense anxiety and body issues, Hay is now thriving at Dresden Semperoper Ballett as a second soloist. Her extreme vulnerability and emotional honesty, developed after years spent struggling at the bottom of companies, punctuate her highly technical dancing and make her performances on stage and screen so compelling. Now, Hay is coming into her own in front of an audience numbering into the millions, and her future is looking bright.

A native of New Jersey, Hay’s ballet training began at the School of American Ballet. But she eventually left in her early teens when it was inexplicably suggested that while she was talented, she should try modern. “I was depressed and wanted to quit after that,” remembers Hay. “It had long been a dream of mine to join New York City Ballet.”
She began taking open classes, eventually finding Susan Jaffe at the Princeton Dance and Theater Studio. Jaffe encouraged her to audition for American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, where Hay spent three years developing her technique. “I learned nuance and musicality at SAB, but my technical aspects developed later at JKO,” she says. Hay had high hopes for joining ABT’s Studio Company, but says the artistic staff found her too unfocused. Though she had always contended with attention problems, Hay felt they had improved during her last year of school. But it was too late. Girls younger than her were promoted instead.

Back to taking open classes, she was spotted by Charlotte Ballet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux at Steps on Broadway and was immediately offered a second company contract. While Hay enjoyed her first taste of contemporary ballet and loved working with resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden, after two years she did not feel she was being pushed and went back to auditioning. An open call brought her to Pennsylvania Ballet, but her experience still failed her expectations. “I spent two years in their second company and two years as an apprentice,” she says. “My dancing plateaued. I gained weight and lost confidence.” Frustrated, she resigned.

To get to her sweet spot, Hay had to go back to the beginning. While still at PAB, she was coached by Jodie Gates in William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated. “Sarah was an instant standout when I staged Bill’s work,” says Gates. “She has strong technique, keen musicality and the willingness to take risks, such key elements for a contemporary ballerina.” Gates recommended that Hay try a Forsythe workshop to learn more about his choreographic style, so she attended one held in Dresden. Though Dresden Semperoper Ballett artistic director Aaron S. Watkin spoke with her about hiring her when a contract opened up, Hay returned to New York and resumed a discouraging cycle of auditions for Broadway shows. But a month later, Watkin called. At 23, Hay moved to Germany to finally accept her first corps contract.

Hay and Istvan Simon in The Nutcracker. Photo by Ian Whelan, Courtesy Hay.
Hay and Istvan Simon in The Nutcracker. Photo by Ian Whelan, Courtesy Hay.

There, she found a company full of individual dancers with varying physiques. Having struggled with her curvy body during her school and early professional years, Hay found herself losing weight simply due to being used in more repertoire. Watkin tested her with soloist roles right away. “He gave me chances,” says Hay, “and molded me into who I am.” Two years later, she landed the role of Swanilda. Hay is now featured in both classical and contemporary pieces and feels lucky to have worked intimately with Forsythe on his full-length ballet Impressing the Czar. “I have had to work on loving myself,” says Hay. “When you feel at a loss all of the time you start to wonder if it’s you, but for me it was the place. I felt thrown away by some people who had treated me horribly, but now I just try to see my imperfections as what make me who I am.”

Frequent partner István Simon finds Hay easy to connect with on both creative and personal levels. “Sarah is an intelligent woman with a great sense of humor,” says Simon. “When we are dancing together I feel inspired and can bring out more of myself artistically. With her, I feel free onstage.”

Having found such a welcoming dance home, Hay wasn’t really interested when she was contacted to audition for “Flesh and Bone.” But when she looked closer at the email, she was impressed by the show’s executive producers, including  Emmy-winning “Breaking Bad” writer and producer Moira Walley-Beckett and Oscar-nominee Lawrence Bender. She sent in a video, but it was taken from too far away. And yet, there was something fragile and intriguing, so she was asked to do it over. Hay had “an innate understanding of the complexities of the role,” says Walley-Beckett, “and she was fearless.” After a three-day final callback in New York, Hay received a call from the production team. “I was so excited I couldn’t even tell my mom on the phone,” she says. “Then I thought, What am I going to do about my boss?” But Watkin was supportive and gave Hay a six-month leave of absence to shoot the show.

Photo by Ian Whalen, courtesy Sarah Hay
Photo by Ian Whalen, courtesy Sarah Hay

Hay entered a new world of 15-hour days on set, often wearing her pointe shoes for 12 hours when shooting dance scenes. Sometimes she would spend the entire weekend in bed out of pure exhaustion. “Her work ethic was impressive,” says Walley-Beckett. “It surprised me that she was more nervous on big dance days than on big acting scene days. I think it’s because ballet dancers are such perfectionists, and she wanted so badly to be flawless in her technique and performance.”

After working with an acting coach the first week, Hay chose to simply channel the real dance world. But as a premium cable series, “Flesh and Bone” deals explicitly with adult themes and is clearly geared towards a mature audience. The stress of playing such a troubled character was real, and a romantic relationship ended up a casualty to her schedule and the intensity of the work. While her personal experience was easy fodder for emotional scenes, nudity and sex scenes were also part of the deal. However, filming them was not as scary as she anticipated, and her attitude seems to reflect maturity gained over her very personal battles with her own physique. “For me a body is a body, and we all have bodies,” she says. “I didn’t have to do anything I was uncomfortable with. The set was closed and everyone there was respectful.”

Now, Hay patiently awaits the reaction to the show while looking towards her future in both ballet and television. “I feel like I have come to my peak as a dancer,” she says, “and now it’s time to push my limits and try to become a first soloist. But as far as acting, I have no idea. I am at a crossroads waiting for things to happen, and for the first time ever, there is no bad, it is all good.”

Candice Thompson, a former dancer, is a writing fellow at Columbia University.

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