It took several years for Sarah Hay's ballet career to get off the ground. But her first major acting role found her.
Hay, 28, of Princeton, is a former Pennsylvania Ballet dancer and the star of Flesh and Bone, an eight-episode limited series that premieres Sunday night on Starz.
She plays Claire, an especially talented but emotionally fragile ballerina chosen for stardom above more seasoned colleagues, much to their obvious displeasure. It reflects a real scenario in the ballet world, Hay said, in which dancers are pushed when they are young "or fall into the shadows."
But that was not her experience.
Instead, she struggled during her three years in the Pennsylvania Ballet's second company and as an apprentice. She didn't fit the typical ballet aesthetic of a long, lean dancer.
"It's similar to the modeling industry or gymnastics - there's not as much ability to be unique," Hay said. "I'm more a 1950s hourglass shape."
She finally found success in Germany, where she is a soloist in the Dresden Semperoper Ballet. That's where she was when audition notices went up for Flesh and Bone, and a search began across the United States for people to play Claire and the other dancers of the fictional American Ballet Company.
Well-known dancers filled some of the parts, including American Ballet Theatre alumni Irina Dvorovenko and Sascha Radetsky, and Alex Wong from the Miami City Ballet and TV's So You Think You Can Dance. Pennsylvania Ballet corps de ballet dancer Andrew Daly and former company dancer Megan Dickinson also were cast.
But no one quite fit the part of Claire.
"They wanted someone who could convey emotion," Hay said, "but also be a professional-level dancer who had to be better than other people. I didn't think in a million years that I would get this part."
But the show's choreographer, former ABT principal dancer (and Central Pennsylvania native) Ethan Stiefel remembered Hay from her student days at New York's prestigious ballet schools.
"He wrote me an email through someone else," Hay said. He encouraged her to send videos of her dancing.
To her surprise, she was one of three finalists for Claire and was invited to a three-day audition and camera test. She read lines, danced, and, with little notice, had to prepare a classical ballet variation. She scrambled to learn one from YouTube.
An hour after the marathon audition was finished, she got a call: The role was hers.
Flesh and Bone was created by Moira Walley-Beckett, who last worked on Breaking Bad and who is known for writing its "Ozymandias" episode. Walley-Beckett and another producer, Kevin Kelly Brown, also have ties to the ballet world. Brown's family was the model for the 1977 ballet movie The Turning Point, and his sister, Leslie Browne, was one of its stars.
Hay said that although she and Claire have little in common, getting into Claire's head was not difficult.
"I would just say I have a lot of emotion by nature," she said. "I am the waterworks of the group. I get touched by a lot of silly things, and I cry a lot. I was able to access emotions that I needed to access in my own life. It was therapeutic in a way."
But is company life as cutthroat and crazy as it seems in Flesh and Bone, with cattiness, drug use, and dancers moonlighting as strippers?
"Well, it is a drama," Hay said, adding that "for me, unfortunately, a lot of it is real. Every dancer on the show has lived or heard of one of the things they go through."
The fictional company became close on the set, she said, because there was no competition; the parts were already cast. But that's not always true in real company life.
"There's only a certain amount of space in every ballet company," she said. "You're basically on a team. You want to succeed as a group, but all want to have the same roles."
Hay's only previous acting experience was as an extra in Darren Aronofsky's 2010 ballet movie, Black Swan, along with 13 other Pennsylvania Ballet dancers. She was also in an Olsen twins video, You're Invited to Mary-Kate & Ashley's Ballet Party, when she was 9.
She found that some of the subtle expressions she uses on stage translated well to TV work, where "the camera is close to your face.
"I love playing a role, anything that's dramatic," said Hay, who for the first time will dance the lead in Manon on Saturday in Dresden. "I'm enjoying living that kind of life: being someone else, getting to die, being a temptress. I enjoy being someone else on stage."
Flesh and Bone
Premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on Starz.
All eight episodes will be released Sunday on Starz On Demand and www.starz.com.