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Writing Novels about Dance

Novels about dance can become too sterile: the ones I read as a teen (I don’t recall the series name anymore) always centered around a protagonist who was trying to make it. Fame had the same premise. A Chorus Line. Billy Elliot. Center Stage. One recent exception so far is Off Kilter. I always knew I’d write a novel about dance, but I wanted to write one that didn’t follow that generic plot line. (Though I did write one when I was 16 that will thankfully never see the light of day.) Although Between Worlds is about more than dance, dance plays a central role in Juliana’s life.

How to Write about Dance in Fiction?

So dance is part of Juliana’s life, but using dance in fiction carries a certain challenge: how to describe what the dancer is doing and feeling without boring the audience.

Dance is a visual art form. I’ve written dance reviews, but just talking about steps wouldn’t have any effect on my readers. Instead, I had to talk about the choreography, costumes, lighting, the dancers themselves, because all those elements worked together. With Juliana, though, I don’t have access to all those elements. Does the reader care about the lighting in Juliana’s dance studio? Or does the reader want a detailed description of her dance outfits?

I also need to remember that not all readers are looking for novels about dance. They’re reading the series instead because they like the premise of the series, or because they enjoy the juxtaposition of a historical storyline with a contemporary one. In addition, steps mean nothing to a reader who has never studied dance.

As I debated my dilemma some more, I realized that when I wrote about dancers for other magazines, we never talked about the steps; we talked about what dance felt like to them, or what they loved about dance. If they were older dancers (like, way older), we discussed how they danced now. But it was never, or at least rarely, about the steps.

How to Write about the Dancer in a Novel, Then?

When I was 14, my emotional self wanted to pull me deeper inside my conscious self, but I was scared of forgetting where I was in my dance and of sharing too much of myself on stage. It means that, when writing storylines about dance, I have to stretch past my own experience. When I describe how Juliana gets lost in her dancing, I’m describing a dream, because it’s not something I’ve ever been able to fully realize for myself. (If you’re able to get lost in dance, tell me in the comments section below what that’s like.)

So I needed to find a balance. Too much description about dance, and I risked losing some readers. Too much emphasis on Juliana’s thoughts, and I risked losing yet others. I was confident I could achieve that balance, so the next question came up: what dance form to use?

Writing Involves Rhythm. So Does Dance.

Dance in fiction often focuses on ballet. Dance in movies currently seems to be more hip hop and street than ballet. I wanted something different, but I also had to be comfortable writing about it. So I chose tap. But how could I incorporate it so that readers who’ve never studied it understand what I’m writing?

Aside from being my favourite form of dance, tap also has the bonus of fairly standard vocabulary, and at least to my ears, the terminology often matches the rhythm (or can be made to do so.) In the last scene of The Move, Juliana taps on her new tap board while working through the major changes that happened in her life. The scene was challenging to write, but I think it achieved the balance needed to express a teen dancer and still keep the reader’s interest.

Let me know in the comments section what your thoughts were on that last scene. Be sure to mention if you’ve danced or not.

Have Questions about Writing Novels about Dance?

If you’re happening upon this blog post because you’re doing a project on dance for school, or if you have questions about writing and dance, feel free to leave your questions below. If they’re personal (i.e., you don’t want the world knowing your question and my answer), email me. I’ll certainly do my best to answer.

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Alejandro Álvarez Cadilla: How a Dancer Becomes a Producer

With Change on the Horizon, Cadilla Moved Towards It

Life is full of transitions, and I won’t bore you with a list of all the usual ones. But as you explore your creativity, remember that transitions can happen here, too. Bored with painting? Try writing. Need to move more? Try dancing. Need to move less? Try painting. Professional creatives go through transitions, too, and if they’re lucky, it’s by choice. For Alejandro Álvarez Cadilla, creator of the new CBC mini-series mockumentary Off Kilter, that’s what happened.

Reaching Dreams Early

Cadilla had reached the height of his professional dance career, dancing as a principal dancer for Nacho Duarto in Spain.“It was like a dream come true,” Cadilla says of getting that job back in 2004. But three years into his dream job, things began to change. Cadilla started to get a little bored with performing on stage and knew he needed something more fulfilling. Moreover, he knew he’d have to transition eventually—all dancers do—and he didn’t want to wait for his body to give up first.

Just by chance, Cadilla took a script-writing class, where he had to write and film a short autobiographical film on whatever he wanted to. Being a stage professional himself, he filmed a short on stage fright.

“I just had a crappy camcorder and I edited it on iMovie, and it did really well in film festivals,” he says. That’s when he realized he had an eye for framing and a knack for storytelling. “So I really became curious.”

Cadilla continued dancing for another year or two and opted to try acting. But even after completing one year at the Oxford School of Drama, something was still missing.

“As much as I enjoy performing—I’d been performing for so long—it wasn’t that I didn’t find it fulfilling, it’s that I was kind of tired of being on the the receiving end of someone else’s opinion as it pertains to whether I was going to get a job or not.”

The Main Difference for Cadilla Between On Stage and Off Stage

Performers are all subject to the same process: being selected isn’t just based on their ability. As aware as I was of that (and it was part of the reason I didn’t want to even attempt a professional dance career), it stared me in the face a few years ago when I took my son to see the So You Think You Can Dance tour. Suddenly, the camera wasn’t there to “smoothen things out” and each dancer’s true strengths and weaknesses shouted at me like a seller at a market.

“You can’t pitch yourself as an actor or dancer,” Cadilla says, “but it works as a writer because you pitch a project. Everyone’s looking for a good story, so that gave me much more of an outlet.”

The thing with transitions is that they don’t have to be all or nothing, and they weren’t for Cadilla. Although not all of his productions involve dance, Off Kilter is a comedy set in the dance world, and Cadilla draws heavily from his experiences.

Bringing Dance in Front of the Camera

“I wanted anything related to dance, anything that happens in the studio, I wanted it to be something that a real dancer looks at and says, ‘Okay, that’s really what happened. That’s really what they say. That’s really what they do. That’s really the workflow.’”

 If all I’d heard about the new series was that it was a dance comedy, I likely wouldn’t have tuned in. Sure, a comedy about the dance world is new, but I find almost all dance shows are about some young dancer trying to make it. For example:

  • Center Stage: 12 teens enrol in the American Ballet Academy and aspire to future dance careers.
  • Billy Elliot: a young boy from a mining town tries to get in to the Royal Ballet .
  • A Chorus Line: lots of dancers audition for a few spots in a show.

There’s Dance Academy, Save the Last Dance (the protagonist wanted to be a professional dancer until things were cut short), Black Swan (she wants the lead in Swan Lake), Dirty Dancing, Flashdance…the list goes on. Yes, there are exceptions, but that’s generally the plot line.

Off Kilter is Definitely On Topic

Alejandro Álvarez Cadilla as Milton Frank, taking a shower in "Off Kilter."Instead of giving us more of the above but just funny, Cadilla took what he had seen in the dance world and fed it into these eight short episodes. For example, you’ll see an “old” ballerina (she’s only 39) whose body is starting to break down on her, but she has to support a child at home and deal with her ex-husband’s young new girlfriend.

“I enjoyed Black Swan,” Cadilla says, “but I can tell you that there isn’t a single soloist at the American Ballet Theatre that lives at home with her mom in a pink room with teddy bears. Those women are made of hardened steel because at a company like ABT or The National [Ballet of Canada], the workload is so intense.”

And instead of focussing the show on a young dancer, Cadilla turned the lens on to an aging choreographer, played by Cadilla himself, trying to make a comeback after a plagiarism scandal in the 90s.

I found the whole take refreshingly creative.

How Does Cadilla Create?

So let’s bring this post to a close with my favourite question: Does Cadilla have any last thoughts on creativity before we finish our interview?

“One thing that’s really important for me in terms of how I create is that I always take the time to not do anything. The way that I write is that I sit down and just start writing. And I take pauses. I’ll have a cup of coffee, and I’ll think.”

Although Cadilla understands the allure and the need of social media, he’s not big on it himself.

“If we’re constantly looking for that chemical stimuli we get whenever we get a like on something, you’re never going to be able to slow down and let your own creativity develop. Because it’s a slow process. It’s something that takes the time to just sit down and ponder,” he says.

I told him how much I agreed with him. One change I made several years ago was to stop watching TV while in the kitchen, even if I was washing dishes. It lets me mull over problems I’m experiencing in my own creative projects, and, maybe more importantly, lets my brain not think about something for a change.

(I still watch something if I’m ironing, though: that one’s hard to give up.)

As you explore your creative side, don’t be afraid to try different creative outlets. Creativity flows through us from one medium to the next, and Cadilla has embraced that flow fully.

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The National Ballet of Canada Breaks With Convention

Pinocchio
Reproduction of the original cover. Via Wikipedia.

The hardest part about creating art is knowing when to break with convention. When I read experienced writers’ and editors’ blogs, they invariably talk about writers who sacrifice good writing in order to be clever. I sometimes roll my eyes when I think a story, article, picture, painting, whatever has nothing more to it than just provocation. Maybe it’s just me, but spare me the emotional shock and give me something substantial.

 

Last week, I saw the National Ballet of Canada’s world premier of Pinocchio. Choreographed by British choreographer and dancer Will Tuckett, it broke with two conventions: the story of Pinocchio and ballets. Let me explain.

In the program, Tuckett says, “Disney’s take on the story is a kind of a cute moral journey and the book is not that.” He says audiences would know right away that the ballet was not a remake of Disney’s classic movie.

Tuckett preferred to stay closer to the book, but also not too close. For example, “In the book, Jiminy Cricket is killed very unceremoniously by Pinocchio in the same chapter that he is introduced. So [Librettist and Dramaturge] Alasdair [Middleton] and I decided just to avoid crickets.”

So where do you go if you’re parting from the original story and Disney’s well-known version? Well, in Canada, you head up North. Because the production was made for Canada, it included lumberjacks, beavers, a moose, a Mountie, and even Niagara Falls tourists. Pinocchio actually emerges from a felled pine in the great white North. It may sound hokey to you if you’re just reading this, but it was fun to watch, and the audience laughed throughout the show.

The ballet itself was fresh: not a tutu in sight, but that’s not new. Phenomenal special effects and CGI gave it the aura of magic needed for such a magical story, but that’s also not new. What the creative team added that isn’t normally associated with ballets is spoken text.

That’s right – there was talking, and not by some bored kid next to me. (Actually, the ones I saw were enthralled the whole time.)

But here’s the thing: the National didn’t produce a play. This was still a ballet, they just broke with the convention that ballets don’t include spoken words.

In a pre-ballet talk, Principal Ballet Master Lindsay Fischer said, “This is a Canadian production, for today.” He joked about “the old days” when parents (like his) dragged their children to the ballet and to classical concerts until the children learned to like it. Children were expected to attend, but if they asked a question, they were told to shush. We all chuckled along with him, but I think many of us understood what he was talking about.

(For the record, my parents didn’t drag me to anything. I went willingly, but I also fell asleep a few times. I still feel guilty that Frank Mills may have seen a sleeping pre-teen in the front row.)

In Pinocchio, the Blue Fairy’s Shadows spoke. This small chorus of five dancers expressed – in words – what the Blue Fairy was thinking, saying, and teaching. It gave the performance extra layers that movement and music couldn’t, but the movement and music still carried the show.

Fischer shared with us another interesting tidbit about this break in convention: The National’s dancers are just that – dancers – and not trained actors. Fischer said the five dancers were chosen before the decision to add speech was made, and it turned out that only one of the five was a native English speaker. He told us they were nervous about how their accents would come across.

But, he said, that made the show more Canadian: “We value the people more than we value the package in Canada.”

Seeing Pinocchio reminded me that the classics are important: these dancers have trained in a centuries-old art form that still has the power to silently carry a story. Yet one small shift – adding the language of speech – contributed another layer of meaning to the fantastical story of a wooden puppet who desires to become human.

Breaking convention doesn’t always work, of course, but if you know where you’re coming from and where you want to go, and convention seems like a quiet road through a ghost town, the detour might just be worth it.