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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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Art: The Balance Between You and Them

Lone tree in lakeStudying dance growing up makes you acutely aware of your body. For me, I never fully knew where I fit: After a failed audition for a major ballet school when I was 12, I was told my rib cage was the wrong shape. (My mom reminded me recently that she was told I’d need to have my floating ribs removed to have the proper curves.) However, when I auditioned for a Toronto production of Crazy For You, I fulfilled at least one requirement: Chorus members had to be 5’7” or taller. Some women tried to circumvent the requirement by wearing heels, but they were found out soon enough. (I didn’t get the role, but I fit the height requirements.)

Only 1 Person for a Role

I recently talked to two brothers, Kevin and Michael Scheitzbach, who are hip-hop artists in Brampton, just outside of Toronto. Only 17 and 21 (though actually three years apart), they’ve already learned to understand that a failed audition doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad dancers, but rather, they’re just not a right fit for that part.

“But I feel like we’ve learned to accept that maybe we’re not what they’re looking for, or maybe they needed to fit this roll differently and only one of us could book it. We’ve learned to accept it now, whenever we go to an audition. It doesn’t stop us from continuing to love what we do,” said Michael, the older brother.

If you grew up with Christopher Reeve’s Superman, you also grew up with Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane. I have a fancy box edition of the four movies (and will readily admit that the second two are pretty bad), and one DVD contains never-before-seen audition footage, including one with Stockard Channing trying out for the role of Lois Lane.

You likely know Stockard Channing as Rizzo on Grease, with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Watching her play Lois Lane was an odd experience: she was just fine, but she just didn’t fit. Margot Kidder was truly the only one who fit the role. I think the edge Channing had that got her cast in Grease wasn’t right for the 70s/80s Superman franchise.

Being Like Everyone Else?

I always thought that the audition circuit in dance was about trying to make yourself fit a certain mould. There is some truth to that, but only some. It was actually about trying to find where you fit best. Yes, I fulfilled the height requirement for Crazy For You, but my personality didn’t, and for all I know, my body (aside from my height) may not have, either.

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that, because of his height, he’d never be a leading man on stage, but he also said he’s okay with that. Just the other week, I saw him perform the role of Cosmo Brown in Singin’ in the Rain, and I’d almost say he stole the show: the role fit him perfectly.

Copying at the Start

When you’re learning your art form, be it dance, writing, painting, an instrument, it’s normal to copy the masters at first. I definitely made my attempts:

  • I remember our ballet teacher having a small TV and VCR hooked up in the studio, and we’d try some of the chorus work from Swan Lake.
  • My last tap solo was to “Singin’ in the Rain,” complete with umbrella, and my dance teacher asked me to learn a piece of Gene Kelly’s choreography.
  • My friends and I often watched a movie and tried to mimic the singers. (Three teenagers trying to sound like Bette Midler one moment and then soprano Rebecca Caine the next must have required a lot of patience from our parents.)
  • When I read my manuscripts from my teen years, I can tell you exactly what TV show I was watching when I wrote it: I changed the names of the characters and the story’s location, but I copied the central plot.

Copying the masters, so long as it’s part of your learning, is how knowledge is passed down. As the old saying goes, there’s no point in re-inventing the wheel. Studying the great artists of our past merges their knowledge with ours and we don’t waste time discovering what’s already been discovered. That’s partly why dancers today can accomplish so much more than dancers from years gone by: the ones who listened to their teachers and studied those at the peak of their craft could move further faster sooner.

You at the Finish

But there comes a point in time when you realize you have something special to offer. I got to talk to former prima ballerina Evelyn Hart two months ago, and we agreed that the artists everyone reveres, in our case dancers, are not copies of someone else: they have something unique about them that no one else has.

Just take the classic examples of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire: you would never mistake one for the other, even when they’re dancing together.

I know my parents would have never had my floating ribs removed, because it would that have been a very drastic and expensive operation for a pre-teen. But something more important lay underneath my request to audition that my parents knew about: a friend of mine had disappeared that year and was studying at that school. I wanted to get in, too, just because she had done it. So, my decision to audition had nothing to do with fulfilling a dream but everything to do with being like someone else.

To be successful in your art, and (I believe) in almost anything you do, you need to find that balance between listening to your teachers, who are passing on sometimes centuries of knowledge and tradition, and growing into who you truly are. For some, it’s an easy journey; for others, like me, it’s more difficult. But it is possible.

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Evelyn Hart in “Love, Sex & Brahms” by James Kudelka

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The cast from #lovesexbrahms, 2015 (clockwise): Andrew Burashko (piano), Louis Laberge-Côté, Evelyn Hart, Victoria Mehaffey, Andrew McCormack, Tyler Gledhill, Luke Garwood, Bill Coleman. Photo credit: John Lauener.

“If you went to a salon in the olden days, for example, or a house concert, and you just listened to music and you’re there and you’re experiencing the music and you’re experiencing the people around you…it’s like that.”

 

That’s how Evelyn Hart, the former principal dancer of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, described the new James Kudelka show she is in: Love, Sex & Brahms, a presentation by Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie (CLC). I chatted with Evelyn over the phone on Wednesday about the show.

Love, Sex & Brahms

A collection of vignettes about love and relationships, Love, Sex & Brahms is an expanded version of Kudelka’s Dora Award-winning #lovesexbrahms, with each vignette set to an intermezzo by the German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

The vignettes are not entirely separate from each other nor entirely connected, and sometimes the characters come together and sometimes they don’t. “But the relationship in the music is what we’re painting,” Hart said.

Although the same characters may return to the stage, they’ll relate to the other characters in a different way. Hart said, “It really is that each time the music starts, it’s like watching a scene and the relationships in that scene.”

The show takes place at the Betty Oliphant Theatre of Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, which seats just over 250, making this an intimate performance, a concept Hart said Kudelka is keenly interested in. It also seems like a fitting venue based on her descriptions of the set: a piano and chandelier. The only other item on the stage is a carpet made of light that changes with each piece.

“The lighting designer was quite brilliant,” she said. “So that defines the dancing space and the room that we’re in.”

Evelyn Hart on Stage

Hart enjoyed a 30-year-long career at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the vast majority of it as their headlining prima ballerina. Although she retired from dance over a decade ago, she still searches out opportunities to perform on stage, even if it doesn’t involve long series of fouetté turns and big passés.

Hart still does barre everyday. However, she does admit that retiring from dance was a grieving process for her. And yet, in this production, she says, ”I certainly didn’t feel that I wasn’t dancing. In my limited capacity, what it felt was it’s all the emotion through movement.”

Which is exactly what Kudelka is exploring, according to Hart: “He keeps saying, ‘It’s more like actors dancing.’ […] He wanted people to be very real. We’re not trying to be dancers per se.”

Hart always welcomes opportunities to perform again: “It’s an incredibly fulfilling thing to be able to go out on stage.”

Kudelka, Puppets, & Dance

It’s not just humans the audience will see on stage. Kudelka has previously explored puppetry, an experiment he is continuing with Love, Sex & Brahms: In 2014, he choreographed and performed a show called Malcolm, which involved an eponymous puppet and was a far cry from the puppetry of children’s shows many may be used to.

The Globe & Mail wrote of Malcolm, ““The piece is also a tender portrait of the human condition, in turn loving, jealous, amused and bewildered.”

The Toronto Star gave Malcolm 4/4 stars: “It might seem odd for Kudelka, acclaimed for such spectacular National Ballet productions as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Cinderella, to resort to puppetry, but then Kudelka has always been a little odd — in the most theatrically stimulating ways. And he’s no stranger to puppetry, having portrayed a mad inventor who believes he can infuse life into a cherished mechanical doll in the ballet Coppélia.”

The Star explained that puppetry has been making a resurgence, citing Crystal Pite’s fascination with the art form and a 2009 Canadian Opera Company production “that created theatre magic by deploying puppets.”

Who Is Sarkis?

The puppet in Love, Sex & Brahms is Sarkis, a clothed, bald, child-like creation.

“The puppet is the way that they speak to each other; the thing that keeps them apart or that pulls them together. It’s quite interesting,” she said. “Everybody in each piece deals with the puppet in a different way.” She says he is simply another person in the room; sometimes the whole focus is on him, and sometimes he just sits there, watching.

The show is about 40 minutes long and runs from March 16 – 19. Tickets are only $25 ($20 for artists, students, and seniors). I’m certainly going to try and make it. For full information, visit Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie).

“It’s very quiet, but there’s drama in it, there’s beauty in it, there’s love,” Hart said. Sounds like a wonderful evening to me.

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A Freelancer’s Website vs. an Artist’s Website: The Basic Difference

camerasWhen an artist – almost any artist, actually – wants to freelance to bring in some money, one mistake they may make is to create a website about themselves. It seems pretty obvious to do that, doesn’t it? After all, they figure people will want to know right away what schools they studied at, where their art has appeared or been performed, and how good they are at it.

But here’s the thing: there’s a difference between selling your art and selling your services, and the two require different marketing approaches.

This is where the difference is between marketing yourself as an artist, dancer, writer, musician, photographer, etc. and marketing yourself as a graphics designer, dance instructor, corporate writer, music teacher, wedding photographer, etc. If you’re marketing your art, you focus on you and your art. If you’re marketing your service, you focus on your service. Sometimes you may have a hard time differentiating between the two, but that’s generally how it works. Why?

It’s about how audiences interact with you. As an artist, they want to know more about you, what drives your art, what inspires you, and, of course, your art. In other words, they’re generally trying to find a match between your personality and expression and theirs.

If you want to freelance, you’ve now become a service provider. This type of clientele needs a different focus. These people want to know what you’ve accomplished for other clients so they can judge if you’ll be able to accomplish the same for them.

Do I have hard, fast data on my hypothesis? No. This is based on what I’ve observed as a copywriter for the arts and technology. (Sorry, some shameless self-promotion there.)

Let me illustrate from my perspective:

As a writer who’s breaking into fiction, I took freelance editor Kristen Lamb’s workshops, Branding for Authors and Blogging for Authors. Her argument is that readers want to get to know me because they’ll assume that my fiction will somehow match my personality. For example, anyone who reads my blog won’t be expecting slasher horror novels anytime soon. But a short piece of creative non-fiction about an ancestor? More likely.

But as a copywriter, it’s not about me: it’s about my client. Yes, my website needs to reflect who I am, and yes, I firmly believe it needs a bio page. However, the majority of the site has to focus on what I can do for potential clients. They obviously don’t want to work with a self-aggrandizing idiot, but at the outset, at least, they’re more concerned about what I’ve accomplished, because it’ll show to them if I can handle what they want me to do.

In the end, you’re important, no matter what, and your website should reflect you. So whether you’re selling your art or your services, don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re human, and that people ultimately want to interact with a human. Just remember that your website, depending in its purpose, will need the right emphasis.