Excerpted from White Swan, Black Swan by Adrienne Sharp. Copyright © 2001 by Adrienne Sharp. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Adrienne Sharp
Raiford Rogers, a Los Angeles-based choreographer, is the director
of both the Los Angeles Chamber Ballet and the Raiford Rogers
Modern Ballet, as well as choreographer in residence at the Los
Angeles County Museum of Art. His work has been performed
throughout the U.S., Europe, and Latin America. The recipient of
two National Endowment for the Arts choreographer fellowships,
Mr. Rogers serves on numerous arts panels, most recently as a judge
for the Alberto Vilar Global Fellowships. He also directs and hosts
Artshift, which profiles leading Los Angeles artists and architects
and airs as part of Life & Times on KCET PBS.
Raiford Rogers: You were a trainee for Harkness Ballet in
New York City. What was the path that brought you there?
Adrienne Sharp: Like most little girls, I entered the ballet
world at the age of seven, but unlike most little girls, I didn't
leave that world until I was eighteen and a trainee at Harkness.
Looking back on it now, I see that all the little schools--
the Miss Debbie's and Miss Linda's, and in my case, Miss
Ellen's--are just trolling grounds for talent. A dancer's life is
very short, and the ranks must be constantly replenished, and
so all these teachers are on the lookout for talent. If you have
the right body type and show a facility for movement, you are
going to find your training encouraged and intensified. Which
happened to me. By the time I was ten years old, I was on full
scholarship and taking ballet class six days a week, and when I
wasn't dancing I was going to the ballet and reading Dance
Magazine and collecting souvenir programs from all the leading
ballet companies. I could still tell you the names of all
the corps de ballet, soloists, and principal dancers from American
Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet, and the Royal Ballet
during the sixties and seventies. I'd cut out the pictures of
these dancers and paste them together onto poster board, and
then I'd take a black magic marker and scrawl across the
collage "Dance Is Life for Those of Us Who Choose It." I was
obsessed. By the time I was fifteen, I barely attended high
school at all, and by the time I was seventeen, I was living
on my own in New York and studying on full scholarship at
RR: What was that like?
AS: Very magical and very humbling. I was called a trainee,
but the company had disintegrated a few months before I arrived
there. Photographs of the dancers were still all over the
walls, and the school--with a faculty that included Renita Exter
and David Howard--was still going strong. Rebecca Harkness
had turned her East Seventies townhouse into the school,
and I took class in beautifully equipped studios with chandeliers
hanging from the ceilings. Unfortunately, I was miserable
in class, where I slumped at the barre, no longer the star pupil.
Every scholarship class in New York is filled with girls who
were the stars at their local schools, and only some of these girls
will go on to dance professionally, filling the small number of
spots open in American and European companies. I wasn't one
of them. I came home after several months and threw myself
on my bed with no idea what to do next. My parents held nervous,
worried conferences outside my bedroom door because
they, too, had no idea what I would do next. All I had ever
done was dance.
RR: What did you do next?
AS: Eventually I went to college and discovered writing. But I
was lucky to be admitted to college at all, since education--any
class that didn't have to do with dancing--was of no interest to
me up until that time. All dance students struggle to combine
high school academics and dance training. If you're going to be
taken into a company at the age of sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen,
your most intensive training is going to be done during
your high school years. Many dancers give up on high school.
In her autobiography Suzanne Farrell writes of struggling
through an algebra test in the morning and running in late to a
rehearsal with Balanchine and Stravinsky. Finally she told her
mother she just couldn't do both anymore. I spoke recently with
a young dancer in New York City Ballet, who at age twenty finally
got her high school diploma, and she managed that only
because she was sidelined with a foot injury for a year.
RR: So you went to college and discovered writing. When did
you start writing about dancers?
AS: For a long while I wrote the usual stories about twenty-somethings
in love. And then one day I made one of the characters
in one of my stories a dancer, and I showed this story to
Peter Taylor. I was a Hoyns Fellow at The University of Virginia
at that time, and I can still recall him sitting in his office,
winter, floor heater glowing, Persian carpet, Peter Taylor at his
desk, his hair a pure white. He told me I needed to figure out
what it was I wanted to say about this world, this ballet world,
what were its larger issues and themes. I was twenty-five at the
time and I left his office thinking, "I don't know anything
about larger issues and themes," and I put the story aside. A
few years later, I returned to it, and whether it was maturity
or distance from that part of my life, I don't know, but suddenly
I knew what I wanted to say. I began to write seriously
about dancers, and it was as if the two halves of my life came
For a long while I had thought that all the time I'd spent
dancing was wasted time, but I now discovered that none of it
was wasted. All the useless details I knew so well--breaking in
pointe shoes, weeping in the dressing room, dancing in recitals,
desperate dieting before weigh-in--I could now use to create a
sense of verisimilitude for the stories. And I discovered something
else as I began to write about dancing. Almost all the fiction
set in the dance world is written for children, even though
this world offers so many adult issues to explore.
RR: What are some of those issues?
AS: For one, every dancer's life is a race against age and debilitation.
A dancer has a very short season in which to perfect her
craft and display it on the stage before injury or time overtakes
her. Most dancers leave dancing somewhere in their twenties.
Only the soloists and principal dancers last longer, and they find
themselves with fewer and fewer peers. The greatest dancers
retire in their early forties, and there are only a teaspoon of
dancers of that age in each company. I imagine it's increasingly
lonely at the top.
We know every dancer is exceptionally ambitious and
driven. What happens when that ambition is frustrated? Alexander
Godunov is a famous case in point, but there are frustrated
dancers in every company in the world. Sexual politics
have always played a part in ballet, to the dismay of many dancers
in the Tsar's Imperial Ballet, in Diaghilev's Ballet Russes,
and in Balanchine's New York City Ballet. What does romantic
obsession do to the lover and to the beloved? AIDS decimated
the ranks of ballet companies and stole the life of Rudolf
Nureyev. The illness is grievous, and it destroys the very instrument
of the art. I was interested also in what makes genius
flourish and at what cost to the family and friends who surround
him. All of these are issues at stake in the stories.
RR: Some of the stories are biographical fictions, of Balanchine,
Fonteyn and Nureyev, Godunov, Ashton. These figures
have been the subjects of straight biographies. What were you
hoping to do with them as fiction?
AS: I was hoping to tell their stories to a wider audience, to
readers who might not pick up an eight hundred page biography
of Nureyev and who might not be balletomanes, but who
would like to look through a window into that world for a
while and have it presented in story, with the accompanying,
satisfying structure of rising action, climax, and denouement.
The most difficult aspect for me in writing these stories was in
finding that dramatic arc to set events along. What part of the
life or what theme in the life lends itself to a story? I couldn't
simply retell the life; I had to dramatize a portion of it. For the
story about Balanchine, I explored his need for a muse, for a
body on which to create, without which he was paralyzed. And
I played the ideas of movement and paralysis against each other
as Balanchine moved from his wife--the beautiful Tanaquil
LeClerq, paralyzed by polio at the height of her career--to the
young Suzanne Farrell, who danced every night season after
season. She was nothing but body and movement. When Far-rell
left City Ballet, Balanchine was so depressed that he was
unable to create for several years. For the Godunov story, the
dramatic crux was his rivalry with Mikhail Baryshnikov,
which began when they were children together, studying bal-let
in Riga. The story about Fonteyn and Nureyev pitted their
onstage love affair against their offstage story. The Ashton piece
was a chance for reflection both on the lives of the other dancers
in the book and on his own life, which spanned the big ballet
century from Diaghilev and the diaspora of all those dancers to
New York, Paris, and London, where they formed or invigor-ated
the great ballet companies those cities host today. And, of
course, fiction does what biography can't, which is to speak,
see, and feel right from the center of the subject.
RR: Can you talk a little about the title, White Swan, Black
Swan. It refers, of course, to Swan Lake, to Odette, the white
swan and victim of von Rothbart's sorcery, and to Odile, the
black swan and von Rothbart's partner in thwarting Odette's
release from the spell. Were you drawing a parallel to the ballet?
AS: Mikhail Baryshnikov once said a dancer's life is a beautiful
tragedy, and I think what he meant by this is that the art
is a beautiful art and its practitioners are beauty personified,
but a dancer's life is brief, so brief, and therein lies the tragedy.
So a dancer's life is light and shadow. An artist can paint,
a writer can write, an actor can act, a musician can play until
the end of her life, but a dancer must retire in the prime of hers,
or else risk the humiliation of slowly deteriorating in public.
Rudolf Nureyev was actually booed when he appeared on the
stage of the Paris Opera at the end of his career, and he danced
longer than he should have, driven by some instinct that dancing
would help him to fight his illness. Gwen Verdon said that
every dancer dies two deaths. That's how a dancer views retirement:
RR: Dancing does cast a spell, and not just on professional
dancers. What is the draw?
AS: I think it's not only the beauty of the art that draws us, but
also the discipline and rigor of it. You devote yourself to the
barre and to the ideal of perfection, and everything else falls
away. That was my experience, an utter single-mindedness
that becomes the center of your life. Which is why so many
dancers and serious dance students have enormous trouble
readjusting to the outside world.
Serious ballet study begins when children are at an enormously
impressionable age. If you study long enough, you'll be
haunted by it forever. There's all the worship of the older students
and their beauty and perfection. I remember sitting under
the big piano at Washington School of Ballet, watching the
fabulous Mary Day coaching Kevin McKenzie (now the director
of American Ballet Theater) and his partner Suzanne
Longley for the International Ballet Competition at Varna,
where they took silver and bronze medals. Talk about idol
worship. I trembled when Suzanne spoke to me, spent hours
trying to do my hair just the way she did hers.
RR: Some of your readership is made up of dance students and
balletomanes, and they already know the stories of the ballets
and the ballet vocabulary. How do you make your work accessible
to those without such knowledge?
AS: Some quick exposition delineates the stories of the ballets,
or the essential elements of them. In describing the actual
dancing, I forego a lot of formal vocabulary and describe an attitude
as an "impossible, backwards C" or a developpe front as
"My leg is extended high and pressed between us like a sword."
Anyone can visualize these movements, and of course the language
carries a connotation: the girl dancing in this story is in
a difficult, impossible personal relationship, which she is about
to sever. The stories are always about characters; the dancing I
describe has to move the story forward dramatically.
RR: What are you working on now? Will your next book be
AS: I'm writing a novel set in New York in 1981-83, Balanchine's
last years. He'd had a long-time dream to produce a
full-length Sleeping Beauty, the ballet he fell in love with when
he was ten years old, standing in the wings of the Maryinsky
Theater. He was a student at the Imperial Ballet school, and
children from the school were performing that night in the
ballet, as cupids or little monsters in the Carabosse's train, or as
flower-bearing dancers in the Garland Waltze. What Balanchine
saw on the stage that night set the course for his life. In
my novel I give him a chance to re-create the ballet, though in
fact he was too sick to actually do it, and we follow his influence
over the young girl he casts as Aurora. She is, in effect, his
last muse, with all the benefits and costs of such a position.
1. The stories explore many different stages of a dancer's life--
the ballet student in "The Brahmins," the fledgling corps de
ballet dancer in "Wili," the ballet stars in "Bugaku" and "The
Immortals," the aging choreographers in "Don Quixote" and
"A Midsummer Night's Dream." How do the characters at
each stage feel about their endeavors?
2. Many of the titles of the stories refer to characters in a ballet
or to the titles of a ballet--Giselle, Swan Lake, Bugaku, Sleeping
Beauty, La Bayadere, A Midsummer Night's Dream. In what ways
do the characters and stories of these ballets reflect the action
and characters of the book?
3. White Swan, Black Swan mixes together real life ballet figures,
such as Alexander Godunov, Margot Fonteyn, and George
Balanchine, with entirely fictional creations. In what way is the
book enriched by this juxtaposition?
4. American Ballet Theater ballet mistress Elena Tchernichova
observed that many dancers come from unhappy homes. In the
stories "In the Wake" and "In the Kingdom of the Shades,"
both young dancer protagonists have problems with their parents.
In "Prince of Desire" and "White Swan, Black Swan," the
main characters struggle with disintegrating marriages. In what
ways do these personal problems affect them professionally?
5. Many of the dancers in the book must deal with the gap between
the perfection they seek and their frustration with the
level of accomplishment they are actually able to achieve. How
do these dancers come to terms with their despair?
6. Many of the stories are interrelated, in that we see a character
first in one story and then in another. How has Adam grown
and changed from "Departure" to "Ax"? In what way has Joanna's
obsession with ballet in "Bugaku" both frightened and
inspired her brother in "Prince of Desire"? Why does Kate quit
ballet in "Wili" only to return to it at the end of "The Brahmins"?
What has Robbie Perez destroyed in the women he
loves in "White Swan, Black Swan" and "In the Kingdom of
7. The book opens with the story "Bugaku" and closes with the
reminiscences of Frederick Ashton in "A Midsummer Night's
Dream." Why does "Bugaku" open the collection and why does
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" close it?
8. The title of the book, White Swan, Black Swan, refers to both
the beauty and the difficulty of a dancer's life. What beauty do
you see throughout the book? What darkness?