Monthly Archives: December 2014

Classical Girl’s New Year’s resolution

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Do I want this blog to be the story of the fiery, relentless energy of the ten years in which I produced five muse-inspired novels? The aching loss as the decade-long dream of being traditionally published got pounded down into nothingness?

Nah.

The New Year is a great opportunity to end a pity party over what didn’t work, and move on. It’s what I did in January 2013 when my second ballet novel was on submission with editors, the third such process in four years, with the same discouraging results. I love writing novels; it was what I wanted to keep doing forever. But writing novel #6 wasn’t going well. Neither was writing #7. Or attempting revised versions of both. Hobbled by continued editorial rejection, my attempts to create new material felt awkward and disingenuous, like operating ventriloquists’ dummies where once there’d been flesh and blood characters. Alas, these are the perils of a creative vocation. The muse no-shows, for whatever reason, and you’re screwed, or at least embarrassed into silence about the dreck you’re producing. And what I missed, in truth, was writing about ballet and classical music, even as, fiction-wise, no new ideas had sprung up. Fine, I thought, a dance and music-related blog. That I could do, with or without editorial approval.

Nonfiction comes easier to me, and is not so heavily dependent on a muse. You show up to write each day, you work with diligence, you research to back up your glimmer of an idea, and eventually (for me, at least), out comes an essay or article. It doesn’t give me the same buzz as writing fiction. The latter is like a lover, the former the good friend always there for you, who makes you a cup of tea, lets you cry, then helps you brainstorm about Plan B.

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I’m all for Plan Bs now. Maybe they don’t take me where I thought I was going, where I was so sure I was intended to go, where I really, really wanted to go. But they are taking me where life is pointing me, and they are showing me the way.

Back to my 2015 New Year’s resolution: it’s time to self-publish my ballet novels instead of letting them languish in the drawer. Come spring, dear reader, out goes the first one, Off Balance. In July of 2016, it will be followed by the sequel-but-not, Outside the Limelight. These are books 1 and 2 of “The Ballet Theatre Chronicles” series. They are, if you might not have guessed, ballet novels. Except not really. They are stories set in the ballet world, featuring not just dancers but ex-dancers, dance administrators and others involved with the performing arts world, or just the world in general. They feature characters from all walks of life, who are being forced to deal with the shit that’s landed on their plate. Whether you’re a dancer or not, face it, shit finds its way to you. How characters deal with their plateful of shit, how they use it to grow (shit is great fertilizer, you know), to transcend and be transformed, emerging with stronger relationships and a stronger sense of self—these are the stories I love to write.

While I’m up here at the mic, making noisy announcements I can’t take back, let’s add a few more resolutions. After the two “Ballet Theatre Chronicles” novels are out, I’ll publish my very first novel, Black Ivory Tango, newly renamed because the original story (Black Ivory Soul) has a different ending now.* So does the novel I plan to publish at some point as well, shopped to editors in 2011 as Ecstatic, now renamed Ecstatic Interference. That novel’s been whispering to me a lot lately, coaxing me over to play around with it. I love when my older novels do that. They come back to life, however temporarily. In some ways, I feel as though all five of my completed novels have been given a new lease on life, because I no longer need to write them in accordance with the demands of the Big 5 ** publishing editors. I’ve taken out of the story what I didn’t enjoy writing. I don’t groove on gloomy, edgy stories, sorrow-packed endings. Call me unsophisticated, but I like old fashioned romance tucked into my intelligent fiction. A little sex, good food descriptions, some escapism. An optimistic, satisfying ending. Apparently (um, clearly), traditional publishing doesn’t want to sell what I love to write.

And, hey. How’s about a Book 3 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles? Sure, why not?

Bye, bye, traditional publishing. (And am I still thinking this is such a loss for me?)

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This is kind of scary, trumpeting out this news. Because it means that I’m going to have to do it. I’m that kind of person. My pride gets in there, and I dig my heels in. When I started this blog, two years ago, I said “minimum two years.” Those first six months, I was ready to quit, time and time again. But that pride thing made me keep at it. And now, I’m realizing that at the end of next month, I will have achieved my goal. Woo hoo!

So, consider it official. Classical Girl’s novels are going to step out into the world. Here’s what the lineup looks like:

  • Off Balance, Book 1 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles – spring 2015
  • Outside the Limelight, Book 2 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles – fall 2016
  • Black Ivory Tango – late 2017
  • Little Understudies, Book 3 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles – TBA
  • Ecstatic Interference – TBA

Please join me, dear reader, in wishing all of us success in our Plan Bs, our New Year’s resolutions, and may 2015 bring us all health, prosperity and satisfaction in our work, families and lives.

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* I blogged about and posted the opening chapter from Black Ivory Soul last year. Wanna read? http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/classical-girls-black-ivory-soul/

** Big 5 publishers = Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster. Yes, them. The enemy. But I forgive you. I have a hunch I’ll do just fine without you.

San Francisco Ballet and the (sorta) first Nutcracker

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Willem Christensen and Gisella Caccialanza, 1944

It hadn’t been intended as a “timeless holiday classic,” that first year, on Christmas Eve day, 1944, when Willem Christensen, artistic director of the fledgling San Francisco Ballet, presented to audiences his complete, two-act Nutcracker production. He’d known he was doing something relatively new. The only other complete Nutcracker ballet outside Russia had been in London by the Vic-Wells Ballet (a pre-precursor to the Royal Ballet) in 1934. The Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo, an offshoot from the disbanded Ballets Russes, had been touring its own one-act “Nutcracker Suite” production since 1940, but not with any holiday theme in mind. Christensen wanted the full works. He met up with two Ballet Russe luminaries during one of their San Francisco stops: George Balanchine, ballet master, and ballerina Alexandra Danilova. The three of them sat and Christensen listened as the Russians talked about the original two-act Maryinski production, the specific details they remembered from past productions, what had made it magical. Christensen voiced his own ideas and the two Russians nodded, smiled, and offered the Russian equivalent of “dude, go for it.”

So he did.

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The 1944 production was a labor of love and a collaborative effort involving all the San Francisco Ballet dancers and staff. A $1000 budget had to stretch across all cost, including Antonio Sotomayor’s scenic design, Russell Hartley’s costume design, and 143 costumes. Since it was wartime and material for making clothes [much less costumes] was rationed, the dancers helped by standing in long lines to purchase the allocated 10-yard lengths of fabric. At a Goodwill store, Russell Hartley discovered a treasure: red velvet stage curtains from San Francisco’s closed-down Cort Theatre that the company bought and fashioned into Act 1 costumes. (The remaining fabric would go on to produce red velvet costumes for another ten years.)

Gisella Cassialanza Christesen, wife of Lew Christensen (then serving in the army, but who would come back and help run the company, taking over as artistic director) and the production’s Sugar Plum Fairy, shared these amusing impressions. “Onna White helped me make my costume, which was really awful. We made our own tights then too. They weren’t like tights worn today. We had to sew our stockings onto little pants to make tights and, like old-style tights, they’d bag out and wouldn’t bounce back and cling to your legs. We sewed pennies or nickels to the waistbands so we’d have something to grab onto to yank up the tights.  You couldn’t practice pliés or anything before a performance or else you’d be standing there with baggy knees when the curtain came up.”*

They did it, these determined, talented dancers, carrying armfuls of costumes across the street to the theater on Christmas Eve day, 1944, for a matinee performance of America’s first full-length Nutcracker Ballet. The performance was a rousing hit. And oh, what a holiday classic they started. (It was, in truth, Balanchine’s own full-length production, ten years later, that would really set the ball rolling in the U.S., and funding for the arts in the 1970’s even more so, but why spoil the pretty story here?)

SFB dancers Sue Loyd, Gloria Canicilla, and Sally Bailey
SFB dancers Sue Loyd, Gloria Canicilla, and Sally Bailey (year?)

Here’s a fun archival photo:

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The true first Nutcracker ballet. Imperial Mariinski Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, 1892

Fast forward 122 years, to 2014. This year, the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker is notable for another reason: it’s the ten-year anniversary of San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s current production. (Tomasson, BTW, took over as artistic director after the death of aforementioned, long-time artistic director Lew Christensen.) Here, we get a distinctly San Francisco version of the holiday classic. It’s set in 1915 San Francisco, during the time of the Panama Pacific Exposition, which helped celebrate the city’s rise from the ashes after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. In this version of the story, Clara is an adolescent, on the cusp of awakening to the adult world around her. It lends an elegance and sophistication to the story that serves it well. I’m crazy about the production; the quality of dance and the set (Michael Yeargan) and costumes (Martin Pakledinaz) is unparalleled. You can read my review of the opening night performance here: http://us.bachtrack.com/review-nutcracker-san-francisco-ballet-war-memorial-opera-house-san-francisco-december-2014.

Kudos to all the wonderful dancers on Friday night, particularly Ricardo Bustamante, Max Cauthorn, Sean Orza, Mathilde Froustey,  Dores André, Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham. Oh, heck, ALL the Act II soloists: Lee Alex Meyer-Lorey, Gaetano Amico, Sean Bennet, Steven Morse joining Dores André in the Spanish dance. Dana Genshaft, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira, Anthony Spaulding in Arabian; Francisco Mumgamba in Chinese; Kristina Lind, Jennifer Stahl, WanTing Zhao in French; Hansuke Yamamoto, Esteban Hernandez, Wei Wang in Russian. And Act 1’s Snow Queen and King, Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro.

What a show you all put on. Willem Christensen would be so proud.

Willampor

* Text courtesy of San Francisco Ballet’s fact sheet and archives.

PS: Looking for more recent and/or specific dance reviews? You can find all those links HERE

December Labyrinth

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Part of my annual December tradition is to seek out a few days’ solitude at a nearby retreat center tucked deep in the redwoods (the Ben Lomond Quaker Center – love it). Not only does it give me a breather from the too-loud, too-bright, too-frenzied aspect of the month, it allows me to observe this otherwise sacred season in its most organic state. Here, it’s impossible not to note the darkness that descends so early, the bare deciduous trees with their leaves lying fallow, the invisible bulbs and seedlings sleeping beneath the damp, chilly ground cover. There is a stillness in the air, yet a sense of expectancy. I catch up on sleep, meditate, take walks through the center’s eighteen acres of forest. One redwood grove I pass has an open center and is framed on three sides by tiers of redwoods rising up like amphitheater seating. Standing in the center (lying on the ground is even better), looking up at the circle of trees above me, is one of the year’s peak spiritual experiences.

Spiritual, too, is the center’s nearby labyrinth, an enormous circular maze of sorts, outlined by smooth, flat grey stones. From the distance, it looks modest, unassuming. The goal of a labyrinth experience is equally unassuming: you walk in, pause at the center, you walk out.

Labyrinths have been around for 4000 years, used as a place for contemplation, prayer, ritual, spiritual guidance. They’ve been made out of stone, shrubbery, sand, earth or even edible substances like cornmeal or flour. You can walk one merely to admire its geometric precision. You can pose yourself a question at the onset and meditate over it as you walk, in the hope of receiving some sort of insight once you’re in the center. Or you can clear your mind of all thoughts or goals and simply receive what the experience brings you.

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I love walking labyrinths. I take one or two steps and boom, I’m in the middle of it, rows on either sides comforting me, assuring me that I’m on the right path. I’m always reminded right at that moment of the way it feels to start a new big project, be it writing a novel, deciding to play the violin, taking on an ambitious piece of music. You’re excited, daunted by what lies in store, but the path gives you reassurance that all you need to do is put one foot in front of the next. And keep doing that.

But the labyrinth journey, like life, can be visually deceptive. What you thought was the middle was merely the beginning. And when you feel like you should be in the middle, ever closer to that sweet center, suddenly you are cast out to the very outer rung. It feels like you’ve made a mistake, and that you are now moving in wrong direction. You were so close to the finish line, the center, after all. You could see it there, two rows over.

But you keep walking. One step forward and another. Another. Patience returns. It’s about the journey, after all, and it is soothing when you give into its rhythm. And finally you arrive in the center. You see those rows of concentric rings all around you, and it looks so beautiful, so perfectly arranged, that you feel a little sheepish for ever having doubted your mission.

I hope I’ll always remember the insight I’ve gained in the labyrinth. Now, when I feel defeated at an unexpected detour or failure, when I’d been so sure I was approaching the finish line, I can remind myself that nothing is “wrong.” I didn’t fail. Instead, this less comfortable place is precisely where I was meant to be, as part of the journey. Being close enough to touch a goal is not the same as arriving there. And feeling woefully far from it does not mean it will take all that much longer to finally arrive. The arrival is timed right when it was intended to be.

It’s a nice gift to receive, this insight, and a nice month to receive it in.

This first appeared at Violinist.com in December 2010

Dancer-turned-writer Grier Cooper’s WISH

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Grier Cooper, student days at SAB

It is the deepest wish for countless young, aspiring ballet dancers: to become a professional ballet dancer, join a prestigious company, perform onstage throughout the world and get paid to dance, dance, dance.

Former professional ballet dancer Grier Cooper achieved that wish. Chosen at fourteen to train at the School of American Ballet, she went on to dance with not just one but three of the top ballet companies in the country (Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet). But ballet careers have a notoriously short shelf life. Cooper was only in her mid-twenties when the realization hit her that dance had become less nourishing, more exhausting, such very hard work. As a ballet professional, it has to be all about ballet. That alone is your world, to which you give 120 percent, day in, day out. And if you’re not finding the satisfaction at a level that matches your considerable output and intense dedication, don’t you owe it to yourself to invest that energy elsewhere?

Time for a different kind of wish.

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This week, dancer-turned-writer Cooper announces the release of her debut novel, WISH, book one of a contemporary young adult series that features Indigo Stevens, a talented teen ballet dancer who just might have what it takes to go all the way in the ballet world. But issues besides talent, ambition and persistence are lining her way. Mom’s growing increasingly irrational, contentious, and it has to do with the number of cocktails she’s had. Indigo’s youngest brother is at risk of taking the brunt of it. Dad’s in denial about it all. Then there’s Jesse, the cute guy at school that Indigo’s got a serious crush on, who might just be reciprocating the feelings. All these issues, topped by increasingly violent tensions at home, serve to cloud her dreams and ambitions of being a dancer. How Indigo works through this, fights for what she believes in, is at the core of WISH.

I gobbled down WISH in two page-turning sessions, finding Cooper’s prose immensely satisfying. There are YA dancer-turned-writers whose ballet fiction profits from their experiences as professionals (authors Sophie Flack and Miriam Wenger-Landis, to name two), but you read their stories, knowing they are dancers first and writers second. Then there are dancer-turned-writers like Adrienne Sharp and Meg Howry, writing for the adult market, and boy are they powerful writers, but their prose, excellent as it is, presents such a dark side of being a dancer. WISH seems to have found that sweet spot: a gripping, well-written ballet story from a young insider’s point of view that still contains sweetness, hope, a message of self-empowerment. That said, WISH taps into some painful, very real pathos: the agony of staying quiet as a family member battles alcoholism. Cooper mined this experience from own past (she lost her mother to alcoholism in 1996) to great effect, producing a family story that’s haunting, memorable, fully fleshed out and compulsively readable, to which both teens and adults can relate.

I asked the author about her transition from dancer to writer.

“After I stopped dancing professionally I took some writing classes in college and started playing around with poetry and short stories,” she shared. “I kept writing throughout the years but once I became a mom I started to think more about writing for kids. Eventually I began to transition into freelance writing, which eventually took off. I mostly wrote about dance and fitness and wrote a regular dance column where I interviewed top Bay Area dancers, choreographers and directors. I started writing WISH simultaneously. I also put a lot of time into educating myself about the craft and business of children’s books by attending conferences, workshops and webinars. Learning to be a writer has definitely been a process; luckily it’s a process I enjoy. I’m still learning now; there’s always something I can improve.”

And did her past experience as a professional dancer help the process?

Her answer was a decisive yes. “The things I’ve learned as a dancer – discipline, dedication and persistence– still serve me now. Without this foundation I couldn’t do what I do. Writing is self-paced and self-driven. No one is telling me what to do or looking over my shoulder to make sure it gets done. It’s all on me.”

What has stuck with me, weeks after reading the book, is the intensity of Indigo’s experience, the highs and lows of being a teen on the cusp of big changes.

Cooper agrees. “Young adulthood is a time of huge transition and change even when there are healthy family dynamics. It’s a time to find your voice, to clarify who you are and who you want to be in the future. It’s not an easy road to navigate. I wrote WISH to give readers hope, to show them a path to self-empowerment, and to help them understand they can create change in their lives.”

WISH goes on sale on December 2nd, available at online retailers or through the author’s website at http://www.griercooper.com. For a teaser, check out the delicious excerpt below.

 

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I wipe sweat from my face and neck while we take a quick break to switch into our pointe shoes for Variations at the end of class. I tie my ribbons slowly and carefully. My tired brain feels foggy; plus it keeps replaying little vignettes of Jesse.

“Are you still inhabiting this planet or are you visiting Swoon Lake again?” Monique whispers furtively. She widens her eyes, jerking her head toward the windows. I look over to find Miss Roberta staring at me intently.

If she notices my lack of focus I will never hear the end of it.

Miss Roberta claps sharply. “All right, girls. We will repeat the variation we learned last week, from the top.” Oh man. Not that one again. “Indigo will demonstrate.”

I take my place in the center of the room. The music starts and I’m already moving, my mind several seconds ahead of the music. I have to anticipate what comes next so I stay in time with the melody. Arabesque and hoooold. It feels like an eternity. I come out of the arabesque too early again. My tired body won’t cooperate; my limbs feel like they’re stuck in honey.

“Pull up, Indigo! Hold the arabesque!”

I move back across the floor, hit the arabesque again.

“Pull in the midsection! Breathe in!!” Miss Roberta is rabid.

My back muscles are screaming, legs all rubbery, the obvious and fatal signs of fatigue.

The music ends abruptly. “Indigo, this has got to stop. What is with you today? This is just sloppy and unacceptable. It won’t cut it – here or anywhere else.”

I stand crouched with hands braced on bent knees, catching my breath as her words rain down on my bowed head. I can’t meet Miss Roberta’s eyes. I know she’s right. I place my hands on my thighs and bend over to catch my breath before responding.

“Marlene. Please come forward and show it from the top.”

Marlene walks past me with her nose in the air. She takes her place in the center of the floor and the others back away to give her space. When our eyes meet in the mirror, she raises an eyebrow at me and smirks.

She performs the variation flawlessly.

Class ends and I scurry to the dressing room with my head still down. I throw my clothes on and root through my bag in search of my socks.

There’s a loud thonk to my left as someone slams their dance bag on the chair next to me. I don’t have to look at it to know it’s metallic purple with a blingy heart charm.

“How does it feel?” Marlene leans in close to speak in a low tone.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I don’t look at her.

“Simple. You take something from me, I take something from you.”

“Like I said, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t think I don’t see what you’re up to. Jesse is mine,” she snarls.

I look up at her and feel my eyes go buggy. “Are you kidding? People are not property. What is wrong with you?”

She snorts. “Today proves everything’s right with me. Maybe you should be asking yourself what’s wrong with you.” She leans in so our faces are inches apart. “Back off while you still can or I’ll take it all.”

I jam my feet into my boots. “As if,” I toss back at her on my way out.

 

During the ride home, Mom is eerily quiet. I sneak a glance at her, trying to get a read on her mood. Her face is puffy, the lines around her eyes more pronounced. I shift my gaze back to the road ahead of us, counting the minutes until I can get out of the car and put more space between us.

“Dad stopped by for a visit today.”

I look at her face to see if she’s joking, but she isn’t. My grandfather abandoned my mother when she was five and she’s spent much of her adult life trying to reconnect with him.

“How did that happen?”

“You know, it was just the oddest thing.” Her face lights up. “He showed up out of the blue.”

“I can’t believe it,” I say. I really can’t. He has never been to our house.

“I couldn’t either. I heard all this noise out front and saw this helicopter landing on the lawn. You can imagine how surprised I was when your grandfather hopped out.”

She chatters on but I don’t hear the rest because my mind is too busy doing the math, working out the probability of several equally disturbing scenarios: A) Mom fell asleep and dreamed all of this, B) Mom saw this on TV last night while she was wasted and thinks it really happened, or C) Mom is certifiably insane because she has permanently damaged her brain with alcohol.

Whichever version it is, she’s completely delusional. Or a liar. Or both.

I close my eyes against the stream of lies pouring out of her lips.

“He said he’s going to come back again in a couple of weeks. Isn’t that wonderful?” She’s so gleeful I almost expect her to start clapping her hands like a kindergartner. I stare at her incredulously.

“Great, Mom. Just great.”

We cross Myer’s Bridge and then we are home. I cannot get out of the car soon enough. I run to my room and shower under the hottest water I can stand and realize I have a pounding headache.

After, my body is sagging with fatigue so I lay down. My head throbs with each beat of my pulse. Then my phone rings.

“Hey, how are you?” Jesse’s voice purrs at me.

“Okay, I guess.” Part of me yearns to tell him about my crazy mother, but where would I even start?

“Cool, cool. Just wanted to hear your voice.”

“That’s a good thing.”

He chuckles and then I hear a rumble of male voices behind him. “Hey, I’ll call you later. We’re going to catch the sunset. It should be epic.”

Right then I hate him. For his easy life, his pack of friends, and his dimples. Also he definitely sleeps better than I do at night. He’s half the reason I’m exhausted today.

“Right,” I say. “Later.”

***

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Grier began ballet lessons at age five and left home at fourteen to study at the School of American Ballet in New York. She has performed on three out of seven continents with companies such as San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet, and Pacific Northwest Ballet, totaling more than thirty years of experience as a dancer, teacher and performer. Her work has been praised as “poignant and honest” with “emotional hooks that penetrate deeply.” She writes and blogs about dance in the San Francisco Bay Area and has interviewed and photographed a diverse collection dancers and performers including Clive Owen, Nicole Kidman, Glen Allen Sims and Jessica Sutta. She is the author of Build a Ballerina Body and The Daily Book of Photography.