Category Archives: 10 Things

Like lists of ten? Here’s where you’ll find all sorts of “ten things” to satisfy your curiosity.

Classical Girl’s Top 10 [and then some] violin concertos

Violin Concerto CD               

The violin concerto repertoire is so rich and satisfying, I’m embarrassed to admit that, prior to becoming an adult beginner on the violin in 2005, I was only familiar with a few of them. This, from a self-proclaimed classical music fanatic. Whoops.

But maybe that’s you, too. Now, I know some of my readers are violin peeps and this list of top violin concertos will not produce any surprises, but I have a hunch there are plenty of you out there, more ballet-oriented, who are more familiar with piano repertoire. Or maybe you’re a newcomer to classical music in general. This is the list for you.

One thing I should add. Most of these hail from the Romantic Era and beyond. You therefore won’t see works before 1806, before Beethoven’s opus burst forth, eras that would include concertos by Mozart (five of them, written in his late teens), Vivaldi (something like 230) Bach (two for solo violin, one for two violins). Also I didn’t include Paganini (who wrote six) who, like Beethoven, sort of straddled the Classical and Romantic Era.

So, without further ado, here are my personal faves, in no particular order. If the composer has more than one violin concerto, I’ve highlighted the one I prefer. If you click on the composer’s name, it will bring you to a YouTube link of the concerto.

The Classical Girl

Classical Girl’s Top 10 [and then some] violin concertos

  1. Tchaikovsky (in D major, Op. 35, 1878)
  2. Brahms (in D major, Op. 77, 1878)
  3. Sibelius (in D minor, Op. 47, 1905 – A staggering piece of work – my blog + link HERE)
  4. Bruch (No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26, 1867; No. 2 in D minor, Op. 44, 1878; No. 3 in D minor, Op. 58, 1891 – and all three are worthy! Blogged about Bruch HERE)
  5. Korngold (in D major, Op. 35, 1945)
  6. Beethoven (in D major, Op. 61, 1806 – Note to self: blog about this one SOON)
  7. Barber (Op. 14, 1939)
  8. Saint-Saëns (No. 3 in B minor; his No. 1 and No. 2 aren’t often performed)
  9. Mendelssohn (in E minor, Op. 64, 1845)

And this is where it gets very tricky, because there are SO many wonderful violin concertos still, so here are ten contenders for my 10th spot:

  1. Shostakovich (No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77, 1955; No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 129, 1967)
  2. Britten (Op. 15, 1939)
  3. Dohnányi (No. 1 in D minor, Op. 27, 1915: No. 2 in C minor, Op. 43, 1950)
  4. Bartok (No. 1, BB 48a, 1908, but published posthumously, 1956; No. 2, BB 117, 1938)
  5. Dvorák (in A minor, Op. 53, 1879)
  6. Wieniawski (No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1853; No. 2 in D minor, Op. 22, 1862
  7. Goldmark (No. 1 in A minor, Op. 28, 1877; he composed a No. 2 that was never published)
  8. Berg (Written in twelve-tone, Op. ?, 1935)
  9. Prokofiev (No. 1 in D major, Op. 18, 1923; No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63, 1935.
  10. Schumann (in D minor, published posthumously) The Stravinsky VC really belongs here but I am sentimental about the Schumann and its otherworldly story – I blogged about it HERE

And yes, I know, you violin peeps are sitting up now, exclaiming, “Wait! No Lalo? No Viotti? No Khachaturian or Elgar?” Glazunov. Hindemith. Ligeti. Nielsen. Szymanowski. Previn. Walton. And Vieuxtemps certainly deserves to be on the list; he wrote a whopping seven violin concertos. And then there are the hard-on-the-ear but well respected concertos that deserve a mention, like the Schoenberg, the Schuman (note, spelled with only one “n,” an important differentiation to recognize). Berg’s concerto, while atonal, somehow manages to conjure something beautifully expressive and bittersweet – no small feat!

And STILL there are more. That’s the fun thing about really getting to know the violin concerto repertoire, and the violin repertoire in general. There are always more treasures to discover.

Give each one a listen and let me know which one is your favorite. As for me, if I had to be stranded on a desert island with a CD player [and somehow, magically, a lifetime supply of batteries] and only three concertos, I think it would have to be the Sibelius, Brahms and Mendelssohn. Yikes. Tough choices. Maybe the Beethoven would have to switch out one of the latter two. With the Tchaikovsky next in line. Only please don’t make me choose.

I could tell a story about each and every one of these concertos and/or their composer’s creative journey, but that would make for a hell of a long blog. Instead I’ll give each one its own blog, at which time I’ll return here and leave the link. In the meantime, here are a few blogs I enjoyed reading that offer great details on their own Top 10 picks (you’ll see a lot of similarities).

  • Stephen Klugewicz at The Imaginative Conservative HERE.
  • Gramophone UK HERE

New to 2017: Classical Girl Giving

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“Help save the world” sounds like a rather ambitious 2017 New Year’s resolution, so I won’t call it that. But there is this new thing rising in me that I feel compelled to share.

It all started last spring. With my son turning seventeen, and a trio of Really Challenging Years behind us, something in me began to relax, or maybe wake up, to the fact that this world of ours comes with a host of Really Big Problems to try and help solve. Or maybe my daily mindfulness meditation practice starting yielding its own results. Point being: I heard the whisper of a call.

Now, I will argue that devoting oneself to passive tasks such as writing about the arts is not completely off the mark in the department of “helping to save the world” and/or make it a better place. If everyone spent their time immersed in work they found relevant, nourishing, challenging, important, I’m willing to bet we’d all live on a more peaceful planet.

That said. You tell people you served two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, and it will produce a different reaction from when you tell them you’re a blogger who devotes big chunks of your day to waxing lyrically about the performing arts—preferably the fuddy-duddy classical stuff from the 19th and early 20th century.

Did I tell you I served two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa?

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But that was another life entirely. Decades ago. Writing novels and raising a family claimed that space in my heart, it would seem. Until one day last May, after a Diablo Ballet performance, when I was talking with the company’s artistic director, Lauren Jonas. Art has a way of clearing out my inner clutter to begin with, and it had been a delightful, artful program. Lauren was telling me about a new extension of their PEEK* outreach program. This endeavor, funded by a California Arts Council grant, brought Lauren and PEEK’s associate director, former company dancer Edward Stegge, into Juvenile Hall, where they presented movement classes to at-risk incarcerated 15-to-17 year-old girls as part of their in-house Court School Program.

Diablo Ballet had been one of only eight organizations receiving awards for this highly competitive and limited-funds program, called JUMP StArts*. Lauren told me she’d been thrilled. “When I co-founded Diablo Ballet, back in 1993,” she said, “something like this had always been a part of the plan, the dream.”

Lauren shared a few details about the program, that had begun in mid-July the previous year. Once inside the facility, she and Eddie were screened and fingerprinted, given a list of things they could and could not do. They’d been told what colors they should not wear, questions they could not ask. They had to be accompanied by guards and were warned that some of the girls might have difficulty expressing themselves, and/or might start fights.

And then the once-weekly program started. Not dance classes or lectures, so much as movement creation exercises, discussions that taught the teen girls about themselves, their bodies, the self-esteem within them Lauren believed could be coaxed out, and a healthier self-expression. After just one session, Lauren and Eddie knew they had found something extraordinary. Some weeks they brought a musician along for live music, like Bolivian guitarist Gabriel Navia, which the girls loved. Sometimes they brought other dancers, like company member Amanda Farris, whom the girls had seen on the cover of the Diablo Ballet magazine. Here she was now, beautiful, famous, and so warm, so accessible! Venezuelan company member Rosselyn Ramirez was another great hit with the dancers. During one movement exercise, she assured a particularly difficult girl that the way she was doing the movement was perfect. The girl clasped her hands together and turned to her neighbor. “Did you hear that?” she said in a hushed, awed voice. “She said I was perfect.” Which, when Lauren recounted this to me, made my throat squeeze up.

 

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(*PEEK = Performing Arts Education & Enrichment for Kids)
(*JUMP StArts = Juveniles Utilizing Massive Potential Starting with Arts)

The program ran from July to February. Lauren had already begun searching for additional grants in the hope of keeping the program annual (which they received – yay! – and this second year’s program continues through Feb/early March 2017). She and Eddy agreed that it had been one of the most rewarding experiences they’d ever had.

Her own quiet excitement, enthusiasm, deep commitment, was like a big gong within me. It was a real I want to join the Peace Corps moment, like I’d had at age twenty. It all came rushing back to me, the desire to be more, do more, to try and make a bigger difference in the world.

On my drive home from the performance, a reality check settled in. I’ve come to understand that I am not an extraverted do-er. I had a tough time in the Peace Corps, truth be told. My introverted side took over in a major way and, if I can be honest here, I didn’t do anything noble in the least. My greatest achievement was sticking out my two years and letting the host nationals observe on a daily basis that white, privileged Americans could be bumbling and stupid, make mistakes right and left, and not have any more answers than they did. Outside my teaching hours (English to high school students) I took comfort in writing, being alone. I spent hours journaling, reading, vicariously immersed in someone else’s misadventures, processing and chronicling my thoughts and feelings.

But there’s room in the world for both, right? The world needs the do-ers, the performing artists, activists, leaders and such. But it needs its observers, processors and scribes. Those who can help spread the word and offer support, financial or otherwise.

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Which is what brings me to my 2017 New Year’s resolution. I hereby announce the creation of Classical Girl Giving. I am still in the process of figuring out precisely what this entails, but my thought is to offer a modest quarterly donation to foundations to help support worthy ballet-based [or influenced] dance companies and projects. The inaugural recipient of the Classical Girl Giving project is, no surprise, Diablo Ballet, to help support their PEEK Extension program.

Beyond that? Yikes. I’m a little intimidated. Giving, as it turns out, is harder than just writing a check and handing it over. Where on earth do I start? Who’s behind the funding of grants that choreographers, artistic directors and arts administrators need in order to fund an outreach program? Which foundation deserves a shout-out over another? So much to learn. But Pema Chödrön, my favorite Buddhism/meditation/inspiration writer says it best: start where you are.

So. Here I am, bumbling and all, and let’s call this list a work in progress, shall we? What I’ve accrued here (with much help from choreographer/dancer/artistic director Robert Dekkers – thank you SO much!) are names of foundations that support dance companies and projects through grants. Some accept outside donations, others maybe not. Maybe I give straight to the dance company, maybe not. This list will likely change as I learn more; it might become multiple lists, one for readers who’d like to support the arts, one for dancers and choreographers looking for funding. Currently it favors California and the San Francisco Bay Area, but if you want to recommend a worthy foundation based elsewhere, please do. Are you a choreographer, artistic director, an arts nonprofit administrator who has a different foundation to suggest? I’d LOVE your help. You can either contact me privately or leave a message below in “comments.”

And without further ado, in alphabetical order…

10 great foundations that help champion and sustain dance and the arts

  1. California Arts Council (‘Artists in Schools’ Program and JUMP StArts Program)
  2. Dancers’ Group
  3. East Bay Fund for Artists
  4. The Fleishhacker Foundation
  5. The Rainin Foundation
  6. San Francisco Arts Commission
  7. San Francisco Foundation and Grants for the Arts
  8. The Schubert Foundation
  9. The Phyllis C. Wattis Foundation
  10. Zellerbach Family Foundation

Buying a violin: 10 things to consider

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So. You’re thinking of buying a violin, making this big step. Exciting times, huh? Or are you rushing the decision and not giving it quality thinking time? How about a quick reality check from The Classical Girl before you take the plunge?

Buying a violin: 10 things to consider

  1. Are you in love with the violin and its playing potential, or how it looks?
  2. Is it [mostly] within your budget? (Do you HAVE a budget? Please have one. And if money is no object? Consider the beauties mentioned HERE.)
  3. Have you shopped around? A lot? (4 stores, 25 violins tested, minimum. Doubling that number is even better.)
  4. Have you had a luthier or other trusted professional look at it and offer their opinion?
  5. Are you too caught up in the price (a bargain!), or the country of origin, or the century it was made?
  6. Are you super-excited, but not so excited your judgment is getting clouded?
  7. Has your teacher heard you play it? Have you heard your teacher play it?
  8. Have you done a blind test with aforementioned teacher, comparing it to at least two other comparable violins?
  9. Are you judging the instrument independent of its current setup? (Bridge placement, nut grooves, fine tuners on one string versus five – all these things are adjustable.)
  10. Does the acquisition of the final pick make you want to run home and practice on it, or are you a little intimidated, or deflated, or uncaring about it? (Because, then, DON’T.)

Here’s my own Big Violin Acquisition story, first published at Violinist.com in 2006.

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Three violins sit in my guest room. I can feel them throbbing, giving off invisible energy in their respective cases, like radioactive material. At least one of them will go back to its shop on Monday. One will most likely remain and take my $200 student violin’s place.

I’ve sampled roughly forty violins in the past five months. One, three months ago, made my heart catch: a late 19th century Stainer copy, Czech, with that battered, scratched look I find so intriguing. A look that tells me it’s been Somewhere. It has a story to tell. Just what I’ve longed for. But, at $2200.00, it’s a bit over budget. My instincts (and a clerk at a competing shop) tell me it is overpriced. The workmanship shows flaws and it will need some touching up. But it has continued to tug at my heart and beat out competitors I’ve introduced as I’ve made my rounds to music shops in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Berkeley and San Jose.

I’m in no hurry to buy. I told myself it would be a year-long process. My goal has been to visit a half dozen shops and listen to at least 50 violins before embarking on any sort of decision. The queen bee, the Czech violin, located in the Santa Cruz music store where my lesson takes place, has been hanging in the shop for some time now. I’ve told myself if it was meant to be, it will wait for me. It has.

Last Monday, a breakthrough in the fifth shop—a Palo Alto store that specializes in guitars. Low expectations from the start. The first violin the clerk hands me seems equally unassuming. A new violin. Romanian. With a budget of 2K, I have little interest in testing an $850.00 violin. “Trust me,” the man says.

I trust him. Damn. He’s right. A feeling of quiet excitement descends over me.

But wait—my heart is set on something old. Yes, I tell the clerk, I realize the new ones, particularly those Chinese-made ones, generally cost less and sound better than their elders. Much better. But they have no story, no soul. The clerk nods and brings over another contender—a German 1930 Strad copy, at $1880.00.

Nice. Big sound, clear tone, much like the Romanian. This, then, might be the best compromise.

Thirty minutes later, I hear myself asking the clerk what their policy is on taking out two violins. Wait. I’m not ready to advance to this level of commitment. Am I? Because I sense Something is about to happen and there will be no turning back.

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The test during my violin lesson the following day—Czech queen bee meets the contenders—is objective and unbiased. My eyes are shut as my teacher hands me one violin after another to play. Deprived of my vision, my other senses leap around. Feels nice in my hands. The tone—wow, it’s clear. This one, not so much on the G string. Sweet E strings, all of them. The bow skitters a bit on that one—must be the higher bridge. But which one is my queen bee? Damn. I’m not sure.

Next, my teacher plays all three, while my eyes remain shut. Ooh. What a sound, soaring from that first violin. And on that one, as well. This one—it’s the German, for sure. And the other one with the slightly muffled G string—that must be the queen bee. I feel a pang of disloyalty. I realize I’m not rooting for the queen anymore.

The results after thirty minutes of this are comically mixed. I have ranked all three as first at one point or another. My teachers confesses that she, too, can’t name one clear winner. “I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these,” she tells me.

My heart is in turmoil. The test has done its dirty work. Could I possibly justify paying so much more for an older Violin With a Story? The painful truth: the story has no bearing on the sound. The second painful truth—when my eyes were shut, all three violins sang to me.

“Want to know the prices?” I ask my teacher as I pack up.

“It’s not what’s important,” she says, “but… what the heck.”

I relish the stunned expression that crosses her face when she learns the Romanian comes in at $1350.00 less than the queen bee. Only then does the full impact of it hit me too. “Well,” she says, “Easy to see where the value is.”

The time has come to choose.

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And here we are, in 2016, ten years later. Happy Anniversary to my sweet little Romanian friend.

Want more tips on buying a violin? Here you go!

  • Don’t get attached to how it looks, but how it sounds
  • Don’t ask a non-violin person to help you decide; seek out your teacher’s advice.
  • Do that blind testing. Have someone hand you the violins one at a time. Play them. Then listen, as that other person (preferably your teacher or a violin peer who’s better than you) plays each one. Now switch, and perform the test on them
  • Don’t get snobby about going to a violin-only shop. I found my winner at a guitar store.
  • Don’t rush a decision. Sleep on it. Wait one more week.
  • Be honest about the violin’s condition. An old one can feel much more exciting to hold but it might not be in the best shape, and might cost you hundreds more in repairs in the long run.
  • After all the above has been said, go with the one that makes your heart race and sounds the best to your ears. And when that’s two different violins? Well, trust your gut instinct.
  • Got a $10 million budget? Have fun! Check out some pickings HERE

10 ballet novels [for adults] you’ll love

Book 2 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles, Outside the Limelight, is a Kirkus Indie Books of the Month selection for Jan 2017! Celebrating with a $2.99 sale HERE

photo by Jordan Matter

photo by Jordan Matter

For a long time, “ballet fiction” meant the books that catered to young girls, slim tomes with pink, appealing covers. Noel Streatfeild’s more substantial and highly popular Ballet Shoes comprised my ballet fiction-reading youth. I adored the book. I compensated for its lack of competition by reading it over and over, annually, through my youth and adolescence, until the trashy romantic fiction genre caught my eye and stole my attention for {{winces}} well over a decade. What can I say? I love the ballet world’s theatricality and glamour, its dangerous, seductive glitter, and ballet fiction for adults just didn’t exist. Fast forward two dozen years. The movie Black Swan happened. The equally compelling documentaries, First Position and Ballerina happened. And suddenly I wasn’t the only adult wanting to read ballet fiction.

I should clarify something about this Top 10 list. While I’m calling it ballet fiction, it doesn’t mean it has to take place in a ballet studio or theater (or necessarily be classical ballet, for that matter). In Outside the Limelight, one ballet dancer narrator spends nearly the whole story offstage, in doctors’ offices, out in the “real” world with new non-dancer friends and ideas. The Art of Falling uses flashback to reference the narrator’s actual performing days, and chronicles instead her slow, treacherous journey to finding wholeness beyond her lifelong relationship with dance, its dark hold, the mix of slavish love and despair its presence conjured. Likewise, Girl Through Glass features one narrator (of two) who is a dance historian and professor, steering clear of the dance performance world in a way of avoiding her own dark past within it. The thing connecting these ten books is that all the narrators are dancers at their core. The craft, and the scars the lifetime commitment has yielded, have made these characters who they are. And who they are runs very, very deep.

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Without further ado, here are The Classical Girl’s favorite and recommended ballet novels (and one short story collection), in no particular order:

  1. Girl Through Glass, Sari Wilson
  2. The True Memoirs of Little K: A Novel, Adrienne Sharp
  3. The Art of Falling, Kathryn Craft
  4. The Cranes Dance, Meg Howrey
  5. Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead
  6. White Swan, Black Swan: Stories, Adrienne Sharp
  7. The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan
  8. Ballerina, Edward Stewart
  9. First Love (also released as The Sleeping Beauty), Adrienne Sharp
  10. Off Balance, Terez Mertes Rose

You’ll find each novel’s description further down. In the meantime, here’s a nifty chart. I don’t know about you, but when I hear about a new ballet fiction book, I want to know, is it dark and dramatic or breezy/funny? (Or, as in The Cranes Dance, both.) Is it a literary voice (Girl Through Glass, First Love) or does it have more of an old fashion storytelling voice, the kind of book that you can sink into and lusciously inhabit another world for the afternoon (Astonish Me, Ballerina)? Is it deeply immersed in the ballet world (Ballerina, First Love) or is the dance world somewhat peripheral to the story at hand (The Art of Falling and half of Girl Through Glass)? Do issues relevant to women and relationships—self-acceptance, the power of healing and/or the power of friendship—come up? (The Art of Falling, Off Balance, Girl Through Glass) So, here you go. All nicely spliced up to help you pick out that next favorite ballet read. I hope it’s okay with you that I included my own ballet novel, Off Balance. And I’ve also included, in the chart below, its follow-up, Outside the Limelight, forthcoming in October, so that you can see what category it will fall into.

Historical fiction
The True Memoirs of Little K: A Novel
The Painted Girls

Balanchine era, ‘70’s New York (“Historical-ish” Fiction)
Girl Through Glass (half the story)
Ballerina
First Love
Astonish Me (First section)
White Swan, Black Swan (select stories)

Edgy
Girl Through Glass
White Swan, Black Swan: Stories
The Cranes Dance
The Art of Falling
First Love (warning: gets dark & rather depressing)

Fun, beach read
Astonish Me
Ballerina (warning: grows a bit over-the-top dramatic and a little annoying. Published in 1979.)
Off Balance

Literary
White Swan, Black Swan
Girl Through Glass
The Art of Falling
The Painted Girls
First Love

Humorous slant
The Cranes Dance
Off Balance 

Women’s fiction (themes of self-query, acceptance of the past, healing)
Girl Through Glass
The Art of Falling
Outside the Limelight
The Cranes Dance
Off Balance

Sisters
The Cranes Dance
The Painted Girls
Outside the Limelight 

Powerfully drawn characters you will never, never forget
The Art of Falling
The Cranes Dance
Girl Through Glass

Friendship
Ballerina
Off Balance
The Art of Falling

Sexy (or erotic-tinged) scenes
First Love
Ballerina
Off Balance

Set mostly in the ballet world
Ballerina
The Cranes Dance
White Swan, Black Swan: Stories
First Love

Uses the dance world as the launch pad for a broader story and theme
Girl Through Glass (half the story)
The Art of Falling
Off Balance
Outside the Limelight
The Painted Girls

This Top 10 list does not take into account the quality young adult ballet novels out there, which seem to be increasing in number with each passing year. Yay! Maybe some day I will create a “10 Best YA Ballet Fiction” list. In the meantime, if you’re a crossover reader into YA, or if you have daughters/nieces who love ballet stories, it’s worth checking out works by the following authors: Sophie Flack (Bunheads), Miriam Wenger Landis (Girl in Motion and Breaking Pointe), Grier Cooper (Hope and Wish) and Nancy Lorenz (The Strength of Ballerinas and American Ballerina).

The following book descriptions are courtesy of Amazon. I just about blew a mental gasket trying to come up with ten summaries of my own, and halfway through, I gave up and dumped all fifteen pages out all by the cyber-roadside. I’d rather talk for pages about how a book makes me feel versus trying to summarize it in two neat paragraphs. I’d rather have oral surgery than attempt it ten times. Click on the book’s title to go to its Amazon page and read an excerpt.

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Girl Through Glass, Sari Wilson
In the roiling summer of 1977, eleven-year-old Mira is an aspiring ballerina in the romantic, highly competitive world of New York City ballet. Enduring the mess of her parent’s divorce, she finds escape in dance—the rigorous hours of practice, the exquisite beauty, the precision of movement, the obsessive perfectionism. Ballet offers her control, power, and the promise of glory. It also introduces her to forty-seven-year-old Maurice DuPont, a reclusive, charismatic balletomane who becomes her mentor. As she ascends higher in the ballet world, her relationship with Maurice intensifies, touching dark places within herself and sparking unexpected desires that will upend both their lives.

In the present day, Kate, a professor of dance at a Midwestern college, embarks on a risky affair with a student that threatens to obliterate her career and capsizes the new life she has painstakingly created for her reinvented self. When she receives a letter from a man she’s long thought dead, Kate is hurled back into the dramas of a past she thought she had left behind.

Told in interweaving narratives that move between past and present, Girl Through Glass illuminates the costs of ambition, secrets, and the desire for beauty, and reveals how the sacrifices we make for an ideal can destroy—or save—us.

The True Memoirs of Little K: A Novel, Adrienne Sharp
From Publisher’s Weekly: Sharp impressively conjures the grand life of Mathilde Kschessinka, Russian prima ballerina and mistress of Czar Nicholas II, in her sweeping third novel (after The Sleeping Beauty). Narrated by Mathilde–“Little K” as she was affectionately known–the story follows her early life under her well-placed father’s tutelage, and on through her determination, at 17, to catch Niki’s eye, their affair, his breaking it off so he can marry his Alexandra, Little K’s affairs with two grand dukes, Niki’s return to father her son, the removal of his family from power, and her escape before the imperial family’s slaughter. Sharp, a trained ballet dancer, gives the backstage escapades a lively spark and writes movingly of Russian dance. Though Mathilde is a bit narrow in terms of her icy ambition, her story is an unrelenting thrill ride and chockfull of the stuff that historical fiction buffs adore: larger than life characters, epic change, grand settings, and lusty plotting. © Reed Business Information

The Art of Falling, Kathryn Craft
All Penny has ever wanted to do is dance—and when that chance is taken from her, it pushes her to the brink of despair, from which she might never return. When she wakes up after a traumatic fall, bruised and battered but miraculously alive, Penny must confront the memories that have haunted her for years, using her love of movement to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. Kathryn Craft’s lyrical debut novel is a masterful portrayal of a young woman trying to come to terms with her body and the artistic world that has repeatedly rejected her. The Art of Falling expresses the beauty of movement, the stasis of despair, and the unlimited possibilities that come with a new beginning.

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White Swan, Black Swan: Stories, Adrienne Sharp
The world’s most famous choreographer becomes infatuated with a coltish young dancer who proves both siren and muse. A rising star plunges into an affair with a principal but finds that ecstasy on the stage can’t be surpassed in the bed. A dying legend reflects on the evanescent beauty of a life of gesture, lost to everything but memory. Each bittersweet story plants the reader amid a cast of dancers and choreographers who struggle—valiantly, playfully, fiercely—to find in the rigorous discipline and animating beauty of ballet a counterbalance to the chaos of unscripted life.

The Cranes Dance, Meg Howrey
Kate Crane is a soloist in a celebrated New York City ballet company who is struggling to keep her place in a very demanding world. At every turn she is haunted by her close relationship with her younger sister, Gwen, a fellow company dancer whose career quickly surpassed Kate’s, but who has recently suffered a breakdown and returned home. Alone for the first time in her life, Kate is anxious and full of guilt about the role she may have played in her sister’s collapse. As we follow her on an insider tour of rehearsals, performances, and partners onstage and off, she confronts the tangle of love, jealousy, pride, and obsession that are beginning to fracture her own sanity. Funny, dark, intimate, and unflinchingly honest, The Cranes Dance is a book that pulls back the curtains to reveal the private lives of dancers and explores the complicated bond between sisters.

Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead
Joan is a young American dancer who helps a Soviet ballet star, the great Arslan Rusakov, defect in 1975. A flash of fame and a passionate love affair follow, but Joan knows that, onstage and off, she is destined to remain in the background. She will never possess Arslan, and she will never be a prima ballerina. She will rise no higher than the corps, one dancer among many.

After her relationship with Arslan sours, Joan plots to make a new life for herself. She quits ballet, marries a good man, and settles in California with him and their son, Harry. But as the years pass, Joan comes to understand that ballet isn’t finished with her yet, for there is no mistaking that Harry is a prodigy. Through Harry, Joan is pulled back into a world she thought she’d left behind—back into dangerous secrets, and back, inevitably, to Arslan.

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The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan
1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde.

Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other.

Off Balance, Terez Mertes Rose
Alice thinks she’s accepted the loss of her ballet career, injury having forced her to trade in pointe shoes onstage for spreadsheets upstairs. That is, until the day Alice’s boss asks her to befriend Lana, a pretty new company member he’s got his eye on. Lana represents all Alice has lost, not just as a ballet dancer, but as a motherless daughter. It’s pain she’s kept hidden, even from herself, as every good ballet dancer knows to do. Lana, lonely and unmoored, desperately needs some help, and her mother, back home, vows eternal support. But when Lana begins to profit from Alice’s advice and help, her mother’s constant attention curdles into something more sinister. Together, both women must embark on a journey of painful rediscoveries, not just about career opportunities won and lost, but the mothers they thought they knew.

Ballerina, Edward Stewart
[Note: first published in 1979.] Stephanie Lang and Christine Avery meet in ballet school. Although they share the same dream—to become great dancers—they could not be more different. Ballet is in Stephanie’s blood; her mother, Anna, is a former dancer who lives to see her daughter achieve the fame she herself never attained. Christine has lived a sheltered life, secure in the love of her family. But her privileged upbringing conceals a devastating secret.

Two teen dancers, one chance to make it. From the thrill and terror of auditions through years of meticulous training to landing a coveted spot in a professional company, Stephanie and Christine relentlessly pursue their ambitions. As they give their all to dance, they become inseparable—until they are torn apart by their passion for the same man, a brilliant Russian dancer whose seductive, mercurial temperament will have unforeseen consequences for them all.

First Love (also released as The Sleeping Beauty), Adrienne Sharp
Adam and Sandra are ballet dancers, friends since they were fifteen, and now lovers. Sandra is a dancer in the corps of the New York City Ballet who has just caught George Balanchine’s eye. Adam is an explosively gifted new star who has defected to the rival company, the American Ballet Theatre. They are in love, passionate and ambitious, but ill-prepared to handle the demands, seductions, and expectations that are visited on them as they come within reach of their dreams. The novel proceeds from a true premise: Since the beginning of his career, Balanchine sought to create an opulent ballet from the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, but never had the means and the muse come together at the same time. In First Love, Adrienne Sharp conjures in Sandra a last muse for the ailing ballet master. Balanchine promises to make Sleeping Beauty for her, and that it will be his final and greatest ballet. But Balanchine’s favor comes at a price, and Sandra is forced to decide which of her loves comes first.

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Outside the Limelight, Terez Mertes Rose    *A Kirkus Indie Books of the Month Selection*
Rising ballet star Dena Lindgren’s dream career is knocked off its axis when a puzzling onstage fall results in a crushing diagnosis: a brain tumor. Looming surgery and its long recovery period prompt the company’s artistic director, Anders Gunst, to shift his attention to an overshadowed company dancer: Dena’s older sister, Rebecca, with whom Anders once shared a special relationship.

Under the heady glow of Anders’ attention, Rebecca thrives, even as her slowly recuperating sister languishes on the sidelines of a professional world that demands beauty and perfection. Rebecca ultimately faces a painful choice: play by the artistic director’s rules and profit, or take shocking action to help the sister she came close to losing.

Exposing the glamorous onstage world of professional ballet, as well as its shadowed wings and dark underbelly, OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT examines loyalty, beauty, artistic passion, and asks what might be worth losing in order to help the ones you love.

10 bits of wisdom [to self] for 2016

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I’ve gleaned a lot of wisdom over the past two years, most of it the hard-earned, head-shaking kind. During this time period, coincidentally [or not], I recommenced a daily mindfulness meditation practice. You wouldn’t think that sitting on a pillow at 4:45am for twenty minutes, doing nothing but observing the rise and fall of your breath, along with the coming and going of your thoughts, would make a difference. I get up early to write; why steal from my most productive work time? Indeed, that was why I stopped my efforts, a dozen years ago. I was restless; I told myself just sitting there, wrestling with thoughts, was counterproductive. Writing novels was much more important.

Well. Life has a way of letting you know what’s most important.

Lo and behold, something has been working of late. Call it life lessons, reading the right books, or sitting on that cushion each morning making peace with the not-peace that is my restless mind. Whatever. Something has given me some really cool clarity.

Of course, just because everything is crystalline clear one relaxing morning while sitting, doesn’t mean it is going to stay there like some cosmic umbrella over my head, keeping the shit from raining down on me. So I’m doing this list, for myself as much as for you, dear reader. Maybe more for myself. Because it helps me to be reminded of these wise bits every day.

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Here you go. I hope these bits of wisdom speak to you as they’ve spoken to me. Maybe they’ve been obvious to you all along, and you’ll scratch your head and mumble to yourself, boy, you mean she’s been resisting that concept? Ah well, there it is.  We are all at different places on the journey.

10 Bits of Wisdom [to self] for 2016

  1. Understand that everything changes. The bouts of instability and uncertainty that punctuate life are the way it’s supposed to be. Stop thinking you need to make it go away.
  2. Comparison is the thief of joy. Catch yourself the instant you go there and gently self-redirect.
  3. Be here now. And now. And now.
  4. Breathe in, breathe out. By the way, this is a nifty thing to focus your attention on, because it will always be there for you. It’s one certainty (the only one?) you can trust.
  5.  We suffer when we resist what is unfolding before us right here, right now.
  6. No matter what’s going on, no matter how crappy it is, know that “this, too, belongs.”
  7. Fail fast, fail often. A Silicon Valley-attributed quote, which I misquoted back to my Silicon Valley husband as, “fail bigger, fail better.” Which made us both laugh. And then I decided I liked my misquote. So, hey. Keeping ’em all.
  8. Be kind to everyone; each person is fighting a battle we know nothing about.
  9. Keep art in your life. Breathe in the wonderful feeling that being surrounded by the arts [or nature, or gardening, or photography, books, what have you] brings. These things, the positive energy surrounding them, are our sanctuary in an uncertain, unstable world.
  10. You can’t shoo or threaten away the gremlins in your head, your heart, so you might as well invite them in. You don’t have to nourish them or cater to them. They are like squatters. Trying to force them out is a hell of a battle. Just hold your own ground, focus on healthy things you value, and let the gremlins stay as long as they see fit. They’ll get bored that you’re not paying attention to them. If you don’t nourish them, they’ll leave. (This works for unwelcome house guests, too.)

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And now, a few quotes from books I read in 2015 that really spoke to me…

The Pocket Pema Chödrön (Amazon link HERE)
“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

Phillip Moffitt, Dancing With Life (Amazon link HERE)
“To voluntarily receive the distress of life and mindfully bear it with consciousness and compassion is a critical threshold for spiritual development. It is the vital first step and it empowers all further unfolding. It is both absolutely ordinary and mystically transforming.”

Karuna Cayton, The Misleading Mind (Amazon link HERE)
“Ultimately, whatever happens in life, how we respond is our responsibility. We take responsibility for our own happiness by getting control of our mind. Or, put differently, we increase our happiness by understanding how our mind works and learning to recognize when aversion and attachment are running the show.”

Cyprian Consiglio, Prayer in the Cave of the Heart; The Universal Call to Contemplation
No current quote from this one yet, but I love, just love, the accessible, universally spiritual (multi-denominational? Non-denominational? Christian mystic-based?) message this Benedictine monk, speaker, writer, songwriter and performer imparts. Amazon link HERE.

Happy 2016 to all of you, dear readers and friends. May your year be full of things that nourish you, and may you also find room on your plate to be okay with the things that don’t nourish you. All of it will come and go, come and go, like waves on a beach.

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