An Interview with Adrienne Sharp by Raiford Rogers
Q: You were a trainee for Harkness Ballet in New York City. What was the path that brought you there?
A: 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 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 Harkness.
Q: What was that like?
Very magical and very humbling. I was a 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 Renata Exeter and David Howard—was still going strong. Rebecca Harkness had turned her East 70’s 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.
Q: What did you do next?
Eventually I went to college and discovered writing. But I was lucky to be admitted to college at all, because 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 age 16, 17, 18, your most intensive training is going to be done during your high school years. Many dancers give up on high school. Suzanne Farrell in her autobiography 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 20 finally got her high school diploma, and she only managed that because she was sidelined with a foot injury for a year.
Q: So you went to college and discovered writing. When did you start writing about dancers?
A: 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. Later, 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 together.
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 up so many adult issues to explore.
Q: What are some of those issues?
A: 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 overtake 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 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.
Q: Some of the stories in White Swan, Black Swan, your first book, 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?
A: 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, denouement. The most difficult aspect for me in writing those 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 Farrell left City Ballet, Balanchine was so depressed 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 ballet 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 on both 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 invigorated 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.
Q: Can you talk a little about the title, White Swan, Black Swan. It refers, of course, to Swan Lake, to Odette, the white swan, victim of von Rothbart’s sorcery and Odile, the black swan, von Rothbart’s partner in thwarting Odette’s release from the spell. Were you drawing a parallel to the ballet?
A: 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 their lives, 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 every dancer dies two deaths. That’s how a dancer views retirement: death.
Q: Dancing does cast a spell, and not just on professional dancers. What is the draw?
A: 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.
Q: Some of your readership is made up of dance students and balletomanes and they know the stories of the ballets and the ballet vocabulary. How do you make your work accessible to those without such knowledge?
A: Some quick exposition delineates the stories of the ballets, or the essential elements of them. In describing the actual dancing, I forgo 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.
Q: And your second book was about dancers as well.
A: Yes, I wrote 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 recreate 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.
Q: And now your third book, just released, is a big departure from your previous work.
A: It’s a different place and time—a novel about the real-life prima ballerina of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet, Mathilde Kschessinska, mistress of the last Tsar, Nicholas II. It was rumored that her affair with the Tsar continued even after his marriage, that he built her a palace fit for an empress to keep her close, that she secretly bore him a son. In these memoirs, Little K—that was the Tsar’s pet name for her—reveals that the rumors are all true. She caught the eye of Nicholas II in 1890 when she was seventeen years old and he was still tsarevich, and from that moment on she stood at the intersection of the world of the imperial theaters and the world of the imperial court, eyewitness to the creation of the great classical ballet repertoire and to the crumbling of the Romanov empire. She became the wealthiest woman on the stage, adorned with the Tsar’s jewels, the greatest dancer of her age, and the lover of several of Russia’s most powerful grand dukes. After the revolution and the civil war, she was forced to flee the country, her grand palace now Bolshevik headquarters, her theater in shambles, her Tsar imprisoned and perhaps dead. Exiled in Paris, she waited with the surviving Romanovs for the restoration of the regime, a restoration that never came. Finally, in 1971, one hundred years old, bedridden and dying, but as vain, as ambitious, and as unreliable as ever, she recalls her remarkable life with the Tsar and the fate of the son she bore him.