Friday, 16 December 2011

Denise Chávez

Denise Chávez is one of the leading Chicana playwrights and novelists of the US Southwest. Her books include The Last of the Menu Girls, Face of an Angel, Loving Pedro Infante and A Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food and Culture.

In an interview with William Clark of Publisher’s Weekly Chávez said, ‘Writing for me is a healing, therapeutic, invigorating, sensuous manifestation of the energy that comes to you from the world, from everything that’s alive. Everything has a voice and you just have to listen as closely as you can. That’s what's so exciting—a character comes to you and you can’t write fast enough because the character is speaking through you. It’s a divine moment.’

Throughout her writing she emphasizes the need for comunidad, or community, and that is exactly what she creates in spades at the Cultural Center de Mesilla that she runs with her husband, Daniel Zolinsky. A stone’s throw from where Billy the Kid was once jailed, CCM is a vibrant, eclectic place where you can buy books, new and old, find wonderful LPs which have been donated to the center, attend workshops as diverse as learning about Nahuatl and Mayan teachings to creating a papel picado. There is also a children’s corner and a freezer where you can buy delicious handmade Mexican ice cream. It was at the Cultural Center de Mesilla that my novel, The Double Happiness Company, received its US launch this summer. To view a short video of the celebrations, click here.

The Cultural Center de Mesilla and Denise will be featured in PBS’s “The American Experience”, in a new documentary about Billy the Kid’s life and his relationship to the Southwest and Hispano New Mexico. It will be aired nationally on 10 January. For more information, click here.

Denise is also the Founder and Director of the Border Book Festival, the longest running literary festival in the American Southwest. This year's title is “The Shamanic Journey” (La Jornada Chámanica) which will take place from 20 - 22 April in Mesilla, New Mexico, featuring healers from Mexico to Africa.

While I was in the United States for the launch of my novel, I was honoured that Denise agreed to an interview. “Mango Day” is the result: a 10-minute video where she reads from her moving memoir, A Taco Testimony, and reflects on the process of writing. She has said of her work, ‘My characters are survivors . . . I feel, as a Chicana writer, that I am capturing the voice of so many who have been voiceless for years. I write about the neighborhood handymen, the waitresses, the bag ladies, the elevator operators. They all have something in common: they know what it is to love and to be merciful . . . My work is rooted in the Southwest, in heat and dust, and reflects a world where love is as real as the land. In this dry and seemingly harsh and empty world, there is much beauty to be found.’

Stay tuned . . .

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

A story of a book and its cover(s)

Due to the popularity of my second novel, The Double Happiness Company, BareBone Books have decided to reissue my first. No Angel Hotel was written a long time ago which is why I wanted to revise the text to reflect the fresh new cover design.

Throughout the four reincarnations of No Angel Hotel, I have been fascinated to see how differently my book can be perceived because of its "wrapping". The first edition was a hardback with a jacket. The editing, typesetting and layout were top notch, but I was less than happy with the cover: a doleful watercolour of a young woman with thick red hair, staring mournfully into space. There were dropped pink rose petals on the table where she was sitting. I cringed when I first saw it and I inwardly cringe when I think of it now (which is why you won't see it pictured here*). This book—which is the exploration of the obsessive love of a young Northern Irish woman for a man who can not return her passion—looked to me like an upmarket version of a Mills & Boon publication. I had spent years writing a book which my editor (and later reviewers)  compared to the novels of Jean Rhys, only to have the art department create a cover that looked like it belonged on one churned out by Barbara Cartland.

The first paperback edition by Grafton Books was miles better. My editor commisioned a pastel drawing by Emma Chichester-Clark. The artist read the text carefully because the bedsit window has straggly house plants, orange curtains and four teak elephants with raised trunks, all of which feature in the book.

The US edition was a jacketed hardback with Elkie and Ivan in a car: he in a tux, she leaning against his shoulder in a friend's black dress. Again, the artist read the book closely and created an image after the ball that Elkie and Ivan go to where he ignores her and she is left to dance with a bald old lecher in a cummerbund. (And if you're wondering why the title is different, it's because the marketing department at St Martin's Press said a negative title wouldn't sell in America.)

The new edition of No Angel Hotel will be available in February 2012 with this striking new cover by Line of Sight Associates in Toronto. The artwork was designed by Sharon Lockwood, the company’s President and Creative Director, who read the novel closely and was clearly moved by it. What she has created is sensual, sexual: the throwing open of a window in a darkened room onto a vista which is reminiscent of the explicit flowers of Georgia O'Keeffe.

I found Lockwood’s interpretation fascinating. She produced artwork that perfectly conveyed the sense of isolation which all the key characters in the novel possess. The darkened room, either in a hotel or a bedsit, is suggestive of both intimacyor of being utterly alone. There is the empty bed, the yearning. Mystery. Suspense. And there is the female character drawing open the curtain, arms raised. There is the suggestion of wings to either free her or try to move the barrier of her imprisonment. You’ll have to read the book to see which version got it right.

Stay tuned . . .

*I've relented. If you're curious to see the "Cartland cover", click here.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Suspect Verbs and Adverbs

English is an incredibly rich language, a bazaar of many tongues. We are lucky to have a huge vocabulary to draw upon, but as writers we don't want to obfuscate language. Did I just have you reaching for your dictionary? When students begin to write, one of the things they tend to do is use  "suspect verbs", a phrase I invented. Whenever it occurs, I underline the offending verb and, above it, write SV. A couple of examples are "She wended her way to school" and "He masticated his meat." A more natural way would be to say, "She walked to school" and "He chewed his meat."  

A simple way to check if a verb you're thinking of using is "suspect" is to say it in dialogue. For example, if you'd written this sentence (shown in red) about a teacher who is dressing down one of her students: "Enough impertinence!" she retorted. Test it by changing it to the first person and say it aloud: I retorted, "Enough impertinence!" Unless you're a pompous person, you wouldn't say "retorted" when you were retelling the incident; you would say something far simpler, like "said" or "shouted". An even better choice would be to leave out the verb altogether. The dialogue is doing the work and needs no help from a pronoun and a suspect verb. 

At a subconscious level, I think people use suspect verbs to be considered clever, but its effect is to alienate the reader. As Jonathan Franzen said, "Interesting verbs are seldom interesting." It doesn't mean you can't use language in a rich way, but it must honour your style, your story and your voice.

Adverbs, adjectives and, less commonly, nouns can also be "suspect", as you’ll see in this passage: 

He beseeched his spouse to accompany him to the garden to see how those beloved, pungent foxes of hers had wreaked havoc in the crepuscular hours. "Perfidious vulpine creatures!" he exclaimed vociferously. "They have purloined my philtrons!" 

As a little exercise, have a go at rewriting this paragraph without any suspect verbs, adverbs, adjectives or nouns. 

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Balzac's Death

Like many writers, it is coffee that kick-starts my day and my writing.

Coffee first came to Europe in the 17th century from the Middle East after being brought back by Venetian traders. The word derives from the Arabic, qahwah ("that which keeps you awake") which the Turks pronounced as kah-veh. It was believed by some Christians to be the devil’s drink. The pope of the day was thinking of banishing it . . . until he sipped it.  Pope Clement VIII was so delighted he baptized it instead.

Coffee houses quickly became centres for gossip, reading, writing or doing business. One of the most famous in London was the Turk’s Head in the Strand where you might find Samuel Johnson, his biographer Boswell, Oliver Goldsmith and Edward Gibbon, all ordering Beelzebub's beverage. It was not long before coffee not only stained manuscripts and diaries, but entered them. Early mentions of coffee can be found in Francis Bacon’s Historia Vitae et Mortis (1623) and Sylva Sylvarum (1627).

Coffee’s addictive nature was noted by Voltaire who drank 50 cups a day. In Balzac's Treatise on Modern Stimulants he says that ideas are encouraged by drinking coffee: "Things remembered arrive at full gallop." Balzac was a man of huge appetites and some people believe that his love of coffee might have contributed to his death. (A Philadelphia coffee roaster has named one of their blends La Mort de Balzac.) Johann Sebastian Bach's inspiration for his “Coffee Cantata” was due to his dependence on the drink.

Today, coffee is as important as alcohol in literature and here I will refer to two works where coffee is featured. In Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, Philip Marlowe narrates in considerable detail about making coffee before leaving on his escapades. In The Wild Sheep Chase Haruki Murakami makes a coffee shop the place where his protagonist picks up men willing to pick up her ciggies and coffee tab.

A fact I find fascinating is that the Oromo people of Ethiopia traditionally plant a coffee tree on the graves of powerful shamans. They believe the first coffee bush sprouted from the god of heaven's tears as he wept over a dead sorcerer. So not the devil’s drink, but a celestial one.

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

A Tale of Two Stories

In 1985 I bought a anthology of Raymond Carver’s short stories. The thick Picador paperback included three of his collections: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please (1976), What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and Cathedral (1983).

One of the most memorable stories was “The bath” which appeared in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It is about a boy, Scotty, whose mother orders a cake for his eighth birthday. She asks the baker to decorate it with a "spaceship and a launching pad under a sprinkling of white stars”. Two days later, on the morning of his party, Scotty is walking to school when he is knocked down by a car.

As I devoured this wonderful anthology, I discovered this story also appeared in in Cathedral in a longer version with a different plot and tone. It had been transformed and retitled “A small good thing”.

I puzzled over this for a long time. Why would Carver publish a story twice? This question continued to intrigue me for years until I decided it might be interesting for my students to take the opening pages from each story and compare them. I thought it would be good for the class to decide which was their favourite and to defend their choice in a debate.

To prepare for the exercise, I went to Google and was finally able to find out why there were two stories, two titles, two versions. I discovered that “A small good thing” was the story that Carver had first written. That his editor, Gordon Lish, had reduced it by a third and retitled it “The bath”. That Carver had felt unable to resist the painful cuts and changes.

Gordon Lish's career in publishing began when he was employed as a part-time editor in Palo Alto, California, where he was a friend and drinking buddy of Carver’s. In 1969 Lish persuaded Esquire to hire him as its fiction editor and he sealed the deal by promising the magazine to find new voices. One of the first was Raymond Carver.

At the beginning of his career, Carver was grateful for Lish’s help, but as time went on, he became uneasy about Lish's aggressive editing. In July 1980 Carver wrote Lish a long letter telling him he could not publish the heavily-edited stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. “Maybe if I were alone, by myself, and no one had ever seen these stories, maybe then, knowing that your versions are better than some of the ones I sent, maybe I could get into this and go with it.” In the end, the stories were published as Lish, rather than as Carver, wanted.

I have to nail my colours to the mast and say that I prefer Lish’s versions of Carver. For me, his cuts were hugely effective because the reader is left to judge what a character is thinking or feeling rather than being told by the author. I was more gripped by "The bath" because I wasn’t sure at the end whether Scotty had lived or died. That suspense was taken away in “A small good thing” where the ending in unequivocal. But don’t take my word for it. Go to Carver’s collected works. Read both stories, then decide for yourself if Lish’s red pen served Carver—or his own reputation as a fierce, uncompromising editor.

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Paciu Portraits

Ion Paciu is a professional photographer and teacher of photography who is currently engaged on a project of capturing portraits of strangers he meets on the streets of London, a project he calls People I didn't know.

Having once endured a photo shoot for a book jacket, I know how important it is for a photographer to establish a rapport with their subject so they will allow you to look into their soul. That is why his pictures are so surprising: photos taken with natural light and no trickery. Portraits of people with whom Ion has no relationship. People who have trusted him enough to expose themselves to his lens.

It was my previous post about the Fayum portraits that made me think Ion's work would make a lovely companion piece to that blog: these two pictures of his with their 100-yard stares have much in common with those Egyptian paintings executed so long ago. In Ion's words, 'People I didn't know is a homage to human nature, the art of photography and a quest to bring together our solitary London souls.' Ancient and modern, these are extraordinary portraits, whether they have been created with paint and beeswax or paper and pixels, with the vast distance of over 1700 years between them.

John Berger wrote an essay on the Fayum portraits. Here is an extract: 'I've got a portrait out my pocket. There's a silence in her face. She appeals for nothing. They appeal for nothing, the Fayum faces, they ask for nothing. They look at us and their look says, 'We know we are alive. And you are alive because you are looking at us.'

Stay tuned . . .



Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Fayum Portraits

After teaching two writing retreats in Catalonia, I took the train to Madrid. I went for two reasons: to do research for my new novel which is set at the time of the Spanish Civil War and to visit the Archaeological Museum to see the Fayum portraits.

I first learned of these extraordinary Egyptian paintings in 1997 when the British Museum had a haunting exhibition featuring them. Made by Greek painters on boards and canvas that covered the faces of the dead, the Fayum mummy portraits were painted on wooden tablets using tempera or pigments mixed with liquid beeswax. They are the oldest two-dimensional portraits in existence.

Created between the 1st and 4th centuries AD, these paintings from El Fayum necropolis were used by the souls of the dead to help them identify their bodies so that they could continue their journey to the afterlife.

With great accuracy, the artists captured the identity of each individual, revealing an almost photographic likeness. As the art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon said of them, ‘These people did not want to die and these images are the spells which they wave against their own extinction.’

Sitting on the bench in Madrid seeing all thirteen portraits across the dimly-lit room, not one of them is old, not one of them anywhere near my age. One is a beautiful young woman with large gold earrings that glint in the darkened museum light. She looks like someone I know, but I can’t place her. Through the center of each eye the wood panel has cracked so it looks like she is crying dagger-straight tears.

Another is of a young man with a dimpled chin, pillow lips, huge staring blue eyes. He has hair and side burns like the young Tom Jones. Arcing over his head, from one shoulder of his ice-cream white toga to the other, is a delicately carved narrow gilt band. Someone had loved him.

The most disturbing portrait is of a young woman with an ugly brown-black stain almost obscuring her right eye as if, in death, someone had blinded her.

I sit for at least half an hour, looking into their eyes. Their faces are earnest, naked, alone. I am staring at their painted souls. Each of them looks back at me jealously, wanting to be here, among the living. They are telling me to laugh, to love, to take chances, to make every dayevery minutecount because death is very long.

Stay tuned . . .

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Little Prince & 200 Sunsets

One of my favourite books came into my life when I was 21. It is a children's book that is adored by adults all over the world. That book is The Little Prince which tells the story of a sad, misunderstood boy who is unashamed of expressing love, confusion or delight. The Little Prince reminds us of who we once were: before we stopped appreciating the beauty of stars and flowers and talking foxes. I have many favorite quotes, but there is one I highlighted years ago, one I still try to live by: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

The Little Prince lived on a tiny planet that had three volcanoes, two active and one dormant. He spent a great deal of time pulling up baobob trees that would destroy his tiny asteroid if they were not removed. One of the Little Prince's few pleasures was watching the sun go down. When he wanted to see the day end, all he needed to do was pick up his chair and move it backwards a few steps. One day he saw forty-four sunsets.

The Little Prince leaves his asteroid to travel to other planets. In Chapter 6 he says to an aviator on Earth:

      “I am very fond of sunsets. Come, let us go look at a sunset now.”
      “But we must wait,” I said.
      “Wait? For what?”
      “For the sunset. We must wait until it is time.”
      At first you seemed to be very much surprised. And then you laughed to yourself . . . “I am always thinking I am at home!”

Atardecer Edvard Grieg is a beautiful 5-minute film of not 44, but over 200 sunsets. When you look at Emiliano Moro's images of dusk and twilight, look not with your eyes, but with your heart. And you don't even have to move your chair.

Stay tuned . . .

El horizonte desde el prado                                                             Photo © Emiliano Moro

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Love: the origin of creation

Is not love the origin of all creation?
Henri Matisse

When I first came to Europe, I remember going to the old Jeu de Paume in Paris and staring for ages at Claude Monet’s paintings showing Rouen Cathedral at different times of the day. The shimmering effect of light at dusk made me catch my breath in wonder. I stood in front of those magical canvases, wondering how Monet was able to paint something so elusive. I didn't know how he did it, but marvelled at his technical ability. Every brushstroke seemed to catch the love he felt for light.

I bought postcards of his Cathedral paintings and pinned them up in my bedsit in London. I stared at them endlessly. My fondness for these canvases made me want to bring them, somehow, into my first novel which I was then working on. The main character, Elkie Bonner, is a romantic from County Londonderry who models herself on Anna Karenina. She falls recklessly, hopelessly, madly in love with a man who reminds her of "Count Vronsky with dark hair". Realising that he will never care for her as deeply as she does for him, she kids herself that, alone, she will tour the world, travel to Moscow and "watch the changing light on the façade of St Basil’s Cathedral. She would never go to Moscow. So little light. So little light in the world."

That was all I was able to weave into the text of No Angel Hotel. Even though the Rouen paintings are not referred to by name, I would like to think those paintings somehow still cast their shadow in the book. Stanley Kunitz wrote about a poem that came to him while he was in his garden. "I dropped my hoe and ran into the house and started to write this poem, 'End of Summer'. It began as a celebration of wild geese. Eventually the geese flew out of the poem, but I like to think they left behind the sounds of their beating wings."

Monet's friend, the writer Georges Clemenceau, wrote an essay about the exhibition Monet held in 1895 of his Cathedral series: "In front of the twenty views of the building by Monet, one notices that Art . . . teaches us to watch, to perceive, to feel. The stone itself is transformed into an organic substance, and one can feel how it changes in the same way that a little moment of life is followed by another one."

Monet painted 31 canvases in his Cathedral series showing the shifting light on the front of the cathedral in sun, rain, at dawn, high noon and dusk. They are held in collections around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Even though they are variations on a theme, I can see the love in every one.

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Burden of Dreams

Werner Herzog has achieved notoriety in the movie industry as someone who makes films that would be almost impossible for any other director to make. Audiences who have seen his film, Fitzcarraldo, will never forget seeing a real steamship pulled over a muddy hillside in Peru using no special effects, only brute force.

But that brain-searing scene only happened because Herzog refused to simulate a 320-ton steamship pulled overland. Despite the seemingly insurmountable difficulties it presented, he refused to give up on his dream of moving a ship over a hill because he did not want to fake it. When the investors backing Fitzcarraldo found out that it was proving impossible, they asked Herzog if it might be wiser to abandon the film and write off the huge pre-production losses. He was outraged. “How can you ask this question?” he replied. “If I abandon this project, I will be a man without dreams, and I don't want to live like that.”

Living with a cherished, but unrealised, dream is hard on the soul. It's like dragging a boat up a 40-degree slope. I should know, having spent years writing a book I thought would never be finished. Now that it's finally out, it's a relief, a joy and a sadness, all at the same time.

I started on The Double Happiness Company many years ago. It was a book I never wanted to write because I knew how hard it would be to write convincingly about a young girl with a dream so big that it almost kills her. But the themes and the characters kept nipping at my heels. The first draft was written in the first person from the point of view of Katie Rivers, the novel’s teenage protagonist. My writing group kept telling me it wasn’t working because it was bathetic and the main character was weak, irritating and unsympathetic. But by the time I realised they were right, the manuscript was already 140,000 words long.

So I started from scratch, writing it from in the third person from Katie’s point of view to gain more objectivity. I added two other narrators: Katie's brother, Rhett, and their mother, Lola, in an effort to make the narrative more balanced. The manuscript was slowly getting better, but I still had not fully resolved the book's many flaws.

Depressed and defeated, I shoved the bulging typescript in a drawer. For a long, long time. Seven years to be precise. But even hidden away, the novel would not leave me alone. I would have abandoned the manuscript forever, except that I knew the technical problems I had to solve would never go away until I faced them. That even if I did start a new novel, the same problems would surface in another form to haunt me. Then I read this by Robert Moss: “Australian Aborigines say that the big stories—the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life—are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush.”

I knew I couldn't give up because I was being stalked by some of my best material so I finally surrendered and let myself be “caught”. I cut and cut and cut. I added missing scenes. I deepened the main characters by exploring, then revealing their motives. By pushing through the many problems in The Double Happiness Company, I was finally able to finish it to my satisfaction. And not only to my satisfaction, it would seem. Almost without exception, people have found the book gripping. Some have read it one long sitting. Others have purposely read at a snail's pace so it wouldn't be over so quickly. One mother of young children cursed me because she found The Double Happiness Company so engrossing she didn't get to bed until 4.00AM on Christmas morning, only to have to get up a few hours later to look after a sniffly little one. Surely the loveliest “curse” I've received from anyone.

Do I regret starting the novel? I do not any more than, I suspect, Werner Herzog regrets the madness and the folly of moving his steamship through a jungle for Fitzcarraldo. That is the price you must willingly pay for the burden of a dream.

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Metamorphosis of a title: Title taddle (2)

Vladimir Nabokov is known primarily for his infamous novel, Lolita, which was written while travelling on butterfly-collecting trips in the western United States. Everyone knows the title, even though they may never have read it. But the book I’d like to talk about in this second post on titles is one of my favourites.

In 1951 Nabokov published a collection of personal reflections in the United States under the title Conclusive Evidence. In its first UK edition he decided against that name because it suggested a detective story. He suggested to his British editor that it could be rechristened Speak, Mnemosyne. (Mnemosyne being the Greek Titan goddess of memory and remembrance, as well the inventor of language.) His publisher, not unexpectedly, was fearful that little old ladies would not ask for a book whose title they couldn't pronounce.

Nabokov’s achingly beautiful memoir was eventually published as Speak, Memory. The Russian version was published later under yet another title, Drugie Berega (Other Shores).

My own favourite title for this book is Speak, Memory. It is one of the best works of autobiography I have read, one I urge students who are writing memoirs to read it so they can see how a master does it. To tempt you, here is a paragraph from Chapter Three about Nabokov’s maternal grandfather:  “Ivan Rukavishnikov had a terrible temper and my mother feared him. In my childhood all I knew about him were his portraits (his beard, the magisterial chain around his neck) and such attributes of his main hobby as decoy ducks and elk heads. A pair of especially large bears he had shot stood upright with redoubtably raised front paws in the iron-barred vestibule of our country house. Every summer I gauged my height by the ability to reach their fascinating claws—first those of the lower forelimbs, then those of the upper. Their bellies proved disappointingly hard, once your fingers (accustomed to palpate live dogs or toy animals) had sunk in their rough brown fur. Now and then they used to be taken out into a corner of the garden to be thoroughly whacked and aired, and poor Mademoiselle, approaching from the direction of the park, would utter a cry of alarm as she caught sight of two savage beasts waiting for her in the mobile shade of the trees.”

A title is the soul of the book and carries its essence, its themes and its mystery. So, dear reader, make lists of possible titles and try them on for size with friends and strangers. Name your literary babies carefully and, like Nabokov, don’t be afraid to rechristen them if you need to.

Stay tuned . . .

PS: This 1925 photograph of Nabokov was doodled on by the writer himself.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Black Swan

It was with great anticipation I went to a recent screening of Black Swan. The film has already been a box-office smash with Natalie Portman tipped for an Oscar so I was saddened to find that it was a bit of a lame duck. There were some excellent things in the film and I applaud director Darren Aronofsky for pursuing his decade-long dream of making this movie that skillfully blends encroaching madness and reality. Despite not being a ballet dancer, Natalie Portman gave an excellent performance, though the one-dimensional script offered her little in the way of character development. Throughout the film her beautiful, fragile face looked like the poster, a cracked egg.

People who are not dancers may come away from Black Swan feeling it was over the top, but life in the ballet world can be far more melodramatic than the world portrayed in this film: bitchier, crueler and more psychologically devastating. When I was a young dancer in Texas, a male guest artist from the Harkness Ballet in New York City was flown in to perform. I will never forget what he told me: that someone in his home company was so jealous of his swift rise through the ranks that they put ground glass in his ballet shoes. 

It was common practise when I was training for dancers to be taunted about their weight  when they didn’t have a weight problem and to humiliate them if they did. Many already paper-doll-thin dancers developed eating disorders as a result of endlessly trying to please an unpleaseable teacher, choreographer or director. The worst victims were always the sensitive ones like Nina in Black Swan. Only years later did I realise that what was going on:  balletic S & M. Sadistic adults toying and verbally whipping their young, masochistic victims. At least Nina had the presence of mind to bite her director’s tongue hard enough to make him bleed.

I think Aronofsky was hoping to make a contemporary Red Shoes, a movie classic which was probably responsible for launching more ballet careers than any other film. In this 1948 film the ballet director (played by Anton Wallbrook) asks Moira Shearer why she wants to dance with his company. Eyes blazing, she replies, ‘Why do you want to live?’ In Black Swan, ballet is not Nina’s life. It is what fills up her otherwise empty life.

Nina, like everyone else in her company, is infantilised because ballet careers start early; serious training begins at eight years old. In the dance world when a class is spoken to collectively, they are never called men and women. It is always, 'Boys and girls, take ten,' or 'Boys and girls, on stage for notes.' Dancers are, and have always been pawns, in a dance game of chess because they are dispensable. It is the kings and queens that always win. 


Stay tuned . . .