Books & Magazines
by Grier Cooper
The first advice I ever heard about writing was to write what you know. This made a lot of sense to me, particularly with fiction, because it’s much easier to describe things we’ve experienced ourselves. WISH is a book I’d been wanting to write for a long time, because I wanted to share things that have shaped who I am. Ballet and other forms of dance have always been a part of my life so it felt very natural to use ballet as a setting for my story. Almost every little girl (and many adults too!) dreams of becoming a ballerina and for those who never experience it firsthand it’s an absolutely fascinating world and a dramatic contrast to another major theme of my life: growing up in an alcoholic family. I wanted to find a way to weave the two themes together to create a story of empowerment.
I’m a very visual person so I always begin a project by creating a vision board. I find pictures in magazines that resemble the characters and settings I imagine and put them together in a giant collage. These vision boards hang right next to my desk so I can look at them when I need to. It really helps to have that visual cue; it may sound weird but I swear I hear my characters talking. I also write character sketches for all of my characters before I begin writing. I think it’s important to figure out your characters’ motivations, likes, and dislikes before putting them in action.
I began writing WISH many years ago, in between writing a bunch of other things. The first draft took me a little over a year to write. I wasn’t working with an outline; more of a vague sketch of where I wanted the story to go. I’ve since learned how helpful it is to outline first – I could have saved myself a lot of time and headache. A good, solid outline makes it much easier to look at things from a big picture perspective before you start writing. For instance, you can tell beforehand if the transitions between the chapters flow well.
The actual process of writing a story is a sort of indescribable magic. I don’t think it’s the same for everyone. The only way I can describe it is it’s as if I am watching a movie in my mind. I see and hear everything going on and create the narration. The words flow from somewhere inside of me (my head, my heart, both?) and I write them down as they come. It’s incredibly exciting to have a story take form, even more so if you reach a state where the words just flow. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to that flowing state…some days things flow, other days they trickle or drip.
Once the first draft was done it felt good to have a finished project, but a first draft is nothing close to polished (although I’ve heard that John Irving gets pretty close). I knew my story needed a lot of work so I spent several months editing it and patching up holes in the plot. Then I put it away in a drawer.
It helps to give a manuscript time and space before you work on it again. It’s as if you see it all with fresh eyes. It was actually kind of painful to read the book at that point—all I could think was oh my God! This is terrible! I have to fix it! It’s incredible to see how much we grow as writers over time—even in just a few short months. That’s one of the things I love best about writing…not only do we keep improving the longer we do it, we can keep at it for the rest of our lives (unlike dancing professionally).
I was also lucky enough to work with a group of local writers – a stellar critique group I found through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). It’s important to get feedback from other people about your work, especially people who know the craft of writing and write in your genre (in my case, young adult). For the next year and a half, we worked together, pounding out the chinks in our books, one piece at a time. It was fun to meet with other writers around a big table, share yummy treats and give and receive advice about how we could improve our work. My critique partners asked a lot of questions, often about things that I hadn’t thought about.
Even after the work I’d done revising and implementing some of their suggestions, my novel still didn’t feel finished. That was a little hard to sit with, but I wanted the book to be as good as it could possibly be. I tinkered more, focusing on a few last pieces that weren’t quite there. This is going to sound counterintuitive, but I wrote the beginning last and it was the hardest part! I read about what makes a good beginning; I found a lot of helpful tips online, mostly from agents and editors. I reworked it lots of times until it finally felt right. I gave the entire book a final pass by reading it out loud, word by word. Errors or clumsy language are much more obvious when you say them out loud.
Of course, finishing a novel is just the beginning; there’s still a lot of work to do! I decided to shoot my own cover photo (I’ve worked as a commercial photographer for many years). Even creating the photo required a lot of planning in terms of costumes, makeup, hair, and lighting. I also do my own marketing and PR, which means – you guessed it – a whole lot more writing!
I’m now busy writing HOPE, the next book in the Indigo Dreams series. You can find me most days sitting at my desk working on it…after I walk the dog.
Grier Cooper 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.
She 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 new ballet-based young adult novel, WISH. Visit Grier online at http://www.griercooper.com
by Katie C. Sopoci Drake
STORY/TIME is a three-part book that also serves as a companion piece to the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s live production of Story/Time that will appear at New York Live Arts on November 4-8, 11-15 at 7:30pm. More information: http:www.newyorklivearts.org
After the lengthy acknowledgements to many honored academics, distinguished artists, and an impressive list of foundations and trusts, the first thing to strike the reader soundly across the brain is a preface that warns you that what you are about to experience is really a structured event, “a performance yearning to be a document, a book” that serves as a “record of a needy, angry, and confused man” with a need “for a tradition, an intellectual home”. After a description of the book’s layout, a hint at how you might best take in the information (an “invitation to play” or “reorder if you will”), and properly braced with what contradictions may present themselves, you delve into the first of three sections of the book.
This first section, titled “Past Time” plunges you into Jones’ experience within the 1970‘s dance scene. You witness him meeting with the ideas of John Cage, the growing importance of his ideas on Jones’ own artistic inquiries, and are confronted with random stories and images that evoke place and history. Jones’ feelings of exclusion from the intellectual community of scholars and artists of the time surfaces within the narrative providing fire behind Jones’ evidently voracious appetite for inquiry and the contradiction within himself between “comfort” and “provocation” within his own methods of creating live performance that “reveal the most personal aspects” of himself.
The second section, “Story/Time”, “a response to John Cage’s 1958 Indeterminacy,” is laid out like a score with dashes and brackets marking the time and random order (with the help of www.random.org) of 60 one-minute stories. These nuggets of prose, with words that are nudged and pulled apart on the paper to mark the passage of time, span the range of Jones’ own history and memories. Some having to do with art, some with family, some with characters from his life, certain stories swim back to the surface after their initial appearance in the first section of the book “Past Time”. Here they are washed clean of their previous context, and elevated to the status of art.
“Story/Time” begs to be read out loud. At the end of the previous section, “Past Time”, Jones gives us hints at his approach in performance which certainly invites the reader to try one or all stories in their own tongue. 17 unsentimental performance images accompany this leg of the journey giving the viewer a setting for the stories and reminds us of Jones’ questioning of his own interpretation of Cage’s theories assigning “a higher priority to the author’s intent or choices of presentation than to the audience’s capacity to interpret that intent.”
In “With Time”, the final section of the book, you read Jones’ thoughts on the direction of dance as an art-form with the benefit of having read about both his own journey towards this end and experiencing a sample of what his deep artistic inquiry has rendered. In it, he offers yet another twist in his journey in the form of praise he received from his niece in 1999 after a performance of We Set Out Early… Visibility Was Poor. Jones reveals that at that moment, she had represented another “community I had — justifiably or not — felt estranged from.” This revelation brackets a series of “provocations” that keep circling back around within the book: detachment from emotion in art, exclusion from intellectual society, estrangement from community, the class context of searching for identity versus the search for meaning, the role of history and personal experience in experimental art.
In a final interview with Laura Kuhn, Executive Director of the John Cage Trust, John Cage, Jones’ “icon of modernism”, is partially laid bare. Kuhn relates a story of Cage being so detached from society that he didn’t realize Jesse Jackson was black. The story doesn’t seek to embarrass the man, but to reveal a consequence of a philosophy that separates the artist from society. Directly after the interview, Jones identifies his desire to reconcile the community he grew up in with the artistic community he is immersed in and the contradiction of “choosing to engage seriously with such a socially ‘unengaged’ artist who seems to hard back to an era when the only artists who mattered where male and white. And yet engage with John Cage I must.”
As a written document, this book is clearly organized, quickly read, and dense with musings that can be dissected by dancers and non-dancers alike. As a piece of art, it is both process and product in one. The engagement and participation of audience member might be enhanced if the book is read and discussed in a group setting which makes me curious to see how it will fit with the live performance and how many people will pair the two. The experiment in creation, design and performance certainly poses many questions that, identifying as a dance artist, I found myself musing in the context of own work. Likewise, as an academic, I found I was concurrently dissecting the book for use in a future class. I found the “provocation” of personal context and its link to the audience’s experience of art particularly poignant when my thoughts swung back around to a quotation of Michel Auder which was, perhaps, not so randomly selected to end “Story/Time”: “’You motherfucker! You were thinking about yourself while watching my work!’”.
STORY/TIME: The Life of an Idea
By Bill T. Jones
Performing Arts, Dance, Memoir
108 pp. Princeton University Press. $24.95
Contributor Katie C. Sopoci Drake, MFA, GL-CMA, is a Washington D.C. based professional dancer, choreographer and teacher specializing in Laban-based contemporary dance. Holding an MFA in Dance from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a Graduate Certification in Laban Movement Analysis from Columbia College – Chicago, and a BA in Theatre/Dance with a minor in Vocal Performance from Luther College, Sopoci Drake continues to take classes in as many techniques and practices as she can handle to inform her work and life as a curious mover.
Katie has been on faculty at The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Nova Southeastern University, Miami Dade College-Wolfson, Miami Dade College-Kendall, Carthage College, and Lawrence University. She currently guest teaches and gives masterclasses around the D.C. area and wherever her travels take her.
As a performer, Sopoci is described as a “sinuous, animal presence of great power; watching her dance is a visceral experience.” (Third Coast Digest). Company credits include Mordine and Company Dance Theater of Chicago, Momentum Dance Company of Miami, Wild Space Dance Company of Milwaukee, and Rosy Simas Danse of Minneapolis. Katie has also made appearances an an independent artist with many companies including Brazz Dance, Your Mother Dances, The Florentine Opera, and The Minnesota Opera.
Katie’s choreography, described as “a beautiful marriage between choreography, music and poetry” (On Milwaukee), arises from her fascination with the idiosyncrasies of daily life, and the flights of fancy that arise from ordinary inspirations. Her work has been performed by numerous companies, colleges and studios across the country and her latest collaboration, Telephone Dance Project, will take her to states up and down the East Coast while investigating long-distance creation and connecting far-flung dance communities.
Reading Ballerina by Edward Stewart is like snacking on too many Girl Scout Cookies. There’s something sentimental about them, and it’s so hard to just have one. Chapter after juicy (and sometimes eye-roll-inducing) chapter, I couldn’t put this novel down.
Ballerina was originally published in 1979. The latest edition comes in e-book format from Open Road Publications. At 500 pages, it’s a quick read with plenty of theatrics. A few of the forty-nine chapters seem like separate episodes in the often scattered plot, and as a whole the book has the slightly dated feel of a yellowing Polaroid photo. If you’re looking for a good soap-opera-type travel read, though, this definitely fits the bill.
The plot follows dancers Stephanie Lang and Christine Avery from their audition for the country’s top ballet school at age sixteen into their early twenties as they navigate promising careers, romance, and friendship. Steph’s overbearing mother Anna and the manipulative artistic director Marius Volmar are in turns detestable and pitiable as secondary characters, twisting and prodding Steph and Chris for personal gain.
The world Stewart creates is one of catty backstabbing and sleeping around—think Dancers, The Turning Point, or Center Stage. Despite the book’s shortcomings, the intrigue of the insider-outsider dance world makes Ballerina a readable jaunt for dancers and non-dancers alike. I rate it three stars out of five for exciting drama but lack of depth, and PG-13 for some strong language and few graphic scenes—it’s not a novel for the Girl Scout-age set.4
Judith Peterson knows dancers’ health. She served the Pennsylvania Ballet for ten years as attending physician and is currently a member of the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
Her book covers the whats, hows, and whys of anatomy that are most relevant to dancers. The functional descriptions of each body structure (spinal regions, cardiovascular system, hips, knees, ankles, feet, and toes) are thorough enough to be really useful but presented simply. Most importantly, each chapter includes a bulleted summary and practical exercises for each body region. Dance Medicine Head to Toe makes it easy to see why anatomical knowledge is important to dancers and how they can put that knowledge into practice.
An especially important feature of this book (aside from the high quality and effective presentation of the information, of course) is the emphasis Peterson places on getting help from a qualified dance medicine professional rather than trying to ignore pain or “tough it out,” such unfortunately common practices in the competitive fields of professional and pre-professional dance. Cultivating a dance culture where it’s understood to be OK to get help for injuries is critical to the advancement of our art and expansion of our field.
In addition to the valuable information provided in Peterson’s text, the book is peppered with diagrams and dance photographs. Some are quite helpful, but many could benefit from clearer labeling or simply be omitted.
Succinct, comprehensive, and conversational, Dance Medicine Head to Toe should be part of every dancer’s and teacher’s library.
Dance Medicine Head to Toe: A Dancer’s Guide to Health, Judith R Peterson, MD, Princeton Book Company, 20110
In the fifth graphic story in the Papercutz “Dance Class” series, we follow dance friends Alia, Lucie, and Julie to St Petersburg, where they and the rest of Miss Anne’s students perform The Nutcracker with a group of Russian dancers. This book is as colorful, funny, and sweet as the first four “Dance Class” graphic novels.
While the Russia trip is the focus of the story, there’s plenty of humor at home before the girls leave. The dance dads have their day in Dance Class 5: Lucie’s dad performs a brilliant sissone ouverte while trying to save a batch of crepes, and Julie’s dad snores his way through a family trip to the ballet, to Mom’s great embarrassment.
Abroad, flirtatious Alia becomes frustrated with the Russian boys’ insensitivity…or is it just the language barrier? “To Russia, With Love” closes with some casting surprises for Miss Anne before the curtain goes down and the students head home again.0
In Balanchine: Russian-American Ballet Master Emeritus, Reine Duell Bethany gives young adults (dancers and nondancers alike) a highly readable, thought-provoking, and inspiring biography of the twentieth-century choreographer. Over ten chapters, Bethany walks the reader thoughtfully through Balanchine’s early life in Russia, his work for Diaghilev, and his eventual establishment in the US as the head of New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet. The author traces Balanchine’s personal history and relationships, his development as a choreographer, and his work and personality as a businessman and international cultural ambassador. Throughout, adequate yet succinct historical, cultural, and social context is provided, making Ballet Master Emeritus as useful and appealing to young people interested in history or politics as ballet. For creative types, Reine Duell Bethany’s poignant, inspiring writing reinforces the importance of such qualities as faith, sacrifice, integrity, courage, and dedication in the pursuit of artistic goals.
Balanchine: Russian-American Ballet Master Emeritus would make a valuable addition to the young dancer’s library. It captures the subject in a way that is both revealing and sensitive, while placing George Balanchine and New York City Ballet in a landscape beyond the self-contained.
Reine Duell Bethany, 193 pages0