An Interview With Stephen Manes Author of Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside The Land Of Ballet

Posted by on 01.30.2012

I know that many of you, like me, are reading the newest and most exciting book on ballet, Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside The Land Of Ballet. If you do not yet have your hands on a copy of this innovative look into the behind the scenes world of ballet, I highly suggest it. (Click here to order your own copy)

After beginning to delve into this, my new literary obsession, I thought I would contact Snowflakes author Stephen Manes. Through the wonderful world of technology, I was able to connect with Mr. Manes through Twitter. He agreed to do this interview exclusively for TENDUS in order to introduce you to his book.

Stephen Manes wrote for The New York Times, Forbes, PC World, PC Magazine, Information Week and many other publications for many years on personal technology. He was named the nation’s number one tech pundit by Marketing Computers calling him “a strong critical voice.” Manes co-wrote the biography “Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry—and Made Himself the Richest Man in America,” a best-seller and critically acclaimed publication. Manes has also written over thirty children’s books including “Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days!” and “Make Four Million Dollars by Next Thursday!” In 2007 Manes took a break from his Forbes Magazine column to embark on his new adventure delving into the ballet world. Four years later, “Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside The Land Of Ballet” hit the shelves.

RK: How did you propose this project to PNB?

SM: I initially came up with the idea for the book after taking a backstage tour PNB offered its donors and discovering how little I knew about what really happened at a ballet company. When I thought back to the questions I’d heard from the audience at artistic director Peter Boal’s post-performance discussions, I realized that much of the audience—even those with ballet training—was more or less as ignorant as I was. And like me, wanted to know more.
So I spoke with PNB’s public relations manager and explained what I had in mind for a book. She said to put it in writing. And not long after I did, Boal and executive director D. David Brown encouraged me to go ahead with the project and offered me what I suspect is unprecedented access to just about everything behind the scenes. Four years later, Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear is the result.

RK: How did self-publishing this book affect your writing progress?

SM: It didn’t really affect the writing process at all, since I didn’t decide how I’d publish until after I finished the manuscript. But going my own way made a huge difference in how fast I could get the book out and how happy I am with it. Traditional publishers couldn’t have made the book available until this coming fall at the very earliest. By doing it myself, I saved a year. I also got exactly the book I wanted. With my last big book, a biography of Bill Gates I co-wrote with Paul Andrews, we fought the publisher every step of the way. In the end we got most of what we wanted but wasted a lot of energy and hated the cover designs and even the pedestrian title they stuck us with. No danger of that happening this time!

RK: What elements of this book do you feel will appeal to a broader audience and those whom are less familiar with the ballet world?

SM: Someone who reviewed the book on Amazon.com called it “a ballet version of Friday Night Lights,” Buzz Bissinger’s acclaimed book about the world of high school football. Snowflakes is similar in illuminating a realm (also populated by athletes) that outsiders only dimly comprehend and even insiders sometimes grasp incompletely. The book’s strongest appeal to a broader audience may be the way it shows the many aspects—artistic, sociological, political, psychological, financial—of the way art comes into being.
Ballet is really the only performing art that takes shape directly on the performers rather than beginning with a script or score. That makes observing the process of its creation (or, in many cases, re-creation) absorbing and diverting—as opposed to the monotony of watching a writer or composer scratch words or music on paper or key them into a computer. And of course, ballet is exceptionally collaborative: outsiders (and sometimes even insiders) are often surprised to learn about the importance of costumers, stagehands, lighting directors, conductors, musicians, ballet masters, stagers, teachers, students, and the artistic director himself.

RK: What is one of the things you have uncovered about the ballet world that has surprised you the most?

SM: I have never encountered a more focused group of people. (Or more generous; I wrote about that here) I’m amazed that dancers absorb steps and moves so deeply that they can remember them months or years later.
And I was stunned to discover the way ballets are communicated down through the years via bodies and minds. It was amazingly touching and revealing to watch James Moore, who was then a corps dancer, learn the Prodigal Son role from Peter Boal, who had learned it from Jerome Robbins and Edward Villella. They had both learned it from Balanchine himself.

RK: During your extensive research process, what books on ballet struck you as the most interesting and informative?

SM: There’s a two-page bibliography in the book, so it’s a long list. Robert Gottlieb’s astounding kaleidoscopic anthology Reading Dance is probably the only ballet book even thicker than mine. Barbara Newman’s volumes of interviews, Striking a Balance and Grace Under Pressure, are real eye-openers. Joseph Mazo’s Dance is a Contact Sport takes a similar approach to mine but at the New York City Ballet nearly forty years ago. Jennifer Fisher’s Nutcracker Nation reveals the history and sociology of America’s darling. Bernard Taper’s biography of George Balanchine, Martin Duberman’s of Lincoln Kirstein, and Amanda Vaill’s of Jerome Robbins offer tremendous insight into NYCB; Jennifer Dunning’s But First a School is a fine account of the early years of SAB. One great surprise was the 1954 first edition of Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, which has insightful sections about ballet appreciation, education, and careers that are missing from the paperback currently on sale—as well as long discussions of ballets that were significant in their time but are no longer performed.

RK: What is your favorite ballet and why?

SM: Impossible call. Among story ballets, PNB’s wonderful productions of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Prodigal Son and Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette are all up there, and Cranko’s Onegin at the Paris Opera Ballet is too. Among abstract ballets, it’s generally whatever amazing Balanchine I’ve seen lately. Agon? Apollo? Brahms/Schoenberg Quartet? Serenade? Concerto Barocco? Half a dozen more I’m not thinking of at the moment? And no doubt in part because it parallels my book, there’s a soft spot in my heart and funnybone for Christopher Wheeldon’s Variations Sérieuses, which manages to be a ballet within and about a ballet and both hilarious and touching. I suspect the list would grow longer if I had the chance to see more ballets more than once.
The why for my faves? The usual reasons: They make you laugh, they make you cry, they make you think, they dazzle you with visions you’ve never seen before and people doing things you might have thought impossible.

RK: How has this book changed your life?

SM: This project was a major departure for me. In a career that had produced more than thirty books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine columns, I had used the word “ballet” maybe twice, and I’d never before tackled the kind of long-term in-depth reportage I envisioned. I knew books always take longer than you think they will, but I had no idea that this one would largely be my life for more than four years.
But I loved almost every minute of it, and I learned far more than I could fit even into my very big book. My years in the Land of Ballet taught me important lessons about intensity of purpose and generosity of spirit and brought me new friends here in Seattle and around the world. I look at ballet differently now, with an eye that’s somehow both more critical and more tolerant. And I find ballet even more endlessly fascinating than I did before.

 

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3 Comments

  1. Rebecca, Enjoyed the interview very much, and will now have to read the book. Love the opportunity to see ballet through your wonderful blog.
    Keep up the great work.

  2. Reading the book now & very much enjoying it. I think every dancer would find it interesting because it covers everything involved in running a company. Thank you Rebecca for again picking a great topic and blogging so well about it!

  3. I am currently reading Stephen’s book and look forward to the remaining chapters. In particular I will be scrutinising his bibliography as I am a student anthropologist doing preliminary work on a project to research professional ballet dancers. I had already started my project before Stephen released his book. Like Stephen, I am hoping to spend some time with a large ballet company doing fieldwork. I have already had a private glance behind the scenes at the Australian Ballet and was so excited by what I saw that I am inspired to pursue this full time later this year. At the moment I am mostly reading and social networking with dancers world wide. Like Stephen, I had little exposure to the “workings” of dance prior to my project. And like him before me, I am excited by the prospect of finding out a lot more. Thank you Stephen for showing us that ballet company’s are prepared to generously allow outsiders to look in. Now to find a company that will welcome me. I have briefly approached an Australian company but no formalities have commenced yet. Does anyone think their company (Rebecca, hint hint) would like to invite this very mature age student into their midst for up to six months in 2013? If you want to know more, contact me or visit my blog “Anthropology En Pointe” mikebarnesanth.wordpress.com . Rebecca, you have a wonderful blog especially in view of how busy you are as a ballet dancer, and sorry for promoting myself in such a shameless way here.

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