Posted by Rebecca King on 06.28.2012
Those of you who spend quite a bit of time in the online dance community have probably heard that former Miami City Ballet Dancer, Miriam Wenger-Landis, has just come out with her second novel, Breaking Pointe (which was given it’s name long before the CW television show premiered). In honor of the release of her second book, Ms. Wenger-Landis has agreed to two interviews for TENDUS, one on each of her publications.
Girl in Motion the prequel to Breaking Pointe, follows young aspiring ballet dancer, Anna, as she makes the transition from her home town to the world of competitive ballet schools. Anna encounters many ups and downs in her two years at the School of Ballet New York, all of which are chronicled for the readers.
What struck me most about this book was how many positive lessons it has for the young dancer. As Ms. Wenger-Landis says in this interview, “I was trying to give something back to that younger version of myself, who would have benefited so much from the kind of hindsight I gained later on.” She did in fact give something back to the younger version of herself, as well as every aspiring dancer who will pick up this book. If you know a young dancer working towards becoming a professional, have them read Girl in Motion, where they will find realistic lessons from a professional ballet dancer looking back on her career.
Interview with Miriam Wenger-Landis on her book, Girl in Motion.
RK: How did you first get interested in writing?
MWL: As a kid, I loved reading so much I wanted to try it myself (kind of the same reason I became interested in dancing). I’ve kept journals since I was little and English was always my favorite subject in school. I even took a creative writing class at Art Center / South Florida when I was in [Miami City Ballet] and we worked in the old studios on Lincoln Road. I have a B.A. in English from Stanford and have worked in the publishing industry for the last eight years. I’ve just always loved reading and writing.
RK: How did your personal journey through a serious professional ballet school, like SAB, influence this book?
MWL: Both Girl in Motion and Breaking Pointe came about initially as a private way of working through my entire ballet experience. About a year after I’d retired from dancing professionally I still had so many questions about how the journey had influenced the person I’d become. There’s no way I could have written either book without having lived all those feelings myself. When I originally started writing, the two books were actually one book, but after I started with a literary agent she suggested I split the narrative in half and start by focusing on just the ballet school portion. It turned out to be a great idea, because ballet school and company life are actually very different. We go through so many changes between age sixteen and eighteen that there was plenty of material to explore just in that window. Having studied at both regional ballet schools and at SAB, I would also say that there’s a huge difference in those two venues. SAB is a very unique and special school and I can’t imagine I would have been able to give an accurate portrayal of an elite ballet boarding school without having attended one.
RK: Is this story at all autobiographical? If so, in what ways?
MWL: The autobiographical parts of the story are the emotions. The way many of the characters struggle with their feelings come from my own experience. As far as the characters and events, no, those are fiction. There are certain scenarios and personalities that tend to recur in the ballet world, and of course I’ve known girls as competitive as Hilary and boys as confused as Jesse. But none of the characters represent specific people or the truth of my life. One thing that I have in common with Anna is the struggle with her height, and that you could say is autobiographical. I was told several times I would never be tall enough for New York City Ballet.
RK: This story, more or less, follows every professional ballet dancer’s path through their dance education. As dancers, we can all identify with your main character, Anna. How important was it for you to create an accurate portrayal of the ballet world without exaggerating for the shock factor?
MWL: Very important. I started writing the book shortly after the movie Center Stage came out, and I remember feeling frustrated by the stereotypes and over-the-top drama in that movie (although I can’t lie, I enjoyed it). I just felt like the ballet world I knew was never accurately portrayed, and part of my goal was to make the dancers seem real because to me, they were. Also, I don’t think the ballet world is actually that shocking, it’s more that people don’t think about it. I wanted to raise awareness about what it takes, that’s all, not create an impression that dancer’s lives are like a soap opera.
RK: In Girl In Motion, you include so many wonderful positive lessons for young dancers on how to deal with the pressures of the ballet world. Were these lessons things you learned as a young student, or realizations you made later in your career?
MWL: Those lessons definitely came later and in retrospect. I did plenty of stupid things in ballet school and as a professional dancer. It’s so much easier once you’re out to reflect and say, “I didn’t get that role because of XYZ and I should have handled it this way.” But when you’re in the moment and your entire identity is wrapped up in someone else’s approval, there’s no way you can see it with that kind of perspective. Which is what made writing about dancers so satisfying, because I could finally look at them from a distance and shape their behaviors. I was trying to give something back to that younger version of myself, who would have benefited so much from the kind of hindsight I gained later on.
RK: I really enjoy the way you describe ballet movements in simple terms that every reader can understand. It really felt as if you were painting a picture with your words. Was it difficult for you to create this simple and descriptive language for ballet steps?
MWL: Thanks. Yes, I can’t tell you how many times I rewrote the ballet sections. I would stand in the middle of my room and perform the step and then immediately try to write down all the aspects involved. The exercise made it clear to me why it’s so hard to write down choreography. Our bodies have to do so many things at one time to make a ballet movement happen correctly. It was important to me that non-dancers could understand and visualize the movements for themselves and to get that across in words turned out to be extremely difficult (and satisfying when I got it right!).
RK: Numerous books have been published, movies have been produced, and television shoes have aired with ballet as the back drop. How did you go about a project like this, really making it your own and getting it to stand out from the crowd?
MWL: It’s extraordinary to see how ballet has exploded in our pop culture in the last few years. While my books are just coming out now, I actually started writing them in 2002, and that was long before Black Swan and all the other media that’s made ballet so mainstream. Part of the reason I started was that I saw a real gap back then and wanted to fill it. The only books I saw on the ballet shelves were autobiographies, children’s picture books, stories of the great ballets, and advice guides. There was almost no ballet fiction. The first draft of both books was done by 2003. I won’t go into all the nitty-gritty, but the irony is that the real challenge with the books was getting them published, not writing them. After struggling to get a literary agent and shopping the book to numerous publishing houses, I was repeatedly informed that my books didn’t fit in a clear category and publishers didn’t know how to market them. Everything succeeding in the young adult market at that time either had vampires or mean girls. Eventually Dance Spirit published a two-part excerpt of Girl in Motion in 2007 and I felt satisfied that that would be enough. I totally gave up on it. When I got married in 2010, my husband picked up my old manuscript and convinced me to self-publish it. Working in book editing in New York and at Amazon.com, I was skeptical of self-publishing and was shocked at how simple and successful that route became. Because of social media and my personal involvement in the ballet world, it was simple to spread the word to the specific audience for my books. I never thought about how to make Anna’s story stand out from the crowd. In my mind,Girl in Motion and Breaking Pointe were always different and original because I started them so long before all the stuff that’s out now. I didn’t feel influenced by anything outside my own imagination during the initial writing process. I’m just grateful that they’ve reached as many readers as they have and that people seem to enjoy them.
RK: What were you looking to accomplish with this book? What do you hope readers will walk away with?
MWL: I think I just wrote the books for the younger version of myself. I wanted there to be books like this that I could have read back when I was an aspiring dancer. In those days I felt like there was nothing in print that related to my experience. I teach ballet now and when I work with my students there’s so much I wish I could tell them that can’t possibly be expressed in a 90-minute ballet class, especially because so much of it has to do with the psychological and emotional aspects of dancing and they are there to learn the technique and artistry. But I feel like I know and understand them and I wanted these books to be for them, or for their parents and friends who are trying to understand what they’re going through. I hope dancers will come away feeling understood and entertained, and I also want them to know that despite the failures and flaws that we all have, things work out. I never envisioned my ballet career, or my life, would turn out how it has today, but everything turned out beautifully and I’m very lucky. We pick ballet as our career at such a young age, before we understand the full repercussions of that decision and without exploring other options the way most people do in college. Because we make such a big decision before we really know ourselves yet, often what we think we want isn’t what we actually want by the time we’re in our twenties and thirties. Ballet is a beautiful thing but it isn’t everything. The ability to strive for a goal, work hard, be the best version of yourself, and make meaningful connections with other people are the really important and positive things to take away from dance.