Posted by Rebecca King on 06.08.2014
There are many stories that touch our lives; many of which are portrayed through moments in history that many of us cannot even fathom. Take for instance the story of Margit Wolf, a woman with her sights set on becoming a prima ballerina. As a young woman she left home and travelled across Europe enjoying the thrills of performing. After meeting her Prince Charming, an Italian songwriter, it became clear that global events would soon change their life. As a Jewish woman, she would be separated from her son and husband, inspiring her “Maestro” to write the love song, Tu Solamente Tu in 1938. Twenty-two years would pass before the two were reunited.
Germaine Shames authored a book, You, Fascinating You after the English counterpart of the Maestro’s song, which depicts Margit’s story through her voice. The novel follows her life, including her love for ballet, which takes her through until the end. I reached out to Ms. Shames to find out what drove her to share this story, how she researched, and what is next for this triumphant story.
Rebecca King: What inspired you to write this novel based on Margit Wolf’s life?
Germaine Shames: One essential quality draws me to any story: heart. In 1944, at the height of the worst carnage the world has known, Margit put her seven-year old son Cesare out on the street with a pillow, a last morsel of bread, and his baptismal certificate. She was Jewish, and he Catholic.
It took fifty years for Cesare—by that time, an American citizen with a family of his own—to contribute a video-taped oral history to Yale University. He then sent the tape to me. It told the story of his mother, a persecuted ballerina, who banished from the stage by Mussolini, inspired a timeless love song only to fade from history without a trace. I sat riveted as if hearing the libretto of a classic ballet or opera and knew I would one day share this hidden epic with the world.
I set out to write You, Fascinating You because history forgot Margit Wolf. What I discovered in my years of research was so much richer than any history lesson: an epic-sized heroine and the priceless example of one artist’s struggle to live with grace and dignity through humankind’s darkest chapters. You, Fascinating You, the novel, was published in 2012 and went on to win the “Editor’s Choice” award from the Historical Novel Society.
GS: By the time I set to work researching Margit’s story, Cesare had already spent years assembling photos and documents. It took me an additional five years to fill in the gaps through extensive library research, correspondence with Holocaust scholars, and interviews with people who had known Margit. I traveled though three countries—Hungary, Italy and Germany—to piece together Margit’s story.
The most arduous leg of the journey was by car from Budapest across the interior of Hungary to the remote agrarian village of Apagy near the Ukrainian border. More than sixty years earlier, the Red Cross had sent Cesare by train to this same village, where he was adopted by a local farming family. Road-weary, Cesare and I arrived. To our surprise the rustic cottage where he had been given refuge was still standing. A withered old man hobbled up and embraced him. Soon, the entire family had gathered to welcome back the half-starved brother they had found crying on the train platform and taken to their hearts. I will never forget that reunion.
RK: Do you have any past experience with the ballet world? Who aided you in your ballet research?
GS: Like my protagonist I began taking ballet classes at the age of four with a teacher whom, my parents liked to boast, had studied under Martha Graham. Like other young girls, I dreamed of becoming a prima ballerina.
But I was not like most girls. Stubborn, I balked at following choreography and often found myself stranded alone on one side of the studio while the class, moving as one body, occupied the opposite side. And then suddenly, before I had mastered a single step, it was time for my first recital. A chorus line of us baby ballerinas was positioned center-stage as the towering velvet curtain slowly, slowly opened. One look at the audience and I froze, mouth wide open, hands clamped to my cheeks. My parents removed me from ballet class and enrolled me again three years later—with similar results. There would be no more recitals.
I have ripened into, not a ballerina, but a writer with abiding creative and emotional ties to dance and dancers. When I resolved to write about Margit, it was as if the corporeal memory of my ballet training surfaced, enabling me to get inside her skin. Margit begins the account of her life, “They say ballet chooses the dancer.” Regrettably, I was not among the chosen. How I envy those of you who are!
RK: Can you speak about your impressions of the ballet world, then and now?
GS: The ballet world inspires a sort of awe—the preternatural self-discipline of dancers, the unending pursuit of perfection… Until I reached out to dancers for help, their world seemed distant, impenetrable. Throughout the process of writing You, Fascinating You and preparing to launch it, I have been humbled again and again by the generosity of dancers. Russian danseur Stanislav Belyaevsky gifted me with the book’s exquisite cover image. Ballerinas Susan Jaffe, Janet Panetta, and Elana Altman read the book and offered cover blurbs, as did the granddaughter of the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky. These kind souls and other dancer friends have put a human face on a timeless art form.
RK: What has happened since the novel’s publication in 2012?
GS: Even before the book was honored by the Historical Novel Society, reviews (including one in Dance Europe) emphasized the cinematic quality of Margit’s story. I knew my work was not yet done. The ultimate goal is to bring You, Fascinating You to the stage as a musical and to the screen as a feature film. The former is now a reality: You, Fascinating You, the musical, is in development and will have its premiere in early 2015, thanks to the collaboration of composer Federico Ferrandina and director Robert Encila. The musical may be considered a cross between Cabaret and The Red Shoes. As readers might imagine, this is a show is rich in dance, dancers, and songs about dance—my way of paying tribute not only to one forgotten ballerina, but to ballerinas and danseurs everywhere.
RK: What projects are you working on now?
GS: To my delight I am collaborating on my first story ballet, Vampiresa. And yes, as the title suggests, my protagonist is a female vampire. Vampiresa moves between gritty contemporary realities and a dreamscape unbounded by space or time. My aim is to strike the right balance between substance and popular appeal, timeless themes and meta-modern edge. In addition, a second musical, Capri, is moving steadily through the pipeline.
RK: Congratulations on the release of the demo for “To Dance!” which is set to go along with the musical. You have mentioned that this is your favorite dance-related song in the musical. Can you tell us a little bit about the composing process and what role you expect the song to play in the overall story?
GS: Thank you. Truly, I love every song in You, Fascinating You. My talented Italian composing partner, Federico Ferrandina, has no greater fan than I. Our collaboration is grounded in story. Before composing melodies to complement my lyrics, Federico read both the book and script and had a deep understanding of Margit’s life and times. Federico then prepared a series of musical sketches, which allowed us to shape and meld the lyrics and melody until reaching near-perfect prosody. “To Dance!” is sung by Margit at a heartbreaking juncture. No longer permitted to perform on the stages of Hungary or Italy, she watches her lifelong friend, Karola Szalai, dance the roles she has always dreamed of. Thwarted yet unbroken, Margit expresses her love of ballet and vows to dance forever. I have seen ballerinas weep as they listen to this song. Other dance-centered songs in the score include “First Position, Second Position…” and “Firebird.”
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