Researching A Novel In The World Of Russian Ballet

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Having decided to write a novel set in the world of Russian ballet even I was surprised at the challenges it set. The greatest challenge in writing ‘Letters from Yelena’ was overcoming a sense of absurdity. Before I was given a grant to travel to Russia to research the book I had already written most of a first draft just by imagining the setting. I should have known better. Arriving in St Petersburg the sense of separation- between the imagined Russia and the Russia I found on arrival- was enormous. The greatest creative challenge at first was for me to stay faithful to my protagonist’s worldview, while being robust enough to take on the setting as it actually was.

For the week I was in St Petersburg I was holed up in a small gaudy hotel room just off the main street, the bustling and yet somehow removed Nevsky Prospekt. I was situated close to the Vaganova Ballet Academy. This was the world-famous ballet school where I decided my protagonist had trained during her early years.

The Pushkin Theatre, just off the Vaganova Academy.
The Pushkin Theatre, just off the Vaganova Academy.

After months of cajoling, using various specialist tourist companies, I had been finally granted access to this prestigious and severe establishment.

When I was finally taken through the security gates of the Vaganova Academy I already had a sense of what I was looking for. It was easy to feel overwhelmed by the great chandeliers, the framed portraits of Nijinsky and the air of absolute focus that pervaded. But my task now felt easier. I merely had to find my characters position amongst it all. I was fortunate to be guided through the academy by one of its rectors. He introduced my to the strangely childlike ballerina’s, at once otherworldly and yet unusually focused. I met with them, asked them about their work. They were unused to outsiders. It was at first tricky to engage with them, but once they opened up they were strikingly candid, tough and yet vulnerable.

The Vaganova
The Vaganova

My next stop was the beautiful Mariinsky Theatre- the off-green, opulent venue where my character was to have her graduation dance. I had eventually negotiated a backstage tour there, at some expense. But it was all very well to see the fairy-tale setting in which the ballet costumes were made, but what I needed to do was to walk onto the stage, to imagine how my character felt standing under those great lights. But no tour can buy you access to the concealed corners and restricted places you crave to be in, so you can truly imagine yourself in your characters shoes. Occasionally I would get away with going somewhere, for a few minutes, that I was not allowed. Those were the moments I really snatched at something special. That evening I watched a performance of the famous ballet Giselle. The elite families in St Petersburg bring their children along as part of a cultural rite of passage, and the sense of occasion was etched on their young faces. I imagined how my character would feel dancing onstage, whilst I sat amongst the ornate red and gold stalls.

The Mariinsky Theatre
The Mariinsky Theatre

With my red notebook full of odd, strangely assertive reactions to places I had now visited, and with endless flow diagrams of plots, I gradually hacked at that first draft until it became a little more decent.

I took it back to England and then kept hacking at it, again and again, until finally my publisher insisted they read it. The sense of absurdity however, never really went away. Even with the book completed and published it still retains an elusive element, perhaps because it can never be tangible.

5 Comments

  1. Barbara Henderson 18 November 2015 at 9:07 am

    What an interesting post! That age old question of when to stop editing…
    Thanks Guy.

    Reply
  2. Liz Newman 19 November 2015 at 7:58 pm

    Having just got back from China, I can empathise with this.There are countries about which we think we know a great deal, but when we get there things are subtly different.

    Reply
  3. Katie Probert 19 November 2015 at 10:19 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, it’s so interesting to hear how your imagined experiences compared with the real ones, and shows me that getting a genuine sense of place is essential for being able to write about it convincingly.

    Reply
  4. ninahare 20 November 2015 at 8:18 am

    This is a great post, Guy and welcome to blogging for the OCA. I do hope you continue to inform us in this absorbing way.

    Reply
  5. Guy Mankowski (@Gmankow) 27 November 2015 at 7:45 am

    Thank you for the kind words. Katie and Liz- yes what you both says were huge lesson for me- even if only a couple of people pick up on the nuances I can add by having genuinely been there I think it makes for a much improved read. Nina- thank you and I hope articles I write continue to absorb you, am now going to read yours with interest. Barbara- thanks also, I’m sure you’ve tackled this age old dilemma with each of yours books as I know you’ve researched heavily too!

    Reply

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