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Bringing dance history to life

While dates and concrete facts are an important part of history, nuances—the ways a person spoke, thought, or walked around a room—can be even more illuminating. For novelists Eliza Knight, Barbara Quick, and Cathy Marie Buchanan, historical fiction became a window into these subtleties, allowing them to use both research and imagination to depict some of the dance world’s most iconic figures.

Knight’s Starring Adele Astaire follows the life of Fred’s sister and early dance partner as she navigates her newfound stardom and considers her hopes and dreams beyond the stage. Quick’s What Disappears invents the story of twins, Sonya and Jeannette, separated as infants in an orphanage in Tsarist Russia. Both end up working for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and as their story unfolds, they cross paths with ballet greats such as Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, and Diaghilev himself. Buchanan’s The Painted Girls imagines the lives of Marie van Goethem—famously rendered in Edgar Degas’s statue Little Dancer Aged Fourteen—and her two sisters Antoinette and Charlotte as they rub shoulders with the suspects in an infamous murder trial, work their way up through the Paris Opéra Ballet School, and navigate the underbelly of Paris in the late 1800s. 

Fjord Review spoke with Quick, Knight, and Buchanan about their research processes, turning movement into words, and breathing life into historical figures.This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Each of you chose a topic and characters intimately tied to dance. Do you have backgrounds in dance? If not, what drew you to this world? 

Cathy Marie Buchanan: I was very involved in classical ballet growing up. When I decided to write The Painted Girls, I happened upon a television documentary—it was part of a BBC series called The Private Life of a Masterpiece; each episode takes a look at a different masterpiece of art—and the episode that I happened upon was on Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. I think because I’d grown up studying classical ballet—we actually had a bunch of Edgar Degas artworks tacked to the walls in the studio where I did my classes—I was really sucked into this documentary and incredibly interested in the idea that ballet came from a pretty seedy place back in 1880s Paris. 

Eliza Knight: I came across my character Adele Astaire, who's Fred Astaire's sister, when I was doing research for another book, actually. I didn't know that Fred Astaire even had a sister, and when I found out that she was actually his original dance partner and more famous than he was, I was just extremely interested in finding out about her life, and then sharing her life with other people, because she sort of did fade into the background. As far as dancing, I've never been a dancer myself. I dance horribly, but my daughter was a competition dancer, so I was heavily involved with that all the way through her senior year of high school. 

Barbara Quick: This novel was a story that I started when I was 21 years old. At that point, it didn't involve dance at all, it involved a sort of sketch of my own family: my own ancestors in Russia, our Jewish family, who had undergone some real hardship and were trying to survive it, and who emigrated, eventually, to the US. I didn't have the key to the story—I had the main characters. I got some encouragement for this from the fiction editor of the New Yorker at the time, and then I went on to write a completely different first novel. Some 40 years later, I was introduced to a really wonderful archive of art books about the Ballets Russes. I was fascinated and I read that quite a few of the dancers were actually Russian Jews. There were some funny stories about mothers who were traveling with their daughters and trying to protect them—I suddenly made an imaginative leap, and instead of one main character, who was under a streetlamp in the snow in Kishinev with Jascha, the pharmacist’s son, she had a twin. They were placed in an orphanage during a time of hardship, and quite by accident a French family came and adopted one of the baby girls. They meet again as 29-year-old strangers in the doorway of Anna Pavlova’s dressing room in Paris, and they're both working for Diaghilev’s company—one is an extra dancer and one is a seamstress. And meanwhile, I had always been very involved in the world of dance—mostly ethnic dance, I have zero turnout. I did a lot of jazz and modern, and I've performed and paraded in various Brazilian dance troupes. But I know about the discipline of a dancer, and I know what it takes. I also know the emotional doorway it provides out of one's own painful feelings, so I felt very able to identify with my dancer characters.

Your books each involve vivid descriptions of dance and choreography. In addition to your own personal connections with the dance world, what role did your research play in describing movement?

Knight: My daughter did jazz and contemporary and hip hop, and one of the things that was really huge in that arena is that it's extremely competitive. I made sure to add in some of those competitive conversations and little rivalries, but I also added in some of the aches and pains. My daughter is 22 now and her body is cracking and popping in ways that you wouldn't expect from someone who's so young, so I made sure to add in some of those more physical things that happened during dance. As far as research goes, Boston University has an Adele Astaire collection, and it's got scrapbooks and letters and her diaries, some costumes, newspaper articles, reviews of her dancing and performing. I read all of those things to get an idea of what people thought about her and what people thought about the dance world and that atmosphere, as well as her own personal story. I also read Fred Astaire’s memoir, Steps in Time, and he talks a lot about their dancing together. Most of my story comes from those accounts, with a little bit of fiction, obviously, tossed in there.

 Buchanan: There's obviously lots of history books about the Paris Opéra Ballet and the history of ballet, so I certainly delve into those, and the history of Degas’ art. As far as going into archives, I spent time in the archive at the Palais Garnier and was able to find sketches of the costumes that Marie van Goethem would have worn in some of the ballets and operas that she appeared in. I was able to find, in some cases, little mock-ups of the stage sets and those kinds of things. I was also given permission to attend a class of 14-year-old girls at the Paris Opéra Ballet school. As you might imagine, these girls are just the most talented, beautiful, young dancers. But what really struck me when I was attending that class was how much it was like my experience, even though it was decades and a whole continent away. The practice outfits were the same, the corrections were the same, some of the music was the same that I danced to. 

Quick: It was wonderful because a lot of the people in the Belle Époque were prolific memoirists—they recorded everything, all their conversations, what they said, what other people said. They were really good at speaking and sometimes I'm sure they idealized what they said to idealize their cleverness. I was able to lift a lot of dialogue, straight from the mouths of these people. When I was writing about Pavlova, I really wanted to know what her voice sounded like. I scoured the internet and I finally found a little recording of Pavlova speaking. She was just saying, ‘Entrée!’ but she had this sort of flute-y, very distinctive voice. I was able to put that into the book, which was such fun, because when I'm writing these characters, I really feel that I'm listening—I'm overhearing their voices.

Most of these historical characters, like Anna Pavlova, are so larger-than-life that we don’t often get the opportunity to think about the seemingly small things—like how they spoke. What was your process of bringing to life some of dance’s most iconic figures?

 Quick: It is sort of like being able to play God. You have these quantities, some of them known, some of them unknown—you throw them together, you can see what makes sense, emotionally, narratively, and it's very exciting. Sometimes things happen that you never suspected would happen.

Buchanan: There's very little known about Marie van Goethem and her sister, who was a real live person, Antoinette van Goethem. We know their father, a tailor, was dead. We know their mother was a laundress. We know when they went into the ballet school, when they were promoted to the corps de ballet, when they left the ballet, and that's kind of it. It left lots of room for imagination. I do think tackling a historical figure where tons of people know way more than I do is certainly challenging. Degas is very much a secondary character in the book, but I sure felt the weight of writing about him.

Quick: And people will definitely let you know if you got something wrong, if you made a mistake. You’ve got to make sure, you've got to do all the research, and that’s why it takes such a long time. 

Buchanan: Also, writing about a dancer I'm aware that some dancers are going to read this thing. I have the benefit of having had many years of classical ballet training and having danced with a small company for a number of years, but I had a bunch of ballerinas reach out and say nice things about the book, which was very high praise. Veronica Tennant, who was a prima ballerina with the National Ballet of Canada—I'm Canadian, I grew up with her picture on my wall—she reached out.

Knight: I agree, it is very challenging, especially because there's a big difference between historical fiction [centered on an individual] and biography. I tried to get to know everything about the person and the people surrounding them in real life, but I also try to read between the lines. Adele's diary, for example—she was a daily, if not weekly, writer—and there was a period during her first marriage where she didn't write, for about two years. During that time, there were several tragic things that happened in her life. Knowing that she was a daily writer and would share lots of things, even bad things that happened, and then suddenly stop writing altogether is much more telling than any words she could have put down about what trauma she was going through. With that, I had to then figure out what her feelings might be, fictionalizing those things but still staying true to her personality while also being respectful. 

Sophie Bress

Sophie Bress is an arts and culture journalist based in Salt Lake City, Utah. In her writing, she focuses on placing the arts within our cultural conversations and recognizing art makers as essential elements of our societal framework. Sophie holds a Master’s degree from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. She has been published in Dance Magazine, L.A. Dance Chronicle, The Argonaut, Festival Advisor, and more.



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