They're Going to Love You, by Meg Howrey. Published by Penguin Random House

New Narrative

Reckoning with ballet’s culture through fiction

Meg Howrey isn’t interested in clichés. The professional dancer turned novelist’s approach to writing, especially when it comes to portraying ballet, is rooted in authenticity, nuance, and honesty. Her latest book, They’re Going To Love You, set to be released on November 15, 2022, is filled with these qualities. 

They’re Going to Love You by Meg Howrey. Published by Penguin Random House

“I’m always deeply uninterested in the bloody toe, backstabbing best friend, throwing up in the bathroom of it all,” she says. “I was more interested in looking at working artists—not the stars of the ballet and what their problems might be—but the problems of what it’s like to make art in America.”

Though the plot of They’re Going To Love You largely revolves around choreographer Carlisle Martin as she reckons with her past—both through her unflinching, yet sometimes disappointing, love of dance, as well as a schism that divided her from her father and his partner, James—it also places a magnifying glass to the truths associated with forging a career in dance. By addressing issues like lack of recognition and pay for choreographers, the lack of female choreographers in ballet, and ballet’s body biases, Howrey not only weaves a poignant story, she makes a statement about the way things are and the ways things need to change.

Addressing ballet’s inequalities head on was also one of the key inspirations behind author Nicole Cuffy’s forthcoming novel, Dances, which will be released in May 2023.

Dances by Nicole Cuffy. Published by Penguin Random House

“I was primarily interested in the way the classical and neoclassical ballet worlds deal with otherhood, particularly Black women,” Cuffy says of her vision for Dances, which tells the story of a fictional ballet star who is the first Black female principal dancer in a major company. 

In order to tell this story, Cuffy began from her own experience, noting that—while she primarily dances for her own enjoyment, not professionally—she’s witnessed firsthand “the othering of Black women in studio spaces.” She also drew from novels and other writings dealing with ballet, as well as her own interview process, where she spoke with other dancers of color about their experiences growing up and working in the ballet world.

“There’s been a long history in ballet of not treating Black people as though they are classical enough or as though they are able to enter into this art form,” she explains. 

Martha Anne Toll, whose debut novel, Three Muses, will be released on September 20, 2022, also pulled from her own experiences to craft a fictional tale. Her book tells the story of Katya Symanova, the star ballerina of the fictional New York State Ballet, as she falls in love with John Curtin, a young psychiatrist, while simultaneously navigating an abusive—yet creatively generative—relationship with her choreographer, Boris Yanakov.

Three Muses by Martha Anne Toll. Published by Regal House Publishing

Of course, the choreographer/dancer relationship is a typical trope in a ballet story, and in the real world, these unhealthy power dynamics and abusive situations have had very real, very devastating effects on many dancers. Toll, however, approached this element of her novel honestly and without the typical overdramatization. To do this, she channeled her lived experience, not as a dancer, but as a musician.

“I saw a lot of exploitation in the music world. There were power dynamics with conductors, within the orchestra, and between teacher and student. I felt it was definitely endemic,” Toll, who studied music in college and was poised for a professional career, explains.

When she was drafting Three Muses, she wanted to address this reality authentically, especially considering that she considers the novel to be a period piece based in the 1950’s, when women were very much struggling for respect in the workplace. And in also detailing the creative partnership between the Symanova and Yanakov—in which they work together in the studio, collaborating on the choreographies that ultimately appear onstage—Toll also touches on another issue that’s been a topic of discussion in the dance world as of late.  

Martha Anne Toll. Photograph by Lila Rachel Becker

“[Katya] is deeply interested in choreography, and some of her frustration is not being acknowledged as a co-creator,” Toll explains.

With the adoption of a more collaborative choreographic process by companies and individual choreographers, artists have come under fire for not properly crediting the dancers who served as creative sounding boards—or even brought entire pieces of movement to the table—during the development process. Though some artists have made a habit of publicly acknowledging the dancer’s contributions to a work, this is a fairly new practice and it’s safe to assume that for many years, dancers weren’t getting the recognition they deserved.

Howrey also deals with the same issue in They’re Going to Love You, detailing Carlisle’s experiences working on a project with a very popular visual and installation artist. In the scene, she’s shown doing most of the work to choreograph a dramatic ballet for an animatronic doll, while the artist is nowhere to be seen, relaying his directions through a series of subordinates. Carlisle knows she won’t be credited for her work.

Meg Howrey. Photograph by Mark Hanauer

As the book vacillates between Carlisle’s adolescence and her adult, working life, readers see the main character struggle to find her path and accept her talent as a choreographer. And even when she is finally gaining recognition for her skills, she still faces barriers.

“For this character, having grown up in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, which was really my era, there were no female ballet choreographers. We had heard of Njinska, but no one was doing her ballets, and Twyla Tharp was just starting to choreograph for ballet, but she was a modern choreographer,” Howrey explains. “For all the supposed primacy of women in ballet, you’re just surrounded by men calling the shots. Carlisle’s discovery of herself as a choreographer is a fight she has to have within herself because nobody has told her [choreographing] is an option for her.”

While writing the book, Howrey says she made it part of her process to read interviews with a variety of working female choreographers to gain insight into what would later become Carlisle’s reality. She says she was both shocked by the fact that choreographers have to fight for every right they have and encouraged by the strength of the artists who are banding together to stand up for themselves.

“I’m really encouraged that more and more people are willing to speak out about inequality or problems within the dance world,” Howrey says. “That’s certainly new from the time I was more involved in the career, and you were just supposed to be really grateful.”

Cuffy, Howrey, and Toll are—whether intentionally or not—also a part of this standing up.

Nicole Cuffy. Image courtesy of the artist

“Because ballet, for so long, has been considered this inaccessible art form, I was interested in lessening the distance between ballet and those who are not in the ballet world by just being very honest about the realities of the ballet world, both the good and some of the harsher truths,” Cuffy says.

Cuffy began writing with a clear vision of shedding light on Blackness in the ballet world,  Howrey knew she’d address the difficulties working artists face as part of her larger narrative, and Toll says the topics she broached largely came about organically as part of the writing process.

But while they didn’t all outline the way they wanted to address these issues at the outset, it was important for each author to portray the dance world in an authentic light, and in doing so, these harsh realities arose naturally. 

“Any honest account of the dance world has to look at these things, otherwise it’s just kind of a fantasy,” Howrey says. “We are in a moment where we have to acknowledge the structural inequalities in the world, and that was something I was certainly aware of when I was writing They’re Going To Love You.

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