Writing Craft from Ballet Chickens

by | Jul 4, 2023

This post was originally published on murderiseverywhere.blogspot.com.

The Tour de France is on right now–on in real life (1st to 23 July) and on the TV now as I’m writing this. That’s only relevant because here we’re playing ‘Tour de Park Natura’ at our place over the next 3 weeks. It’s a weird tradition that started back when we were both cycling and recognised the energy surge every time a grand tour was on. 

Because no matter how tough what you’re doing feels–those boys on bikes are suffering far worse attacking far tougher mountains!

We’ll be watching each race stage live every evening (Singapore time) and we’ve both committed using the energy boost to exercising 30 min a day in addition to hitting crazy project goals. Mine is to add 75,000 words to my next tree book draft… but I’ll write more about that in two Tuesdays time if I survive till then! 

For today–the chickens are back! For a while, it seemed there were fewer chickens than usual on my walk from the bus stop to the yoga shala.

Five Chicks

I was afraid someone might been having chicken dinners, but today I was happy to see this lovely dark bird with her multi-hewed brood. But even more when I saw where they were heading.

Chicken Community

Clearly they were brooding and now they’re back! 

They made me think of the dancing chickens in La Fille mal gardée and from there how, in ballet, there’s organised chaos where every chicken has its place even though they all seem to be just running around.

No, I’m not celebrating ballet or ballet culture, but I was reading Robert Gottlieb’s biography of Balanchine on the bus and seeing all kinds of lessons I could apply to my writing–

Like how he worked multiple projects at the same time and was aware he needed to appeal to the audience and it wasn’t just about art. How even though he was trained in the old Russian school of ballet (which no longer existed in Soviet Russia at the time) he was proudly American and choreographed a Romeo and Juliet putting ballet and tap onstage together for the Montagues and Capulets. 

Isn’t that so obvious and so innovative at the same time? It totally sums up what I wish I could do with my writing–come up with denouements that are inevitable, unexpected and beautiful all at the same time!

I’ve always been drawn to Balanchine because when my head feels clogged from struggling too long with too many words, I’ve found that one way to wind down is by watching his ballets. One of my favourites is his dance of the Candy Canes from Nutcracker. Another is Mozartiana, Balanchines’ tribute to Tchaikovsky’s tribute to Mozart. 

(Just like what we feel we’ve written best often carries echos of the books we’ve loved most!)

Balanchine was called a genius, but he said he thought of himself more as a gardener. He planted seeds and let them grow.

That’s how I want to write too, to visualise and set patterns but let the characters grow into their own strengths and directions. I’m also struck by how Balanchine changed traditional staging from straight lines to diagonals so that every dancer on stage could be seen–which tells me I need to pay more attention to my ‘minor’ characters.

I think I knew that once but let myself forget it when I tried to become a ‘real’ book writer. I knew it when I started out writing for the stage (it was an extension of making up dramas for my toys and then my friends to act out) I remember there was a ‘Friday lunchtime show’ at the Shell Theatrette once a month and you cast whichever actors were willing and free for rehearsals. 

If someone was willing to turn up, it was only fair to write them a fun/challenging/fulfilling role, however small. 

(Aside: why were there seventeen dancers in Balanchine’s Serenade at a time when even numbers were de rigueur in classical dance? Because there were seventeen dancers in the company and he wanted to give them all a chance to be paid to dance)

I realise I haven’t been giving enough mind to my minor characters and need to remember each is the protagonist of his/her/their own story even if it doesn’t make it to the page. Every glimpse I give of every dancing chicken should be accurate!

Balanchine was also involved in the design and creation of his sets, the costumes, the size of his orchestral pit… But how on earth does anyone find the time to do it all? 

I can barely keep up with the most basic research and trying to read what friends are writing (not to mention going down rabbit holes after bombay duck/ lizardfish, thanks Sujata!)

But Balanchine’s life wasn’t limited to choreography. He loved music and played the piano every day, did carpentry, gardening, cooking and ironed his own shirts. I’m not even going to try to compete on the ironing, but I did make breakfast before heading out to yoga:

Apple and Oats
Waiting for Milk
Cereal Served

and later I’m going to sketch out cover designs for the next book… that’s the closest I come to set and costume design, wish me luck!

And I wish you all good health and great happiness this July–is anyone else following the Tour de France?