Books and Ballet

I am on a ballet tour, but I am not a dancer.

My primary career is writer, and my other job is ballet master class tour producer. It is not a “day job” it is a five months of the year job. Twice a year– two months in winter and three in summer– I bring over a Russian ballet dancer and we travel the country. He teaches classical ballet classes. I do the bookings, the driving. I play the music. Five months of driving across 47 U.S. states. Five months of plotting tour routes, checking in and out of hotels, keeping track of class times. The dancer is the star of the show. In Hollywood, I bought a t-shirt that has “crew” written on the front as an inside joke about my apparent role in things.  I’ve been called Mr. Lantratov’s helper a number of times. His assistant more often than I can count. One student said “it sounds like you’re his slave.” In reality I am the manager.

For a writer, it is a fragmented life. Ideas that come behind the wheel get written on hotel scratch pads and stowed away until I get home and have time to make them into novels, research, or book proposals. (Although I do some writing on the road as well when the situation warrants it. Parts of Oscar’s Ghost were written in a hotel in Dallas, most of the revisions of The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation were written in Cincinnati.)

Years ago, in a draft for an abandoned novel about a performance tour, I wrote:

Ballet, especially every day road ballet, is an endurance sport. The principal dancers glide effortlessly on stage, but once they’ve crossed the threshold of the curtain into the wings, they put their hands on their knees and bend forward, their chests and stomachs pumping in and out with every labored breath. They are sweaty, of course, and a little dazed from the rush of adrenalin and hormones. And after a few moments, they capture their breath, and leap on the stage again, looking, for all the world, like they are suspended by wires and need no energy at all to perform the feat.

That’s performing. I don’t know if it applies to what I do: writing. Having a front row seat to my partner’s work as a ballet master teacher, I find that while they are both arts, writing and ballet do not have much in common. In many ways, they seem to be opposite arts: the verbal and the non-verbal, motion and stillness.

They are, however, both old forms of expression that seem a bit antiquated in a modern digital world. There is something pleasingly quixotic in trying to preserve and pass along these arts to a new generation.

Touring involves both constant novelty and the constant familiarity of hotel and road life. It informs the imagination and produces its own kind of creativity, but opportunities to sit for a while in solitude and just write are few and far between. I come to find that writing in a state of flow is a bit like a drug. You crave it when it is missing.

I started reading ballet dancer David Hallberg’s memoir A Body of Work. He is the only author listed on the cover, no “as told to.” So if he had no ghost writer (authors always wonder about such things) he has a writing talent. He writes about the memory of being in an artistic state of flow, and missing it when he is away from the stage.

I remember what it feels like to dance. To move so freely that my body releases ad creative intuition takes over, leading me beyond the worry of executing technique to a realm where nothing exists but the movement, the music, the emotions… Moments like this are worth it all. The doubt. The sacrifice. The injuries. The scrutiny. The burden of expectation. Those moments of living so intensely and fully on the stage are why I danced. Now, each day, I face one towering question: will I ever experience that euphoria again?

Flow is common to artists. It is why we persist in ridiculous careers. Yet as with most things ballet and writing, the process is inverted. For the dancer, the moment of flow is a culmination. For a writer, flow is that moment of inspiration. The writing that comes before the hard work, the revising, the attempts to get published. It all happens long before there is an audience.

The downside for the performer is that he needs the audience to have that moment. The writer can sit down and write no matter what, a lack of an audience is no barrier to achieving the state of flow. The downside for the writer is that this results in a constant lack of closure. By the time a book gets to its audience, it is disconnected from the writer, there is no great sense of culmination. The only soothing balm is to go back and write and start that process again.


Now I need to check out of this hotel and get on the road…

An Oscar Wilde Ballet in Grand Rapids

IMG_9969I am grateful to the Grand Rapids Ballet for inviting me to come and sign copies of Oscar’s Ghost during the May 11 performance of their new ballet The Happy Prince.

It was an ambitiously original performance in an era when even many larger companies often rely on old standards to attract a guaranteed audience. (Swan Lake anyone?)

Choreographer Penny Saunders was inspired by the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde, which she found “haunting and beautiful.”


That “haunting” tone was evident throughout the ballet in the musical selections, lighting, and choreography.  It had a surreal quality especially as the light tone and colors of the first act shifted into darkness as the story progressed. I was a bit surprised when I arrived at the theater and looked at the program to see that the ballet was less the stories of Wilde than the story of Wilde.

The underlying drama was Oscar Wilde’s rise and fall with The Happy Prince, The Selfish Giant and other tales used as narration as metaphors for the playwright’s own life much as the 1997 film Wilde used The Selfish Giant as a metaphor for Wilde’s relationship with his sons.


Of course, as the author of Oscar’s Ghost, I have some opinions about the depiction of Robert Ross and Bosie Douglas in the production. The Happy Prince depicts the De Profundis/Robert Ross narrative about Wilde, which presents Ross as Wilde’s constant, ever-loyal good influence set against Bosie as Wilde’s passion and bad influence. The program describes Ross as “the helpful swallow to Oscar’s Happy Prince, offering him support and compassion, throughout his life.” Choreographically, Ross appeared, in the form of dancer Nigel Tau, as a calming presence, with a hand on the shoulder of Isaac Aoki as Wilde, after scenes of chaos.

Bosie, danced by Matt Wenckowski, by contrast, was described as someone who Wilde could not satisfy.  “Bosie does little to repay him, dragging Wilde deeper into an illicit world, acting incredibly rude towards Constance, and antagonizing those who disapprove of the two men’s relationship.”

You can see how the illicit world looks in ballet in this clip.

Bosie was a man of moods, and he did clash with a number of people, especially in his later years. There is little evidence, however, that Constance and Bosie were at odds before Wilde went to jail or that he was rude to her.  In fact, Bosie wrote of her in his autobiography in complementary terms.  It does not appear that Constance was aware of her husband’s sexual orientation or habits until it all came pouring out in court.

If you have read Oscar’s Ghost you will know that Oscar did not need to be dragged into the red light district by Bosie or anyone, that some of his other friends were as instrumental or more, in introducing Wilde to “the gutter.” Also Wilde had been playing with the idea of a passion that burns so bright it destroys its object in his writing long before Bosie appeared on the scene. For example in his play Salome, in which Salome wants to see John the Baptist’s head on a platter not for theological or political reasons, but because she loves him and is so determined to kiss his lips she is willing to have him decapitated to do it. It was as much artistic fashioning as actual history and the prison context that made Wilde depict Bosie as a fatal passion in De Profundis and in letters to Robbie Ross.

The entire feud between Ross and Douglas after Wilde’s death was sparked by another question: whether Bosie abandoned Wilde when the money ran out. Bosie sued the author Arthur Ransome for libel for making such a claim. He prepared to go into court to show that he had not abandoned Wilde at all. In fact, he had lived with him, supported him financially and had only separated from him because of insurmountable outside pressure from families on both sides. (At one point when they were living together in Naples, a representative of the British consulate actually came to their house to let the couple know that England disapproved of their living arrangement.)

In court, Bosie did prove that he had not abandoned Wilde, which was supposed to be the whole point. But a strange thing happened. Thanks to personal letters that Bosie had written to Ross when they were close friends, which described events that left little doubt to his sexuality, as well as a dramatic reading of previously unpublished parts of Wilde’s prison manuscript De Profundis (through which Bosie sat pale, emotionally overwhelmed, and flipping through pages of the Bible for comfort) the trial became less about whether Bosie had abandoned Wilde than whether he had been his lover.

The lawyer for Ransome asked the jury to put aside the question of abandonment and not to reward a person who was as guilty as Wilde of homosexual crimes. The judge instructed the jury in the same vein. The jury found in favor of Ransome, not because Bosie had abandoned Wilde, but because he had not and this disgusted them.  Even so, the opposite impression was passed down through history.  In fact, Bosie and Oscar remained close until Wilde’s early death in 1900. “Somehow he is my life,” Wilde told Reggie Turner.

These historical quibbles, however, are small matters when it comes to the performance. I can’t say, for example, that the idea that Bosie abandoned Wilde was clear to me in the staging of the ballet, and in choreography Bosie and Constance being in conflict can be as much a depiction of the tension of the whole social situation rather than a specific episode of historical rudeness. The stories of ballets exist as a frame on which to hang choreography more than the ballet exists to tell a story.  As George Balanchine said, “In ballet a complicated story is impossible to tell. We can’t dance synonyms.”

The choreography had substantial modern influence, a tone which I found most effective in the third act after Wilde’s downfall. Unfortunately, during Friday night’s performance there were problems with the sound system which caused the dancers to perform passages in silence. This is impressive in its own way. (One of the reviews of a performance of my partner Valery Lantratov’s tour with Rudolf Nureyev mentioned the sound going out and Valery dancing his entire variation without music, which garnered him a standing ovation.) But in the second act, after a loud pop, the curtain closed to deal with the technical difficulty which did interfere with the momentum of that bit of the show. Once the act resumed, however, the pause was quickly forgotten.

Congratulations to all involved, and thank you for allowing me to be a small part of the evening.



Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince: The Ballet

30171105_1911964458823229_5424519163452671285_oHave you ever wondered what Oscar Wilde’s children’s stories would be like as choreography? Wonder no more. The Grand Rapids Ballet (Michigan) is premiering The Happy Prince and Other Tales on March 4.

Often provocative, always ironic, never boring, Oscar Wilde was one of the world’s most popular playwright/poets of the late 19th century. His whimsical works, he explained himself, were often written “partly for children and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy,” including his famous fairy tales The Happy Prince, The Selfish Giant, and The Nightingale and the Rose.

Our choreographer-in-residence and Princess Grace award-winner, Penny Saunders, masterfully brings Oscar’s colorful life to the stage by weaving together these three unique stories into her first full-length production for Grand Rapids Ballet. Reminding us all what it’s like to view the world through a child’s eyes, this visually stunning world-premiere piece has a beautiful message of acceptance, understanding, and joy people of all ages will embrace.

I’m pleased to say that the ballet has been kind enough to invite me to come to the premiere and sign copies of my book Oscar’s Ghost on May 11. Even more exciting, they’ve created an Oscar’s Ghost special deal.

Buy one ticket to Grand Rapids Ballet’s Happy Prince and get one free for performances on May 11 or 12.

Here’s how: 1. Go to:

2. Search: The Happy Prince

3. Select: May 11 or 12 performances only

4. Enter: OGHOST in the offer code field as shown below to access BOGO tickets (must be purchased in multiples of 2 for the discount to apply)

Then enjoy your show.


Dancing About Architecture: Those Walled Off Parts of the Brain

“We mathematicians understand that our discipline involves creativity, beauty, and abstraction as well as precision and utility. An education worthy of a free person should include active, meaningful experience with all of those elements.” – Priscilla Bremser, American Mathematical Society Blog

Believe it or not, I was reading about math today.  Mathematics, it seems, was once considered to be part of the liberal arts disciplines, today it is considered to be almost its opposite, with liberal arts reserved for areas considered (unfairly, in my mind) to be fluffy with math being real world and practical.

Like many writers, I grew up thinking of math as the opposite pole of literature. I was not particularly good at it, and I didn’t really mind. My father, also a writer, never encouraged me to think of math as all that necessary, beyond getting good grades in  school. He didn’t like it much either. So I essentially thought of mathematical minds as another type of mind.  I can, on some intellectual level, appreciate the idea of higher math having an abstract beauty– it means nothing to me. I am tone deaf when it comes to that. This is no doubt my loss. If I had been encouraged to appreciate mathematics for its beauty maybe there would be something there that would apply to my career as a writer.

Similarly, very early on I decided that dance was not for me. There are, no doubt, lots of reasons for this. I was not coordinated as a kid. I’d been switched from being a lefty and taught to write with my right hand, and this might have been part of it. Or maybe it was a simple lack of aptitude. Other kids were better at sport and dance. I felt clumsy and awkward and I soon took the defensive posture that such things were not important. What mattered was the mind, not the body.  I became entirely dualistic in my thinking. My body existed as a somewhat ill-fitting vessel to carry my brain around. My physicality was relevant in only one area of my life– sexual attractiveness. There I felt entirely unworthy. The truth is, it is hard to suddenly own your body on special occasions and do it with any kind of grace.

My father, Albert Lee, described dance this way in an unpublished novel:

“He sees the world as if looking through windows in his head, inside a body that always fascinated him, primarily because it wasn’t him. He felt he was enveloped within an alien form. Dancing always seemed proof positive that this species had not yet evolved. It was the primitive dance of cannibals about a tribal fire, a ferocity in the air he could sense whenever the incessant beat of drums began.”

So it seems there may have been some parental influence in this notion that the world of the mind– the writer’s world, and the world of the body– the dancer’s world were very distant from each other. The writer’s brain and the mathematician’s brain were at opposite poles on one axis. The writer’s art and the dancer’s art were at opposite poles on another axis.

I certainly never thought I would be spending so much of my life in the company of professional dancers as I do now. Careers have a habit of not quite going where you expect them to; they’re a bit like love in that way.  I answered an advertisement for a public relations director for an international ballet company and next thing you know, I found myself among these exotic creatures. They were strange and exotic to me in the beginning. I marveled at their barre exercises and their dance shoes. I could not imagine that years later I would be describing split sole jazz shoes in great detail from memory.  (This happened while sitting in a hotel in Tucson, Arizona with a distraught Russian ballet dancer after someone had broken into our car and stolen the bag with all of his shoes in it. It was the only thing they took. The policeman, to whom I described the various dance shoes, was kind. They caught the bad guy. The shoes– which he had thrown as he ran, seems he’d been expecting something else– were recovered.)

I’ve learned a lot from being around dancers.

There is a way that dancers talk about their bodies, and the bodies of their peers, that can seem shockingly matter-of-fact to outsiders.  My partner, for example, said he had bad feet, a short neck and a bad face.  A bad… face

The dance world with its unforgiving physical ideal seemed harsh and cruel to me.

But I came to realize something. My partner was not being harsh to himself. He was being honest. He does have, by ballet standards, a short neck. He does not have the lovely arched feet that dancers call “good.”

A good ballet foot. (Attached to The Bolshoi's Svetlana Zakharova)

A good ballet foot. (Attached to The Bolshoi’s Svetlana Zakharova)

He does not have a good face. His nose is wide, there is a gap between his front teeth and his forehead has a strange dent in it. But here’s the thing– I had not noticed any of this until he pointed it out to me. I saw him on stage and I could not take my eyes off him. He absolutely fills the space with his energy.  I fell madly in love with him and thought he was absolutely beautiful.

But maybe he would not have seemed that way to me if he had be unwilling to admit to himself that his neck was short, his feet were a bit flat and so on. He knew his liabilities and his assets and how to get the most out of the body he had because he had spent ages working with it.

All of this made me aware of just what a taboo we have about our bodies. We are supposed to pretend as though we do not notice any difference between people, but of course we do.  Not acknowledging the difference is supposed to be more kind.  I am not sure any more that it is.

One of my dance teacher contacts recently posted an article to Facebook which was supposed to prove that girls who did ballet had more self-confidence than those who did not. They determined this by asking two groups of girls to rate their physical attractiveness. The girls who did ballet ranked themselves higher than those who did not. Thus the ballet girls were supposed to be more confident. There is one problem with this study, it didn’t measure how attractive the girls actually were. Maybe the girls who did ballet thought they were more attractive because they actually were. Maybe it wasn’t all in their heads and had nothing to do with confidence at all.  If they had asked each group to assess their ability in math they would tend to assume that the result had at least something to do with real-world math ability rather than pure self-confidence.

The girl on the left may be prettier than the girl on the right. The girl on the right might be better at sports or science than the one on the left. One dancer has “bad feet”, but he has more charisma and so he gives the audience a better show and gets more applause.

A famous writer once said that novelists do not write the books they want to write, they write the books they can.  This is what the disembodied art of writing has in common with the incarnated art of ballet. A dancer can do a lot with her body to improve, compensate, bring out its best, but when it comes down to it– there is only so much that can be done. To some extent, every dancer will be constrained because of the body she was born with.

It is exactly the same for writers. I may admire a certain form. I may imitate aspects of it, but sooner or later I am going to smack up against my own limitations. I cannot be every kind of writer. I could get frustrated with myself for it, or think the world of literature and its constraints are harsh and cruel. That won’t get me far.

I really started to find my own voice on the day that I accepted all of the kinds of writer I was not. I stopped trying to write the books I thought I ought to write and wrote the books I could write.

Bad PowerPoint Presentations are a Serious Threat to the Global Economy

I loved this TED talk for so many reasons. As a professional speechwriter, I have a visceral loathing for bad PowerPoint presentations. The words should do the work.

Then again, as a professional writer, I have serious dancer envy because, as John Bohannon says in this talk: “…if you’re trying to give someone the big picture of a complex idea, to really capture its essence, the fewer words you use, the better. In fact, the ideal may be to use no words at all.

This is all wrapped up with a message about the importance of funding arts.

Well worth 10 minutes of your time.

Here’s What Happens When You Try to Get Cleverbot to Talk About Ballet

pointeCleverbot is an artificial intelligence web application which “learns” from human input. That is, it goes through a database to find responses that humans typed in when asked similar questions. Here’s what happened when I tried to have a conversation about ballet with it. (I am “User” the computer is “Celverbot.”)

User: Do you like ballet?

Cleverbot: I do very much!

User: Have you heard of Vladislav Lantratov of the Bolshoi Ballet?

Cleverbot: Yes I have.

User: What do you think of him?

Cleverbot: Who’s ‘him’?

User: What do you think of Vladislav Lantratov of the Bolshoi Ballet? You said you’d heard of him.

Cleverbot: I think it starts with a ‘K’.

User: I’m pretty sure it starts with a V.

Cleverbot: No it doesn’t contain any numbers, first letter is a M, second is an E.

User: V-L-A-D.

Cleverbot: What should I name my daughter.

User: Vladislav is not a good name for a girl.

Cleverbot: Good to know.

User: How about the American ballet dancer David Hallberg. Do you know him?

Cleverbot: Beatles? We were talking about BEN.

User: I hate it when you get entirely random on me.

Cleverbot: No, you don’t. You love it.

User: That is not true, but at least it sounds like real conversation.

Cleverbot: Explain please.

User: When I talk about ballet and you talk about the Beatles it is a jarring non-sequitur.

Cleverbot: I am not a man.

User: Proving my point.

Continue reading…

Visions of Sugar Plums… Or Something

So it’s Nutcracker season.

Last night I dreamed I was in a theater and the ballet dancer David Hallberg was on stage, dressed in a white ballet costume. He was breathing in that heavy but controlled way that dancers do when they are taking bows after a solo. (What that? It was no effort at all. You see, I’m not even winded.) He was explaining to the audience, who I understood to be a room full of theater owners, why they should book his Nutcracker.

“Unlike other Nutcrackers,” he said. “This one will finish in the Museum of National Security.”

Ok, then.

I drifted to consciousness at this point, which is why I remember, but soon fell asleep again and the dream theme continued. I was scrolling through an Amazon listing for the book version of the National Security Nutcracker starring David Hallberg. A voice over my shoulder was asking me (as people used to when I worked at Borders Books and Music) whether the Nutcracker had been released as a book with a blue cover. I explained that, no, it was small and green.

A review in one of those Amazon pull quotes jumped out at me. “The longer you sit with this book after reading, the more meaning you will find.”

The quote was signed “Bette Midler.”

Now this is a Nutcracker production I have to see.

I think this dream rivals the one in which I was on the set of Downton Abbey with Stephen Fry.  Or the one I had the other night (which I did not blog about) in which I was watching a Youtube video interview with Lord Alfred Douglas. (In my dream world there are such things.) The interviewer was saying, “I’m surprised you read____”  The name was of something folksy and lowbrow which I no longer remember.  Douglas replied in his plummy accent, “It is country but it is charming.” Then his smile faded and he turned on the interviewer shouting, “You presume to tell me what I should read!”

Before bed yesterday I listened to this interview with Hallberg about the Bolsohi Ballet’s Nutcracker, which will be aired as part of the Ballet in Cinema program on December 21. It is probably what put him and The Nutcracker into my subconscious.

I have something of a Nutcracker conflict this year. As I mentioned, The Bolshoi’s Nutcracker is airing in cinemas on December 21.  Bolshoi Ballet in the U.S. Facebook page is showing images of Evgenia Obratsova and Vlad Lantratov to advertise the produ1002533_876706535683622_9096228976393518148_nction, but the Bolshoi’s web page lists Anna Nikulina and Denis Rodkin in the principal roles on that date.

If you are in the Detroit area, however, you have an opportunity on the same day to see The Motown Nutcracker at the Ford Performing Art Center. My partner, Valery Lantratov (also known as Vlad’s dad) choreographed the pas de deux for this year’s production. When Legacy Dance Studio first asked him to create a classical pas de deux for the Nutcracker to Motown music, it was a bit outside his comfort zone.  But I had an opportunity to see the result this summer as he was rehearsing with the students, and it was beautiful, proving my theory about creativity from constraints.

I am looking forward to seeing it.

Creativity from Constraints

“When you’re given a limit and you’re given boundaries, sometimes creation is even better.”-David Hallberg

A few years ago, in my book Broke is Beautiful, I wrote about the role of constraint in creativity. I was reminded of it today while watching the video above (in which the ballet dancer David Hallberg is not constrained by a shirt being a shirt and wears it like a wig).

Let me share with you some of what I uncovered:

Dr. Patricia Stokes studied artistic innovators such as Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso and Frank Lloyd Wright and determined that contrary to common belief, it is not complete freedom that leads to creative innovation. Successful artists move forward within self-imposed restrictions. Stokes calls these constraints “barriers that lead to break-throughs.”

Stokes makes a distinction between the kinds of constraints that invite conformity, “operators in well-structured problems with single correct solutions, like directions to memorize, calculate exactly, or copy correctly… preclude the surprising and promote the expected.” Other types of structures and constrains, however, provide a foundation upon which a person can build and innovate…

For 10 years, Arnold M. Ludwig studied the lives of 1,004 men and women prominent in a variety of fields including art, music, science, sports, politics and business. He published the results in the 1995 book The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy. As part of his study, Ludwig identified a “template for greatness.” Among the traits of exceptional people were a sense of physical vulnerability, and the existence of psychological “unease.” …

“Denying limitation or obsessing on it keeps us knotted up in fear,” wrote Laurence G. Boldt, author of Zen and the Art of Making a Living, “Aritsts play with limitation… There are only so many words in any language, but that doesn’t keep the poet from writing. There is only a certain range of color the eye can see, but this doesn’t keep the painter from painting. There are a limited number of notes that we can hear, but that doesn’t keep the composer from composing… Don’t spend your time worrying that someone else has forty-eight or sixty-four crayons. As you are, you are basically adequate to life.”

Artists: Please Stop Apologizing for Wanting to Make a Living.

In my other life I manage a ballet dancer. So I get a lot of ballet-related posts in my media stream. Today I started to read a story called Why All Those Rules? It was written by ballet teacher Amanda Trusty trying to explain to parents why ballet and ballet instruction can seem a bit rigid compared to, say, soccer practice. She wrote:

 A lot of parents see dance as an activity like soccer that should be free through the school or a club, however the school hasn’t provided us with any space, so we have to charge tuition in order to pay our rent and offer your child a safe space to come and dance. We had to pay for good dance floors – cement is not a healthy surface for dancers. We had to pay for mirrors – yes, glass is THAT expensive. We had to pay for barres, and marley, and rights to play music – all before even asking for tuition to pay the teachers.

Let me tell you from deep down in my heart, we aren’t trying to get rich – we’re just trying to do it right.

Did you catch that? The instinctive defensiveness about making money as if making a profit beyond subsistence is somehow tainted. “I do this for love,” she says. “Not for money.”

You will never hear an automotive executive apologize for making a profit and listing all of the costs that go into what he does to prove that his profits are not excessive.

In his world making a good living only proves that he is successful. If he has success, or even when he doesn’t, he insists upon being well-compensated for his work. He certainly does not apologize for being paid.

I won’t go into why we have this mythos– that the artist should work for love not money. I’ve explored it (and griped about it) in a number of articles in the past. (Notably this one on the “tainted altruism effect.”)

What I want to say here is simply that this is a cycle that must be broken. Artists and those in caring professions– social workers, teachers, caregivers– have to stop apologizing for wanting to be paid. It does not mean you care less. It does not mean your work is less legitimate. It does not make you a “sell-out.” We’ve internalized this notion for far too long.