Dancers are just flowers, and flowers grow without any literal meaning, they are just beautiful. We’re like flowers. A flower doesn’t tell you a story. It’s in itself a beautiful thing.
The other girls, and their imperfections, fade away as Mira runs ahead on a stream of energy and light. Her body tells her what to do and she just goes along with it . . . Something great is growing in her, unrolling its tendrils, sprouting buds in all directions. Sometimes the song in her body is almost too loud; it fills her eyes, makes them tear up in something like gratitude.
Sari Wilson, Girl Through Glass
The first thing you need to know about Sari Wilson’s debut novel, Girl Through Glass, is that it’s much more than a “ballet book”. Like every memorable book, it transcends its surface subject matter and explores universal themes; in this case, art, obsession, sexuality, and family relationships. “I really wanted to write a book that wasn’t just about ballet,” Wilson said at an event at the Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois. “The idioms and milieu of ballet make for compelling human drama.”
The world of ballet in late 20th century New York provides a fascinating backdrop for the novel’s two narratives. Mira is a young girl with a difficult family life who finds refuge in the art and discipline of ballet. Kate is an ex-dancer and college dance history professor who can’t seem to move forward and is forced to revisit her buried past. For both, George Balanchine’s ideal of feminine beauty looms large. “Ballet is woman,” Balanchine famously said. The subject of Kate’s Ph.D. dissertation was “Corporeality Subverted: The (Dis)embodied Feminine in the Aesthetic of George Balanchine, 1958-1982”.
Doesn’t almost every little girl dream of becoming a ballerina? My dream died quickly, after several months of patient instruction from Mrs. Goneconto at the local YMCA. I was disappointed to learn at the first class that I was not immediately issued a tutu and toe shoes, and things went downhill from there. Mira and her fellow “bunheads” exist on a different level, pushing themselves to their physical and emotional limits in what Wilson calls “pure devotion to an ideal”.
Wilson, whose own dance career was cut short by an injury, called herself a “recovering ballerina” in a recent New York Times piece, “My Nutcracker Recovery”. When her daughter is cast in a production of “The Nutcracker”, Wilson has mixed feelings — but as she watches her little girl rehearse, Wilson remembers her childhood passion for dance: “My own early swooning love for ballet — for the pure motion and expression of dance — floods back to me, confusing, powerful, bittersweet, and it finds me a little bit healed.”
Girl Through Glass is at its heart a coming of age story, focusing on a girl and a woman at inflection points in their lives. Wilson spent years crafting the novel, which was a creative endeavor, she points out, not unlike choreographing a dance.
How would you compare the art of writing to the art of dance?
In a lot of ways they seem inverse: dance is an art that is performance-based, completely dependent on the body as instrument for communication; writing is a cerebral art and employs written language as an instrument for art. But underneath, they share a lot: the need for discipline, repetition, and a strong desire to communicate. In the age-old days, dance and poetry were integrated, I think, but they split off from each other and became their own disciplines. But in their roots, they are very related.
Like many fiction writers, you started out by writing short stories. You mentioned that Girl Through Glass had its origins in a short story about a young ballet dancer. How would you compare the process of writing short stories with the process of writing a novel?
Writing short stories is sustainable in sprints, whereas writing novels is a marathon undertaking. For me, the novel demanded a wider range of skills—analytic and associative. Novels are aptly named—each adheres to its own rules, its own logic, they are very elastic. I enjoy the form because it can accommodate multiple dialectics and tensions.
Have you made any particular effort to connect with the ballet community? How do you think members of that community will view the novel?
One of the things that I have been really gratified about is that the ballet community has been so accepting of the novel. I have had dancers and former dancers and “recovering” dancers (my term) tell me that the novel describes their own experience. It’s not a glowing portrait of the ballet world, but it is a one told with love and passion—maybe the passion of a child who can love and be hurt deeply. I think dancers understand that the novel is full of admiration for what they do, as well as what the costs can be.
You very deftly weave the two narratives — Mira’s and Kate’s — together. Was one of them more difficult to write than the other? Did you know where the story was going when you began?
I actually didn’t know where the story was going. I first wrote Mira’s storyline. When I had finished, I realized that the novel wasn’t complete—around the same time, I started writing from this other voice, a 1st person voice, a much older voice, a bit bitter, even angry. I didn’t know who it was at the time. As I wrote her story I realized who she was and how she was connected to Mira. I realized I could use Kate’s story as a frame for ordering Mira’s story; it was only then that I felt I had a book, a novel.
You paint a vivid and accurate picture of 1970s New York City. New York has changed a great deal in the past few decades. What, if anything, has been lost?
It’s trendy, I guess, to be nostalgic for 1970s New York, but for me it is very specific nostalgia: the nostalgia of the world through a child’s eyes that has been transformed. So it’s a journey into personal memory of a lost childhood world, a New York City of the past—a very frayed urban landscape. But what has been lost? Well, there is a great Edmund White piece about this in The New York Times ; in it he basically says it has to do with the economy and real estate. What is largely lost is the sense of freedom to fail abundantly that the city allowed people at that time—that ecosystem benefited creativity and allowed a certain kind of romanticism around art-making, but at the cost of safety.
How has ballet changed since MIra’s and Kate’s years as young dancers?
Mira’s era was a very specific era, when Balanchine aesthetic was at its very height. I think the playing field is much wider now—there are so many more different types of companies with modern and ballet cross-over. And the conversation about body image and race that is happening around Misty Copeland’s terrific rise is all very exciting and overdue.
Kate finds that the world of academia is, in its own way, as cutthroat and competitive as the world of dance. Can you comment on that?
Yes, that actually surprised me. I’m not in academia, but as I did my research I came to realize that there was an incredible amount of cutthroat competition in that world—especially at Kate’s level. Kate has made it into a pool of very talented and ambitious candidates for which there are not enough permanent positions, which makes her situation very tenuous. Not unlike the hierarchies of the dance world, in which there are very few coveted spots for soloists and principals.
For generations, little girls have dreamed of becoming ballerinas — and some of them have suffered, physically and emotionally, as they’ve pursued their ambitions. Certain parents (and not just ballet parents) are willing to sacrifice and also to let their children experience physical and emotional harm in the hopes of raising superstars. Adults, like Maurice, can become obsessed with the beauty of ballet. What is it about ballet that inspires such passion?
Maybe it is the kind of innocence that it requires, a kind of passionate innocence and a ungovernable belief in beauty (in the broader Romantic sense, Beauty as in Truth)? There probably will always be something captivating about noble suffering in pursuit of some truth? So much art is about this theme. Ballet displays it in the vernacular of the body and in a kind of nobility of form that can be as hypnotizing as well as destructive. It can contain, I suppose, our best and worst impulses as humans. It holds a mirror up to our inner selves, perhaps.
Thank you, Sari, for answering my questions so thoroughly and thoughtfully!