How Audrey Niffenegger ended up writing a ballet

The author of <em>Time Traveller's Wife</em> speaks to Hayley Campbell about her new illustrated novel, <em>Raven Girl</em>.

Audrey Niffenegger knows nothing whatsoever about ballet. She's pretty blunt about this. Originally it was because like every other struggling artist she could never afford tickets, and then later it was because she had become the kind of opera person who has season tickets and a regular opera buddy she takes to every show. But Niffenegger does know about stories and wonder and the weird. She has two stellar novels under her belt and has populated her home in Chicago with a pair of human skeletons, an eclectic collection of damaged taxidermy, thousands of books, and two cats (one of whom is called Whimsy). She owns a pair of bespoke Victorian mourning shoes with jaybird wings flicking out from the ankles like those of Hermes. So if you want the skeleton of your ballet to be a story that is dark and weird, Niffenegger can piece together those bones. In May, a ballet debuts at the Royal Opera House with Audrey's name all over it. It's called Raven Girl.

Ballet turned up in Niffenegger's life when David Drew, once Principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, was given a copy of her illustrated book, The Three Incestuous Sisters. Light on words but heavy on imagery and melancholy gothic drama, Drew thought the book was a ballet waiting to take the stage. He rapidly realised Niffenegger knew nothing about dance itself so took her around workshops, rehearsals and to shows whenever she was in London. By seeing how the shows come together in this world of rosin and gruelling rehearsals, Niffenegger found an identifiable hook in what is a fairly alien world to a writer and illustrator:

"I had seen them as working artists. I felt a kinship with them because I could see them making things, and I make things, and I couldn't make the things they make but nevertheless I understood more or less what they were doing.

"I was hanging out with David for years, and he was introducing me to lots and lots of people in all capacities of the Ballet. Eventually he introduced me to Wayne [McGregor, resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet]. Wayne very much liked my illustrated book The Adventuress but very sensibly said, 'We should do something together and we should start from scratch. We should do something new that you haven't already done. And don't worry about the dance, I'll take care of the dance, you just make stories'."

McGregor said he wanted a new fairytale, specifically a dark fairytale.

"My reaction to that is, well, what other kinds of fairytales are there? Some are darker than others - Hans Christian Anderson seems darkest of anyone. But even reading the Grimms' fairytales there are some that are so incredibly dark that you think, 'Well, this can't possibly be for children'. I immediately thought of this thing I'd had sitting around since about 2002. I had a character, this half-girl, half-bird. I had no story for her, she didn't have any kind of narrative at all. She was just a girl who was inwardly a bird and felt trapped in her girl-body."

Niffenegger went to see some of the shows McGregor was doing with his own company, Random Dance. She found that that things he was doing there involved a lot of fairly extreme movement and often included some kind of visual element like film, or an LED display. But most unique to McGregor's work is the thread of mind/body relationship that runs through them - he has worked with scientists at Cambridge and was appointed Research fellow in the Experimental Psychology department where he studied body/brain interaction. "I thought about my little characters and I thought, 'Well, a fairytale is certainly the kind of story she could be in'. She's like a fairytale character - she's halfway between two states and in need of some kind of transformation."

Everybody knows that birds are a mainstay of those in pointe shoes and seamed tights, girls with battered feet and slicked-back buns. Ordinarily it's swans. Elegant, long-necked and romantic: in the minds of people who have only the faintest knowledge of the artform, swans are ballet. But ravens? The scavengers who sweep down on battlefields to pick at the dead, the black birds of myth and superstition whose call sounds like they are saying tomorrow, tomorrow in Latin over, and over and over? Ravens: not so much. But if Niffenegger writes the story, things are a little different – there is a certain kind of tale you're going to get out of her and romantic and ordinary it is not. In Swan Lake the princess is turned into a swan by a curse, while in the topsy-turvy dreamworld of Niffenegger, whose interest is always whacked-out and opposite, it is a girl who has her arms amputated and wings sewn on in their stead.

In this story there is horror, science, death – not to mention the inter-species sex. But we don't see that bit – where, in the novel, there are three asterisks and then it's magically, suddenly, post-coitally morning, in an illustrated book there is simply a blank space.

"Suddenly they have an egg. I just decided I needed to leave certain things to the imagination. It's fun. I feel like I've managed to make a fairytale without actually following a lot of the rules. It's a mash-up, it's genre-bending – it's a fairytale, dammit."

She spent nine months "noodling around" with little gouache paintings and ink drawings and showed them to McGregor over breakfast in London.

"You could tell that there was something about it that wasn't quite doing it for him, and it was finally made clear that what he really, really wanted was aquatints." The thing about aquatints – a centuries-old print-making technique used in both Niffenegger's illustrated books so far – is that they are not only painstaking ("that's okay, painstaking is my middle name") but time-consuming. "The problem was just going to be generating enough images because Wayne's ideal was a book like The Adventuress – mostly image and very little text. Every image you make fulfils a certain chunk of story. And if you can't make enough then the story becomes very blocky and gappy, unless you're going to use words. I had 12 weeks to do all the art. My assistant Ken and I were incredibly pale by the end of that summer."

Niffenegger's fairytale comes out in May to coincide with the dance's debut. It's been years in the making and Audrey has been in London so frequently that she ended up buying a flat here. It houses all the stuffed birds she bought to sketch from - ravens, magpies, rooks, jackdaws. There are ten corvids in her sitting room, perched on bookshelves or swooping with curled toes and tongue. Although she has been absent from the rehearsals for a couple of months now, she's confident everything will come together in the end. "I'll be back in April and by then everything will be so far underway that I will just go, 'Uh huh, amazing'. But I kind of like the idea of being surprised and just walking into it and going, 'Wow'. I have so much faith in Wayne, unlike my Hollywood experience where I had no faith. I know I can count on him to be interesting and intelligent about it, so even if dance people don't like it, it'll be interesting to me because I'm such a little naïve thing about what ballet is. I'm just kind of hanging in, waiting for spring."

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

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Katy Perry’s new song is not so much Chained to the Rhythm as Chained to a Black Mirror episode

The video for “Chained to the Rhythm” is overwhelmingly pastel and batshit crazy. Watch out, this satire is sharp!

If you’ve tuned into the radio in the last month, you might have heard Katy Perry’s new song, “Chained to the Rhythm”, a blandly hypnotic single that’s quietly, creepingly irresistible.

If you’re a really attuned listener, you might have noticed that the lyrics of this song explore that very same atmosphere. “Are we crazy?” Perry sings, “Living our lives through a lens?”

Trapped in our white picket fence
Like ornaments
So comfortable, we’re living in a bubble, bubble
So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble, trouble
Aren’t you lonely?
Up there in utopia
Where nothing will ever be enough
Happily numb

The chorus muses that we all “think we’re free” but are, in fact, “stumbling around like a wasted zombie, yeah.” It’s a swipe (hehe) at social media, Instagram culture, online dating, whatever. As we all know, modern technology is Bad, people who take photos aren’t enjoying the moment, and glimpses other people’s Perfect Lives leave us lonely and empty. Kids these days just don’t feel anything any more!!!

The video for this new song was released today, and it’s set in a (get this) METAPHORICAL AMUSEMENT PARK. Not since Banky’s Dismaland have we seen such cutting satire of modern life. Walk with me, through Katy Perry’s OBLIVIA.

Yes, the park is literally called Oblivia. Get it? It sounds fun but it’s about oblivion, the state of being unaware or unconscious, i.e. the state we’re all living in, all the time, because phones. (I also personally hope it’s a nod to Staffordshire’s own Oblivion, but cannot confirm if Katy Perry has ever been on the Alton Towers classic steel roller coaster.)

The symbol of the park is a spaced-out gerbil thing, because, aren’t we all caged little hairy beings in our own hamster wheels?! Can’t someone get us off this never-ending rat race?!

We follow Katy as she explores the park – her wide eyes take in every ride, while her peers are unable to look past the giant iPads pressed against their noses.


You, a mindless drone: *takes selfies with an iPad*
Katy Perry, a smart, engaged person: *looks around with actual human eyes, stops to smell the roses*

She walks past rides, and stops to smell the roses – and the pastel-perfect world is injected with a dose of bright red reality when she pricks her finger on a thorn. Cause that’s what life really is, kids! Risk! At least she FEELS SOMETHING.


More like the not-so-great American Dream, am I right?!

So Katy (wait, “Rose”, apparently) takes her seat on her first ride – the LOVE ME ride. Heteronormative couples take their seats against either a blue heart or a pink one, before being whizzed through a tunnel of Facebook reaction icons.

Is this a comment on social media sexism, or a hint that Rose is just too damn human for your validation station? Who knows! All we can say for sure is that Katy Perry has definitely seen the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive”:

Now, we see a whole bunch of other rides.


Wait time: um, forever, because the human condition is now one of permanent stasis and unsatisfied desires, duh.

No Place Like Home is decorated with travel stamps and catapults two of the only black people in the video out of the park. A searing comment on anti-immigrant rhetoric/racism? Uh, maybe?

Meanwhile, Bombs Away shoots you around like you’re in a nuclear missile.


War: also bad.

Then everyone goes and takes a long drink of fire water (?!?!) at Inferno H2O (?!?!) which is also a gas station. Is this about polluted water or petrol companies or… drugs? Or are we just so commercialised even fire and water are paid-for privileges? I literally don’t know.

Anyway, Now it’s time for the NUCLEAR FAMILY SHOW, in 3D, no less. Rose is last to put her glasses on because, guess what? She’s not a robot. The show includes your typical 1950s family ironing and shit, while hamsters on wheels run on the TV. Then we see people in the rest of theme park running on similar wheels. Watch out! That satire is sharp.

Skip Marley appears on the TV with his message of “break down the walls to connect, inspire”, but no one seems to notice accept Rose, and soon becomes trapped in their dance of distraction.


Rose despairs amidst the choreography of compliance.

Wow, if that didn’t make you think, are you even human? Truly?

In many ways – this is the Platonic ideal of Katy Perry videos: overwhelmingly pastel, batshit crazy, the campest of camp, yet somehow walking the fine line between self-ridicule and terrifying sincerity. It might be totally stupid, but it’s somehow still irresistible.

But then I would say that. I’m a mindless drone, stumbling around like a wasted zombie, injecting pop culture like a prescription sedative.

I’m chained…………. to the rhythm.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.