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.

David Brent: Life on the Road
Show Hide image

Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

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