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.

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism