Dancing at Lincoln Center with Rudolf Nureyev — my true story

By Caitlin Kelly

A new museum has opened — 20 years after the death, in 1993 of AIDS, of 20th-century ballet’s most famed male dancer since Nijinksy, fellow Russian Rudolf Nureyev. The museum is not in Paris, where he’d wanted it to be, but in Moulins, a three-hour train ride from the capital.

English: Nurevey in his dressing room
English: Nurevey in his dressing room (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A report from The New York Times:

Centre National du Costume de Scène is in the Quartier Villars, an elegantly proportioned 18th-century barracks, renovated and extended after a near-brush with demolition in 1984. After the French government approved the idea of creating an archive for costumes belonging to the Paris Opera, the Comédie Française and the Bibliothèque Nationale, it took almost another decade to renovate the premises and add a section to contain and conserve the vast holdings. The government contributed around 80 percent of the renovation budget needed to install the collection (about $787,000), with the remainder coming from the museum and the foundation.

“It’s an international and important name that clearly draws people here,” Ms. Pinasa said. “The first few weeks have been very good.”

The collection is shown in three large rooms set apart from the museum’s main exhibition space; they were designed by Ezio Frigerio, who created sets for several of Nureyev’s productions. The first room is decorated with painted stage flats and offers spotlighted costumes in glass booths. Some were Nureyev’s own, most touchingly a simple pale blue doublet worn soon after his 1961 defection to the West, in “The Nutcracker.” There are also costumes from the ballets he staged, notably Hanae Mori’s 1920s-style outfit for Sylvie Guillem in “Cinderella,” an enchantment of pale-pink pleated silk, feathers and sequins, and the gold-embroidered blue-green silk tunic that is the warrior-hero Solor’s costume in the Nureyev production of “La Bayadère.”

I had the unlikely — and extraordinary — opportunity to share a stage with Nureyev for eight performances by the National Ballet of Canada in “Sleeping Beauty”, a classic, lush production.

I was then a young, ambitious Toronto-based journalist who knew the publicity director for the National Ballet after writing a magazine profile of one of their dancers. I’d studied ballet for many years, so I understood and loved that world. One day Marcia, (still a dear friend  decades later), called up and said: “How’d you like to come and be an extra with us in New York City at Lincoln Center with Nureyev?”

Who could possibly say no?

I was maybe 23 or 24 years old and had only performed, as an actress, in summer camp musicals. I had taken ballet classes for years and had auditioned (unsuccessfully) for Canada’s National Ballet School. I had never done pointe work, (not required as an extra), nor had I ever performed dance for anyone.

But what a story! I was game.

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national daily, wanted the piece, and paid my travel expenses and we stayed across the street at the Empire Hotel, (featured in a great song by Canadian singer Joni Mitchell.)

As an extra — a “super”, (short for supernumerary, the civilians who are hired locally by ballet and opera companies to fill stages with bodies in costume) — I’d be needed for every performance.

I was chosen as one of four Ladies in Black, who presage the entrance of the witch Carabosse, who is not invited to Aurora’s 16th. party and who, furious, then casts a spell on everyone — creating the Sleeping Beauty who is Princess Aurora.

We had a few very basic rehearsals, like the artistic director impatiently humming the score, (which I barely knew!) while waving his arms at us distractedly in one of the Center’s rehearsal halls. Supers aren’t worth much attention when you’ve got principals to direct, and a corps de ballet and, oh yeah, Nureyev.

So I didn’t get a dress rehearsal, nor did I see or try on my costume or shoes until half an hour before opening night curtain. The shoes were so tight I could barely walk. My wig, with enormous buns over both ears, resembled a head of garlic. The dress weighed a ton, and I knew was worth a lot of money and I must not, on any account, damage it.

Since I barely knew the music, I wrote my stage directions on a piece of paper and taped it to the underside of my left wrist, hoping to sneak a glance at it while onstage.

On opening night, so nervous I could barely move, I managed to sweep down the wide staircase on stage, followed dutifully by the other three Ladies in Black — about 10 bars of music too early.

Holy shit.

“You came down too soon,” hissed a dancer pirouetting beside me.

The next night, while I tried to climb back up the same wide staircase at the rear of the stage after all the courtiers had fallen asleep under Carabosse’s spell a supine soldier’s sword got stuck in the thick folds of my gown.

I couldn’t move.

I couldn’t get his sword out of that valuable fabric.

And the orchestra played on, as the principal dancers hissed at me from behind “Hurry up!

Holy shit again.

Another night, as Nureyev, in his role as the Prince, dashed through the sleeping figures trying to see if anyone was awake, he stopped, took my chin in his hands and held my face to the spotlight, to see if I really was asleep.

Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit!

My chin in Nureyev’s hand.

And I couldn’t, if I was to remain, as I must, in character, open my eyes.

On another night he grew so furious he kicked a garbage can in the wings so hard his foot bled into his slipper. I swear a lot, but have never heard curses like his.

Off-stage, in the wings, he stood regally apart, sliding leather clogs over his slipper-shod feet.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in La Bayadère.
Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in La Bayadère. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, decades later, it still all feels like a dream — exiting the stage door and being asked for my autograph (“Margot Fonteyn.” Kidding!), putting on my stage make-up every night, sharing space with one of the world’s legendary dancers.

I live in New York now, and every time I walk up those wide steps toward Lincoln Center, to sit in the audience for a ballet or concert, I think…hmmm, let’s do that again!

Two great books I just finished reading — and you?

By Caitlin Kelly

I very rarely read fiction, so it was a bit of luck that I recently found — in, of all places, on the book/magazine recycling shelf near our apartment building’s laundry room — two terrific novels.

books

“Cutting For Stone” is by physician Abraham Verghese, and I’d read the rapturous reviews and thought, not for me. It’s a long, winding tale of twin brothers born in Ethiopia and their lives. Both become doctors. I might never have bought this book, his first novel, or borrowed it from the library, but there it was — free for the taking.

I found many elements of the book compelling. He really knows, (and researched, as he included voluminous notes at the back), Ethiopia and its history and geography, so I felt literally transported. I’ve never been there and might never get there, so I enjoyed that.

His characters were clear, strong, sympathetic. He describes many medical situations in a way no one but a doctor could write so persuasively; I loved his insider story of his character’s training in a poor Bronx hospital, especially.

And I loved the cover image: mysterious, enticing, colorful.

The other book was “Tell the Wolves I’m Home”, by Carol Rifka Brunt.

RifkaBrunt_Tell-the-Wolves

I also loved its cover — that exotic teapot is important to the plot.

This one resonated for me on so many levels!

It’s told through the eyes of a 13 year-old girl and unravels a mystery about her beloved uncle who has recently died. I won’t give it away, but it’s a terrific read. She, like me, lives in a town in Westchester County, just north of New York City, so all the references registered for me as deeply familiar.

I also covered the AIDS crisis, as a newspaper reporter, as it unfolded in the mid 1980s in North America — the book is set in that time period and addresses that issue, and powerfully brings back what it felt like, then, to know people dying of it and how the world was reacting to them then.

The first book is about two brothers, once close, who become estranged for years; the second book is about two estranged sisters who move from hostility back to closeness.

(I was raised an only child so have no daily notion of what it’s like to live with siblings. One of books’ many gifts is bringing us into worlds we will never experience ourselves.)

I highly recommend both.

(Whoever is leaving those books downstairs absolutely shares my taste — I’ve also found and read The Dive From Clausen’s Pier and One Day, both of which I also really enjoyed. It feels like Christmas on that shelf!)

This New York Times review of the TDFCP praises what I also found extremely well-drawn — what it feels like to arrive in New York City knowing not a soul and re-inventing yourself.

I don’t read science fiction, romance, chick lit, horror or YA, but…

What have you read recently I should reach for next?

PLEASE SIGN UP FOR THIS WEEK’S WEBINARS:

LEARNING TO THINK LIKE A REPORTER; FEB. 8, 2PM EST

FINDING AND DEVELOPING STORY IDEAS, FEB. 9, 2PM EST.

DETAILS AND REGISTRATION HERE!

Questions? Please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

This is how it feels to be edited — and why it’s still essential

By Caitlin Kelly

OK, let’ s stipulate that it’s not always fun.revision1

OK, sometimes it’s really horrible.

Some people dread it. Some people fear it. Some people avoid the whole thing, by self-publishing or never submitting their ideas or work to an editor for their professional judgment.

But without an editor, your writing is stuck in neutral forever.

Even if they’re a butcher who adds errors to your copy (yes, that happens) or inserts words you’d never use (that, too) or asks asinine questions (hell, yes), you’re still learning how to write better as a result.

Few things can so quickly clarify your original intent more than having every word challenged.

Journalism, and commercial publishing, is a team sport. No matter what medium, that isn’t about to change.

Nor should it.

This delicious joke, how a women’s magazine editor would edit a BBC report was amusing every writer I know recently:

A bomb (TYPE???) attack (WHAT KIND OF ATTACK????) on a Syrian (ASSUMING SYRIANS ARE PEOPLE FROM SYRIA? EXPLAIN.) government building (WHAT KIND OF BUILDING?) near Damascus has killed 31 people, (WE WERE TALKING ABOUT EVERYONE, AND NOW WE’RE TALKING ABOUT 31 PEOPLE? CONFUSING.) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. (ARE WE SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHO THEY ARE? EXPLAIN.)

Four generals (GENERALS ARE NOT CIVILIANS. CONFUSING.) were among the dead, the activist group said. (SO THE SYRIAN OBSERVATORY FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IS AN ACTIVIST GROUP? NOT CLEAR.)

The explosives are thought (BY WHOM?) to have been placed in the basement (IN WHICH BASEMENT???!!) meaning opposition fighters were able to breach security to get into the building. (SORRY SARAH, BUT I CAN’T PICTURE THIS AT ALL. SHOW DON’T TELL.)

There has been no confirmation of the attack by state media, or by government officials. (THIS IS GREAT.)

What do editors do?

At best:

— Clarify and direct the tone, length and content of your story or book

— Help you refine your thinking if the story changes as you’re reporting it

— Offer some helpful sources

— Read your story as the reader will, with fresh eyes and no prior knowledge of the subject

— Add their own questions to the material to yours and those of potential readers

— Brainstorm about the story’s larger context and how yours will be better/deeper/smarter than any other on the topic

— Point out errors in your thinking: assumptions, filters, pre-conceptions

— Help you target your copy toward the needs and interest of their niche readership

— Save your sorry ass from a lawsuit, or several, by noticing, questioning and (if they have staff counsel) getting your material reviewed by a lawyer before it hits print

— Make sure your facts (spelling, dates, attributions, statistics) are correct

— Question your logic and story structure

— Help shape the narrative so that it flows and reads smoothly from start to finish

It takes two challenging emotional states to accept the process of being edited — trust and humility. You have to trust that your editor(s) are smart and are going to help make your story/book better and stronger and you have to have the humility to listen to them.

But you also need enough spine, after a while, to say “No. That sentence/paragraph/wording/structure works just fine as it is.”

At its very (rare) best, the editor-writer relationship is just that, a relationship.

A great editor is a great gift for any ambitious writer to have in their life, even on just one story. I’m still friends, decades later, with some of mine, whose wisdom and tough love helped to improve my work.

If you want a glimpse into an editor’s brain, this is a classic, smart and helpful book for any would-be non-fiction author.

This week’s webinars: How Reporters Think, Finding and Developing Ideas

By Caitlin Kelly

How do reporters think?

It seems mysterious to some, but — whether through training, school or experience — we process the world in specific ways. I enjoy journalism because one of its principles is challenging authority and questioning received wisdom.

We ask “Why? a lot.

It also means breaking many of the accepted rules of polite society: interrupting, demanding answers from the powerful, revealing secrets. That alone can be difficult for some writers to get used to.

Anyone who hopes to sell their journalism, non-fiction or books also needs to know how to quickly and efficiently find sources, decide which ones are worth pursuing and understand the underlying principles by which all reporters, and their editors work.

These include a deep and fundamental understanding of ethics, knowing when to push (and when to back off) and how to frame a story.

Having worked as a staff reporter for The Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News, and a regular freelance contributor toTHINK LIKE A REPORTER The New York Times, I can help you hit the ground running. To compete effectively with trained veteran reporters, you need to think as they do. We’ll talk about how stories are shaped and edited, and how to balance the need for accuracy, great writing, deep reporting — and hitting your deadlines!

The webinar is 90 minutes, at 2pm EST Saturday February 8.

Details and sign up here.

And anyone who’s blogging, writing and hoping to develop longer narratives for print — or for new digital websites like Longform, the Atavist, TakePart and others — needs to find and develop timely, compelling story ideas.

Ideas surround us every day, sometimes in the same room with us, at work, at the gym, at work, in your community or place of worship, or in conversation with friends, family and neighbors.

How to know which ones are worth pursuing? First you need to recognize them as potential stories, and know when, why and how to develop them into salable material.

Some of the hundreds of ideas I’ve conceived, pitched and sold:

putting my dog to sleep, (The Globe and Mail), the use of carbon fiber in yacht design, a devastating side effect of a popular medication, (Chatelaine magazine),  Google’s meditation classes, women car designers,  (New York Times) and returning to church after decades away. (Chatelaine.)

PERSONAL ESSAY

Finding great stories is like birding — once you know what they look like, you’ll start to see them everywhere!

Here’s a testimonial from Leonard Felson, a career reporter who took this webinar last fall to help him move from selling only to regional or local markets to national ones:

As a coach, Caitlin Kelly is like a doctor sending you on your way with just the right prescription. She read my clips and zeroed in on what I could do to up my game. It was time and money well spent, and well worth the investment in my career.

The webinar is 90 minutes, at 2pm EST Sunday February 9.

Details and sign up here.

Questions or concerns?

Please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

Fleeing the cage of words

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you ever just stopped talking?

Not the usual way — pausing for a minute to draw breath or sip your drink or check your texts.

But decided, for a while, not to speak at all.

I did so in the summer of 2011, a few months before I married Jose, a man who is devoutly Buddhist and who decided, as a birthday gift, to whisk me off to an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat. (Yes, really.)

The only time speech was allowed was in our teaching sessions, or private meetings with the staff, to ask questions.

Golden Buddha Statue of Gold Buddhism Religion
Golden Buddha Statue of Gold Buddhism Religion (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Here’s my Marie Claire story about how it changed my life, and our relationship, and here’s one of my five blog posts, all from July 2011, about how great it felt to be quiet for a while.

We communicated mostly through Post-It notes and gestures, occasionally whispering in our room.

For the first few days, it felt like an impossible burden and every morning’s meditation revealed another empty chair or cushion left by those who had decided to flee.

Then it felt massively liberating.

To not be social.

To not make chit-chat.

To not fill the air with chatter so as to sound witty and smart and cool and employable and likeable.

To just…be silent.

To just…be.

When we returned to the noise and clamor of “normal”life — the blaring TVs in every bar, the ping of someone’s phone or an elevator or a doorbell, the honking of cars, the yammer of people shouting into their cellphones — we were shell-shocked by it all.

I miss that silence, and I really miss the powerful experience of community we had there, with 75 people of all ages from all over the world who had chosen to eschew words for a week.

In December, I started a weekly class in choreography, modern dance, a new adventure for me. There’s only one other student, a woman 13 years my junior. In a small studio, we spend 90 minutes moving, writing about movement and creating “insta-dances” which we perform and listen to feedback about.

It’s all a bit terrifying for someone whose audience — here and in my paid writing work — typically remains safely distant, invisible and mostly ignores what I produce. To look someone in the eye, and to see yourself in the mirror, and to express oneself without words, using only corporeal language are all deeply disorienting.

Not a bad thing. But a very new thing.

Deutsch: Modern Dance Company "Flatback a...
Deutsch: Modern Dance Company “Flatback and cry e.V.” Produktion: “patchwork on stage”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Your fingers, wrists, toes, elbows…all have something to say, I’ve discovered. The subtlety of a flick, a wiggle, a pause, a hop. It’s a wholly new way to express ideas and emotions without the tedium of diction.

It’s another way to tell a story, wordlessly. I’ve been surprised and grateful that the other dancer — who is thin, lithe and performs a lot — calls me graceful and expressive. I didn’t expect that at all. As someone whose body is aging and needs to shed 30+ pounds, I usually just see it as a tiresome battleground, not a source of pride and pleasure, sorry to say.

It’s also a little terrifying to have all that freedom, as writing journalism always means writing to a specific length, style and audience, like a tailor making a gray wool pinstriped suit in a 42tall. It’s always something made-to-order, rarely a pure expression of my own ideas and creativity.

It’s interesting indeed to open the cage of words and flutter into the air beyond.