To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel was one of the very first graphic novels I ever read. It's a memoir by Siena Cherson Siegel about her youth as a dancer, and it's illustrated by her husband Mark Siegel. To Dance is a slim, beautiful book that anyone who is a performer, or looking for graphic novels, or just in need of an engrossing tale, must read. I am so pleased to present to you an interview I recently conducted with Siena. Read on!
How did you decide you wanted to write a memoir? And why did you choose a graphic novel format to do that?
I considered the idea of writing something about those years at the School of American Ballet for a long time. I thought aspects of the experience would make for an interesting book, even while I was there as a teenager. It was just such an amazing and important time in ballet history, yet I think today’s young readers can relate to it because it’s seen through the eyes of a girl who is totally in love with dancing. I was telling my husband, Mark (the illustrator of the book), some stories about dress rehearsals with Mr. Balanchine when I was 12 and 13, and he could really picture it working well as a graphic novel. So, we started getting really excited about it and decided to do it together.
What was your favorite thing about the process of writing a memoir and collaborating with your husband (the artist) on it?
It was the wonderful surprise of seeing a picture that marries a visual memory of mine with a feeling or emotion that accompanied it, but seen through a different set of eyes, through a different mind than my own. Some of the illustrations perfectly evoke way more of my personal feelings/reactions than any photographic record of the same event could ever portray.
In the book, it seems that you were sort of living a double life: your dancing life at NYCB (New York City Ballet), and your family life at home. Did your personal life affect the way you danced, or did your dancing affect your personal life? Or did you separate them completely?
No, it didn’t seem like a double life. I didn’t separate them completely, I don’t think I could have done that. I think there were things about the dancing life that helped me handle the difficulties of the family life. For example, when other parts of life are confusing and chaotic, the repetition of the exercises you always do at the barre can feel like meeting an old friend. Despite the rigors of training your body in class, there is a mental focus, clarity and intensity of concentration needed that can be a relief. This is the part of the ballet training that I described as a refuge in the book. I also really enjoyed being able to express feelings through the dancing. It was a great artistic outlet for a lot of intense emotions.
Are you writing anything right now? Do you want to write another graphic novel in the future?
I have some ideas cooking for a future project, although I don’t know what form it will take. It could be a graphic novel, or maybe a picture book.
What is your favorite ballet, and why?
My favorite story ballet is Giselle. I love the exploration through dance of the themes of love, betrayal, revenge and forgiveness. It is also fascinating to watch the main character transform from an energetic young girl into a wili (a kind of ghost). In order to pull it off the dancer playing Giselle must go far beyond her technique and shade every movement to fit the story. The music and choreography are incredibly beautiful, and I find the experience very moving.
If I had to choose one favorite non-story ballet I think it would be Balanchine’s The 4 Temperaments. It was completely original and pioneering when it was created, but it still seems so today. Even after many viewings, the inventive movement manages to surprise and never feels dated. It is one of the best examples, in my view of Balanchine’s impeccable musicality and theatricality.
What was the best thing about being a dancer with NYCB?
I would like to clarify that the young dancers training at the School of American Ballet are not considered to be members of the Company NYCB. Although we danced with NYCB we were still members of the school. That said, performing in the NYCB productions at Lincoln Center was one of the best things. That was pure enjoyment and exhilaration.
Being in New York and having the opportunity to see a lot different performances and companies from around the world was also extremely rich.
What is the most important thing (advice, technique, anything) you learned at NYCB that you would like to share with other aspiring dancers?
I love the fact that these questions are coming from you at 17, exactly the age when the book ends. I was really hoping the book would find some readers around your age. When I was 17, my injury left me heartbroken— heartbroken that I couldn’t dance in NYCB, which had been my singular goal for years. It threw me into a devastating and depressing time when I had to ask: “What am I going to do now?” I wish I had been open back then to explore where else, and what other kinds of dance I could get into. It was NYCB or nothing in my mind, because it can be like that when you ‘lock in’ to a goal. But now I know that the passion for dance, having found something I really love to do, that’s what matters—more even than a career or a place in a dance company, or whatever else.
The most important thing I learned from the experience is that if you love doing something dive in. Go for it 100% without worrying if it will lead to a career. Whether you end up doing it professionally or not, the dedication, passion and discipline it takes to train intensely in any art form will serve you well, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Thank you so much, Siena! It was such a pleasure to be able to interview a fellow dancer and writer.
And the Summer Blog Blast Tour continues with interviews at the following sites:
Delia Sherman at Chasing Ray
Ingrid Law at Fuse #8
Polly Dunbar at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Tera Lynn Childs at Bildungsroman
Barry Lyga at A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy