December 2, 2015

Now Is All There Is: Writing, Ballet, and Balanchine

By Susan Elia MacNeal

When I was in my twenties, I wrote for Dance Magazine and publications of New York City Ballet. I wrote in-depth interviews on dancers, and to do that, I often was invited to observe them — in daily classes, rehearsals, costume fittings, photo shoots, and performances. My take-away was — and remains — that dancers are the hardest-working artists I’ve ever met.

There’s a saying in dance: Miss one class, you know. Miss two classes, your fellow dancers know. And miss three classes, the audience knows. Every morning, as I struggle to write, I’m keenly aware that dancers are putting their hands on wooden barres at ten a.m. and getting ready for their first pliĆ©.

How can I not write daily, with that example of diligence in front of me?

One of my favorite quotes about art is from choreographer George Balanchine. Someone once asked him about “the muse” — and he answered, “My muse comes to me on union time.” Yes, when he wanted to choreograph, he needed his company dancers, who were all part of a union and needed to be scheduled and paid. Time was money. When he was working in the studio with them, he’d better find the muse — and fast!

I think of Mr. Balanchine when my own muse is proving elusive. I remind her I may not be on union time, but she’d better get her act together!

Dancers routinely work through discomfort — aches and pains, more serious injuries, illnesses, personal heartbreak, hunger, new pointe shoes…. How can a writer complain about the relatively luxurious life at the desk?

I remember feeling pretty tough when I finished a novel with a broken finger. And this past summer I wrote through two bouts of pneumonia. Yes, I was in my pjs, in bed, but I was writing! I made my due date!

But the reality is — I could hide out with my cats and endless cups of tea, with unwashed hair, and no makeup, and finish my book. Whereas a dancer would either have to put on makeup and smile or cancel performances completely. Writing through injury and illness doesn’t seem so hard now, does it? Balanchine is quoted as saying, “Someone once said that dancers work just as hard as policemen, always alert, always tense. But I don’t agree with that because policeman don't have to look beautiful at the same time.”

Let’s face it, writers — no one cares what we look like. Just the words on the page.

And then, to me, what’s most poignant about a dancer’s career is the transience. It’s an art form for the very young. As Balanchine used to say to dancers holding back, “What are you waiting for? What are you saving for? Now is all there is!”

And so when I need some inspiration, I think of the grinding schedule of the dancers I know, of their dedication and tenacity, of the always ticking clock of aging they work against.

We writers, who can write decades longer than dancers can dance, think we have so much time.

But we don’t.

Let’s all remember as we sit down to write: “Now is all there is!

Susan Elia MacNeal is the Barry Award–winning and Edgar, Dilys, and Macavity Award–nominated author of the Maggie Hope mysteries, including Mr. Churchill’s SecretaryPrincess Elizabeth’s SpyHis Majesty’s HopeThe Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, and Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante. She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her husband and child.   @SusanMacNeal    Facebook

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