Lucy Ashe Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Lucy Ashe
Photo: Alex Fine

Lucy Ashe

An interview with Lucy Ashe

Debut author Lucy Ashe talks about ballet - the inspiration behind her book, The Dance of the Dolls.

Tell us about the inspiration behind The Dance of the Dolls.

When I was training at the Royal Ballet School, I developed a fascination for not only the stories of ballets, but also the history of their creations. The Dance of the Dolls is a novel emerging out of years of research and personal experience and I sometimes feel as though I have pulled together the threads of what I love most in my life to create my debut novel.

My novel reimagines the early years of the Vic-Wells Ballet company at Sadler's Wells theatre, and the story is immersed in ballet history featuring famous historical figures such as Ninette de Valois, Lydia Lopokova, Constant Lambert, Alicia Markova, and Nicholas Sergeyev. I loved engaging with this important time period when British Ballet was starting to grow, integrating historical details into my fictional story.

How did your experience at the Royal Ballet School inform the research behind the novel?

My eight years first as a junior associate and then at White Lodge, the Royal Ballet's School in Richmond Park, had a huge influence on the novel. To spend those years living and breathing ballet, to define myself entirely as a ballet dancer, was both wonderful and challenging in equal measure. There was an intensity to those years that I will never forget.

Ballet training has much repetition and routine, and none more so than the preparation of pointe shoes. The rhythm of sewing, preparing, and replacing these shoes is familiar to all ballet dancers. It is a relentless cycle, and I found myself drawn to this when planning the novel. I always wore shoes made by Freed of London, and so I researched the company and was fascinated by the story of Frederick and Dora Freed and their pointe shoe workshop. I have worn hundreds of pairs of Freed of London pointe shoes, and I spoke with Sophie Simpson, the senior manager at the pointe shoe manufacturer, when I was researching for my novel. It was lovely to hear that she remembered when I was fitted for my very first pair of pointe shoes at eleven years old at the Royal Ballet School in Richmond Park.

Our pointe shoe fittings always took place in a beautiful dance studio called the Salon that looked out over the park. I will never forget that first fitting, how exciting it was to step up en pointe. The older girls taught us how to darn the ends and sew on the ribbons, as well as the best tips for protecting our toes from blisters and bruising. They taught us how to break in our shoes and how to prolong their life with shellac, though I still managed to get through two or three pairs every week; I was fortunate to have a kind sponsor who covered the cost of my pointe shoes.

Ballet is more than just the steps performed in class and onstage. There are many routines and rituals, passed down from one generation to the next. I loved recreating this world in my novel.

What drew you to setting the novel in 1933?

The early 1930s was a very important time for British ballet. Ninette de Valois set up the Vic-Wells Ballet at Sadler's Wells Theatre, the company that later became the Royal Ballet. In my research, I was delighted to see that they put on a production of Coppélia in 1933, a ballet that I love and that inspired the plot of my novel. I danced scenes from Coppélia many times during the years I was training at the Royal Ballet School. It is a ballet of which I have very fond memories, and so it was an easy decision to set the novel during the rehearsals and performances of a historical performance of the ballet.

Why did you choose to weave the ballet Coppélia into your novel?

Swanilda is a brilliant character, a determined, playful, and mischievous young woman who challenges both her fiancé and the mysterious Dr. Coppelius into accepting the futility of placing all their adoration onto a lifeless doll. Although Coppélia is a joyful, comic ballet, it is inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1816 short story "Der Sandmann," a much darker, more sinister story of a man named Nathanael who falls in love with an automaton doll, Olympia. In The Dance of the Dolls, I have drawn on elements of both the comedy ballet and the gothic Hoffmann story. In fact, I took the names of two of my characters directly from Hoffmann's work.

Who are your favorite novelists?

An almost impossible question to answer, as the list would go on and on. However, I can narrow it down by talking about which of my favorite writers and books inspired my novel. There is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters; The Foundling by Stacey Halls; Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier; The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. I am drawn to novels with dark and atmospheric settings, stories where the depths of human desires can be exposed.

What are your favorite novels about ballet?

I have read Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild so many times, and there is something timeless and magical about the relationship of the three sisters, Pauline, Petrova, and Posy Fossil. When I was a child, I read all of the Lorna Hills Sadler's Wells series. They were wonderful books and I must have read A Dream of Sadler's Wells about the brilliant Veronica Weston countless times. I also enjoyed Listen to the Nightingale by Rumer Godden, about a ballet dancer named Lottie and her King Charles spaniel, Prince. A recent favorite is the adult fiction novel about ballet by Maggie Shipstead called Astonish Me. It's set in the 1970s and is all about obsession and the fear of mediocrity. Her understanding of dancers' obsessions

with their body, and how their entire identity is so often based around their success or failure as a dancer, spoke very true to my own experiences of ballet.

Do you still dance?

After school, I left intensive ballet training and went to the University of Oxford to study English literature. Although it was a very difficult decision, I knew that I wasn't going to find fulfillment and success in the way I wanted it if I continued on my path as a professional dancer. However, I could not stop dancing and I trained as a dance teacher with the British Ballet Organisation. Gaining my diploma in dance teaching was hugely rewarding and deepened my understanding of ballet, the body, and the science behind the movements. I taught ballet to students at Oxford and continued to dance and perform as a freelance dancer. However, once I started working as an English teacher in a full-time capacity at a very busy boarding school, daily ballet training was simply not possible.

Now, I dance when I can, taking open class at studios such as Steps on Broadway or Ballet Arts Center in New York City, or in London I go to Pineapple Dance Studios or Danceworks. I love these classes, how welcoming they are to everyone no matter your level. Professional dancers stand at the barre next to men and women in their eighties who have never hung up their ballet shoes. Ballet is a wonderful way to keep the body strong and supple. I hope I will dance for the rest of my life.

What impression of ballet do you hope readers will take from reading your novel?

Often people think of ballet as either pink frills and tutus for little girls, or psychological horror and trauma because of the success of Black Swan. And yes, it can be both of these things: it is lovely seeing little girls and boys getting excited about their first ballet class or a pretty costume, and I agree that ballet provides the perfect setting for a story of obsession and pain. But it is also far more normal than that, a routine, hard work, a job that pays the bills. In the story of Clara and Olivia, I hope readers will see two young women who have desires, dreams, insecurities, and fears, just the same as everyone else, ballet dancer or not.

Most of all I hope that readers will find themselves intrigued by ballet: that my novel will provide a springboard for people of all ages to try ballet themselves, to go to the ballet, and to learn more about this beautiful, painful, magical art form.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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The Dance of the Dolls jacket
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Read-Alikes

All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Lucy Ashe but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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    Megan Abbott is the Edgar-winning author of the novels Beware the Woman, The Turnout, Give Me Your Hand, You Will Know Me, The Fever, Dare Me, The End of Everything, Bury Me Deep, Queenpin, The Song Is You and Die a Little. ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
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    Try:
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  • Kate Atkinson

    Kate Atkinson

    Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year prize with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Her four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie became the BBC television series ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
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    Try:
    Shrines of Gaiety
    by Kate Atkinson

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