A Writer’s Inspiration: Dance of Shadows

Yelena BlackDance of Shadows, by Yelena Black, follows Vanessa Adler as she immerses herself in the high-stakes, high-stress world of the New York Ballet Academy. The book is rich with descriptions of ballerinas practicing and performing—the prologue describes an intense rehearsal where the “floor is speckled with sweat and blood from hours of practice.”

As Yelena was preparing to write the novel—and during the writing process—she often turned to YouTube to watch videos of her favorite dancers. Check out the videos—and Yelena’s descriptions—and you can almost imagine Vanessa, her missing sister Margaret, the two male leads, Zep and Justin, and all the other bunheads at the NYBA, dance across the stage.

And stayed tuned till the end of the post: We’ve got a writing challenge for you!

Igor Stravinsky conducts The Firebird

While this isn’t dance footage, I loved seeing Igor Stravinsky, the composer of The Firebird, conduct the orchestra. Dance of Shadows was partially inspired by the mysterious legacy of Stravinsky and his music, so seeing him in this historic footage helped shroud the music that accompanies this book with magic.

Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes in The Firebird

Every day before writing Dance of Shadows, I played an excerpt from different productions of The Firebird for inspiration. Margot Fonteyn’s performance is one of my favorites, not only because she is Margaret Adler’s (Vanessa’s missing sister) favorite ballerina, but because her intensity and capriciousness seems to transform her into the firebird while she dances. It’s incredible.

George Balanchine with Suzanne Farrell

Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine in Don Quixote

George Balanchine and his legacy (both as a choreographer and as a co-founder of the New York City Ballet) were huge inspirations for Dance of Shadows. While writing, I felt like he was gazing over my shoulder. There are a wealth of photographs of him, though I like this one in particular. It’s of him working with one of his most famous prodigies, Suzanne Farrell. While Josef, the choreographer in Dance of Shadows, is different from Balanchine in may ways, he feels the weight of Balanchine’s legacy, and shows glimmers of him when working with Vanessa and the other dancers.

Anna Pavlova as the Dying Swan

This video is from 1925, and is thus not the best quality, but I love it because even through the blurry lens, you can feel the sadness in Anna Pavlova’s dance. It was one of the first bits of footage that really showed me how ballet can communicate feelings and states of being that words cannot. When writing Vanessa’s dance scenes, I tried to channel that sentiment, using her motions as ways for her to say things that she couldn’t verbalize.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in Giselle

Mikhail Baryshnikov is a living legend, and I felt so lucky to find so much amazing footage of him dancing. This clip in particular really inspired me while writing Zep’s dance scenes, and Justin’s. It doesn’t matter how many times I watch this video; I still gasp every time he leaps. It looks like he’s flying.

Vaslav Nijinsky

Vaslav Nijinsky

One of the most famous male dancers in the history of ballet, Nijinsky and his life are shrouded in myth: his involvement in the Imperial Ballet, then the Ballet Russes, and his tragic decline that followed. When writing Dance of Shadows, and thinking about the strange and occult history that forms the foundation of the story, I couldn’t help but keep returning to Nijinsky and this photograph. It’s haunting. His costume and makeup so elaborate it almost serves as a mask. That tone is what I tried to capture when writing the histories in Dance of Shadows.

Larissa Lezhnina as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker

In my opinion, no dance list would be complete without a performance from The Nutcracker. It was the first ballet I ever saw, the first one I ever performed in as a girl, and is still the only ballet that I have to go see every year. Though the video skips in the beginning, and is a bit grainy, and the music is distant, this is still one of my favorite performances of the Sugar Plum Fairy. True to a proper fairy, Larissa Lezhnina is light as a feather, and floats across the room as if her feet aren’t even touching the ground. Truly spectacular.

Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in Prokefjev’s Romeo and Juliet

Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev are ballet royalty, and together, they are spectacular. Their chemistry is palpable, and when watching them, you feel them yearning for each other, you feel how doomed their fates are. This performance was particularly inspiring while writing the dance scenes between Vanessa and Zep.

Baryshnikov warming up

This footage is actually from a film called Dancers. I stumbled across it while doing research for the rehearsal and barre scenes that take place in the beginning of Dance of Shadows. The man has springs in his legs. Just watch it. It’s incredible.

Coppélia, Doll Variation from the Royal Ballet

This video makes me smile, and perfectly exemplifies how ballet can be as much about acting as it can be about dancing. In Coppélia, the ballerina becomes a doll, her legs so stiff they seem made of wood, her expression so wide it seems painted on. When bringing Vanessa to life in Dance of Shadows, I knew that she would view dance in a similar way—she would try to become her character, to use them to escape her own nightmarish reality.

Writing Challenge:

While writing, Dance of Shadows, Yelena Black found so much inspiration for the novel from watching YouTube videos.

Your challenge? Find a video online that inspires a story you’re working on (the story can be in any stage—from just an idea to totally finished). In a new writing, include a link to the YouTube video and a 100-word description of how and why the video inspires your story.

Tag the writing VideoChallenge. You have until Monday, March 11 at 11:59 p.m. to enter the challenge. Figment editors will be reading all the entries. Four lFigs will see their entries featured on the Figment homepage and their videos will be featured in a special blog post on the Daily Fig!


Photo of Suzanne Farrell with George Balanchine by Orlando Fernandez, World Telegram staff photographer. Vaslav Nijinksy by A. Bert.

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3 thoughts on “A Writer’s Inspiration: Dance of Shadows

  1. I’ve played the firebird 🙂 So difficult, you would not believe. I wasn’t all that old at the time. It was… Interesting. You can certainly say that about it. Let’s just say I wasn’t the best player there…

  2. Can the video be a lyric video for a son that inspired you? Or does the inspiration have to come from the actual video?

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