Audrey Niffenegger on Raven Girl and swapping the page for the stage
Bestselling author talks about her experiences of dance and the inspiration behind her latest work.
Author and visual artist Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife, Her Fearful Symmetry) has enjoyed huge success in the literary world but is about to embrace a new art form through a collaboration with Wayne McGregor. Together they have produced the dark balletic fable Raven Girl. We spoke to Audrey about the challenges of working in this new field:
Ballet is more traditionally associated with swans rather than ravens, and the title alone indicates that this is a ballet with a difference. What inspired the story?
Years ago I read an article about a plastic surgeon who wanted to do avant-garde things, like letting people have wings or tails or horns or whatever else they wanted, and the only thing holding him back was the ethics behind it. At the same time, I found myself thinking about transgender people, who are applying medical solutions to existential problems. I thought it would be very interesting if a person who felt she was really a bird, encountered a plastic surgeon who was willing to make her into one.
Before I started work on this collaboration, I had this character – the Bird Girl – in my head. Her mother is a raven and her father is a postman, and she is the product of this inter-species marriage: part-human and part-bird. In a fairytale, she would have gone to a wizard or a sorceress, however in the modern world you just consult the medical profession to see what they can do for you.
Can you describe your creative process working with Wayne?
Wayne suggested creating something from scratch, and specified that he’d like a fairytale. I already had a little character in mind, and so I pulled together the basic bones of the story in writing. However, what had attracted Wayne to my work in the first place was the imagery and so I then started to get busy creating images.
Wayne’s very disciplined but also very enthusiastic and so he was able to make suggestions that informed what the story became without being overbearing.
How involved have you been with the set and costume designs?
I’ve had several conversations with the designer Vicky Mortimer, but she is free to do what she wants to do. It is interesting to see her designs because they have a complete aesthetic of their own. She’s not trying to imitate my drawings, but is taking elements from the prints that I made and reproducing them as 3D objects on stage. There are some things only mentioned briefly in the text that she has turned into actual environments, and there are some details that were in the pictures that she has realized as objects on stage.
Prior to working on Raven Girl you’d had no experience of ballet. What are your thoughts on the art form now?
About eight years ago I received an email from former Royal Ballet Principal David Drew. He’d read my book Three Incestuous Sisters and thought it would make a great ballet. When I was next in London, we met up and he quickly realized that I knew almost nothing about dance so he starting showing me around. He’s been with the Company for years and is like a walking history of The Royal Ballet. It was wonderful to be a fly on the wall at the Royal Opera House and to see the dancers and the choreographers working.
In that respect, my experience of ballet is kind of backward. I am more interested in the making of things than the performance – watching it coming together.
My technical knowledge of ballet is almost non-existent, and, because I’m so ignorant of it, I’m always incredible excited by what I see. Because I’ve always been interested by the visual spectacle, it’s like I’m six again and it’s all brand new!
Generous philanthropic support has been provided for the production from The Taylor Family Foundation, Mr and Mrs Brian Capstick, David Hancock, Linda and Philip Harley, one anonymous donor and The New Ballet Works Syndicate.