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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Interview with Kathryn Wagner

After recently reading Dancing for Degas by Kathryn Wagner, I knew I had to try to ask her some questions because I was just dying to know. I have always loved dance, have taken many years of dance, and love Degas' paintings, so this was a sure hit for me. Kathryn was kind enough to take some time and answer my burning questions and here today is that interview. Enjoy!

With the in-depth view of the life of a Parisian ballerina, I can’t help but wonder, do you have any dance experience yourself?

Like a lot of little girls, I took ballet classes, so I was able to draw from my experience when Alexandrie was at Madame Channing’s studio. I read about the various ballets that were used in this book to capture the energy needed to tell each ballet’s story. For the more specific descriptions of steps, I went online. It doesn’t sound very appealing, but there are videos of different moves that I could watch and then describe as Alexandrie performed them.

When you were in the planning stages of writing this novel, which came first - the inspiration of Degas’ work or the life of the ballerina?

I’ve always loved Degas’ ballerina paintings and while taking an art history class in college, my professor pointed out that the man behind the curtain in The Star (L'etoile [La danseuse sur la scene]) was a "John."
The Star - 1878
This really resonated with me because I think of the ballet as very sophisticated, so I wouldn’t have thought that - not that long ago -some ballerinas had an ulterior motive for dancing. It’s always been a goal of mine to write a book, and when I started to seriously consider doing it, I was reading a lot of historical fiction at the time. I was drawn to the idea of filling in the gaps and speculating about what may have happened to great historical figures. I’ve always loved art history and I look at paintings less for the technical brushstrokes, but more for the story of what inspired the artist. I wonder about the artist’s relationship with a model or about how he or she spent time at the landscapes that he or she chose to paint. When figuring out what subject to tackle, Degas’ ballerinas immediately popped into my head. I thought the lives of the dancers would be the most interesting, so Alexandrie’s story actually came to me first. I liked the idea of a memoir-esque story of a ballerina who was in love with Degas, but was seen as socially unacceptable. I really knew very little about Degas as a person. When I researched his life and found that he had shunned all relationships for his art, it worked out really well because it allowed the story to be about unrequited love. I wanted the character of Alexandrie to be strong and to want something more for herself than meeting a John behind the curtain.

Were the Parisian ballerinas really looked upon as lorettes (well cared for mistresses) rather than respected for their craft?

Yes and no. There were many wealthy men who bought season tickets to the Opera ballet, which afforded them an all-access pass to the dancers’ dressing rooms and after-parties in the Green Room. Many of these men took young dancers as mistresses, and many of the dancers saw it as a great opportunity to advance socially. This was pretty commonplace in France - beyond the ballet - during that time. The Notre Dame de Lorette was the real nickname for the area depicted in Dancing for Degas because so many mistresses were kept there. But the ballerinas were always respected for their craft. The Paris Opera ballet was, and still is, one of the most prestigious institutes in France. It was also not necessary for the ballerinas to become mistresses, as history will show there are many famous ballerinas who were dedicated only to dance.

What was the best source of information in your research for this novel?

I found Impressionist Quartet: The Intimate Genius of Manet and Morisot, Degas and Cassatt by Jeffrey Meyers to be very helpful as well as Degas: Letters, which helped me to write in Degas’ tone of voice.

Do you have a favorite Degas ballet painting?

L'etoile is probably my favorite because it’s beautiful but then when you look closer you see a man behind the curtain, illustrating the relationship between abonnes and ballerinas. Although, since Dancing for Degas has been released Dancers in Blue will always be special to me because it’s the cover of my book.

Dancers in Blue - 1895

On your website it states that you are currently working on your second novel. Any hints for us as to what it’s about? Is it focused on art or dance?

I’m working on another historical fiction novel that focuses on the post-impressionist artist, Pierre Bonnard, and the love triangle between Madame Marthe Bonnard and his mistress, Renee Monchaty. It’s set in 1920’s France, which is such an energetic post-war time and it goes beyond Paris into the Provences and Riviera. This book is a lot of fun to write because each woman personifies the two sides of Bonnard’s personality - Marthe plays to the responsible husband who is content living outside of the city, taking walks and painting landscapes, while Renee plays to the restlessness that made him travel to place to place in search of something new and exciting. There’s also so much happening in the art world during this time with Fauvism, Cubism, and Surrealism, and seeing it from the point of view of an artist who, while incredibly successful, was looked over for being ordinary. Which is ironic given his relationship with Marthe and the secrets she kept from him, as well as how his affair with Renee ended.

Follow Up: Question by Librarypat - In your research, did you find why he chose to focus on the ballet as his subject?

Degas chose to paint the ballet because he liked to study movement. He also did a series of paintings at the races which focused on race horses for the same reason. It's not very romantic, but if an artist wants to study and paint movement, what could be more beautiful than the ballet?
Thank you Kathryn for the wonderful insight. I'm very excited about your upcoming work - Cubism and Surrealism have always been the periods of art that I have loved. Can't wait!

Kathryn Wagner currently resides in Washington, D.C. Dancing for Degas is her first novel. She holds a B.A. in journalism with a minor in art and has worked as a staff writer and columnist for several newspapers in North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Virginia. Imagining what has inspired great artists has been a longtime passion of hers. She is currently at work on her next novel.  You can also find more about Kathryn and her book at her website.

Copyright © 2010 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. Good interview. Interesting information on the ballet and Degas. In your research, did you find why he chose to focus on the ballet for his subject? It is interesting that several authors are doing books on artists this year. It is making for some interesting reading.
    Good luck with the release of this book and with your next one.

  2. Librarypat - I am passing your question on the Kathryn. I will post an addendum to the interview when/if I receive an answer. Thanks so much!

  3. Excellent interview! I love ballet and like most little girls took lessons for a few years. I am always amazed when I watch ballet and will certainly look for your book. I think it's a fresh story for historical fiction. Good luck with the second book :)

  4. Nice interview! I wasn't a ballerina, but a gymnast when I was younger. I always thought ballerinas were intriguing though.

  5. Oh, this is fantastic!! First of all, I'm a ballet freak -- I took ballet as a kid and felt certain that although Mikhail Baryshnikov was 20 some years older than me, I felt certain that he was *the* guy for me :) and I absolutely have been in love with Degas' paintings -- so I think this is quite the book for me to take up and read! Great interview as well!

  6. Thank you so much for answering my question.


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