Work and Play

Inspired by Helen Keller – who encouraged her friend Nancy Hamilton to turn her hand to something new – this month Emily shared an aspect of her life that was, until now, foreign to me.

Visiting the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design
Visiting the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design

Emily and I exchange long-treasured books, swap outfits and befriend many of each other’s pals. We trade critiques of early drafts, seek support during painful times and feel at ease in each other’s homes.

But there’s a central aspect of my friend’s life about which I know very little.

When Emily embarked on a story set in a remote children’s dance school, she reconnected with her own history of ballet by enrolling in a weekly class. Through my friend’s writing, I have become familiar with the intricacies of a dancer’s kit: the toe pads and foot tape, the pink stitches darned across a pointe shoe’s hard-blocked end. But I have never seen Emily’s own ballet kit. I feel as if I have met my friend’s fictional dance school principal – the eccentric Miss Violet who inspires distrust and adoration in equal measure. And yet, I have never asked Emily about the women who first encouraged her to take up ballet. I may have watched my friend’s characters warm up at the barre, but I have never seen Emily perform.

Last week, Emily took me to the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design to see an exhibition about a ballet that I had never even heard of before: The Bolt by Dmitri Shostakovich. It turns out that I may not be alone in my ignorance since the ballet was banned by Stalin back in 1931 after only one performance.

It was at first difficult for us to discern what the authorities found so troubling. After all, The Bolt celebrated the lives of Soviet factory workers and the communist league came up trumps.

As Emily and I explored the exhibition further, however, it became clear that the production’s playfulness had likely proved controversial. Perhaps, like us, audiences would have been more drawn to the bold colours and extravagant designs of the bourgeois baddies’ costumes than the sackcloth uniforms of the party faithful. These vaudeville designs were matched by the score, which Soviet critics condemned as flippant satire.

Tatiana Bruni, Kozelkov's Girlfriend, Costume Design for The Bolt, 1931, Courtesy GRAD and St Petersburg Museum of Theatre and Music
Tatiana Bruni, Kozelkov’s Girlfriend, Costume Design for The Bolt, 1931, Courtesy GRAD and St Petersburg Museum of Theatre and Music

I had expected that our outing would reinforce my sense of Emily’s self-discipline: her finely-tuned writing schedule matched by her rigorous ballet training. But I came out of the exhibition reminded that this aspect of my friend’s character is matched by her playfulness: the way she laughs uncontrollably when something tickles her, the uninhibited way she’ll get up on a stage or pose for a photograph, her willingness to take risks in her writing.

I may never be able to join my friend at the barre, but our daytrip showed me that there’s so much about exuberance and joie de vivre that I stand to learn from showing more of an interest in this part of Emily’s world.

Hot Off the Press!

We are delighted to announce that two of our guest bloggers have books out this month, and both of them promise to take us to new and unexpected places.

Beautiful and brutal, Emily Bullock’s novel The Longest Fight recreates the gritty boxing world of 1950s London. And her writer friend Ann Morgan has just launched her non-fiction debut Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, which invites us to join her on a quest to read a book from every nation.

Having stood by each other through their fair share of knocks, it is cheering to see this pair of writer friends experience knockout success together too.

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