While Bunheads may be Sophie Flack’s literary debut, this page-ripping romp backstage at the ballet marks the first step in the 28-year-old’s second career. Three years ago, at the tender age of 25, Flack retired from dancing with the prestigious New York City Ballet as a member of its corps de ballet, a position she’d held for nine years.
Drawing largely from Flack’s experiences with NYCB, the novel follows 19-year-old Hannah Ward’s struggles and quiet triumphs as she trains and dances in the ultra-competitive corps, all the while wrestling with forces outside the theater calling her to a more balanced life. We caught up with the multitalented Flack, an accomplished artist and now a junior majoring in English at Columbia, curious to learn about her “bunhead” life and beyond.
Discover more realism in the here and now among our 2011 Best Books for Teens.
As a child, was your first impulse to dance or to write?
Actually, ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always been drawing.
Writing and drawing are such different modes of expression compared to dance—the former require great stillness and the latter movement. What links them for you?
Both writing and drawing involve real observational skill and physical stillness. Dance you think of as having a huge amount of movement and being quite aerobic, but it also takes deep concentration and inner poise, calmness, stillness and a lot of restraint, so I think that may be the relationship.
With academia and writing, the difference for me has been how solitary it is. In a dance company you’re surrounded by other dancers and people all working toward the same goal, and there’s a real sense of community and camaraderie along with the competition. But as a writer and being in school, I actually feel quite isolated, so that’s been the biggest change for me as I move forward in my career.
Was it thrilling or bittersweet for you to write about dancing?
Writing was sometimes difficult because I’d left the ballet recently, so for me it was a very cathartic, emotional process a lot of the time because I had to literally plug into the matrix and re-imagine I was there. I don’t know how other people write, but I’m a very visual person, coming from the drawing and dance world. I write in my head cinematically, and I imagine I’m actually physically in the character’s body. So I think it was very therapeutic for me to go over that world and gather my thoughts about my career and where I stood in terms of how I felt about it.
There are a lot of misconceptions about the ballet world: that it’s either flowery and pink, or very grueling, and your feet are bloody all the time and sort of exploding everywhere—you know, a horrible life. I wanted to write something that was more true to life, and I really wanted to write about the corps de ballet because there’s very little attention paid to the underdog of the company, in which I spent my entire career, as did most of my friends. It’s a very interesting lifestyle; to always strive to be promoted and to never quite get there makes for an interesting character and creates a lot of drama. Especially when the girls are so competitive with one another, really complex friendships develop. Originally I wanted to set most of the book in the dressing room, because that’s where the girls let down their guard. That’s where they exposed their underbellies, unlike when they went to the studio, where they had to be very tough and competitive, and hide their emotions or the fact that they were hurting.
Is the ballet company hierarchy depicted here typical, with everyone vying for the slightest glance from the director?
Certainly the ranks of apprentice-corps-soloist-principal I portray here are across the board. I was trying to write something that would apply to every ballet company. I’ve heard that the struggles with the corps de ballet are pretty universal, so I wanted to write a piece that was true to the corps-de-ballet experience in general. It really did feel like your rise or fall was determined by one man’s opinion at the end of the day.
In the book you include many fascinating details regarding wardrobe. Tell me, how do you go through eight pairs of pointe shoes a week? What happens to them?
We bury them in the cemetery behind the theater.
So how do they die?
I didn’t exaggerate. We’re rehearsing from like 10:30 in the morning to 6 in the evening; that’s a lot of hours on your toes. You’re not literally on your toes the entire time, but you’re in the same pair of shoes, and they’re made of cardboard, pâpier-maché and a little satin—that’s all. So after eight, 10 hours of pressure and sweat, that’s going to get really mushy, and in order to support your foot for performance, you’re going to need another pair of pointe shoes for however many ballets you have—sometimes you have three ballets an evening. Performance is where you step up your game, so you need a shoe to support you, and you don’t want your shoe to fail you mid-performance. Even in a day you could go through two pairs of shoes, so I would say eight pairs minimum.
Luckily, that expense was covered for us. The shoes are like $70 a pop and custom made. How we put the shoes on with water and mold them to our feet is different for everyone but totally ritualistic. I was training on pointe since I was 11, and you get used to doing this—along with your hair and makeup—yourself.
Was walking away from dance difficult?
I still have dreams about it. I think I’m there sometimes. It was a part of my life since I was 7 years old, so I still think of myself as a dancer. I really do. I dream that I miss my entrance. Grateful as I am that I started my career young, so that when I retired at 25 I was able to begin a new career as a writer and a student, I don’t think you ever really stop being a dancer, even if you stop dancing professionally.