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Preview: Letters from Yelena at Dance City, Newcastle

GUY Mankowski’s second novel, Letters From Yelena, began as a book about “the lost art of letter-writing”.

Dora Frankel Dance, Letters from Yelena. Photo by Tony Griffiths
Dora Frankel Dance, Letters from Yelena. Photo by Tony Griffiths

GUY Mankowski’s second novel, Letters From Yelena, began as a book about “the lost art of letter-writing”.

The letters are written by Yelena, a psychologically damaged ballerina who tries to map out her mind through letters to a novelist called Noah.

A follow-up to his debut novel, The Intimate, this is an epistolary novel, a genre popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Guy says: “It is quite an old-fashioned form but letter writing is old-fashioned and I think it is a great way of communicating in a genuine fashion.

“People can express themselves through letters in a way they can’t through everyday dialogue. I wanted to create a character who expresses herself completely through her letters, so if you are holding the book, in a way you are holding her.”

Guy’s novel deals with mental health, self-harm and abuse within the ballet community, and he was helped with his research by North East choreographer Dora Frankel.

He says: “I started going to the theatre to see dance and at one performance happened to be sat next to Dora.

“I asked to interview her and that formed the initial spine of the book.”

After reading Guy’s manuscript, Dora began to create a dance based on a pivotal scene from the book. This will be performed by Argentinian dancer Laila Sanz alongside a sound piece by Jeremy Bradfield at the launch of Guy’s book tonight.

Dora says: “Guy began observing my choreographic process and digging deeper into my past and what makes me tick as an artist.

“This is the first time my creative process has been shared and it’s really exciting. I’ve explored literary themes before but never worked directly with an author.”

Guy, a psychologist who lives in Newcastle, was funded by Arts Council England to research the novel in the Russian city of St Petersburg. There he was given access to the Vaganova Ballet Academy where he interviewed young ballerinas.

“This was important for the book as they are not encouraged to have their own identities. Their bodies are, in a sense, owned by the state, so getting them to talk about their lives was integral to the book.”

After watching contemporary dance and classical ballet, Guy began to focus on the story of Giselle, which premiered in Paris in 1841.

Inspired by a poem by Heinrich Heine, the ballet tells the tale of a young girl who dies after being seduced by a nobleman. From beyond the grave, Giselle saves her lover from a death sentence by vengeful spirits.

Guy says: “The themes of traditional ballet stories say a lot about the human condition and they got my imagination fired.

“What particularly struck me about Giselle was someone innocent and unworldly having to compete against dark forces because of her love.

“One of the main themes of the book is that people can find their way in the world through art, so discovering Giselle was a breakthrough for me.”

Guy adds: “Dora’s vision is different from mine but she has made my book real in another way. We can hit people on the page and on stage in the same night.”

The launch of Letters from Yelena, published by Legend Press, is at Dance City tonight at 7pm, www.dancecity.co.uk

Dora Frankel Dance are also working on a piece about the 18th Century landscape artist JMW Turner and his travels in the region. The premiere of The Unfolding Sky: Turner in the North is scheduled for Bamburgh Castle on June 1 next year as part of the Festival of the North East, but there’s a presentation of some exploratory work on Thursday at 5.15pm as part of Moving Frontiers, a series of North East dance showcases at Mima, Middlesbrough.


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