Friday, January 15, 2016

Q&A with Lauren Kessler

Lauren Kessler is the author of the new book Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker. Her other books include Counterclockwise and My Teenage Werewolf. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times Magazine and Los Angeles Times Magazine, and she is director of the Writing Initiative at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communications. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Q: You write, “The Nutcracker is my cure for middle-aged doldrums.” What about The Nutcracker especially appeals to you, and how did it pull you out of those doldrums?

A: The Nutcracker has special emotional resonance for me. It was the first ballet my mother took me to at age 5 -- and we went to Lincoln Center for the Balanchine production every year until I left for college. I have taken my own daughter to the ballet every holiday season since she was 5.

But also, from a practical point of view, it is really the only ballet I could ever hope to perform in, as much of Act I involves dances performed not en pointe. I was not ready to dance on my toes. Well, I was ready, but I knew that my feet weren't.

The book is about my quest to dance with on stage with a professional ballet company, but it is more broadly about shaking it up, mid-life, when you don't have to, when circumstances don't force you to take on a big challenge.

The book is about actively pursuing challenges, about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and placing yourself at the bottom of the learning curve...because that's where change -- and fun -- takes place. It was the act of taking on the challenge and staying with it, not The Nutcracker itself, that pulled me out of my doldrums.

 In the book, you describe the perfectionism that is part of the ballet world. How did you stop yourself from taking on those attitudes?

A: I didn't. I just redefined "perfection" as a process rather than a concrete result. To perfect oneself is to strive to improve. I do that. I embrace that. It is part of learning and growing. To BE perfect is a. impossible b. a psychologically damaging mindset.

Q:  How did your family react to your quest to dance in The Nutcracker, and to this book?

A: My family has always been both supportive and amused by my immersion work. They generally think I'm a little nuts, but in an interesting way.

Again, though, the book was (in my mind and in my family's) less about The Nutcracker and more about the larger issue of taking on challenges that seem out of reach, that stretch you in ways you've not be stretched before, that scare you but you do them anyway. This is exactly the message I strive to communicate to (and embody) for my children.

Q: Will you continue to perform in The Nutcracker in future years?

A: I danced with the company once again this holiday season -- but just for six performances. I really have no idea about the future. I certainly know (and very much enjoy) my role as Aunt Rose. And I have learned to be an expert in applying stage make-up. So who knows?

Q:  What are you working on now?

A: I am always working on something! And, yes, I have started on a new project. But it is too early to talk about it.

I will say that, although it involves immersion, it is as different from Raising the Barre as Raising the Barre was from my earlier work. I am intensely curious about subcultures (ballet dancers being one) in our midst and will be exploring another one for my new book.

What else? I blog weekly (posting Wednesdays) -- and have done so for the past three years. The blog is clickable from my author site,

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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