What ballet taught me about comics

Luck has landed in my life someone kind and cultured (and gorgeous) who takes me to the theatre. Now, for a gal like me who grew up convinced that Ghostbusters was the zenith of Western cultural expression, this is kind of a big shift. Opera and ballet were always closed books to me–and, honestly, they looked like the kind of leather-bound, gilt-edged books that you overlook on a shelf, because they’re fusty, dated, and probably a bit cringe-inducing were you really to get to grips with them.

I’d love to say that one night in the stalls and my outlook opened up like a telescope, but my philistinism goes deeper than that. Riding the train back from Madame Butterfly, the song I couldn’t get out of my head was “Teenage Dirtbag”. At Carmen I got pretty excited because the production featured a real live horse walking on stage. And this weekend, when I saw my first ballet – Manon – my gauche little mind went “Ooh! You know what? This is just like comics!”

Stone cold badass in the making

Actually, it’s like comics in a lot of ways. For one, Manon’s a rare example of a woman substantially putting herself in a refrigerator. For another, I don’t believe for a second that the story really ends with Manon dead of prima donna woe syndrome: that was a total comics fake-out death. You know she’ll be back in the sequel as a stone cold badass–had they not chucked us out after the final curtain, I’m sure we’d’ve seen Samuel L. Jackson walk on stage and recruit her to The Avengers. But what really made my comics sense tingle was the realisation, a few minutes in, that they really weren’t going to use any words at all. The whole plot unfolds visually, through action and composition, and that blew my little verbal-narrative-dependent brain.

So far so obvious, right? There’s a visual vocabulary in the performance – techniques for guiding the viewer’s attention to the action that’s most relevant, while still letting the audience enjoy the aesthetics of the whole scene. Comics, as a visual medium, are in just the same business, of course. And yes, you can convey plot very economically without words: that’s kind of the whole premise of sequential art. But watching this completely non-verbal performance made me realise how much more than storytelling is going on in a work like this, and – by extension – in a comic.

What do I mean? Well, the success of the ballet performance isn’t just about the acting, though that’s huge. It’s also not about how the music can carry narrative, just like in a film score – that’s essential to the experience, yeah, but it’s not sufficient. A ballet isn’t just a play set to music. In a ballet, the dancing doesn’t have to be just representational. It’s not just that when a character dances, she’s interpreting some distinct action or emotion into dance. I’m thinking about a scene where the student character, Des Grieux, has stabbed the villainous jailer to death: Des Grieux’s reaction sequence features a long series of complicated dance movements, for which I’m not smart enough to know the names. That should be absurd, right? How are we supposed to accept the story we’re being told – that the character’s panicking; he’s a killer; he’s in a state of agitation and flight – if he’s standing there pirouetting and standing on one leg? But it does work, and it works because the dance itself – the form – is part of the content, part of the artistry, part of what you’re there to see. Sure, it’s overtly unrealistic, and you’d think that would make it interrupt the flow. But because the dance is a convention of the medium – and beautiful to look at – it actually works to create the scene.

And comics, of course, rely on the same dynamic. They’re packed with devices that you’d think should interrupt the reader’s “pure” consumption of the narrative – sound effects made visible; caption boxes and speech balloons; motion lines and impossible “camera” angles. But because they’re conventions – they’re aspects of the form that actively become the content – we don’t have to overlook them to experience what the comic’s doing: they actually work to create the experience, even in spite of their unreality.

Or, to put it another way, what I learnt at the ballet is that artworks aren’t just vehicles for conveying stories as unobtrusively as possible into the audience’s brain. Story isn’t everything, and “using pictures to tell a story” is not all that comics is about. And when I boil it down that simply, it sounds totally obvious, but as a writer I’m hyper-verbal and learning to think this way is something new. So what am I going to do with this learning? Firstly, I’m gonna try to write a “silent” comic. I have a bad habit of composing my scripts as a series of dialogue exchanges, then working out the scenes that fit around them. That should help me to learn more about visual conventions, but it’ll still be only a lesson in finding non-verbal ways to tell stories. I think, to get past the idea that storytelling is the last word of what comics are about, I think I’m going to have to pick up a pencil and start teaching myself to draw.


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