Smash Pages Q&A | Siena Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel

The creators of ‘Tiny Dancer’ their approach to the memoir, the ways that comics can capture dance and working together in a difficult time.

Siena Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel are the authors of the new graphic memoir Tiny Dancer, which is a companion of sorts to their earlier collaboration, the picture book To Dance, which was released in 2006. In the years since, Mark has become known for books like Sailor Twain, or the Mermaid in the Hudson, and for his work as the editorial director of First Second Books. 

In Tiny Dancer, Siena talks about her youth as a dancer and her elite education before being injured as a teenager. It is a beautiful and moving story that offers insight into an art form and life that few people know. It’s a complicated and at times heartbreaking story that ends in a beautiful  and emotional way, featuring some of the best work of Mark Siegel’s career to date. I spoke with the couple over Zoom from their home in New York’s Hudson Valley about passion and time, the ways that comics can capture dance and working together in a difficult time.

Siena, two of the most important questions for a memoirist, beyond simply the facts of what happened, are why do you want to tell the story and when in your life you’re telling it from. What were the circumstances that made you interested in writing a memoir exploring your youth?

Siena Cherson Siegel:  The urge to make a memoir was different in our earlier book To Dance than in Tiny Dancer. The first project started when I was in my thirties and I needed to tell a certain story about the total love of dance. At that time I focused on the love, the excitement and the passion side of it. I was aiming to capture what it’s like to do something you love and how great that is. 

Twenty years later, looking back on that time, I wanted to update my perception of it. Within a lifetime there are countless different stories you can tell others and yourself…. This time I focused on this transformative moment—from dancing to not dancing. Having chased one dream so long and hard, choosing to stop had this lingering aftertaste of failure—and it was now time to revisit that. Really writing Tiny Dancer was a process of healing. There were old wounds and buried ghosts that I could face at last in the process of writing this. I believe there are a great many people who love something, train hard at it, even take it far—whether it be ballet or a sport or a musical instrument—but end up walking away from it as a career. Being okay with that is important. That story of being driven and devoted to something as a teen, and then changing direction is something teens can benefit from.

This book was almost a sequel to To Dance, both in the sense of being a book about dancing for older readers, but also what it meant from a later point in your life.

Siena:  Absolutely. The reason I wanted to do this book was really to go through that journey of understanding for myself.

Did you ever intend to make another book after To Dance?

Siena:  I did have the thought. There was a lot I couldn’t put into To Dance because it was a short book for younger readers. That was the story that wanted to be told then, but I also knew there was much more to mine from those years than what made it into the first book. But at the time I no plans to write another.

When you started thinking about it seriously, was it always a comic in your mind?

Siena:  Yes. First of all because of the collaboration with Mark. We like working together, and both wanted to do that again. Also, dance is a moving art form. To explore dancing in a book needs to have a visual sense of time and motion and comics is a unique medium for conveying both. And there’s more to it: there’s even the dance between words and pictures! How perfectly suited to convey the dance form. In my mind, it was never going to be just a prose book.

Mark we’ve talked before about how you work and how your process changes for each project. How did the two of you figure out how to work together on this?

Mark Siegel:  There was a long period of finding my way into this book. In Siena’s writing phase there was a long period where I was waiting to see what she was giving birth to. It was a whole different process than the first book where for the script I was essentially interviewing her. Back then, we would go on long walks with a tape recorder—back when there were tape recorders! [laughs] This time it felt like Siena was going into this place deep inside herself and it was not always an easy process for her. 

For a long time it felt like the door wasn’t open yet to dive into the visual expression of it. For me much of the excitement of every project is figuring out what the adventure of making it will be. What medium is suited for it? Is there a style I need to adapt to? With To Dance, I was far outside my comfort zone and for me it was the harder book to draw. It was a bit like ballet can be, there’s pain involved. It wasn’t just that Siena was correcting every ankle, the way the knees were turned. In a sense I was going for a very feminine line, a soft, open line and watercolor, and everything about that was a stretch for me. I half expected this was going to happen again this time, but it was weirdly different. 

Once I started picking up on where Siena was going with Tiny Dancer, it became very interesting to see it as more in line with comics storytelling and much further from a picture book. More about what comics are really good at— sequences and journeys through time. I had some ideas for the look of it and for the first time I worked with an assistant on backgrounds, Abe Erskine, who it so happens had interned at First Second, and is a super talented cartoonist.

With Abe, there was a period of onboarding to get inside the vision I had. The feel I wanted had an animation-quality in  the backgrounds, soft, dream-like shapes and no linework, unlike the characters. I wanted backgrounds to sit back and feel like a memory of New York City. 

This time I had an instinctive feeling for how to draw Siena’s character. This was also my first comic done entirely on a Cintiq. I had done one picture book digitally and with this one I wanted to allow for tons of Siena’s corrections on the dancing, on every position, on the ballet steps, on the accuracy of dancers’ bodies, all that. I couldn’t blow it! . And sure enough there were a lot of corrections. But this time there was a real pleasure in doing the artwork. 

All of us have been under new stresses and affected deeply by the pandemic and the transformation of our world at every level, and we’ve had to find our little havens of peace and well-being. There was something quietening, even meditative about going to my screen and drawing no matter what else. In some ways I think it may be my best line work ever. I got out of the way and was just letting it all unfold. Tiny Dancer was this true duet. Siena and her words were inviting me to dance.

One of my favorite things that comics can do is when the words on the page and the picture are adjacent and together they hint at this third thing, this third language. It’s a little like the pleasure of a symphony and hearing multiple layers of sounds and how they overlay and interact. It was very musical. 

Siena was kneading her script all along, and in fact, she was reworking the ending right up to the very day we turned in the work. Some lovely passages came together late in her process—like these deep appreciations of the great dancers, peppered throughout the book. There’s one spread all about the great prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell, and Siena’s not just a fangirl—well she is, too, obviously—but she guides you inside the genius of Suzanne Farrell and how she attacks the space. Instead of just looking at footage of Suzanne Farrell dancing and making a comic based on that, I can drop deeper inside this performance and try and express that. It was very rich. The project was taking me to this deep place. 

It’s also documenting Siena journeying deep inside herself and going through this process where she was updating her self  narrative of her own past. That’s one of those profound things the book is doing. Sometimes we tell ourselves stories that don’t help us, that undermine us, that weaken us, that disempower us. The idea of going back and revisiting the past to get closer to the truth of things is like rewriting yourself—so your past can propel you instead of weighing you down. All these underlying meanings could go into the pictures. I love it. Siena was sweating bullets, but I was looking forward to my drawing meditation every day. [laughs]

Siena, part of what you went through, and Mark you can obviously relate to this but have a different relationship to it, is what it means when something we did as a kid, and loved and enjoyed, becomes work. It changes our relationship to it.

Siena:  It does. It’s funny how when you love something 100% and there aren’t any doubts about whether it’s what you should be doing, you don’t mind working hard at it. You do it because you love it. But at some point after my injury, a questioning started in me, about whether I was going to continue with ballet. I don’t think I realized that at the time. Throughout that decision-making time, doubts took hold about my love of it; fears of re-injury gripped me. Suddenly these creeping presences took the joy out of this thing I had loved so fully. So many factors influence whether you continue to really love something. One of them is pressure. As a ballet dancer goes into their teens the pressure of competition, the demand to be very singular about it, the necessity of giving up on so many other things other young people do—all of these come bearing down on you at a young age when you hardly know yourself, let alone what’s right for you or not. At the time, I remember feeling the fun was gone, and why was I working so hard, exactly?

Mark:  Also Siena explores the question “where do you get your fuel from?” If you run out of fuel, if you’re running on empty, hard work starts to eat you in a way and doesn’t nourish you. It’s a different fuel in the early part of the story that’s driving and propelling Siena. That has a way of anesthetizing you to the struggle. But suddenly you’re not driven in the same way. It’s interesting what Siena said about her decision because that was one of the things she discovered and came to understand in revisiting that time. Some people have catastrophic injuries and can overcome that and continue, but in her case, something caused her to stop.

Siena:  Yeah it relates to the earlier question about how often injuries like this happen, and do they always stop a person’s career. It depends so much on the person. And when exactly it happens. The fact that my injury happened during my teen years is significant, and most likely affected my decision to leave the ballet track. Had I  become a professional and had it happened in my twenties and I was dancing somewhere professionally, I would have had to stop dancing for a while and recover, but I could have come back from it and continued to dance. A lot of it depends on how strong the love and the will to keep dancing is. Whereas for me it started this process of questioning and ultimately changing paths. In this case it was not that I wouldn’t have been able to dance again, but it caused me to realize that I didn’t really want to anymore.

The idea of it being so all-consuming is something that Mark you can relate to in many ways, but it’s different as an adult. Academics were an afterthought. Your life was about dance.

Siena:  Absolutely. In my teen years, the idea of preparing to go to college was not in my mind at all. On the ballet track, starting at fifteen, you take ballet classes all day long so you can’t go to a regular school anymore. You either have to switch to a professional children’s school, like I did, so they can arrange your schedule to leave everyday for ballet, or you do homeschooling or online courses.

I imagine that causes a lot of burnout and exhaustion, even if those are not the phrases used. And injuries as a result of this as well.

Mark:  One of the threads Siena pulled out of this that was fun to explore visually was this narrowing road, which is the title of one of the chapters. The panels became tighter boxes. That to me is a profound thing that many young people need to hear. In Siena’s case it was “New York City Ballet or nothing.” Being young is a time where it’s tempting to focus on one goal. In Siena’s case not just ballet, but one specific company! It’s this self made prison. Siena is planting a cautionary flag saying: “Young reader, this is a trap!” I love that.

Siena:  That was eating away at me at the time. I had always loved learning and reading and languages. The thought that all of that was going out of my life if I continued down this road was very troubling. It’s a shame these careers that eat up your youth cause you to give up so many things early on. When you’re sixteen you can’t see that life is very long and there’s plenty of time for more than one dream. 

It doesn’t have to be your major, your ultimate vocation, and you never change directions again. There’s time for many dreams. Maybe that will come across to some young reader.

People likely know that there are mirrors everywhere in a dance studio, and in the book there is this hyper awareness of watching oneself and of being watched. A lot of moments in the book convey that feeling, which can be exciting and powerful, but also amplifying failure and self-consciousness.

Siena:  The mirror is a very important, ever-present part of ballet life. It’s very necessary because of the fact that there are certain shapes and lines and positions that have to be correct for it to be ballet. Sometimes the only way to really know is to see yourself. You can feel like you’re doing it, but look in the mirror and see you’re not in the right position. In that sense it’s a very essential learning tool. But at the same time it causes that flip from being on the inside of yourself doing something that’s an expressive art, where you’re expressing a feeling and moving through space, to being a frozen line in a mirror that’s either right or wrong. 

There are things you can’t see in a mirror the same way you can’t see them in a photograph. It does not capture that this is a moving art form. A fluid thing. One thing that the comics form can show very well is that interplay where the mirror can take on different aspects. For example the image starts to become frozen, and a reflection can turn to stone—it’s no longer a living breathing expression, but a statue you’re trapped inside of. That can also be a symbol for the self-consciousness that mirrors can cause. Especially for teens who are always looking at themselves and noticing every single thing about their physical appearance all the time, that can be excruciating. It’s already so difficult going through that time in life. All the changes you’re going through are constantly mirrored back to yourself—and everyone else. It can be very liberating for dancers when they get onstage and are performing, because they can’t see themselves, and a great many of them love the liberation of that.

Mark:  The mirror reinforces this idea that you’re a body. Some of the most challenging stuff for me visually was also some of the most lyrical writing from Siena. She talks about this deep joy of being lost in a feeling. How do you show something that a mirror can’t show? That a photograph can’t show? It is this sense of being much much more than a body. There are forces and powers and emotions you’re feeling that are being portrayed and expressed and revealed by the dance, by the body. That is something that the words circle around in different ways throughout the book. It took some wrestling to figure out; what do I put on the page here?

If you can’t capture it with a photo, how do you capture it without abandoning the style and find way to convey experience?

Mark:  Comics and dance differ because comics are still frozen pictures, but there’s this alchemy with the reader. The story is traveling through the pictures and emotion and so much not shown on the page matters as well. That was the challenge. Also with the dances, how to use the comics vocabulary to give that sense of things in flow. You have to evoke it because you can’t show it directly.

One thing you mention in the book, and I don’t think I appreciated this until I read Jennifer Homans’ book a few years ago about the history of ballet, but the way in which, throughout history, choreography has been passed down from one person to the next. Which is a fascinating way to learn.

Siena:  It’s amazing that things stayed intact and were passed on just from person to person for that many years. You can watch one of the classic ballets and know that the ballerinas learned it from somebody who danced it, who learned it from someone else who danced it, all the way back to the beginning. That’s why the choreography today is the same as it was. There have been many attempts to transcribe choreography,  to come up with some code, like Laban Notation, and other ways, but for some reason, nobody seems to think it works very well. Everyone sticks with the Ballet Master or Ballet Mistress model, which is what it’s called when somebody who danced the part teaches and coaches you in what the originator wanted in it. That’s one of the reasons people want to go to the schools—The Kirov, the Paris Opera Ballet School, American Ballet Theatre. They are what they are because the people who teach there belong in a direct line back in time to the people who started it all. The funny thing is that sometimes the person who’s teaching it to you has to show you all the steps with their hands and arms. What they’re passing on more often than not is the head, shoulder, and arm positions—the feeling of the dance. They’re past the age where they can do the steps anymore so they have to tell you what the steps are and they show you what to do with their arms, but they’re not doing it. Most of the people coaching the principals in Swan Lake at American Ballet Theater right now cannot do the steps of Swan Lake anymore, but they can pass on what it should look like.

You make the point a few times that classical ballet is full of ethereal women, and the ballerina has for centuries been either a feminine ideal or the feminine ideal in Western culture. And people like Misty Copeland and others have been trying to push against that in many ways recently, but it still exists.

Siena:  Oh yes. She was able to escape being rejected because of that whereas many, many people have not. There’s a lot of talk right now about whether that will be able to change in the future of ballet. It remains to be seen whether more people who look like Misty Copeland will be able to become ballet stars or not. It’s definitely part of another reason why so many people dream of becoming ballerinas and why so many people do not get to become that. Some people can eat whatever they want and still look the way they need to look—and some can’t. And some bodies can never look like that idealized ballet body.

I wanted to talk about the ending, because it really felt like this was an ending that you couldn’t have written earlier in your life, and it was key to why you needed to write this memoir now. How did you figure out how to end it?

Siena:  I feel like I don’t want to explain it with words! It needed at that point to become more like a dance where words drop off. It’s true, that is the part of the book where I’m looking at the whole journey from today and whatever understanding I have about it now is in that final, wordless sequence. In a sense, I apologize to my young me for any times when I was too hard on myself, too punishing on myself, for blaming myself or feeling like I had failed. Because coming out the other side I feel joyful about that part of my life and what it made possible. In the making of Tiny Dancer, that healing actually took place

Mark:  It was amazing how that choreography in the final scene came together at the very last moment. I think we had already done the cover. But then when Siena found it, it just clicked. One of the things I learned from Siena over the years is how to read dance. You read a ballet very differently than you read a movie or novel. You’re reading time and movement and you’re in your feelings. You can shut off your cerebral self and experience something with the whole of yourself. I love the fact that that last scene is an invitation to the reader to read those pages like you would read a dance. To just feel something.

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