A chat with author and alumna, Lucy Ashe
At the School, one of our most fundamental values is to ensure all individuals have what they need to reach their potential and feel empowered to shape their futures as healthy, resilient human beings. That’s why we’re always so incredibly happy to hear when our alumni are flourishing. One of our alumna, Lucy Ashe, is just about to launch her debut novel, Clara & Olivia, and we can’t wait to read it.
Lucy attended the School between 2000-2005. She went on to study English Literature at Oxford University before pursuing a career in teaching. We sat down with Lucy to discuss the book and her journey to its publication.
You trained at the School as a Junior Associate and as a student at White Lodge. When did you decide to leave dance and pursue an academic subject at Oxford?
During my last year at White Lodge, I realised that I needed to make a change. I was starting to feel more interested in my academic subjects, but I still loved ballet so much. It was an incredibly difficult decision — I really found it hard to imagine myself doing anything other than ballet.
I went for an interview and an exam at Charterhouse School. The academic teachers at White Lodge were fantastic at helping me prepare for that. Suzanne Gunton was the English teacher at the time: she was very inspirational to me and made me realise that I had other talents that I could be pursuing. I was really lucky that I got accepted for a full scholarship to go Charterhouse.
I went there and as soon as I started, I did love it, but I was missing ballet. I was very lucky again because there was a teacher at Charterhouse whose wife was a senior examiner with the British Ballet Organisation. She took me under her wing and gave me regular ballet classes, and I did all the advanced grades. Then I applied for Oxford University and got in. I studied English Literature and I’ve never looked back.
I also did a dance teaching diploma during my first year at Oxford. At weekends, I’d go back to London and study with the British Ballet Organization which was incredibly rewarding and meant I could teach ballet to students and continue to develop my knowledge of dance. So, even though I left full-time training, I didn’t really leave ballet behind.
When did you begin writing? Was it something you’d done since childhood?
I’ve always written — when I was a child I was writing short stories and poems. When I started my first job as an English teacher, I decided that I wanted to write a novel. I worked hard on it, but it wasn’t very good! I finished it and worked more on editing it but decided that it wasn’t going to work. I then wrote another one. This one was more successful in the sense that it was shortlisted for a novel competition. Some agents were interested, but in the end, it didn’t go anywhere. Then my third one is the one that’s now being published – Clara & Olivia.
I think something that I learned whilst I was at The Royal Ballet School was helpful in these circumstances: the importance of resilience and not being limited by setbacks, instead treating everything like a rehearsal. I felt that the first two books were like the barre work and then with this book, it’s the performance. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect the first book we write to be published because, to be honest, it might not be very good. It takes a certain amount of resilience to put that to one side and try again with something else. It requires courage because you might get more rejections, but in the end, you’re only getting better, you’re perfecting your craft and trying new structures and ways of telling stories. I’m really grateful that I had the opportunity to have two failed novels and to get to the third. It shows how important it is to develop your practice.
Can you tell us about your novel Clara & Olivia?
Clara & Olivia is set in 1933 in London, in the early years of Vic-Wells Ballet at Sadler’s Wells theatre. It’s a fictional story but it takes place around real productions and includes people such as Dame Ninette de Valois, Ursula Moreton, Constant Lambert and Nicholas Sergeyev. The main characters, Clara and Olivia — two identical twin ballerinas — are completely fictional. They both want to be the best, but in very different ways. Their relationship is close, but there are barriers between them because of their differences. Two men, a pointe shoe maker and a piano player for the company, are obsessed with these girls, and as their obsessions grow and change, the relationship between the sisters starts to fragment.
The character of the pointe shoe maker is an apprentice at Freed of London. This was really exciting in the research process as I used to always wear Freed of London pointe shoes. I looked into the creation of pointe shoes and into Dora and Frederick Freed who set up their shop in 1929 on Cecil Court, off St. Martins Lane, exactly where their flagship shop is now. They had a basement where everything was made: now Freed of London has warehouses and factories, but at that time there would have just been Frederick Freed making pointe shoes with one apprentice. I have created a completely fictional version of his apprentice and some of the novel explores the creation of pointe shoes. It was really exciting to speak with the senior manager of Freed of London, Sophie Simpson, when I was doing my research; she said she remembered me from when I was fitted for my first pair of pointe shoes at the School in the Salon studio. She was so lovely and now my book launch is happening in the shop!
How did you decide upon the thriller genre to tell this story?
My novel has a gothic setting, ripe for suspense. I’ve created a sort of semi-fictional mysterious space in Sadler’s Wells which is based on the well that still exists, and the story is about obsession, about desire for love, about desire for dance, about wanting to be best. Those are quite heightened emotions and I wanted to see how these feelings can lead people into danger. My characters all have desires that conflict with one another. Or they have expectations of someone else that don’t fit in with that other person’s perception of their relationship. All these dynamics together pull the characters towards the precipice of a life-or-death situation.
Did you use any of your experiences at the School as inspiration? Was there anything that happened that you wanted to explore and try to resolve?
I suppose there are two main things. For the first part of your question, it was the ritual of pointe shoes. They really dominate your life as a female ballet dancer, from the very beginning at the School when you get your first pair of pointe shoes, to the later years when you are wearing several pairs a week. But it’s the preparation of pointe shoes that has stayed with me, and I remember that to be a really great bonding experience with everyone at School. The girls in the year above would teach us how to darn our shoes, the best angle to sew on the ribbons, the best techniques for prolonging the life of the shoes and how to break them in. That cycle and ritual is something that I think binds dancers together.
At the time the book is set, Freed of London had quite a new and radical idea of pointe shoes. They said they would make the pointe shoe to fit the dancer, not the other way around. That is something that we just took completely for granted at school. There are all these different pointe shoe makers and you have your maker who fits the shoe to your foot and dancing style. So, I suppose that kind of all-consuming aspect of pointe shoes was there at the School and has influenced my book.
The other area was superstition and the rituals of preparation for a performance, whether this was to make yourself feel calm and ready to perform or simply things that you had to do every time you walked through a certain place. For example, in White Lodge, there is the statue of Margot Fonteyn. We all used to rub her finger for luck: it is now a very different colour from the rest of the statue! In my novel, I wanted to think about how characters had routines and rituals to help them prepare for performances and how sometimes that could be to the detriment of their grasp of reality.
I loved White Lodge and leaving it was very hard because so much of my identity was wrapped up in ballet and suddenly I was saying I’m not going to be a ballet dancer. That took quite a bit of time to resolve and work through, and I suppose, in truth, I’ve never quite gotten over that. In some ways, I feel like it’s always been part of my identity, but yet now on the outskirts, and I think that’s something that a lot of ex-dancers consider: this question of where you exist within the ballet world. I felt writing this novel was a process of bringing me back into ballet in a way that worked for me. Literature, writing, words: these are what I love and what I’m passionate about. I felt I could tell a story of ballet and bring that to life in a way that reflects the journey of my life from dancing to writing. Perhaps I have come full circle with the creation of this book. I think that’s partly why it was so exciting that this was the book that I got an agent and a publishing deal with. It has been very fulfilling to realise that my identity can still be about ballet because I love it so much, but now through literature.
When you were doing the research, was there anything that surprised you that you didn’t know already, as you must have learnt about the history of ballet when you were at the School?
I absolutely loved learning about dance history at White Lodge. I did a dance AS Level in the last year at School and Anna Meadmore (Manager of Special Collections), taught some of that course and I was fascinated by the history of dance and the development of choreography, as well as how much new choreography was created in those early years of The Royal Ballet.
In my research, I discovered how new British ballet was in the 1930s, and how at the time British audiences associated ballet with the Ballets Russes or Russian and Danish stars, or ballet was simply a revue in a music hall. I hadn’t quite realised the full extent of this. When Ninette de Valois and Lillian Baylis opened Sadler’s Wells in 1931, and the Vic-Wells ballet was founded, that was such a big step for British ballet. It’s incredible to read about the development of the company and the growing interest of audiences, the financial help from the Camargo Society and then, at the end of that first decade, just how much the Vic-Wells ballet company did during the Second World War. They were incredibly hard-working: they danced all throughout the war and were touring constantly.
It was during the Second World War that the company’s reputation grew; they brought entertainment and joy to people during that time. Sadler’s Wells theatre closed during the war and it became a shelter for people whose homes had been bombed, but the School continued in the studio. The company continued to tour, as well as putting on some performances at the New Theatre in London. In 1940, they travelled to The Hague, and they were actually there on a tour when the Germans invaded. They lost costumes, music scores and sets in the evacuation, some of which they didn’t get back until after the war or were lost forever.
How do you define success?
It’s a difficult question. Obviously, success should be one’s own personal sense of success, but it can be hard to figure out what that is when there are so many influences around us, especially with social media and the constant comparisons it throws at us.
I think personal success can be so many things: that one personal project that you’ve given yourself to do, your career, your relationships and your friendships, or it can be taking a step towards a new goal. I think success for me right now is to enjoy the process of being a published writer for the first time, without comparing myself to others in the industry. The best success should make us happy rather than anxious, but I think that’s quite difficult to achieve in today’s world. This is a personal battle for everyone, but especially for someone in a creative industry — you are putting something that you have created out there and for me, this feels very personal. Your version of success when you’re doing something creative is always going to feel a little bit more fragile so I think it’s about finding ways of protecting yourself from those feelings of fragility.