Words by Jill Brown

The best words in their best order — Coleridge

I am currently a writer and researcher in the final submission stage of a Master of Philosophy in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland. My thesis is entitled White Swan Black: Fonteyn, Guillem and Copeland. It compromises 2 separate but interrelated components: a biography of 3 dancers and a critical essay that explores the narrative theory of relational biography.

The biography — White Swan Black — traces the fascinating lives of Margot Fonteyn, Sylvie Guillem and Misty Copeland. I draw them together relationally in their devotion to their art form and their significant achievements. In telling their stories, I focus on their bodies, technique and qualities of interpretation, which were different for each of them but all essential elements of being a ballerina. I consider their individual repertory and the ballets they share: The Firebird for Margot and Misty and Giselle and Marguerite and Armand for Margot and Sylvie. Swan Lake is in the repertory of all three and I give it special attention.

All 3 have left their mark on ballet (Misty is still dancing, of course). Margot’s career grew alongside British ballet; she was the first homegrown ballerina and the first to become an international star. Her dancing was characterised by lyrical precision and emotional spontaneity. She had a quality of grandeur that has disappeared from the ballet world today. She is the quintessential Odette, the white swan, idealised, radiant and unattainable.

image of Margot Fonteyn as Odette

Sylvie was the first dancer to excel equally in classical and avant-garde works. She embodied a new female athleticism, strength and suppleness, animated by a keen dance intelligence. Her motivating force was asserting her independence and she built her career as an international guest artist. She was a fearless innovator who never ceased experimenting with form and technique.

nude image of Sylvie Guillem

Misty is the first African-American principal artist with American Ballet Theatre, which is an  achievement of historic consequence. She has opened new paths for other artists to explore. She sees herself as both an artist and a brand, and is perhaps the most recognised ballerina in the world today. Most images of her highlight her lean, toned musculature, but on stage she is a lyrical dancer with a pliable jump, soft expansive port de bras and eloquent wrists and hands.  Together, Sylvie and Misty embody Odile, the black swans, real women not remote creatures, physically powerful and self-aware.

Ballet is a restless art. It moves constantly — on stage, of course, and also through history. From Margot to Sylvie to Misty, a gleaming timeline can be traced in the lives of women from Odette to Odile: white swan black.

Image of ballerina Misty Copeland

The critical essay — Motion and Modjeska: The Craft of Relational Biography — investigates the mechanics of biography by means of close readings of  2 contrasting biographies also concerned with artists: The Lamberts by Andrew Motion (George, Constant and Kit Lambert), and Stravinsky’s Lunch by Drusilla Modjeska (Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington-Smith). Here I view their opposing narrative approaches through the lens of the absent father and the engaged mother. I conclude the essay by reflecting on the insights I gain as a research-practitioner from this biographical apprenticeship — how, in writing about relational biography, I enacted my relational self.

You can see my professional experience on my LinkedIn profile.

My website is my place for writing ad libitum. It offers me an outlet where I play with ideas and wrangle my thoughts into the best prose I can. No client, no brief, no deadline, no advisor — just me and the words.


HOW TO CONTACT ME:  jillbrown15@gmail.com