by Grace Topping
I’ve read mysteries set in myriad places, but when I saw that Lori Robbins had set her mystery in a ballet company, I was intrigued. So much so that I took a copy of Murder in First Position, the first book in her On Pointe Mystery Series, with me on vacation. Once I started it, I didn’t want to leave my cabin on the ship so I could read one more chapter. Author Cathi Stoler said of Murder in First Position, “Everything is beautiful at the ballet—until it’s not in this exciting and unputdownable mystery where dance is the backdrop for lies, jealousy and murder.”
Since that first book, Lori has released Murder in Second Position—an equally intriguing book. So if you are looking for a mystery that is a bit different, definitely get a copy of Murder in First Position. Soon after reading it, you’ll be looking for her second book.
Murder in First Position
Ballerina Leah Siderova knows the career of a professional dancer is short. But rarely is it as brief as that of her rival, Arianna Bonneville, whose rise to stardom ends when she is stabbed in the back. New York City police detective Jonah Sobol fixes upon Leah as the prime suspect. After all, she was the one who found the body, she had the most to gain from Arianna’s death, and it was her name Arianna whispered, just before she died. Leah is desperate to clear her name, and she begins her own investigation, collaborating with her best friend and her ballet coach. As the three dancers sort through backstage intrigues, attempted blackmail, and a tangle of romantic liaisons, the noose around Leah’s neck grows tighter. Ballet, with its merciless discipline, is all Leah has ever known. Is that enough to keep her one step ahead of the police—and the killer?
Welcome, Lori, to Writers Who Kill.
Ballerina Leah Siderova comes from a long line of writers. Her grandmother was a staff writer for The New Yorker, her mother is a successful mystery writer, her sister tops the bestseller lists, and her father writes textbooks used by universities and pens historical novels. What prompted Leah to take a different path—one to ballet?
Leah begins ballet because she can’t sit still! Like many mothers with itchy kids, Barbara figures ballet would be a good outlet for her daughter’s energy. Although Leah’s parents are proud of her successful career, she’s quite conscious of the fact that they’re also disappointed that she never attended college. The deeper reason why Leah becomes a dancer is because she’s most herself when she’s dancing. She falls in love with ballet, and when you fall in love with art, it doesn’t let you go. This dedication to dance frees her, but after many years, it also constrains her. Part of Leah’s character arc is her growing desire to define herself as who she is, independent of what she does.
Madame Maksimova, Leah’s ballet teacher and mentor, says that ballet is full of intrigue. Why? Any more so than other areas of the arts or business?
Life in a dance company in some ways has a similar dynamic to life in an office or any other relatively small ecosystem. Petty jealousies, competition for promotion, and endless gossip aren’t unique to the dance world. The central difference is one of time. A dancer’s career is short. Leah is young, but within her insular world, she’s getting old. Because the competition is so fierce, and the window of opportunity so small, dancers are under tremendous pressure. You could think of it as competing to make partner in a law firm, if lawyers worked for very little money, got fired at a young age, and rejoined the work force with not much more than an online diploma and an eating disorder on their resume.
When Leah is suspected of murdering a dance rival, most members of the company ignore her, assuming she is guilty. It took a lot of strength for her to continue showing up each day for rehearsals. Where does her strength and determination come from?
Ballet takes tremendous discipline. From a very young age, talented kids are held to an exceptionally high standard of conduct and teachers expect unremitting work and sacrifice. This habit of self-control and persistence is central to Leah’s character.
When she finds the pressure of her situation too much to bear, she leaves her real self behind, and seeks inspiration in ballet’s fictional characters. In one episode, she has to confront her fear of heights, so she imagines herself dancing the role of the Fire Bird; in another, she is Giselle, who protects her faithless lover from death.
Leah’s parents tip generously because they feel guilty leaving the working poor and joining the intellectual elite. Why the feelings of guilt?
Barbara and Jeremy are extraordinarily socially conscious and sympathetic people. Through hard work they’ve attained success, but they’re committed to those less fortunate. They live privileged lives, but I didn’t want them to seem tone deaf to those who don’t, especially because in New York City, there’s such a vast gulf between the haves and the have-nots. Tipping was one way to signal this. Also, in an early draft of Murder in First Position, readers found Barbara more unsympathetic than I intended. This was one way to indicate the depth of her character, which her witty and often sarcastic voice might otherwise obscure.
Leah is critical of herself but is generous and caring about the aging ex-dancers and office workers who take ballet classes to lose weight. She talks to these lost-looking women, and when she can, takes them out for a meal. She drops five-dollar bills in panhandlers’ cups. What makes her care for these individuals? Has she inherited her parent’s sense of guilt?
Leah’s motivation is different from the one that drives her parents. She’s imaginative and sensitive, and her ability to inhabit a dramatic role makes her empathetic to real people as well.
I am not any of my characters, but I know those lost women, and I didn’t want them to be invisible. They’re part of the fabric of ballet classes, at least in NYC. In Murder in Fourth Position, they play a central role.
Most people don’t realize how ballet dancers suffer for their art. Everything that touches Leah’s feet, even drops of water from the shower, hurts. She is in pain after every rehearsal. With the toll ballet takes on the body, how long can a ballet dancer’s career last?
The length of a career is unique to each dancer. For those lucky enough to avoid serious injury, a longer professional career is more likely, but no one escapes the pain. I remember one teacher telling the class that she quit when the physical pain outstripped the pleasure of dancing. Most dancers suffer from varying degrees of pain for the rest of their lives. I certainly do.
Leah doesn’t like the person she has become. She says ambition makes one selfish and vain, but on the flipside, it causes shuddering insecurity and losing perspective of what it means to be human. Did you find this to be the case when you performed, or is this just heightened drama for a compelling mystery?
Like other artists, or anyone who’s driven by a fierce dream to succeed, dancers have to decide what’s most important to them. If it’s dance, then everything else must take a backseat. Leah is at a turning point in this book. Is there more to life, and to her, than being onstage? When I danced, nothing and no one was as important to me as ballet. It’s all I thought about and all I cared about. It also makes for heightened drama, especially when the stakes are so high.
Since Leah believes the standard for looking good on the dance floor is a lot higher for dancers than the rest of humanity, Leah frets about her appearance at nearly every occasion. Do people outside of ballet hold dancers to a higher standard of appearance? Or is that just Leah’s sense of insecurity?
That’s funny! I forgot about that part. This is Leah being insecure and forgetting that the whole world is not a stage.
Leah calculates the calorie and carbohydrate content of every forkful of food she puts in her mouth. If ballet dancers eat so little to stay thin, how do they have the energy to dance so strenuously?
I don’t know. But it happens anyway. One’s body adjusts.
In each book, I include a few lucky dancers who can eat without worrying about gaining weight. Others tend toward a more tortured relationship to food. Most company contracts include what is unofficially known as the “fat clause,” i.e., if a dancer gains noticeable weight s/he can be terminated. Georgina Pazcougin, a dancer with New York City Ballet, wrote a memoir that describes how she was called in for a “fat talk” and ended up getting thigh reduction surgery to keep her place with the company.
Leah can dance in front of thousands of critical ballet fans at Lincoln Center, but the thought of having to speak to one comatose audience member gives her the shakes. Could this be one of the reasons she turned to voiceless ballet instead of having to address audiences during book promotions like her family members?
Yes. Leah expresses herself through movement, which is her preferred means of communication. Her internal voice is eloquent, but she does have trouble articulating her feelings and thoughts to others. When she is anxious, or upset, or sad, she reverts to her childhood habit of jittery movement.
Leah describes her mother, who she calls Barbara, as demanding. What kind of effect does her demanding nature have on Leah and her sister?
Leah and her sister adore Barbara, but there’s a good reason why they don’t call her Mom. Barbara is accomplished, beautiful, and interesting, but there’s a core of insecurity about her that Leah has inherited. Melissa, Leah’s older sister, is closer to their father and brings a philosophical perspective that’s different from Barbara and Leah’s more emotional inner life. The sisters call their father Dad.
You performed with several ballet companies during your time as a dancer. Please tell us about your experience.
In dance, as in writing, I was very much a late bloomer. Unlike every other dancer I know, I began training at sixteen and got my first professional job three years later. I trained at the New York Conservatory of Dance and at the Graham School and danced with many modern and classical companies, including the Des Moines Ballet, St. Louis Ballet, and Ballet Hispanico. I paid the bills doing commercial work as well and was the featured dancer for Pavlova Perfume. After a long hiatus, I returned to ballet and now take classes with the New Jersey Ballet and at Ballet Arts in New York City.
Have any of your children gone into ballet?
Sadly, no. We’re zero for six, but one of my sons is a musician, and he’ll be conducting the Nutcracker Ballet for Ball State University later this year.
The analogies you used injected some humor into your books and made me laugh. Did you intend for them to be humorous?
As a writer, humor comes naturally to me. I love to see and comment upon the absurd side of life, although there’s a good reason this is confined to the page. I would never have made it as a standup comedian.
What’s next for Leah Siderova and the ballet company?
I’m very excited about the future of this series. My publisher has signed me to three more books, and in the fourth installment, Leah’s murder investigation takes her to Broadway. Book five takes her to Paris. As for book six…I know how it will end, but I have no idea how I’ll get there.
With your third book, Murder in Third Position, coming out in November, what is the most valuable thing you’ve learned since you began writing?
I learned that the choices one makes in writing a series are dependent upon the characters. I love Agatha Christie, but because Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are both quite old, they change very little from the first book to the last. My protagonist is relatively young, and I decided I wanted her character, and her relationships with others, to grow over the course of the series. In Murder in Third Position, Leah takes a turn that wasn’t possible for her in the first book. At the same time, the tone and writing needed to stay consistent. Although she grows in unexpected ways, Leah’s essential self remains constant.
Thank you, Lori. Congratulations on the new contract.
For more information about Lori Robbins and her On Pointe Mystery Series, visit her at www.lorirobbins.com