“Girlness” is a state of mind: Exploring contemporary Japanese women’s theatre and visual arts

This post was contributed by Dr Nobuko Anan, lecturer in Japanese Studies at Birkbeck’s Department of Cultures and Language. Here, Dr Anan offers an insight into her new book on Japanese girls’ culture

Dr Nobuko Anan's new book 'Contemporary Japanese Women’s Theatre and Visual Arts Performing Girls’ Aesthetics' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Dr Nobuko Anan’s new book ‘Contemporary Japanese Women’s Theatre and Visual Arts
Performing Girls’ Aesthetics’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Japanese girls’ culture evokes various images, such as Hello Kitty, cute fighting girls in anime and female students in the sex industry. However, in my monograph, Contemporary Japanese Women’s Theatre and Visual Arts: Performing Girls’ Aesthetics (Palgrave 2016), I have introduced another type of Japanese girls’ culture, which I call “girls’ aesthetics.” These aesthetics are not well known outside of Japan, but are present in many types of contemporary Japanese women’s theatre and visual arts.

An escape from the pressures of Japanese society

Girls’ aesthetics arose in the early twentieth century Japan with the establishment of Western-style girls’ mission schools and the publication of girls’ magazines. These physical places and objects created a space where girls could escape from societal pressures within Japan’s growing empire.

In this space, girls rejected their future as the embodiment of state-sanctioned motherhood, that is, reproducers of culturally and ethnically “pure” Japanese citizens, and instead fantacised same-sex intimacy in (what they imagined as) a tolerant West and romanticised death as a means to reject motherhood. The influence of these themes can be seen in the contemporary period, for example, in the Rococo/Victorian-inspired Gothic-Lolita fashion and boys’ love manga, which are mainly consumed by female readers.

“Girlness” is a state of mind

Although girls’ aesthetics originated in schoolgirl culture in the modern times, one of its important characteristics is that it is embraced not only by female adolescents but also by adult women and in some cases by men. One of the points I have made in the monograph is that “girl” as an aesthetic category does not exclude people based on their sex or biological age. “Girlness” is a state of mind. Indeed, the monograph is about the ways adult women artists make use of girls’ aesthetics as a political tool to challenge stereotypical womanhood.

In these aesthetics, girls’ desire to escape motherhood through an eternal girlhood, which can only be achieved by death as a girl. Related to this, I discuss NOISE’s play about the group suicide of high school girls and Yubiwa Hotel’s production, where girlie adult women use violence on each other as if to help each other to terminate their lives as mothers. This rejection of motherhood can also be seen in Miwa Yanagi’s visual art work, in which time only circulates between girls and old women.

Imagined Westernised spaces

Another aspect of girls’ aesthetics is that they seek to escape the heterosexist and nationalist Japanese reality through imagined Westernised spaces. I explore this within the work of Moto Hagio’s and Riyoko Ikeda’s girls’ manga pieces, which are love stories between androgynous characters in the Western countries.

The two-dimensional nature of manga provides a space for imagining this liberation from material reality. I also examine how this two-dimensionality is captured or lost in theatrical adaptations by the Takarazuka Revue and Studio Life and a film adaptation by Shūsuke Kaneko and Rio Kishida.

While I discuss in great detail the ways girls adore the imagined West, I also explore the dance troupe KATHY, whose members demonstrate Japan’s ambivalent relationship with the West. They portray a nostalgic image of Westernised girls by wearing blond wigs and 1950s-style pastel-coloured party dresses, but they stage failures to dance ballet and other Western-style dances.

While this could be a critique of Westernisation of Japanese bodies, it is less clearly so, because the group is anonymous (the members cover their faces while they dance) and therefore we cannot be certain that they are Japanese.

About the book

Girls’ aesthetics provide a rich alternative conception of women, where many of the traditional dichotomies (e.g., girls as failures as opposed to “fully-fledged” women, Japanese women as the opposite to Western women, etc.) are reconfigured in ways that differ from Western representations of women.

This book is of interest for students in theatre, visual arts, media studies, Japanese studies and gender/sexuality studies.

More information about the book is available here.

Find out more

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Exploring sum-free sets

This post was contributed by Professor Sarah Hart of Birkbeck’s Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics and Head of the Pure Mathematics Research Group. Here, Professor Hart offers an insight into a major area of her research: sum-free sets

The set S = {1, 3, 5} is “sum-free”: if you add two numbers in S, the answer is outside S. So 1 + 3 = 4, and 4 is not in S.

There are many questions we could ask about sum-free sets. How big can they get? Are there infinite sum-free sets? The answer is yes – the set of all odd numbers is sum-free because the sum of any two odd numbers is even, and so lies outside the set. In fact this is also locally maximal (we cannot add any further elements to it while keeping it sum-free), because any even integer (see glossary below) is the sum of two odd integers so we cannot add any even integers to the set.

Having found this large sum-free set we might ask if we can divide up (partition) the set of integers into a small collection of sum-free sets. (Actually, the fact that 0 + 0 = 0 means we only look at the set of nonzero integers.) It turns out there is no way to partition the set of nonzero integers into a finite collection of sum-free sets, although there are partitions into an infinite number of sum-free sets.


Click the image to read Theorem of the Day's article on Professor Sarah Hart's work

Read Theorem of the Day’s article on Professor Sarah Hart’s work

The interesting thing about this set-up is that it can be generalised. The set of integers is just one example of a “group”, which is a set along with an operation which can combine two elements a, b of the set to produce a third element a*b.

For the integers, the operation is addition: two integers added together produce another integer, so a * b is defined as a + b. There are three rules that the operation must satisfy. One is “associativity”, which for the integers translates as the property that for any integers a, b and c, we have (a + b) + c = a + (b+c).

There are countless examples of groups, for example the set of symmetries of any shape. The operation is composition – so the combination of a rotation integer (see glossary below) and a reflection is the symmetry obtained by doing the rotation followed by the reflection. Unlike the group of integers, many groups are finite.

The notion of a sum-free set

The notion of a sum-free set can be generalised to any group, but we now talk about product-free sets because the notation is multiplicative. If G is a group, and the operation is *, then a subset S of G is product-free when a * b is not in S, for all a, b in S.

In the group of symmetries of the cube, for example, the set of reflections is product-free because the product of two reflections is a rotation. We can ask all the same questions. What is the biggest possible size of a product-free set? Or the smallest locally maximal product-free set? How can we partition the group into product-free sets?

My research – filled groups

I first started looking at these ideas ten years ago, in [1], but have returned to the subject recently with my PhD student Chimere Anabanti [2] – in particular we have been trying to find out more about small locally maximal product free sets. Along the way we have been able to answer a question [2] that has been open since the 1970s about so-called “filled groups” – ones whose locally maximal product free sets have a particular form.

Next steps – Solution-free sets

There is another generalisation of all this, and that is the direction I hope to move in next: we can think of product-free sets as sets having no solution to the equation a * b = c. So we can pick another equation and look for sets that don’t satisfy that equation. The general term for these types of sets is “solution-free sets”.

Professor Sarah Hart

Professor Sarah Hart

We can ask the same kinds of questions about them as for product-free sets. Examples include Sidon sets – the definition for the integers is a set where all differences are distinct; in other words there are no solutions to a – b = c – d when at least three of a, b, c and d are different.

It’s fun to ponder these ideas in their own right of course, but there are surprising and interesting links to other areas of mathematics. Product-free sets in certain groups give rise to a particularly nice type of error-correcting code. There are also applications to graph theory and to finite geometry. Sidon sets are used in research about the efficient design of sensor arrays.

Find out more

[1] Giudici and Hart “Small maximal sum-free sets”

[2] Anabanti and Hart “Locally maximal product-free sets of size 3” Preprint 10 on this page

[3] Anabanti and Hart “On a conjecture of Street and Whitehead on Locally maximal product-free sets”


  • Integer: A whole number (not a fractional number) that can be positive, negative, or zero e.g. -5, 1, 5, 8, 97, 3,043
  • Rotational symmetry: When an image is rotated (around a central point) so that it appears two or more times.
  • Maximal: A maximal element of a subset S of some partially ordered set (poset) is an element of S that is not smaller than any other element in S
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The proposed ‘right to disconnect’ after work hours is welcome, but not enough

This post was contributed by Professor Gillian Symon, member of the Digital Brain Switch project. Involving a multi-disciplinary team of UK researchers (including Birkbeck’s Dr Rebecca Whiting), the project explored the ways in which mobile communication technology  affects how we switch between different aspects of our lives. This article was originally posted on The Conversation on 23 March 2016.    

Changes proposed to France’s famously inflexible employment laws by French president François Hollande have prompted an outcry among students and unionists and even the barricading of schools by pupils. But among the raft of changes to working practices is the liberating notion that employees should have the right to disconnect: to ignore emails from employers during evenings and weekends so that time with friends and family is not affected by work distractions or feelings of guilt.

Limited interventions of this sort have been put forward in Germany and France before, but this is the first proposal that the right be enshrined in law.

There is much to like about it. First, it recognises the massive impact the widespread use of smartphones and tablets, Wi-Fi and high-speed mobile internet has had on our working lives. In as much as work emails, diaries and contacts are on a smartphone in our pocket, to some extent we are never truly “out of the office”. The proposal seeks to counter this in legislation, not to leave it to corporate custom and practice.

Second, the proposed legislation acknowledges the considerable research that suggests that we need to psychologically detach from work regularly, or risk becoming exhausted and losing our creativity.

Third and most importantly, it makes the employer at least partly responsible for managing this intrusive technology and its effects on employees. There is a recognised paradox, whereby technology allows flexibility over when and where we work, but at the same time acts as a leash that chains us to our (virtual) desks. For too long this has been seen as something employees themselves should manage.

The research into work-life balance my colleagues and I have conducted suggests that achieving the right balance has become another “life crisis”. It is one that is fed by endless media articles and self-help books, and one that is almost certainly unresolvable by the individual as so much of the pressure comes from bosses and colleagues at work. What we’ve found is that there needs to be respect for individuals’ chosen work-life boundaries at all levels within organisations.

So congratulations to the French for taking this particular taureau by the cornes. But is their proposed approach through new legislation the right answer?

It’s not easy, and often employers don’t make it any easier. wongstock/shutterstock.com

As far as it goes

There are three ways digital media and mobile technology have affected our lives that isn’t acknowledged by legislation, which is concerned only with time spent connected to work. In our research we’ve sought to highlight the creeping effects of “digi-housekeeping”: those endless technology maintenance tasks that we engage in – updating software, syncing devices, fighting technical problems – which often takes place outside of office hours and doesn’t appear on time sheets. None of this is accounted for by legislative approaches.

Nor does legislation address the way in which the use of social media for work may intrude into our privacy. When we blog and tweet for our employers, are we exploiting our personal identities for their ends? Are these additional tasks, and the need to maintain our digital presence online, causing us anxiety and increasing our workload without any formal recognition of the effort involved? These sorts of activities go beyond a concern with just maintaining a time boundary between work and life. They represent new tasks required to maintain our digital work lives.

What’s more, because the French legislation presumes an employee-employer relationship, it entirely ignores the anxieties of the self-employed, as those taking part in our research told us. While those working for themselves have always had to work hard, social media has put added pressure on them to be constantly online and accessible to maintain their business. We need more imaginative interventions that will address the needs of specific groups such as these.

What are 21st century working lives like?

The French legislation is important primarily because it makes clear the responsibilities of employers and organisations. However, it’s also rather a blunt-edged tool that doesn’t appreciate the intricacies of our online lives. Legislation like this enforces a strict work-life boundary that may be a thing of the past.

Read the original post on The Conversation

Read the original post on The Conversation

Our research collaborators kept video diaries that captured the complex circumstances of today’s workers in a more revealing way than traditional surveys can do. These video diaries suggest we might be making sense of our lives in radically different ways in the 21st century. We distinguish between online and offline lives rather than work and non-work hours, and we think more about how we prioritise time, rather than how we divide it.

To support flexible working, we may need flexible legislation that is based on other considerations than time alone, including where and how we work best. It’s very unlikely there will be a one-size-fits-all solution; researchers and policymakers are going to have to find more creative 21st century solutions for this very 21st century problem.

So the French government’s move to formally recognise the distraction caused by unfettered technology is welcome, but limited. To improve upon it, we need to understand much more fully the complexities of contemporary digital online lives, what boundaries people now find important, and how the law can best support them.

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Orlando Figes on being Historical Consultant to BBC’s War & Peace

This article first appeared in Russian Art and Culture on March 1 2016.

Orlando Figes is a British historian and writer best known for his works on Russian history. He is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London. Figes is known for his works on Russian history, in particular A People’s Tragedy (1996),Natasha’s Dance (2002), The Whisperers(2007), Crimea (2010), Just Send Me Word (2012) and Revolutionary Russia: 1891 – 1919 (2014)Figes has contributed frequently to radio and television broadcasts in the United Kingdom and around the world.

Theodora Clarke, editor of Russian Art and Culture met with Orlando to talk about his recent work as the historical consultant on the 2016 BBC War and Peace television series directed by Tom Harper with a screenplay by Andrew Davies.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 20/11/2015 - Programme Name: War & Peace - TX: n/a - Episode: War & Peace - Generics (No. Generics) - Picture Shows: **STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, FRIDAY 20TH NOVEMBER, 2015** Prince Andrei (JAMES NORTON), Natasha Rostov (LILY JAMES), Pierre Bezukhov (PAUL DANO) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Mitch Jenkins

BBC drama War & Peace (C) BBC – Photographer: Mitch Jenkins

Theodora Clarke: Could you first of all explain to our readers what your role is on the recent production of BBC’s War and Peace?

Orlando Figes: I am credited as a historical consultant, and I was approached by the script editor and the production team right from the beginning of their project. I talked to them on a several occasions throughout the production process, even before the scripts were written including about their conception for the programme. They had some ideas they wanted to take out of my bookNatasha’s Dance. I looked at the scripts in all their forms and suggested changes and corrections to historical anachronisms. I also spoke to the cast before they went to shoot, which took five months in Saint Petersburg and Lithuania. Then I also looked at the rough cut of the film to see if there were any howlers in there! Of course, by that stage it was too late to change very much. I could only at that stage point out one or two things. For example, I did not have any control over military uniforms or costumes.

TC: How accurate is the BBC’s adaptation compared to the book? And also how accurate is War and Peace in terms of the actual events the novel depicts, as Tolstoy is writing about real history but in a fictional context?

OF: As you said, the book plays fast and loose with history. There are all sorts of inaccuracies and extensions or condensation of time that Tolstoy plays with. The first question is more relevant in that sense. I think if you have got only six hours to make War and Peace for the screen then the best you can do is to capture the spirit of the book and tell the main storylines. I think the BBC did that very well. But the first thing I said to them was: “Do not try and do a variation of a Jane Austen television series. The Russian aristocracy is a big culture, Russia the country is huge, the scale of the book is epic – you have got to capture that. This is not about squires in small manor houses in the Surrey Hills. This is big time.” I think the series looks spectacular, they have managed to get the scale of Russia and the scale of the book as well.

War and Peace (1966) by Sergei Bondarchuk

War and Peace (1966) by Sergei Bondarchuk

Obviously, there are things War and Peace purists might say: “That is not in the book!” or “They have missed an opportunity here and there.” But that would be the same of Bondarchuk’s adaptation. Overall, I think that for a modern viewer it is pretty good adaptation.

Is it true to the book? It is true to the spirit of the book. Is it true to every single representation in the book? No, it is not, but I do not think that you can expect that within the constraints they had. You have to put that into perspective.

As for the question if it is still accurate to the time, a lot of viewers seem to be getting vocal about this and that, but, as I said, it is fiction.

I think one has to bear in mind also, that this is an English language adaptation of a Russian book. For me that was an interesting aspect of being the consultant. One of the things I said to them was that apart from being a huge sort of novelistic, philosophical discourse on how to live well, it is about a very crucial period in Russian history, when this class of Russians discover themselves as Russians. One of the things in the book is about Russianness coming out from under the domination of French civilization, liberating itself. You can see that in the way the book is structured, you can see it in the language. I tried to urge them to reflect some of that in television. Of course, that is almost impossible. How do you reflect the fact that in the course of a book the use of French declines and the language becomes more of what you call ‘prostorechie‘, it becomes more vernacular. I encouraged them to make the contrast between Moscow and St. Petersburg, visually. I encouraged them to try and bring out some elements of folk culture.

TC: I felt the series captured quite well the contrast between the Russian aristocracy and the peasant classes. There was a strong contrast between say the Russian wooden houses on say Count Pierre Bezukhov’s estate, when he visits the peasants on his land, and the grand town houses in Moscow, the Imperial Court and Tsarist balls in St Petersburg.

OF: Yes, I know what you mean. The BBC had this idea of Pierre entering the Rostova Palace at the back, getting through the back yard and pigs. It was the first thing we discussed, because it came out of Natasha’s Dance, where they have been struck by my analysis of the topography of aristocratic palaces, and where there was often a stark contrast between the formal European rooms and the less formal quarters, where Russian ways were in evidence. That is not in War and Peace, but we had a long discussion and they wanted to use it. It is a good example where artistic license trumps historical accuracy. But what can I say – it is up to them. It looks good on the screen, it is true to some elements and spirit of the book.

TC: Why do you think War and Peace is considered such an important work in the history of both Russian and world literature?

Old Count Bezukhov, Pierre Bezukhov, Anna Mikhailovna, Catiche & Prince Vassily Kuragin / Courtesy of BBC

Old Count Bezukhov, Pierre Bezukhov, Anna Mikhailovna, Catiche & Prince Vassily Kuragin / Courtesy of BBC

OF: I think it is the greatest. I am not sure if it is a novel, because Tolstoy is insisting that it is not. But I think it is the greatest work of fiction ever written, and I am sure a lot of people, who have read it, would say so. You lose yourself in the book and in the world it creates completely. It transforms you in the process. The whole construction, the emotions and the characters are all just so-so brilliant. There are just so many bits of writing, which are completely unforgettable, better than anything written in terms of being true and being completely believable, even in translation. That is the amazing thing. Even when you are reading it in translation, the language seems to fit reality so well.

TC: It is famously a very long epic novel with hundreds of characters. How did the television series cope with condensing these multiple plot lines?

OF:  There are well over a hundred characters, so obviously they have had to reduce those. I think Andrew Davies did amazingly well in the first episode, getting all the characters up and running. There is so much to get going in that first hour, and you have to get to the climatic scene with the death of the old count.

TC: It was beautiful shot throughout. Did the filming mainly take place in Russia?

OF: Not all of it, but they managed to get access to the palaces. Most of the series is shot in Lithuania, like the outside scenes, the landscapes.. And they have got some wonderful outside footage of St Petersburg.

Filming War and Peace outside Catherine Palace, Tsarskoe Selo / Courtesy of BBC

Filming War and Peace outside Catherine Palace, Tsarskoe Selo / Courtesy of BBC

TC: You were involved with preparing the actors before they did their filming. How do you do this?

OF: They were in rehearsal in London and then they spent five months abroad. Tom, the director, wanted me to go along and talk to them, so we spent half a day together. It was important that all the main actors had read the book to understand their characters. It was important for them to understand the context of the time as well as the context of the book. I have done it before with productions of Chekhov in the theatre. The actors want to ask you about their character and how they are playing their character, which could be helped by somebody who knows a bit more about the history and will be able to say: “Well, this would be the educational background they had, or that would be what they would think about so and so..” That was my role to brief them on that.

TC: I went to Yasnaya Polyana last year in Russia and the Director of Tolstoy’s country home was telling to me how his research was very precise and detailed. He visited Borodino and apparently went so far as to even work out where the soldiers would be standing and if the sun would be reflected in the eyes during a charge!

Borodino scene in BBC's War and Peace / Courtesy of BBC

Borodino scene in BBC’s War and Peace / Courtesy of BBC

OF: He did. He spent the day exploring the Borodino battlefield. I think it is a part of it, because he was very much influenced by historians, tying to do total history. That is what the book is about, it is a sort of attempt in fictional form to write something like total history, because history cannot get into the head of people and bring out the emotional, intimate side of history. I think that ultra realism for Tolstoy is about trying to do that – here to take a chunk of Russian history and make it true to life. But adapting it for the television is an absolutely different thing. For example, the end of episode three, the meeting of Pierre and Andrei – it is a major subject in the book, and may be it is only a pale reflection of that on screen, but if you are given six hours, that episode can only take a few minutes.

TC: There are several previous television adaptations of War and Peace including a well regarded Russian version. 

OF: Indeed, that is the one by Bondarchuk which is seven hours, so an hour longer than this BBC version. I think the 1970s British one was longer, it was about twenty episodes.

TC: When you were researching your book Natasha’s Dance, how did you find out specific subjects like what they would have been wearing? As the BBC adaptation has some wonderful costumes.

James Norton as Andrei Bolkonsky in BBC's drama War and Peace / Courtesy of BBC

James Norton as Andrei Bolkonsky in BBC’s drama War and Peace / Courtesy of BBC

OF: Military uniform, for example, is very easy because the Tsar’s family was obsessed with military uniforms. So, we have pictures of every hussar regiment, infantry regiment and its uniforms virtually for every period. I think the costumes are pretty accurate.

One of the things Tolstoy wanted to do in War and Peace is to show that 1812 was like a watershed in Russia’s national consciousness. In the book suddenly after 1812 he shows them all beginning to wear Russian dress, kokoshnik headdresses… It did happen, but very gradually over twenty of thirty years, in the reign of Nicholas I, as well as under Alexander I. That was a long, gradual process, and Tolstoy, for fictional purposes obviously, condenses it into a very short time. In that sense I think that gives a TV adaptation certain artistic licence, because Tolstoy was not accurate himself.

TC: I read that originally when Tolstoy wanted to write War and Peace he was going to write about more contemporary history, but then once he started researching, he ended going back further and further in time for the novel….

OF: That is right. Obviously, he began it as a Decembrist novel, having returned himself from the Crimean war and getting interested in Volkonsky and other Decembrists. He met Sergey Volkonsky when he returned from exile, and wanted to write about Russia in 1825, from the vantage point of the reform spirit in Russia under the Alexander II period – so looking back at this earlier period when Russia might have developed on more constitutional lines.

Then he looks into the Decemberists, and he realises that the origins of 1825 were in 1812, in the experiences of the officers like Volkonsky in the army, fighting Napoleon, discovering in their fellow soldiers from the serfs fellow Russians, realising the patriotism of the serf and the democratic instincts of peasant society, and wanting to Russify and democratise themselves. Many of those officers came back from the Napoleonic wars having been to Paris with Western constitutional ideas, some of them pesantysing themselves, as Tolstoy was to do himself, of course, later on. That was the moment of democratisation and Russification, that Tolstoy was interested in. It has to be said, the book is much stronger in its description of aristocratic society, which is the Russia Tolstoy knows, than it is in its description of peasants. I mean the Karataev figure, whom Pierre meets in prison. He is not very believable. Karataev is like a cypher for a sort of good way of living.

Lev Tolstoy at the inauguration of “The Library for the People” he helped to found at Yasnaya Polyana. / Courtesy of andrewdkaufman.com

Lev Tolstoy at the inauguration of “The Library for the People” he helped to found at Yasnaya Polyana. / Courtesy of andrewdkaufman.com

TC: I remember when I visited Tolstoy’s house, there were pictures, letters and descriptions of him setting up schools for surfs and educating the illiterate peasants. Did he base parts of Pierre’s character on himself? Can we identify autobiographical moments in the novel?

OF: Absolutely, we see it in episode three when Pierre is influenced by Freemason ideas, wanting to live a better life, educate his own peasants; he sets up a school, which Tolstoy tried to do on several occasions. Tolstoy got frustrated on his first attempt, but then he succeeds with a school at Yasnaya Polyana, and it becomes the basis of the whole Tolstoy movement later in his life.

There are elements in Pierre, in his idealism, that are projections of Tolstoy’s own yearnings. But then there are elements of Tolstoy in Nikolai Rostov as well, the whole scene of losing all that money at cards. It is a part of Tolstoy’s own biography too, let’s not forget. And I think you can equally say that in Andrei there are elements of Tolstoy’s scepticism about systems and his fear of death. That was one thing, the scene of Andrei’s death, which was reduced considerably in the original script, and I insisted that it was one of the greatest episodes of world literature, and they had to make more of it in the television episode.

TC: You mentioned your book earlier Natasha’s Dance which was an important resource for the producers. Can you explain what the significant moment is that your title references which is shown on screen and is an important scene in the book?

Count Rostov, Uncle Mikhail & Natasha Rostov / Courtesy of BBC

Count Rostov, Uncle Mikhail & Natasha Rostov / Courtesy of BBC

OF: Yes, my book is named after a famous scene in War and Peace, when Natasha, Nikolai and Sonia after hunting end up in a so-called uncle’s cabin, with vodka and nice things to eat, and Natasha instinctively is able to dance a folk dance, a peasant dance. So, I wrote the introduction around that, and that is what I wanted to bring out in my cultural history. The question Tolstoy asks there: “How could it be that this young countess, in silks and satins, who only danced the waltz, could instinctively dance this peasant dance?” – that is my starting point in Natasha’s Dance. I tried to approach the questions Tolstoy’s scene invites us to ponder: What is this sensibility we call ‘Russiness’? What is it that makes Russians “Russian”?

TC: Can you explain in terms of the series, how long does a programme like this takes to get made? When did you first get involved?

Read the original article on Russian Art and Culture

Read the original article on Russian Art and Culture

OF: It was around two and a half years, something like that.

TC: And when you reviewing drafts of the script, are you looking more at how it the programme episodes are historically accurate to the period or how it faithfully presents Tolstoy’s book?

OF: Both. I saw my role as about to make recommendations, that would help it reflect the book, and also to eradicate any anachronisms. However, the first thing they said to me was: “We have to have an artistic licence to do it the way we want to”, and I replied: “Fine.” So, in terms of reflecting the book properly, that was purely down to Andrew Davies. He read the book several times. My role was to make suggestions in terms of the balance. We had discussions about characterisation and I have taken some anachronisms out. But in the end, the final decisions were down to Andrew Davies and the producers obviously. So, the whole incest thing was slightly stretched from the original, but I think also the issue has been rather overblown. We do not see a brother and sister in bed, we just see them being overly familiar. Is that wildly out of the spirit of the book? I think it is up to Andrew and the producers, it is not up to a historian to say to them that it is unacceptable.

TC: Thank you, Orlando.

Natasha’s Dance is available to buy on Amazon here.

Watch the BBC’s new adaptation of War and Peace here.

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