The Bolshoi Saga: Marina
Marina is born into privilege. A talented young dancer with Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet at the height of the Cold War, she seems destined to follow in the footsteps of her mother Svetlana, a Soviet Artist of the People. But when Svetlana disappears without explanation, Marina and her father have to get out. Fast. They defect to America, hoping they’ve escaped Russia’s secret police, hoping they can make a fresh start in New York. Instead they discover the web of intrigue around Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach is as tangled as the one they left behind.
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Moscow, November 1982
Music at the End of an Era
Chapter One: Tchaikovsky
Twilight comes early in November. Vera Petrovna has only just called us from the barre, and already the streetlights on Dmitrovka Street are rosy against the bricks and yellow plaster of the city center.
One by one, from the corner of Theater Square north towards the boulevard, the wrought iron lamps blink on like an electric corps de ballet making its entrance.
Vera Petrovna taps her stick on the floor in time with the lights.
The fourth lamp, the one directly in front of the confectioner’s store, sputters and dies.
“Marina,” she barks. “Where are your eyes?”
I glance at her, imperious in her loose caftan. I tuck a strand of hair behind my ear and offer a deferential nod. My eyes were on the reflection of the lamp that just went out, a poor spotting point. I take fifth position, lock eyes on the trusty water stain behind me, shift into a fourth position preparation—and execute a triple pirouette.
Vera Petrovna nods. She places both hands on her cane and leans forward slightly, like she might be passing gas.
“Again,” she says.
Fifth to fourth, and another triple turn. Then another and another. I land each one perfectly. So do the other dancers in Vera Petrovna’s advanced repertory academy of the Bolshoi Ballet, class of 1982. We wouldn’t be here otherwise.
There is no clock in the high-ceilinged studio. But we spend a precise number of minutes in this room, six days a week. They are measured in tendus, frappés, and fouettés. Barre exercises last 25 minutes. Center combinations are given in ten, reversed for seven, repeated in groups of three for thirteen minutes; turns in the center for eight; turns from the corner for five; reversals and a combination for fifteen; leaps fill ten more minutes without an allegro; adagio combinations and port de bras add ten. A five-minute break comes either before or after the jumps. We stretch for another ten minutes once class is dismissed. The only thing that alters this pattern from week to week is when (relative to the barre and the break and the port de bras) the streetlights come up on Dmitrovka Street.
By November, those puddles of streetlight through the lace curtains grow large enough to swallow all your concentration. The day should be done. All over the city, fathers are descending into the metro, and mothers are inching closer to the front of the line to pay for the pelmeni for dinner.
Not my mother, of course. She has a car and a driver. Tonight’s meal is being prepared as always by Ludmila Alekseevna, our bossy housekeeper, who sings gypsy ballads as she beats the shit out of a piece of pork and pleads my mother to get “one of those merciful bulgarian meat-grinders.”
That’s the beauty of our so-called Socialist Paradise. The unity of our Soviet Union. We may be past the “collective” craze when we all shared a cow and a tractor and a kitchen sink, but we still share a superficial reality. Everyday life is pretty much the same for us all, and so the deeper essence is too. They want it to be Communism. But what it is, really, is Commonism. The November twilight makes all us Soviets—comrades and komsomols, hoodlums and cranks—think of courtyards full of kitchen lights, the smell of chicken cutlets and tea, and the clarion of the radio announcing that it is eight o’clock, Moscow time.
Tonight, for me and the rest of the girls midway through their temps lie, eight o’clock looms larger than usual. Because tonight they will announce the winner of the All-Union Debut Prize on Youth Estrada. We will find out, all together, shortly after eight o’clock Moscow time, if it’s the Latvian Handsomes or our own favorite group, Winged Guitars.
We finish the center combination, and Vera Petrovna tells us to take five. I’m just coming out of the bathroom when I overhear Anya whispering to Dasha. “At least she’ll make sure Danilov gets back on the plane.” Then she sees me and winks, ignoring the daggers in my eyes.
“Anya,” shouts Vera Petrovna from where she stands by the piano. “A chatterbox cannot be a soloist.”
Anya’s cheeks flush red. She lifts her chin and crosses the floor in a fully extended tour jeté cabriole, landing with a dramatic developé into pas de bourrée and a toss of her head.
“But they make good gymnasts,” says Vera Petrovna acidly.
Anya is one of Vera Petrovna’s most talented students, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my best friend in the academy. Or because people always think that we can’t truly be friends because we’re both aspiring ballerinas in the Soviet Union’s most prestigious company. She’s been dancing since she was six years old. My mother didn’t start me in classes until I was nine. She says her own challenges as a young ballerina made her question whether she should “inflict” such a fate on her daughter. She says she only gave in because I was very insistent. And because one night I put on Ludmila Alekseevna’s hard-toed clogs and performed half of the “Dance of the Little Swans” in the parquet foyer.
I have to wait another forty minutes for Vera Petrovna to dismiss us before I can challenge my best friend.
“Do you think I didn’t hear that?”
Anya is sitting in the corner unwinding tape from her toes, gingerly peeling each bloody digit from its neighbor. Her shoes are new and not broken in.
“Hear what, sweetie?” Anya asks, craning her neck up at me.
“‘At least she’ll make sure Danilov gets back on the plane.’ What was that supposed to mean?” I ask, though I know exactly what it was supposed to mean.
Anya stands and puts her arm around my shoulders. “Marya,” she says quietly. “Don’t listen to what I say. I’m only saying it so that you don’t have to. You don’t have to listen to what any of them say. Dasha, Vika, Tatiana – they love to pretend that your mother is only invited on the American tour because Arkady Grigorievich Danilov is in love with her. You and I know that she’s also a favorite abroad and that she’s not a flight risk. But that doesn’t change the fact that Arkady Grigorievich IS, in fact, in love with her. And he’s the director. And, also, is going on tour himself. So just let me acknowledge it. That way you don’t have to.”
We’ve drifted to the far side of the studio, where the ashen-faced pianist is packing up his music, an unlit cigarette already in his mouth. I look back at the other girls sprawled in the center, laughing and talking. Dasha is up against the mirror, brushing out her thick dark hair and making kiss lips at herself. Tatiana is contorting herself into thoroughly unclassical positions in an effort to examine her ass from behind, as opposed to en eleve, or from the silhouette of an attitude derriere.
You might think that being forced to watch ourselves in the mirror on a daily basis for hours on end, we’d have a pretty good idea what we look like. Well we still flock to our reflections for a closer inspection. There is no creature as narcissistic as a teenage ballerina. Unless it’s a prima donna looking her 40th birthday in the face, like my mother. I recall a snatch of conversation between my parents last night that wasn’t meant for me to hear:
-Sveta, think of Marya. She’s seventeen. Think what you are asking. She has too much to lose.
-What can we know about that? Really? I’ve done what I can, Vitya. And I know what others have done, to bring us to this point. I know it with certainty. And that’s all I have to act on.
-It’s too soon.
-No. It’s time.
I don’t know what Pop was urging her patience with last night, but if it has to do with me and with mother, it’s about the ballet. And if it has to do with the ballet, it will happen on my mother’s own timeline.
I slide into a split and run through my stretches in silence.
“Tell me the truth,” I ask Anya once the others have left to change into their street clothes. “Do you think it should be Olga Dmitrievna who’s going as cultural emissary and not my mother?”
Anya laughs. “I think it should be me who’s going.”
There’s a shriek outside the studio. “Whose dublonka!?”
I follow Anya into the antechamber we use as a dressing room and find Tatiana enveloped in my new coat: a beautiful knee-length plum-colored suede not yet found in the shops.
“Yours, Marina? Oh my god can you get me one? It’s so yummy! Of course, I’d need one size smaller.” Tatiana fingers the fur ruff at the collar and sleeve, unties the sash and examines the neat lining for foreign labels. “Is it ours?” she asks, meaning Soviet-made. “Let’s see it on you – the color is so unusual, it must be beautiful with your hair.”
I model the dublonka graciously. “A gift to my mother,” I explain. “I don’t remember who from. Anyway, my mother doesn’t think it suits her. She said I can wear it for the winter.”
Tatiana’s eyes narrow slightly. “Well it’s just lovely on you, Marya. But don’t let whoever it was gave it to your mom see you in it. That might be, let’s say, awkward.”
Another veiled reference. Even after a decade as the Bolshoi’s principal female, no dancer would expect her star not to fade. But my mother is no ordinary ballerina. Svetlana Dukovskaya is not just gorgeous and graceful. She’s a globally recognized personality, and the West can’t get enough of her. Our Ministry of Culture fans the flame of her fame, squiring her about on international tours. After all, what else do we have to help win our celebrity Cold War against America? Chess masters are not terribly charismatic. We haven’t had a cute cosmonaut since Yuri Gagarin. Our best musicians are kept in basements and miniscule theaters because our authorities don’t approve of rock and roll. It’s degenerate capitalist dreck. Except for Winged Guitars. Winged Guitars write lyrics the authorities don’t fully get and don’t get carried away with the amplification.)
Anyway, my mother has been given certain freedoms—as an artistic trophy, a cultural emissary. She no longer performs, but she is still a diva. And she’s something of an insurance policy. She ensures that the director, Danilov (also famous for his ties in the West), won’t be following the lead of those other Bolshoi greats, dancers whose names we no longer mention because they have traitorously slunk off to western embassies in the middle of their tours. They traded the Motherland for fame. (But some say for freedom. And still others say for cocaine.)
Another thing about my mother? She expects me to step into her shoes.
She’s seventeen, my father has said. It’s too soon.
But he knows nothing of the ballet. Or next to nothing.
Anya has pulled her skirt and sweater on hurriedly over her tights and is racing to catch up with the girls who will catch the bus at Kitai Gorod. She gives me a peck on the cheek. “Call me tonight? When Youth Estrada comes on?” she says, and she’s gone. Tatiana and Vika change more leisurely, taking forever to adjust their knit hats just so. Then they kiss me goodbye too, leaving a smear of lip-gloss on my cheek. Now I’m alone in the dressing room.
I take a seat on a chair that hasn’t been upholstered since the theater’s jubilee some thirty-five years ago and study the portraits of the Bolshoi’s leading ladies: Pavlova as the Dying Swan; Baranova as a spurned bride; Bessmertnaya in a feathered headdress…Three rows of ballerinas in classical poses: eyes mournful, legs joyful, hands expressive, lips rouged and brows plucked into ironic expressions of grace.
The last portrait is of my mother, a soft-focus beauty with auburn hair like mine. Her back is to the camera and she is laughing over her bared shoulder. For the first time I realize that this is not an official portrait at all. The one that hangs in the parterre and is printed in all the bulletins is of Svetlana in her signature role of Coppelia. This is not it. This is a relaxed, candid shot. I can imagine it taken on the beach in the Baltics. Or in Gorky Park by the carousel. Or at our dacha, where my mother spends hours bedding flowers that never survive the winter. I can imagine my father hunkered low in the weeds with his camera: “Sveta. Sveta, ulibnis.” Sveta, smile. As if she would do anything else with a camera trained on her.
I bend to pull on my boots. They are real leather, tight to the calf with a two-inch heel, very stylish. As I’m zipping up the left boot, my hair falls over my eyes like a curtain. I become aware of a sudden silence. As though I have entered a pressure chamber and left the outside world of sound. I straighten up, dizzy. When I do, another curtain has descended: a gauzy screen between me and the wall of portraits. I feel the onset of tunnel vision and lean back in the chair to steady myself.
My eyes are closed. But I am still seeing the wall - only at the far end of a long hallway.
The door opens and a figure enters. He stands with his back to me, studying the portraits. I watch him as he places his hands on my mother’s photograph and removes it from the wall. He seems to be polishing it, handling it with loving care, but a voice in my head says, “erasing it.”
Without warning he raises it above his head and throws it to the ground. Curiously I don’t hear the glass shatter. I am at a loss. Such an act, such violence, produces damage. After a moment I rise and stagger towards the wall like a drunk or a sleepwalker. It takes too long, as if I’m crippled or swimming in space. By the time I reach the wall, the figure is gone. But the photograph lies on the floor. The glass is broken and I can see that my mother’s face also is … cracked. Wrinkled. Old. Her exposed back is spotted with age. Her long hair is grey. She is still looking at me over her shoulder and she is still smiling. But the smile has lost its brilliance.
I heave air into my lungs like a girl plucked from drowning. I find myself standing with one foot shod like a half-peeled banana, my mother’s cracked portrait at the toe.
My palm is bleeding. Stumbling to the sink, I hold it under the tap, watching the basin fill with pink water. Finally my heart stops racing. I pull a long bandage from my dance bag and wrap my hand just as I would a strained ankle. Somehow I manage to zip the boots up with one hand swaddled. I grab my coat and bag and shoot out into the hallway, headed for the exit, blinder than usual to the faded opulence of the grand foyer that once witnessed the coronations of Czars. I’m almost to the door when I hear a familiar high-pitched male voice behind me.
“Stop one moment, Marina.”