Lana Dukovskaya is an up and coming talent at the Bolshoi Ballet, where her mother, Marina, also danced until her career came to a mysterious end. On the eve of an international tour, Lana’s best friend and chief rival is brutally attacked, making Lana both the substitute soloist and the prime suspect.
Once in New York, Lana meets Georgi Levshik, a powerful Russian émigré who claims to know the truth about her mother’s past. Lana is wary, torn between curiosity and distrust. But when another young dancer is struck down just hours before her debut, Lana knows she is in danger. On the run, Lana puts her trust in Levshik’s alluring bodyguard, Roma. Together they must uncover the truth about a blood feud involving three generations of Dukovskaya dancers.
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The night that Daniela almost died, I wanted to kill her myself.
That sounds terrible. Not because I wanted to kill my friend but because, you know, who cares what I wanted. She’s the one who will never dance again.
I can actually hear her voice. I can hear her scolding: Lana, why’s it always got to be about you? Do you have to make everything personal?
Well, no. I guess I don’t. I guess I could sit by Daniela’s hospital bed and hold her hand. I could meet all the suspicious glances with big, dumb eyes. I could tell myself: this has nothing to do with you, Lana.
But I would be wrong.
Call me a narcissist if you like, but when my friend Daniela was nearly killed—and not by me—I knew I should take it personally.
We were just out on a lark, me and Stas.
I was supposed to be in repertoire class, but to hell with that. It was a warm spring day, the streets tickled with pollen and the sky blown by clouds the size of small
Siberian lakes. A glorious mid-May afternoon like that and you’ve got no business locking yourself in a windowless practice room. Not when you’ve poured your soul into windowless practice for four months, only to find out you’ve been passed over.
We’re sending Daniela on the New York tour. She’s the more reliable dancer.
I could have accepted the decision graciously and headed back into the studio: that place where I had given it my all and stayed late every night. That place full of edgy egos, shifting alliances, and the occasional unwanted advance from our playboy of an artistic director, Pavel Vartukh. That place where I had maybe thrown one or two tantrums—not because I’m a diva, but because I don’t react well to abuse. And trust me, the rehearsal studio where the New York tour was being assigned was a den of abuse—abuse of power, talent, and aspiration.
So I didn’t head back for more. I figured I was in Moscow, and I was staying in Moscow. The sun dappled the city like a chandelier. It was half empty, the traffic
drained from the center out Rublevskoye highway, west to the mega-dachas and the “rustic” shopping malls where the wealthy people summer behind electric gates.
Stas wanted to head that way, too. Out Rublevskoye.
A box holder—one of those odious types who brings their own booze to the Bolshoi performances and has an entourage waiting backstage during intermission—was throwing a party at his country estate. I said I wouldn’t be caught dead at a party like that. Anybody with enough money for season tickets to the Bolshoi Ballet is automatically disqualified from my list of respectable fans. Anybody who calls his dacha a “country estate” is a grade-A douche bag. This guy Strelets, in particular, is
a perv as well as a philistine.
But he is powerful. He can make or break a dancer who graces the gardens of his country estate.
I tried shaming Stas, reminding him how Strelets had once painted testicles on the Nutcracker’s grandfather clock. I figured that as a set designer, Stas would be more
outraged by that insult than the ones regularly endured by us ballerinas. But he just laughed and tried a new tactic.
“If I take the back way through Dmitrovka, we can fly. There won’t be any traffic on those narrow roads. Six minutes and we’ll be out of town. Top velocity.”
He saw me waver. I’m a speed demon. He handed me the spare helmet.
“C’mon Lana. It’s Friday night,” he wheedled. “We don’t have to stay long. Just long enough for you to charm Mr. Box Holder into weighing in on your behalf. What you do is you feed him strawberries and sniffle sadly. Tomorrow he’ll call the theater, indignant that you’ve been robbed of your place on the tour.”
“How’d you know?” I asked.
“Could see it on your face. They made New York assignments yesterday, right?”
I nodded. I thought about my face. What exactly did it show? I’m not a sullen girl, not prone to sniffles.
“Let’s see your pout,” teased Stas.
“Cute,” I said. “You’re real cute.” My heart was heavy, though.
Once upon a time, when the Bolshoi Ballet was the most prestigious in the world, hard work and talent would get you to the stage and something deep and indefinable would make you beloved—an “Artist of the People,” a hero in feathers and tulle. But that was long ago, before the Bolshoi became a victim of the same crass commerce and greed that have spoiled the only things about the old Soviet Union that were worth any pride.
Here’s a quick history lesson, courtesy of a girl more interested in flexibility than ideology, better at pas de bourrée than politics: Thirty years after the collapse of Communism, Russia is both richer and poorer than it was back then, and nowhere is that contradiction more on display than at the Bolshoi Theatre. Because the only thing as steady as the money pumped into the theater are the scandals that come skulking out its back door. Sordid headlines about the truth behind the Bolshoi’s curtains are regular tabloid fare: embezzlement, bribery, corruption, vendettas.
Sure, a lot of it is sensational nonsense—like the story about Pavel Vartukh’s secret gay lover who came back from a sex-change operation in Belgrade ready to become a prima ballerina. I mean—what? But too much of it is based in the truth that we all recognize: Fortune has trumped fame. Greed has bested grace. Put simply, starring roles at the ballet are more easily bought than earned.
Which is why Stas and his pep talk failed to cheer me up.
I grabbed the helmet from Stas. Swung it around like it was my wrecking ball.
Daniela may be the more reliable dancer, but I am the better dancer. I wanted to believe that the day would come again when that was the only consideration for a Bolshoi ballerina. Or that, more realistically, a day might come when pigs like Strelets still ordered around goats like Vartukh, but girls like Daniela and me could be left alone to dance hard, but in peace.
“Okay, listen,” I told Stas. “I will go and I will take a swim in the pool, and I will drink two glasses of wine: one to Daniela’s success and one to our corpulent host’s imminent cardiac arrest. And then we leave. Got it?”
Stas smiled. Maybe he thought that, deep down, I wanted to go to this party to work my advantage. I would let him believe it. Not because it was true. But because the only thing more humiliating than being a suck-up to a powerful “friend” of the Bolshoi Ballet is being afraid of one. Keeping your distance is one thing. Hiding your head in the sand is another.
I added, “But if that nasty toad Strelets gets too close I want you to shout: ‘There’s not a man here who can shoot a bigger gun than me!’”
“How about: ‘There’s not a man here who can piss farther than me!’” Stas suggested.
“No—better: ‘There’s not a man here who can put more ballerina toes in his mouth than me!’”
“Got it,” said Stas. “That will certainly divert his attention.”
He looked down at my feet. “Good girl. Motorcycle boots. Excellent for joyrides and discouraging foot fetishes alike.”
The instant he hit the gas, I felt my disappointment slip away. We turned onto the tree-lined boulevard, and the pale green necklace of Moscow’s inner ring worked with me. I stretched out my hand and gave the early leaves a high five. Then I squeezed Stas. I needed some speed in my budding spring. He obliged with a rev of his engine and a reckless dodge in the slow lane.
Downhill from the raucous geometry and bright paint of Saint Basil’s Cathedral, we encountered the Friday evening traffic. The Kremlin, seat of State power loomed above us, the sun sparking its gold, and we raced along the Moscow River’s floodplain, headed west. We crossed the river on an old bridge, crossed it again on an older one, and then we were scattering roadside crows disoriented by the lengthening days.
Once Moscow was behind us, it felt as if we were in another era. At least to me. An era when Moscow stopped after three concentric rings around the Kremlin. I closed my eyes and wished that the road would never end, or that when it did, it would end at a lopsided wooden dacha with wide verandahs and hand-carved windowsills. A place where wealth was measured in books. Or letters. Or best . . . acres of woods and fields.
Stas turned left and then right and we joined the inching parade of weekenders. We hadn’t really left Moscow after all. Just made a ruckus down her underarm and
got caught in her fist. We weaved in and out of gridlock, our reflections everywhere. There are a lot of tinted windows on the Rublevskoye highway. We arrived in their hot mess.
The guard outside the high metal gates checked me out. In my jeans, boots and helmet I didn’t exactly exude ballerina. But Stas dropped the right name and the guard
nodded. As he opened the gates to let us pass, I could feel him searching me for my supple, slender calling card.
Sorry chump, I thought. I left my wings and tiara backstage tonight.
Boris Strelets, president of Krylatskoe Bank, trustee of the Bolshoi Ballet and member of the parliamentary committee on cultural investment, was walking his greyhounds down the driveway as we pulled in. He wore tight black jeans that looked terrifically uncomfortable. He reminded me of whatever you call a squirmy, slow thing. Fifteen years ago he was almost certainly a grub. But now, with his wealth and his government connections and his new artistic pet project—the ballet—he was a vazhnaya persona: a VIP, a person of significance.
I groaned. Stas was already striding toward our host, his hand outstretched. Strelets looked up, clearly hoping to see a young woman instead. I sidestepped into a
grove of palm trees. Grateful, by God, for fake imported landscaping where once upon a time there must have been gooseberry bushes. I heard the crackle of a sound system on overdrive. Then the cackle of Julia Zemphira, the most coveted dance DJ in Moscow.
“Rebyata—kakaya okhuitel’naya vecherinka!”
Oh yes, Julia. A fucktastic evening indeed.
I was already sick of this party. And it wasn't even dark yet.