The Ballet Audition

She appeared in our Leningrad apartment one afternoon, at the start of my summer break, when I was ten years old. I was showing my self-made Mary Poppins costume to our next-door neighbor Nata, leaving the door into our apartment wide open. When I came back, she was sitting in our kitchen. My mother was fussing with the tea cups wearing her ancient blue sports pants with the material on the knees stretched out like two deflated balloons. Mom said, “Say hi to Galina Vasilievna.”


Galina Vasilievna came to borrow the 500+ page JCPenny catalogue; its cover showed a model in a white beret, white sweater and a white coat. It was 1985 in Leningrad and women loaned to each other fashion magazines from beyond the Soviet border: mostly Burda from Eastern Germany, or, more rarely: Bazaar, Vogue, Elle. The most coveted magazine was always the fat American catalogue because it allowed the fullest entry into the Western fairy tale. Catalogues showed beautifully proportioned tables, chairs, sofas, dolls, dog mats, and human beings built for ordinary lives and attainable for anyone in the US, for a price. That week was my mom’s turn to keep, for four long days, the catalogue that came to us from a friend of a friend of a friend. It was our last day to host it.


“I hear that everyone in France is into bold, large patterns and bright colors. Orange, black, yellow. Stripes! That kind of thing makes you look years younger,” my mom said.


Galina Vasilievna did not respond, but smiled politely. Her long neck and straight back made her look regal, even haughty, but her eyes displayed a restrained playfulness, the kind you see on the face of a kid waiting for her turn to use the swing on the playground. A large oval amber pin in her low bun pulled her entire physical presence together with precise dignified finality. She was not in a hurry at all and seemed to enjoy herself sitting on our too-low-for-the-dining-table sofa with a red brick replacing a missing leg. At the same time I was certain that she would never visit us again. This certainty felt vaguely connected to my feeling of shame because we had an old, stained oilcloth with lilacs on the dining table while she was wearing an ivory silk blouse with three pearl buttons on its cuffs. It was as if she flew into our kitchen straight from The Hermitage ballroom. Only a short moment ago she sat at a grand piano in a long, light blue dress and played a nocturne by Chopin, simultaneously reciting Pushkin’s poetry.


I thought my mother should feel envy sitting next to this woman who was about her age, but, observing my mother, I could tell that she didn’t feel it. It was a disappointing realization for it was proof that important things were beyond my mother. The thing beyond her, right in front of us, was the elegance of this woman. Of course I didn’t call it elegance then, and while I didn’t know the right word I did ask the right question.


“Are you a ballerina?”


I asked this question still wearing the Mary Poppins costume: my friend’s mom’s long brown dress, with a belt to keep it in place, and a large collar I made out of ivory linen napkins with lace trimmings. On my head I had a gray men’s hat that my neighbor Nadia let me borrow. Mom waved her hand behind Galina Vasilievna, signaling to me to take off the hat because it was not polite to talk with someone indoors wearing a hat. But I knew the real reason: she thought the hat looked ridiculous and now felt embarrassed on my behalf. I stubbornly pretended I didn’t see mom’s signals and kept the hat on. I kept it on because I loved it. I imagined it made me look sophisticated.


Galina Vasilievna asked me to sit next to her and then told me that she used to be a ballerina and danced in the corps de ballet of the Mariinsky Theater, and that now she taught ballet at the House of Culture Ballet School. She asked me about my costume and it turned out that she adored everything about it. “You have a good taste,” she told me. I could hardly breathe inside the fog of euphoria, and my voice sounded unnaturally high when I blurted to her that I wanted to be a ballerina too.


I went to the Mariinski Theater twice with my classmates, our school’s “culture outing” program. We saw The Sleeping Beauty in the first grade and The Swan Lake in the second grade. More recently, while visiting my friend Vera, I watched the TV ballet Anuta, based on a Chekhov short story “Anna on the Neck.” It was one of those ballet productions made for TV only; they were very popular back in the day and completely ignored in my own family. That night, every female member of Vera’s family—two sisters, her mother, aunt, two grandmothers—sat down to eat dinner in front of the TV to watch that ballet, but after the mushroom soup Vera was eager to make an escape back to my flat. I wanted to stay to watch Anuta to the end, but Vera said that ballet is the dumbest art form because dancers are mute. “Watching a Chekhov short story ballet is like watching an orchestra and not hearing a peep,” she concluded. I couldn’t get her cruel comment out of my head, and, later, when she offered to let me read her copy of Great Expectations, I told her that I no longer like Dickens because he is “stupidly judgmental and can’t enjoy things in the moment.”


That day, in our kitchen, Galina Vasilievna asked me to dance for her and point my feet, and do a split, and then a “bridge,” a deep bend backwards. I took off my hat and performed each request with a manic grin on my face. At one point my linen collar fell on the floor because it was not stitched to the dress. I was ready to do anything for her and was hoping for more requests or maybe even corrections, but suddenly she turned to my mom, and her tone of voice changed from a violin to a bass.


“Your daughter has remarkable feet and she is very flexible. Would you consider enrolling her at our school? We are auditioning girls her age in two weeks.”


That night I pulled the blanket over my head and entered the living room of the great Maurice Petipa, the choreographer behind The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, and other classics. I saw his room on TV in the film about Anna Pavlova, who was born in 1881 and became one of the most famous ballerinas of all time. In the film, Petipa’s living room is exquisitely furnished in pastel colors, and the great man himself, in a white vest with a black bow, is elderly, bearded, and aristocratic. He presides over harmony, refinement, and culture. In this room, ten-year-old Anna Pavlova stands before Petipa, an enormous painting of Tzar Alexander III behind her. Petipa bows to Anna, and her audition for the Imperial School of Ballet commences. She shows him her flexibility, her eyes radiate pure deadly voltage of happiness, and she wears a long navy dress with a tiny white lace collar snugly wrapping her neck. Afterwards Petipa concludes that she is ready to be admitted into the ballet school.


Two days before my audition a very unpleasant thing happened to me. That day I was sent to my grandma’s for the weekend and accompanied her when she went to her hairdresser, located inside a supermarket, a ten-minute walk from her flat. Grandma, or babyshka, as I always called her, had weak, swollen feet, and it always took us forever to walk because she had to make frequent stops to rest. Our trail was muddy since that particular suburban housing area was relatively new, still under ongoing or abandoned construction, and it had rained recently. Every time I jumped over the mud puddle babyshka predicted that next time I would slip and fall. Babyshka’s weak legs could not jump over puddles and sometimes she ended up stepping right in the middle of them. As we walked she was telling me, again, about walking to the Neva River with a metal bucket for water in freezing cold during WWII when Leningrad was under the Siege.


On the way to the main artery Budapeshtksaya Street, where the hair salon was located, we took a short cut through an inner courtyard surrounded by Soviet-style block apartment buildings. When we passed through this courtyard we walked by a big, black rectangular bunker, a leftover relic from WWII. Being near that bunker made me feel cold horror every time. Babyshka often told me about the war, and the Leningrad Siege: about babies in tiny coffins on sleds, and how all the cats, dogs, and rats were eaten and all the furniture burned to stay warm. That bunker was once a place of safety, but it was jet black, had no windows, and its corners were rounded, making it look even creepier. I once saw a scary old man without a leg peeing into the lilac bush next to the bunker. He was wailing quietly, pitifully, like an abandoned, hurt animal.


At the hair salon it turned out that babyshka had arranged a haircut for me as well, free of charge. I rejected this plan because I was growing my hair out for a ballet bun. It was already difficult to do a bun with my shoulder-length hair. Babyshka and the hairdresser took turns trying to talk me into the haircut, “a little clean trim,” but I refused to budge from my decision. Our walk back was longer than eternity because babyshka did not utter a single word, stopped even more frequently, and sighed deeply.


When my mom arrived to pick me up she was furious. When will we have another opportunity to visit a hairdresser? Free of charge! And by the way, according to experts, trimming hair regularly helps hair grow fuller. And why did I have to upset babyshka, babyshka who wants me to look my best, babyshka with a weak heart, elevated blood pressure, and swollen feet. I pretended that I hadn’t been listening, but in fact I heard everything distinctly, saw each word in my mind’s eye as if it were written in large, red, throbbing neon letters. I began to worry about babyshka and watched her every move, half-expecting to see her collapse before my eyes. I knew I was a criminal and secretly feared that I would now suffer a punishment I deserved. Just in case God existed I prayed to him to punish me in absolutely any way he wanted, but not during the ballet audition. I then began to feel really ashamed of myself. How could I be so cold and heartless and think about my audition when babyshka’s health was more important than all of ballet and opera combined?


Back at our place, while my mom chatted on the phone with her best friend, I locked myself in the bathroom. I had a big scab on my knee from the time I fell from my friend’s tall bike. Earlier that day babyshka would strike my hand every time I wanted to remove even a tiny bit of that scab. So, while my mom was on the phone, I got to work and successfully removed the entire scab, and then enlarged the wound, removing healthy skin all around it. The area on my knee was large, red, and throbbing. I looked at it and imagined the audition committee, including Galina Vasilievna, looking at my knee with revulsion and pity. It was painful to bend the leg. I wanted to scream because—obviously—I was a complete idiot.


The day of the audition arrived and we exited Petrogradskaya subway station and then stood in a long line full of girls, ballet buns, tight-lipped moms spilling out of the building onto the street. Moms were checking out other girls to assess their thinness. Girls were checking out other moms to assess thinness of girls in the future. Looking around I thought that every mom in line was far inferior to my mom. My mom was beautiful and very thin. Natasha, my classmate, once told me that when she grows up she wants to look exactly like my mom. This memory made me feel a little better, but I was still amidst the sea of thin girls, many flexible like chewing gum because they took gymnastics at elite Soviet gymnastics studios, having been stretched by their parents for ballet and gymnastics in their infancy. Yet, I was certain that Maurice Petipa would never want a chewing gum.


House of Culture Ballet School was not the impossible-to-get-into Vaganova Ballet Academy, previously The Imperial Ballet School from which Anna Pavlova had graduated, but it was easily second best in Leningrad. Ballet was the USSR’s space program inside the Imperial Russia spacesuit, and only a handful of schools were allowed to carry out its mission. At these schools bodies were trained to fly for swan roles, training was free of charge, and the mission rested on a belief that ballet ought to be developed only in the right body. Those who got in were Chosen for the Future.


In the dressing room I got undressed down to my tank top and underwear, affixed a new Band-Aid to my knee, and entered the studio when my name was called. The judges presided over a long table. One of them was Galina Vasilievna. She wore the ivory blouse I remembered, and her head was lowered to her notebook, where she was making notes. My heart was jumping out through my throat, but I managed to do the plies, the tandus, I pointed my feet, arched my back, jumped up from the first position, then from the second, galloped across the room. When I lifted my right leg to the side, the woman who had measured my height, neck, and length of arms, held my leg by the ankle, slapping my knee hard, on the Band-Aid, to make me keep it straight and then lifted the leg as high as it could go. It went so high I could see my toes just by slightly turning my eyes to the upper right, but when she let go of my foot it did not want to stay in the high spot and fell to the floor with a forceful bang. In panic I looked at the judges, wanting to see Galina Vasilievna’s reaction, and saw that the ivory blouse was not Galina Vasilievna at all. Inside the blouse was an old woman with a skinny neck and a long, pointed nose.


Afterwards, in the foyer, I waited forever for the results to be posted. At last, the woman who had slapped me on the knee pinned the list to the wall next to the closed door of the studio. Girls and moms poured to the list, and most girls were crying. At first I couldn’t see anything, and then I could, and read the list again and again because my name wasn’t there. I kept re-reading, stubbornly, refusing to budge from my spot, and other girls were pushing me to make room for them.


My mother came up to me, held my hand, and we walked outside. We walked back to Petrogradskaya subway in silence. She then said, “You know, dear, these people are experts, they know best and they can tell if ballet is right for you. What about diving? I know you love it too. You can start with a diving group at a SKA pool in the fall. My friend Lusya knows someone who coaches the diving team and they can probably take you.”


Her words helped me enormously. I held onto what she said as if it were a rope I could use to climb out of a dark pit. I started thinking about Lake Kruglovskoe and imagined climbing to that secret high spot we discovered with Masha and Lera, the spot we called “insanity flight.” I pictured myself walking along the south side of the cliff, where an old bicycle could be seen sticking through the water because it was the shallow side of the lake, ankle-deep. I imagined walking to the highest point and then jumping into the lake, straight onto the rocks, feeling my legs break when I land. I lie on the rocks with my legs broken, no: one leg broken, shattered to pieces below the knee. I’m looking up at the sky, hearing someone call my name, searching for me, but I’m lying there completely still and silent, slowly slipping out of consciousness.


Interrupting my story my mom said, “Well, what did you expect, dear? It’s no use grieving so dramatically. Mary Poppins would never despair like that.”


“Mary Poppins graduated from the world-famous ballet school of Madame Corry,” I said.


I never read the book by Travers; my knowledge about Mary Poppins derived entirely from a popular Soviet film loosely based on that book. In that film Mary Poppins takes the children to her old ballet school and introduces them to her beloved ballet teacher Madame Corry, who never ages. The actress playing Madame Corry was a Bolshoi Ballet ballerina in real life.


I wanted to be left alone with my story and not talk, so I said, “It’s okay. The upside is that now I can get a haircut. A short bob with bangs, like on that model you liked.”


In my story my mom was rushing to the cliff looking for me and eventually she saw me from above. I was very small, very still, and way below.  She saw that my leg had been totally shattered and thought that I might be dead. When I got to this point in my story I started to cry in real life. My whole face was wet, even my hands, even my dress.

When we reached Pionerskaya subway station I suddenly realized, with a satisfying jolt of insight, that the stone I land on after I jump is covered with slimy moss. When I land I slide off the stone with full force.