A CLASSICS LESSON AND DREAMS
And one, and two, and three, and four. The répétiteur bashes away on the black Petrof, not caring in the slightest that with every inch of your body you’re selling your soul, leaving it to the mercy of the mistress’s absent gaze, you are opening up your shell, letting the demons in and blasting your thoughts beyond the horizon.
He keeps trotting out the same old tunes as though you were performing monkeys, not caring that he’s playing a motif from the second act of Sleeping Beauty and in a minute it’ll be one from Giselle. You are all Sleeping Beauties at eight in the morning, turned out in uniform leotards, uniform tights, uniform shoes, uniform chignons, uniform smiles, uniform futures as losers, uniform crushed little souls that you will spend the rest of your lives trying to resurrect to the consciousness of yourselves as beings with equal validity.
Giselle is driven mad by a broken heart, dies and becomes a fairy who dances wayfarers to their death at night. And five, and six, and seven, and eight. A fluffy white dress in which she looks like she’s floating, like she’s levitating above the ground, spinning like a medium, like a scattering dandelion. You will dance yourself to death, sacrificing yourself for love. And rest.
Demi-plié. First, second, fourth, fifth position, then slide, forward bend, back bend, attitude en demi-pointe, hold, both arms off the barre, balance! No dropping down. Concentrate! Hold! Back knee higher, turn out the instep to give you the line, against the shoulder blades, higher demi-pointe, no calf spasms. “Smile number twelve,” adds the professor ironically when she sees you all going red because it’s so painful to balance on tiptoe with one leg while the other one is raised high behind you. You’re holding it for another minute, everyone is shaking, the veins swollen on necks, teeth clenched, backs convulsed. It’s too much for one person, who puts a hand on the barre. “Did I say you could hold on?” shrieks the professor.
Now there are swollen veins on foreheads and throbbing temples as well. You are Giselle, betrayed and dying of a broken heart. A spin and battement tendu, an old combination from yesterday. Four times forward on one beat, two triplets ending in a plié, the same to the side, to the back and then to the side again. Why twice to the side? My foot is an iron and I’m ironing my wedding dress. You press down on the plié as though you’d like to break through into your badly compacted grave, you lean forward as if fainting, you are lapsing into madness, squeezing the final drops of life out of your body.
Don’t thrash about during those fast triplets! And then cloche, cloche, cloche. You are a clochard, a tramp, a vagrant, as frail as an old lady. Beauty in suffering. You can withstand anything. As in Swan Lake, the white act in Giselle is the most beautiful. The entrance of the fairies, all the brides who died before their wedding, in long white translucent veils. They are weightless like the breeze, like feathers plucked from a swan, their steps are inaudible because they are not touching the ground. The scrim is still down and you see them through white smoke. Myrtha is their queen. The queen of the fairies. Rond de jambe par terre. Everything spins round in a circle, everything is repeated a hundred times, the daily cycle, every day the same. Rond de jambe en l’air.
Leg circles from the knee down only, arms stiff in the second position as you try to lean against the air, leg circles backwards, everything a hundred times, a thousand times. The mechanical movement of a blender – is it a thick pudding or maybe Parisian pâté? Battement frappé. You tenderize the flesh of your bony ankles. Flex and leg, as though Chaplin was cleaning the mud from a bicycle off his trouser leg. You spend the twenty years of your career trying to scrub off that oil stain. You start when you’re ten and finish when you’re thirty. How much longer do you have? Those white heroines always sacrifice themselves for love. And then they suffer for it. They gladly suffer, always for a man, never for their own ambition or for their own good. They are magnificent victims: they die gracefully, tenderly, meaningfully, always to music, spectacularly and to great applause. Now comes the adagio, the pinnacle of elegance and difficulty. Now there’s just boot camp, a martyr’s wheel in the middle of the desert, a horse-drawn carriage full of gold which is pulled by you instead of horses. Giselle has been dead for a long time.
DIARY ENTRY: Of course our floor of the dorm has to be separated from the others by a metal grille. Supposedly to keep us out of harm’s way. Yeah, right! And the fact that our room of troublemakers is right above the supervisor’s is obviously for our protection too. Luckily Šedivka is totally naive. She went: “It smells really nice in here from those incense sticks.” But it was grass – from the Chapeau Rouge, mind, none of your home-grown stuff from somebody’s cottage.
Your aptitude for a successful future is carefully examined. It is subjected to a number of tests: you are displayed before a panel of experts, from the front, from the back, from below, lying on the ground, standing on one leg; they examine your hooves to see if they’ve grown into the correct shape and will look sufficiently aesthetic for the audience; the experts force your legs into various positions to find out how much you can take, measure and weigh you naked and use a special metal instrument to pinch your subcutaneous fat.
A doctor snaps at the skin on your thighs, buttocks, belly, forearms and back with metal pliers and, under a blood oath, you fill in a form with the truth about your parents’ weight and height. Oh yeah, and you’re not allowed to be ugly, you can’t have a visible scar on your face or an enormous birthmark, you can’t be skew-eyed or have a cleft palate or even just an asymmetrical face.
Ballerinas have a precisely shaped face, a high forehead, large eyes, a long swan-like neck, no breasts, no buttocks or even thighs, but at the same time incredibly long legs, long arms and beautiful long fingers, and the one thing that has to be big – and the bigger the better – are the insteps. High insteps are the alpha and omega of your entire future career. Insteps create the beauty of ballet, they give your legs the aesthetic look, the so-called ‘line’, so they’re plus points provided by nature. Although they don’t determine the number of pirouettes you can turn, they do bring mental stability. They influence every final exam, your casting in school productions, your hierarchy in the class, even your popularity with the teachers of the main subjects (it has no effect on language classes). What wouldn’t you do to get the right look?
Before classics, the schoolmates who haven’t blacklisted you, who aren’t bitches and who aren’t your rivals (so that probably leaves two of them at the most) sit or stand on your bent insteps and you say: “Don’t be shy, press down harder!” And then in return you sit on their insteps because that’s the only secret to making them bigger. Professor Husová advises you to punch them with your fist and even shows you how.
When you’re at home you should stick them under the wardrobe or the piano, and if you break them several times a day before each lesson, then eventually the bone will start to give and gradually bend into the prescribed shape. If the insteps are the alpha and omega, then the perfect figure forms infinity. Infinite lifelong effort, infinite work, infinite concentration, infinite stress and the infinite topic you have to deal with in different ways every day. When you’re ten you run up and down the stairs of the dorm wrapped up in thick tights with plastic bags tied over them, leggings, jogging pants, two sweaters and a puffa jacket, five floors up, five floors down, until your thighs start trembling and you get a stitch in your side.
When you’re eleven, you stop eating the food from the school and dormitory canteens. At twelve you start using the weight-loss machine they have in the dormitory clubhouse, which looks like scales but has this belt that you stretch round your bum, stomach and back that judders with a hell of a racket and is supposed to shake the fat off you. At thirteen you start smoking during breaks because it supresses hunger, at fourteen you start trying out all kinds of different diets (eating nothing but fat-burning soup), at fifteen you only eat fruit and muesli bars, at sixteen you discover laxatives, at seventeen you start throwing up and at eighteen you’re hardly eating anything at all because you want to be on stage and there’s no way they’ll let you with the wrong figure.
Every Monday morning there’s the weigh-in. Before the start of the lesson everyone in the class has to stand on the scales in front of the classics professor, who carefully notes whether you’ve put on weight, and if you have, you’re given a reprimand and a recommendation to “do something about it” or a direct threat that no-one will be able to lift you during partnering, you’ll get a lower grade or even be banned from appearing on the stage. But it’s really hard to lose weight from your breasts, so the girls bind them using a bandage so they don’t look like a “turkey” or “bloated”, as they say to Aneta, so they can be crammed into a costume two sizes too small and occasionally someone’ll end up fainting because they can no longer breathe. Katka says that when she’s older and no longer dancing she’s going to get silicone implants like her mum, because she’d like to find out at least once what it’s like to have the boys gaping at your cleavage.
A TRIP TO NOWHERE
You write your name over and over again in shaky handwriting that even you don’t recognise. You do this so you don’t forget who you are. Right now you are losing yourself, you’re not even sure of your own name any more, your handwriting is all over the place and impossible to read, and so in the middle of the night you pick up your mobile and dial a random number from your contacts just to hear what name they call you. This is known as a bad trip, and at the age of sixteen it’s not the best thing to have.
Someone has locked you in a basement flat with bars on the windows looking out onto the pavement, so in the streetlight outside all you can see are the shadows of shuffling shoe soles, which every once in an eternity let you know that some kind of world still exists outside, because the one inside has already ceased to exist. However, right now the outside is awfully dangerous and there’s a risk that it will seep through the wall all the way into this underground cell with a bathroom full of black widows – that’s how the harmless harvestmen decorating the wet wall like long-legged flowers appear to you right now.
In one moment everything shattered like the broken dance mirror Barbara once ran into, as if she wanted to commit ritual suicide in the object she’d been forced to gawk at four times a day for eight years. They etch your mirror image under your skin as if they were tattooing, as though a mark of imperfection was tattooed onto you. You’re still not good enough, you still have to try harder, work harder, you’re still nothing, just take a look at yourself, do you see yourself? Slob! Your image is in pieces, your name’s illegible, the ink’s run in the programme in the column that says “Performing today”. A bad trip. A fragmented identity. Who the hell am I? And what the hell am I going to do? Right now, today, tomorrow, in ten years’ time?
They’ll take away your faith, your courage, self-confidence and personality. They’ll reduce you to an efficient robotic toy. Just like all the others. In each shard you see a different piece of yourself: a self-made orphan who erased her family from her life to stop it hurting so much, a perfectly trained circus dog who can do tricks that make everyone applaud, a desperate case who’s still a virgin because the idea of a naked male body fills her with terror, an intellectual loser who at the age of sixteen still doesn’t know how to add fractions, the class clown who always goes to extremes, always to the edge, but then secretly weeps into her pillow, or the self-flagellating rebellious teenager who intends to gorge herself on this cruel freedom until it chokes her.
In the final shard you are the chosen one who can stand on the uppermost lighting bridge just under the roof of the golden chapel and look down from above at the second and fourth acts of Swan Lake, known as the white acts. From there the dancers look like white saucers, quivering as they swarm in the vast depths as if they were playing the shell game with you, and you experience such overwhelming bliss that at that moment it wouldn’t even occur to you to lean out a little more and deliberately lose your balance. You’re one of them and you won’t lose your balance till later, when you’ll fall pirouetting from the roof just when everyone is watching. Now, though, you’re locked in a basement flat and you don’t even realize it was you who locked it after you left the Bohnice forest. You’re shivering in a fever which shakes your whole body and paints a nightmarish picture of you and your non-existent life, as if this was your last day, to be followed by absolutely nothing. Sweating, frightened to death, hoarse without a trace of your own voice which fell silent six years ago and now only wheezes, you call the school.
It takes you three-quarters of an hour to dial the number because you’re not capable of calculating it, and before that you spent the entire night working on a plausible excuse. Or was it just an hour? Both you and time are falling apart and you whisper into the phone that you are ill. Maybe they’ll even believe you. You don’t believe it yourself, even though you are ill. You are sick with fear, anxiety, inner pain, the way you’ve been straining and stretching yourself to breaking point, the awful way you’re destroying yourself, because they’re so good at leaving the dirty work to you. The total destruction of your self is motivated by the sight of those scurrying white saucers. For now you are only allowed to be an extra in the third act, legs covered by a floor-length dress, and smile on cue at the real hero who is fighting for romantic love, for an ideal you don’t have.
L-S-D, you’re seeing stars. You’re a goose, not a swan, for taking this trip, for arguing with the rest of the group and locking yourself in a borrowed flat where you’re afraid of going into the bathroom. “Take a Superman and you’ll feel like Superman.” You wanted to see if it worked. What a load of crap. A bad trip. You’ll go to school tomorrow anyway and stand in front of that glued-together mirror with your image shattered cubist-style, you’ll raise your legs like all the others and hold them just by your head until you start shaking, you’ll jump a high jeté, higher than the rest, and hang in the air for a second longer too to give any potential photographer time to take a snap, and turn thirty-two fouettés, though to the left and not as well as the black Odilie in the third act a little while ago. But that’s all you know how to do. That’s all you are. And if you were to lose that, you’d lose everything.
DIARY ENTRY: (from the queue for the telephone)
I called the Helpline today. I wanted to get the lesson at teacher training cancelled. I told Chlebeček I needed to call my parents. He let me go as usual. I wondered if I should try a bomb scare, but last time there was a mad row and the lesson still wasn’t cancelled. Dominka told me you can blow the fuses somewhere. We’ll need to try that tomorrow.
DIARY ENTRY: What we’re supposed to do: every day – sweep and mop the floor, do the dusting and take out the bin; every Wednesday – lift up the beds and air the duvets; every fortnight – change the duvets; every evening – report our grades; every Thursday – piano practice; every Sunday – bring our attendance sheet signed by our parents; other than that, listen to the supervisors and be polite to the older girls. What we usually do: argue, eat each other’s food if there is any, climb along the edge of the bookcase in the clubhouse and then drop down, stretch out our legs in front of the mirror and practise combinations from the classics, cook our speciality instant Chinese soup in the kitchen, hide things, think up traps for the supervisors, smoke in the toilets, annoy the old janitor and also spy on the older girls and try to find out more about sex.
DIARY ENTRY: This place is a total nuthouse. Two Lenkas, two Báras, two Katkas, two Sylvas, fortunately one spelt with an ‘i’. I’d honestly like to know if they deliberately took them in twos so if one of them dropped out, there’d still be another one left. The really embarrassing thing is that the doublers even sit together on the bench and stand beside each other at the barre. It’s an advantage for the professors though, they shout: “Lenka, turn that leg round!” and they both do it at the same time.
DIARY ENTRY: (from the toilet in the dorm) Someone squeezed toothpaste in my hair last night! Cows! Aneta’s been pulling out her underarm hair with tweezers which is totally gross! I have to think up which model dress to take to school tomorrow because Eva wears most of my things. Oh yeah, and Petr bought me an ice lolly and confided in me that he was adopted. Horrible! The supervisors scrounged some vouchers and turned a blind eye to my dad’s forged signature. That cow had a go at us for making a mess. Then along came Šedivka, wet her finger with saliva and showed us that the stains would come off. She went: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” We’ve got no will, so there’s no way.
You’re ten and your bright new future is starting right now. Sitting in room 203 are four other ten-year-old girls with sports bags crammed full of junk. So much hope. So much expectation. Too-doo-dum-tum. A teddy bear on the shelf above the bed, in the bedside table the regulation sewing kit, plasters, massage oil, bandages, spare tape, soap in a plastic box, make-up bag, instant Chinese soup and muesli bars in the food locker in the hallway with its own lock, as recommended to you in the list. At the supervisor’s office you’re all issued with one duvet cover, one blanket and vouchers for dinners that you’ll have stopped eating within a month. Down on the ground floor a snake-like queue has already formed by the telephone. The card phone is permanently occupied. There’s a sign taped to the wall above it: Maximum 10 minutes for telephone calls.
The whole dorm is buzzing like a beehive. The parents who have brought their daughters by car are waving from the pavement down below, crowding around the gatehouse with the letch of a janitor who’ll play jump rope with you, or signing documents one floor up in the supervisor’s office, where they transfer the responsibility for their juvenile children to a collective state institution. You slowly fill in the attendance register which controls your life from Monday to Friday but definitely not at the weekend when the girl’s dorm is closed, despite the fact you still have school.
You look to see if any of your new roommates are by any chance fighting back the tears. Yup, two of them are red-eyed straight away. It’s a sign of weakness that shows who’ll stick it out here and who’ll pack it in within a couple of months. Another lost dream, another disappointed fucked-up soul. Too-doo-dum-tum. You don’t know why they’re crying – after all, the greatest adventure of your so-far short life is just beginning, an adventure which if you can hack it will totally shift the cursor of your existence, your way of thinking, your outook and above all your body, your personality – in short, your whole life. You are already becoming someone else.
Forget bedtime stories and start listening to Tchaikovsky. You gradually come to like the rules of the life of a future artiste. If you bring your Barbie, then you’ll have no place in the pack. You’re at an exclusive school. You had to go through three selection rounds and a medical check-up before they accepted you. Your parents even had to lie that they weigh and measure less than they really do. You’re not allowed to grow much. Tall ballerinas = dead ballerinas (and it’s true that one of your future professors, the only tall one, will successfully jump out of a window). But the main thing is not to get fat. So from now on no sweets, no dumplings, none of mummy’s home cooking, not even at the weekend. You had been living in an unspoiled paradise until you were nine.
No more pampering. Reality has now set in. Now you have to start working on yourself. You are already the elite. You have to concern yourself with the quality of pink nylons and the transparency of white ballet outfits. You only buy the nylons from Grishko’s where that grey-haired Russian woman works, the one who pinches your bottom when you’re trying them on so that you tense the wobbly flesh. And you have the white outfits lined – after all, you’re already ten, if you don’t in two years’ time your budding breasts will start to show through, and if they’re small you’ll be totally ashamed of them, and if they’re big, you’ll be even more ashamed of them and bind them with a bandage until you faint from lack of oxygen. And don’t forget that there’s no place to hide a sanitary towel in that white leotard. Fortunately, menstruation will give you a wide berth for a couple more years. At least you won’t be screaming in the toilet like Aneta as you try to stuff the obligatory tampon into your vagina, which apparently hurts like hell.
Another rule: No hair. Anywhere. At the age of eleven Kri Kri shaves her hands, as well as everything else, because the classics professor said that she looked like an ape. The order from the Russian professor with a Czech name was literally: “No tooofts of hair!”
All of those illustrious artists who you call professors (even though the only one with a professorship is the maths teacher) studied in Moscow or Leningrad. And the best of them speak Russian all the time. It’s the sign of the ballet elite. Russian ballet is the best. When Sergeyevna from the Moscow Ballet School comes to the school on an inspection to check up on what we are up to and whether we are following the plan and curriculum, then all of the ‘professors’ fawn over her like randy hares and shout at us twice as much as usual. You even have to take off your soft ballet slippers and start to use the classic “gutted” pointe shoes for the classics, because that’s how they do it in Moscow.
The reason they make pointe shoes is not because of the environment, so they can recycle them and reduce the number of discarded ballet shoes – no way, don’t be naïve. It’s another form of torture where they make the most uncomfortable dance shoes even more uncomfortable. You hammer out that hard toe, rip out the inner wooden sole and spend an extra ten hours a week in them, even though you can’t keep your balance in them properly on two feet, never mind one. That’s how they toughen you up.
“Your feet will earn you a living,” is what the classics professor always says. “Your feet are supposed to be earning you a living,” is what your mother (who’d hoped you were going to be a doctor) says with a sigh as she buys you healing creams, plasters and disinfectant for bleeding toes, Fastum gels for pulled tendons, analgesics and ointments to dull the pain, and collagen for sore joints.
You’ll become an expert on products to relieve pain, inflammation, strained muscles, ingrown or toenails that have come off completely, bunions, the verrucae you are guaranteed to catch from the communal showers where you spend the breaks after every dance lesson (the perfect place for a cry), so what you’ll be asking for this Christmas is a discount voucher for the chemist’s. Have you written all that down?
Translated by Graeme and Suzanne Dibble