‘When a small child, I thought that success spelled happiness. I was wrong, happiness is like a butterfly which appears and delights us for one brief moment, but soon flits away.’
― Anna Pavlova
Sometime around Christmas in 1889, a mother took her eight-year-old daughter to her first ballet. She had bought two tickets she could not afford for a performance of The Sleeping Beauty at the Imperial Maryinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg.
It was the height of Romanticism. A century earlier, the people had revolted against kings and clergymen. Now they worked in factories and slept in crowded tenement houses. The modern world had no place for tulle or silk; Russian winters were cold, the Age of Reason was harsh. But for the price of a ticket one could escape it a while, at the Saturday matinée.
The ballet that night was magic, ‘mimed poetry, dream made visible.’ It was the night Anna Pavlova, the finest classical dancer in history, first dreamed of becoming a ballerina.
‘The world of dance is a charmed place. Some people like to inhabit it, others to behold it.’
- Margot Fonteyn
I was also eight years old when you took me to my first ballet: A Christmas performance of The Nutcracker, the Saturday matinée. I remember you frowning in concentration with a mouthful of pins as you pulled my hair tightly into a bun. Brushing powdered peach blush onto my cheeks, accidentally tickling my nose, or so you claimed. Dabbing your sheer pink lip balm on my lips, the one that smelled of roses and shimmered a bit.
You took me to lunch in my navy blue dress and white ballet shoes that always made grandpa call me princesse. I chewed with my mouth closed and sat up straight, and avoided almost every muddy spot between the parking lot and the foyer. The theater facade was run down, tired of time and war, but the inside was a fairy tale: a grand staircase, white roses, champagne flutes with gold on the rim. And the biggest crystal chandelier in the world it seemed, or perhaps I was just short. You and I stood right under it, at the spot where it sparkled most.
There were many little girls with their hair in buns like mine. Some wore tiaras and very shiny dresses, but only I wore pink lip balm that secretly smelled of roses. And you were the prettiest, of all the mommies there. You wore grandma’s pearl earrings, and you smelled nice.
You propped me up on the red velvet seat and whispered the story as the orchestra warmed up. Then the lights dimmed and the curtain went up.
‘... Love that alone, a dancer of life,
Your slender arm in its chosen place
Balancing, holding your weight in flight.
Her dance, light with day, her steps nimble with night;’
- Edgar Degas, Young Dancer
It was every Christmas and birthday I’d ever had. When it was over, you let me spin my dress one last time under the chandelier. On the way home, we stopped by a drive-through for soft serve ice cream. Vanilla, for both of us, in a cone. That we ate as we listened to Tchaikovsky in the car.
I also dreamed of becoming a ballerina that night.
In 1868, Edgar Degas showcased a painting of a dancer, Mlle. Fiocre in the Ballet La Source, at the Salon de Paris. It was the first of one thousand five hundred he would paint for the rest of his life.
‘Out of all the subjects in modern life he has chosen washerwomen and ballet dancers . . . it is a world of pink and white . . .’ His danseuses were faceless and undefined, blurring into one another and pastel backgrounds of stages and dressing rooms. Stretching, rehearsing, soothing aching muscles, adjusting silk ribbons. They were not classically, unattainably beautiful. They were beautifully real.
‘Her satin steps needle the patterns
Embroidering pleasure. My spendthrift eyes
Follow fatigued the springing girl.
But all in a flash, perfection ends;
By limb withdrawn too fast in leaping,
The hop of a frog in a Cytheran pond.’
- Edgar Degas, Dancer
A lot has changed in eighteen years. Just as much has not. We are back in an elegant foyer, with tickets for Swan Lake, the Saturday matinée. This time I am the one taking you to the ballet. I wore my hair in a bun for the occasion, and pearl earrings as well. And you are still by far the prettiest mommy there.
‘Life offstage has sometimes been a wilderness of unpredictables in an unchoreographed world.’
- Margot Fonteyn
I did not become a ballerina. Most little girls do not. But I did and became other things, and life has been beautifully real.
So let us climb the staircase and find our red velvet seats, then I’ll tell you the story as the orchestra warms up. Let us be happy and escape for two acts, then stop for ice cream on the way back.