Nina’s mom sewed the last of her costume, grumbling, and irate. Nina told her to show some love, or it wasn’t going to work. Irina showed some teeth, a forced smile that fooled no one. Nina didn’t really care. Her mom was a brilliant seamstress and she was always grumbling, ever the perfectionist. In this regard, they were Siamese twins. “Mamoschka,” she cooed…Her mom gave her a stern look. “Well, Irina, can I try it on?” “Strip!” she commanded. Docile, Nina stripped down to her underwear, then added the heavy stockings. The outfit was tight on her, which was perfect. It looked like an olden time skater’s costume. White leotard with long sleeves, short jacket with cuffed faux fur, short white skirt trimmed with faux fur, faux fur hat. She looked the part. Irina was eyeing her critically. She had to admit, “You look beautiful, Ninochka.” Nina did not allow her to crush her on her bosom “You’ll wrinkle it!”

“Do a few steps. Show your poor Mama before she goes blind doing all your sewing.” Nina stretched. “Let’s wait for Piotr so I’ll have some music.” “Ach. I will make some tea.” She got up slowly, painfully stretching her sore body. She was so proud of her lithe, ill-tempered daughter, but she would not tell her so she would not get a big head. The tea was steeping when they heard the door open, boots getting knocked together to shake off the snow. “Piotr, you’re late,” she teased. “What? No food left?” he answered with a laugh. Then, “Ninochka, you take my breath away,” as he fell to his knees.  She blushed, laughed. “Bratik, give me some music. Mama wants to see me dance.”

Piotr got out his harmonica and started a languorous tune. It was perfect for her to warm up. She improvised a few steps, exhibiting ballon, a lightness in her jumps that was a pleasure to behold.  Progressively, he sped things up, always keeping an eye on her. She finished brilliantly, tears streaming down their mother’s cheeks. Irina got up to serve tea, sniffling. “Tea will be good. It’s cold in here.” Nina got out of her outfit and back into her regular clothes. Her cheeks were red from the effort. “Of course, it will be better outside. It’s cramped here. And I will have a proper choreography. I was thinking half an hour, da? So it’s affordable.” They drank in silence. “Will I be dancing too?” he asked sheepishly. “Who will play the music if you dance?” “Anatoly plays the accordion.”  She said nothing.

“Come to school tomorrow, so we can practice.” He was there, strong and attentive. Near the end, she had him lift her up as she did the swan. He did not falter. He had been his on and off dance partner ever since he took it up himself. He wasn’t the best, but he could be trusted, and she could not afford to pay anybody else. “Did you talk to Anatoly? How much does he want?” They agreed that Piotr would do the bookings and Anatoly would provide the stage and the transport in his van. For now, he would get gas money and his share of the profits. No guarantees. Surprisingly, their idea took off. She had themes and little stories, easy to follow. She started off dancing in front of houses, outside, on the homemade stage they drove around. It was winter, and there was not much entertainment. To have a ballet dancer, seemingly dancing in the snow in front of their home was thrilling.

Nina was the suburbs’ darling. Her idea was unique and she exploited the niche, bringing art to the people. Her success brought her all sorts of attention. She had not anticipated that a rowdy crowd would gather, nor that spectators would ask for so many encores. Things got out of hand more than once. Neighbours gathered outside to watch and cheer, and clap and sing. Vodka bottles appeared from coat pockets and often they had trouble retrieving their stage. She was a sight to see in her white outfit and the accordion was a surprise element that shocked and pleased the audience. On a backdrop of gray apartment building, she shone like a promise. Because of cost, they had planted torches in the snow. It gave a surreal and magical light, creating shadows as the wind blew the flames. Old people loved to be able to watch from their apartment, and she managed to make a name for herself. Soon other artists, pickpockets and buskers joined in and there was no longer enough money to go around. Seedy people tried to extract their cut with threats of retaliation against the family. She reluctantly gave in. Though young, she was no fool and knew that this would afford her some protection.

Graffities started to pop up, depicting her in mid-air doing her signature swan move.  She had become a star in her own right. She danced in front of her parent’s home, too, so the neighbours could boast that they knew her since she was a girl. A fight broke out over who knew her best, quickly quelled with copious amounts of vodka. That performance was her best, though the tension was almost unbearable. It was to be the culmination of her short career. She retired that night to thundering applause. Her mother’s health was failing, and she could not sustain that level of trepidation and lack of sleep. She stopped dancing to care for Irina, and never went back to performing.

Sergei had been an early admirer, never missing a performance. He became a steadfast friend who helped the whole time Irina was sick. They finally married and had little Masha, the light of her eyes. Sergei’s love for Nina transferred to the bottle and, after many fights, she showed him the door. Piotr came to live with his sister and niece, to make ends meet. When Masha was four, she found a beautiful white costume with faux fur in a box under her mom’s bed. It was a angel’s outfit, so soft to the touch. Nina came upon her, as she was stroking it dreamily. “Mashenka, what are you doing?” “An angel came and left this behind.” “Oh, Marusya, that was mine when I was a girl. I used to dance.” Masha settled comfortably against her mama, her eyes shining, still clutching the angel dress. “Tell me the story.” And so she did.









Obit – Django, the dancer

Django, the well-known Brazilian choreographer, died yesterday of emphysema, killed by air pollution in his beloved city of Rio de Janeiro, pictured in his masterpiece “Ciudades/Cities”. He was 61.

Revelled or abhorred, his work left nobody indifferent. I interviewed him in his heyday, in a café in Rio. He was 5 years my senior and had just had his major success, “Ciudades/Cities” performed in New York. I was fumbling with my questions and he, ever patient, was taking his time to answer, as though he had nothing better to do. He told me he was grateful for the breather. He said he loved to “study people’s expressions as they talked or waited, were bored or hopeful. The dance of the eyebrows, the eyes, the mouth a fascinating choreography of desire.”

He observed everything, from the fretful moves of pigeons in a park fighting over crumbs, to the longing pose of a vagrant just before he brought his lips to the neck of the bottle. The brilliance of emotions contained or unleashed dazzled him and inspired his best work.

I asked him about his latest choreography. He explained passionately that traffic lights lived to their own rhythms, repeated street after street, obeying a higher will. His piece was an ordered chaos ruled by syncopated graffiti. Garbage had its place, discarded papers were thrown in the air and floated on the breeze, or glass bottles were exploded on a wall, the forceful clash releasing coloured fragments in the light. He told me about the rain in the city, umbrellas dotting a busy street, the slow pace of people safe under them compared to the race for cover of the exposed ones. Everything was a joy to the eye – he stored millions of movements which he disgorged on the scene through the pliant bodies of his troupe. I sat mesmerized by his vision, enthralled by his movements as he mimicked the rain and the people running for cover. He called the rain “urban guerilla”. He laughed a lot.

He was a poet and a dancer at heart.

I asked him what his plans were, for his next work. He talked about sounds. He said he was interested in the rhythm of people coughing at the opera house. One cough started another, followed by a third, each bolder than the first. He revelled in the myriad of expressions the body revealed even though its bearer was unaware.  The whole was always greater than the sum of its part. He wrote feverishly, captured what he saw by any means. He turned to nature for inspiration and produced more dazzling work.

Then one day he called it quits. He had said all he had to say, was now happy to absorb and retain instead of constantly creating for others. He sought to transform himself. He was called selfish by the same people who claimed to hate his work. He paid them no mind. He turned to meditation, looking for stillness as another way to understand the world. He watched his thoughts, searching for patterns in their flow and colours. The quiet was bursting with energy, he was overjoyed by his findings.

He laughed his way into death as he had into life, capturing his essence as he danced into the next state, exuberant and free.