Lilia thinks that maybe if she’d been born outside of the Soviet Union, if she had been able to travel each season like Minako, she would have won the Benois. But then she thinks of all the Soviet dancers who did win, even without touring, and she remembers that she did tour, eventually. In the end what it comes down to are preferences and tastes, tastes and preferences and fashion. Besides, it doesn’t do to be jealous of such a thing as a prize when one is the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet. And, she admits, the fact that Minako Okukawa is very, very good.
She recalls when Minako first came to the Bolshoi as a twenty-year-old baby in 1987. And the stir! The furor over her body, the length of her legs and her height and delicacy -well, and of course the color of her skin and the shape of her eyes- and the tours and the typecasting and the uneasy jockeying and the partnership with young Irek Mukhamedov. The space between two first casts, and the inevitable tension between the up-and-comer novelty and the thirty-one-year-old established principal. And, as no one ever seemed to forget, the supposed tension between one of Sulamith Messerer’s last students before she defected (and as was well-remembered and whispered loudly behind cupped hands, a dirty Jew just like her) and one of Sulamith Messerer’s first students after she defected. Really, between all the Kitris and Esmeraldas and bayadéres they threw at both of them, getting all their exoticism bases covered in one go, they had more in common than between them. Really, it was a miracle the audience loved them as it did.
Despite what the tabloids say, truthfully they are like two ships passing in the night during their first years together as colleagues at the Bolshoi. First cast, second cast; morning class group one or two; language classes or extra physiotherapy, main stage or new stage- they see each other more on magazine covers than they do in person. Lilia’s main impression of Minako is made up of her firecracker jumps, her tight, tight chaines, and the perfect arc of her foot than she is with anything so pedestrian as her conversation or eye color. Even so, such flawless turn-out is to be lauded. Minako, she notices, practices hours almost as long as hers.
The whole thing is what the Bolshoi does best: rocketing upward and then burnout. Minako gets her two years as Russia’s China doll star, and then she ups stakes and goes to the Royal. Lilia is unbothered. Irek seems to adapt quickly to not having a primary partner, and her departure certainly doesn’t disrupt the corps. The Bolshoi’s gears keep grinding as smoothly as they ever do.
The girl’s hardly more than a child. Maybe England will teach her some staying power. Besides, it’s the year Plisetskaya retires, and Lilia becomes assoluta of the company, and it seems that only the sky is the limit.
They meet twice in the six years between Minako leaving the Bolshoi and her receipt of the Prix Benois. Once in Covent Garden when the Bolshoi tours again, sharing spotlight in a joint production of Jewels. Lilia does so loathe mixed-company productions. Separately the companies are beautiful, but mixed together it’s as though every dancer has forgotten everything they learned in the corps and move as disjointedly and stiffly as automatons. It’s a little easier with Balanchine, where at least perfect unison doesn’t have to happen in straight, regimented lines, but Lilia firmly believes that hers is a valid prejudice. In the end, though, she is nothing but impressed with Minako’s performance.
The Bolshoi performs Diamonds, obviously, but Minako of course is the Tall Girl in Rubies. Lilia knows that Minako is an entire 5’’11 standing full pointe (there was always a little difficulty matching her with a sufficiently tall male principal), but on stage she seems to loom like a true giant. Her lines, her energy, even her hands in those strange claw shapes, they draw the eye and hold it. She’s electric, frankly, and Lilia thinks with a sort of rueful surprise that England has been good for her. The style change, at least.
They share a water bottle in the wings between acts, Minako panting and drenched with sweat, the tabs on her tight crimson leotard shaking with her breath, the gems on her bodice trembling with her heartbeat. Lilia stands pristine, waiting for the music to strike up, feeling very much like the icy paste gems on her own costume.
“You’ve improved greatly,” Lilia tells her stiffly, honestly unsure if they’ve ever spoken before, although surely they have; the Bolshoi isn’t as big as all that.
“You’re beautiful,” responds Minako, with a kind of bluntness Lilia appreciates. “Perfect for Diamonds. But keep your arms round, critics hate the flat Russian look here.” She passes the water back to Lilia and vanishes into the wings, not waiting for a response.
Just as well. Lilia wouldn’t have known what to say. She keeps her arms round, and the critics praise her port de bras to the skies. Minako, though, gets two full paragraphs in The Guardian review and her second Pointe cover.
The second time they meet, Lilia actually gets to know Minako. More than know.
The Royal gets the whole damn summer off to guest or tour or sit around eating chocolate éclairs, what does Lilia know what they get up to without proper discipline. Minako, though, she must admit, is readapting well to the Bolshoi, for all that she only has two months here. She spends a goodly amount of time with Irek, but otherwise stays aloof from the company members.
Lilia knows well the strange limbo of guesting, not altogether dissimilar from the limbo of being a principal who doesn’t get along well with the other dancers on her level. Minako wears the most ridiculous fuzzy blue leg warmers to company class, likely hand-knit, and stares ahead with focused determination at odds with the graceful arcs of her body. Minako, Lilia notices, is something of an intimidation stretcher.
She doesn’t know it at the time, but these two months in Moscow are likely what seal the deal on Minako’s Prix Benois the next year. She doesn’t know it then, no, but it wouldn’t have surprised her if she had. Minako, she notices, is rather beautiful.
She starts out by taking class right behind Minako to get a feel for her. Lilia is 38 now and morning class doesn’t come as easily to her as it once did - warming up takes longer, feels harder in her joints and long muscles. But she does it, and beautifully. Minako pays her and her extra tendus no mind, and Lilia rather likes her for it.
The plan -though certainly it’s not anything so well-organized as that- continues with offering a spare needle for elastics and ribbons when Minako’s bends, and then pancake makeup when Minako runs out. The breaking point, it seems, is when she notices Minako banging the boxes of her shoes on the floor to soften them, and pulls out her own small jeweler’s hammer so Minako can whack with more finesse.
Minako gives her an incredulous look from the floor. “Are you going to try to kill me with that hammer?”
Well, politeness from Minako is not a necessary component in the plan-that-isn’t-a-plan, so Lilia takes it in stride.
“No,” she says. “That would be a waste of a perfect turn-out.”
“High praise indeed,” replies Minako, switching to English halfway through the clause. “I didn’t know Lilia Baranovskaya gave out compliments so freely.”
Lilia snorts. “False modesty is unbecoming. You’re beautiful and you know it, so you should be able to accept compliments gracefully.”
Minako raises an eyebrow at her, but there’s something amused playing around her mouth. She takes the hammer and gets a few good hits in around the toe box. Once she’s softened the shoe to her liking, she tucks it into her bag and rises gracefully to her feet.
Minako is definitely taller than her, Lilia notes, as Minako gives her a very rude, very considering once-over.
“All the soloists and Irek are completely wrong about you,” Minako tells her decisively, breaking out into a grin. Her eyes crinkle at the corners, Lilia notes, and it’s a very different smile from Kitri’s or Esmeralda’s. Wicked, she thinks. Distracting. Really, it’s distracting enough that she forgets to ask why Minako is gossiping with the soloists at all.
“We’re going for a drink,” Minako says. “After work, you know neither of us have performances tomorrow. We can gossip about our shared teacher.”
And Lilia should know better after all her decades in this theater, but she acquiesces. At least the conversation should prove interesting.
“Vladimir Viktorovich is the most disappointing sexual partner I’ve ever had the misfortune of experiencing,” Lilia finds herself telling Minako several hours later, rather shocked at herself.
Minako gasps delightedly and pours more vodka into Lilia’s teacup.
“You can’t be serious!” she exclaims, and her English enunciation is surprisingly good for someone who’s downed at least three teacups of Lilia’s best vodka. “But- his Spartacus! His arms, my god!”
“Misleading in the extreme.”
“And isn’t he married?” Really, Lilia thinks Minako shouldn’t look quite so shocked. Everyone knows the sorts of things that go on at the Bolshoi. Even the Americans.
“Katya is a lovely and generous woman,” she says with dignity, picking up her teacup once more. “Not to mention far better in bed than her husband deserves.”
At this, though, Minako just nods wisely. “I should have known,” she says. “Isn’t it always that way? Well, I’ll just have to look at Vasiliev and be content with that.”
“Sometimes the best thing to do with beauty is keep it at arms’ length,” Lilia says, and feels rather proud of that particular bon mot. “Bringing it closer only allows one to see the flaws.”
Minako snorts, utterly inelegant. “You’re actually ridiculous. But you have a good way with words.”
Lilia is quite taken aback, she admits. People have given her several diverse epithets of varying levels of nastiness, but ridiculous has not been among them. She arches both brows at Minako, an expression she knows has sent corps members scurrying into studio mirrors. Minako laughs out loud at her. Minako, she notices, isn’t cowed by very much.
“Let me teach you some of the other English words for beautiful,” Minako says. “Repetitiveness does mar the impact.”
“There is nothing worse for the ballerina than a marred impact,” Lilia says, not even entirely sure what she’s saying. “Teach me, then.”
Minako puts down her teacup and scoots closer, placing one hand just above Lilia’s knee, and Lilia can’t quite bring herself to chastise her when even her scooting is graceful.
Sometime later, when they’ve broken one teacup that Lilia won’t mourn too badly and even the white night outside is growing dim, Lilia attempts to arrange her arm over Minako’s waist in a way that looks a little less like the outcome of a terrible bicycle accident. A nice picture she makes, certainly.
Minako makes an indistinct noise like she’s considering making some sort of comment, and Lilia pinches her belly. Minako is undeterred. “My god, you’re even better at that than Darcey Bussell,” she says once she’s done shivering.
“Of course I am,” Lilia replies, and goes back to trying to make a post-sex sprawl elegant for both of them.
That’s just the start of it, of course. It’s wonderful how close it is possible to become in a month and a half without actually trying to.
Not that Lilia isn’t trying to, of course. It’s just that she was foreseeing the kind of friendship she’s seen between other principals where ballet is the glue that keeps everything together, and the bond is based mostly on shared sewing supplies and leaving the knowledge of injury and competition unspoken. Minako, though, is different. Minako treats Lilia like she’s the same.
What’s more, she’s entirely irresponsible.
Oh, not during class or performances or anything approximating working hours, of course. She’s picture-perfect and driven in the kind of way that Lilia recognizes from her own days at Vagonova, the kind of driven that comes from having to be better than the best to get half as much recognition. When she dances, it feels as though the theater itself leans in to watch.
It’s outside the theater. Minako gives herself little treats off her meal plan and makes it up with practice. She goes ice skating and club dancing with seemingly no care for the danger to her ankles. She runs around Moscow like it’s a sleepy little seaside town instead of a giant metropolis with as much seediness as glitz, and she drags Lilia with her. She ogles the most attractive men she finds in nightclubs, crushes for a day or two and then seems to entirely forget they exist, and does the same with women she finds in the coffee shops where she buys her illicit pastries. She insists to Lilia that sex is good for performance and teaches her how best to get around tutu basques when trying to finger someone. She goes to Russian musical theater revues with Irek, for heaven’s sake, even though she must have difficulty with the language sometimes. Sometimes, she will take up a perfect ballet pose on the train or waiting in line and ignore the stares, then collapse laughing about it as soon as she’s alone again.
Lilia can say with no exaggeration whatsoever that she’s never met another dancer like Minako. The girls and boys at the Bolshoi tend to eat, drink, and breathe dance, and Lilia freely admits she’s much the same. Minako, though. She has a life outside the theater, for all that it’s cobbled together and hasty and in the end quite shallow. It’s there, and that’s something different.
The one thing Minako doesn’t do, Lilia notices, is drink.
Well, that’s not true, of course. They were drinking when they first made friends. But Minako doesn’t drink on nights out, she doesn’t drink at the theater or on dinners out with other dancers, and she never, ever drinks in her own tiny apartment.
“I only drink when I’m with people I trust,” Minako says of her own volition one evening over another teacup of Lilia’s vodka. They’re alone, still in practice clothes, Minako with her awful lumpy blue leg warmers. She keeps threatening to make another pair for Lilia.
“You trust me, then,” Lilia says, and keeps the little curl of warmth in her chest off her face.
“Yep!” Minako says brightly. “So make sure you tell me when to stop!”
Lilia does, and doesn’t mention the fact that apparently Minako doesn’t trust herself to. Friendships between principals work that way, and Minako isn’t so different as all that.
She does stop admiring the way the alcohol makes Minako’s cheeks flush after that, though. It’s not as beautiful as her extensions, in any case.
Minako’s recklessly irresponsible skating habit is to blame for introducing Lilia to Yakov Feltsman.
Lilia goes hunting for her one white night halfway through Minako’s visit, hoping that somehow their schedules will be kind enough to allow them both one dinner out together.
Minako had brought her thickest outdoor socks with her to practice, the pair Lilia knows she wears when she goes skating, so she finds her at the FFKKR rink with little trouble. Somehow the guards always let Minako in despite the fact that she’s patently not a skater. Then again, she is the only Asian dancer at the Bolshoi- the whole city knows her face.
And indeed, there she is. Not skating, no, but sitting in the stands deep in conversation with a middle-aged man in a hat while skaters in practice gear glide to and fro beneath them. Lilia pauses in the doorway to watch them. Minako’s face is animated and she periodically waves an arm in the gesture that Lilia knows means she is emphasizing a point. The man seems more self-contained, but all Lilia can see of him is his posture (excellent) and his coat (good quality).
A skater down on the ice goes for a jump and lands with an unpleasant screech of skates. Lilia does not know much about the mechanics of skating, but she does know the mechanics of grace. The boy’s shoulders were all out of alignment, his hips uneven, and the flailing of his arms in the air unlovely and unstable. She scoffs.
The man in the hat holds up a hand to pause Minako and climbs down to the edge of the rink. He stands there, his back still to Lilia, out of earshot, and points and gestures at the boy for five minutes straight. Then he points to the ice, and the boy goes. He jumps and it is perfect. A soaring, supple arc that curtails itself in a fluid curve, the boy’s body even and poised.
Lilia is not the sort of person to gasp in public, but she stares harder at Minako’s unknown conversational partner. He is nothing lovely from the back —graying hair peeking from under his hat, square shoulders, square hips, feet planted wide apart— but Lilia just saw him do the incredible. He took a mess of a boy and made him beautiful with five minutes of words and gestures. Lilia has seen enough teachers and choreographers try to explain what beauty feels like to know how difficult it truly is. It reminds her, if she is honest, of Sulamith.
She decides she must meet this square man in the coat. She steps out of the doorway and waves to Minako. The man turns around at her intrusion.
Minako springs down the steps and makes her introductions, but Lilia doesn’t need them. She recognized Yakov Feltsman the instant she saw his face. His Jewish face, like hers, that was on every magazine cover and every TV screen every time he touched the ice. His Jewish name, like hers, that was on the radio and in print every time he proved his right to exist and be beautiful.
“Madame,” he says to her, shaking her hand.
“What you just did was astounding,” Lilia tells him. He smiles, and the pride in the tilt of his chin is stunning.
“We were talking about coaching skaters when you arrived, and about how ballet figures into the training,” Minako says as they walk back to Lilia’s apartment after dinner. Yakov had tagged along to the restaurant, in the end, and all three of them had stayed out far later than wise.
Skating and ballet, strangely, had not figured into the conversation at all, except as the looming ever-present forces that shaped all their lives. No, it had been the things they missed about their homes, unrelated anecdotes and spits of memory spilling out.
There had come a point in the evening where Lilia and Yakov had glanced at each other, glanced around the almost-empty restaurant, and told each other and Minako about candles on Fridays behind closed curtains. There had come a point where Minako, unsmiling, had told them about clapping at the entrances to temples and about her mother dancing with her sleeves. Lilia whispering about the stars in the false bottom of her mother’s jewelry box. Minako wistfully describing the flavors of soy and broth and seaweed. Yakov sketching the letters of his grandfather’s name right-to-left on a napkin.
No, skating and ballet hadn’t figured into the conversation at all except as all the reasons why they murmured instead of spoke.
“Is coaching something you would consider one day?” Lilia asks. “Skating is beautiful, certainly. It clearly takes great inspiration from the dancing arts.”
Minako shrugs, ears and nose disappearing into her scarf. “Maybe one day. I would like to teach dancers in my own country, though. Skating isn’t quite so popular there as it is here, although I hear it’s gaining ground.”
She glances at Lilia. “What about you?”
Lilia hums. It is a question that deserves due consideration, even if she does not intend to retire any time soon. Intention can mean very little in her line of work.
“As you say. Perhaps one day. I would enjoy working with a teacher such as Yakov, certainly.”
Minako smiles, just a bit, something unlike the ear-to-ear grins she usually boasts. It highlights her beautiful cheekbones in the half-light, the curve of her lips. It’s wrenching.
“Yes,” she says. “He is a very talented coach. I can see why you like him so much.”
“It isn’t just that,” Lilia replies, compelled to honesty by the twist in Minako’s smile. “He is- he is like me.”
“He’s your people,” Minako says, and it’s true, it is, but the way she says it tweaks at something sad and half-buried in Lilia’s chest.
“You are as well,” she tells Minako. “You are like him. And like me. We are all… different.”
Minako is silent. They walk through two more pools of streetlight before she responds.
“Yes,” she says eventually. “We’ve all had to learn to be the only ones.”
Lilia reaches out across the space between them and grasps Minako’s hand in hers.
“We were not the only ones tonight,” she says. “And I don’t feel alone now.”
The last performance they have together that summer is La Bayadère. Minako is Nikiya, and Lilia Gamzatti.
Minako sees it and actually hisses. “God, I hate this one.”
Lilia has to agree with her, though she keeps it to herself rather better. She hasn’t danced it for a few years- not since right after Minako left, in fact. It figures it’s come back around in the rep now. She suspects the administration might have hurried its return along specially for the two of them.
“Well, better start practicing bourrés and ballonés and every other kind of toe-destroying classical nonsense we can,” Minako says, and leads the way to their usual afternoon practice room.
She’s quiet as usual as they warm up and stretch at the barre, just moves a little more quickly to the center exercises than is typical for her. Lilia stays at the barre to give her older joints a bit more time.
Minako starts running through a series of quick en pointe steps in the center, stopping every now and then to pick one and dissemble it with utmost attention until her body meets her standards of perfection.
She pauses after a bit and speaks, uncharacteristic. “Do you think they know that the entire continent of Asia doesn’t look like me?” Minako asks the air of the practice studio, and Lilia by default.
Lilia rolls her eyes, somewhat startled by Minako speaking while dancing. “I couldn’t say. Do you think they know that nowadays it’s at least considered somewhat rude to blatantly equate seductive, murderous temptresses and Jewesses?”
“No idea. Do you think they know that not every Japanese woman is sweet and delicate and fit for only the most pure and innocent of classical roles?”
“It’s debatable. Do you think they realize how ridiculous it is that both their ideas of Eastern exoticism managed to come together in one ballet?”
“Absolutely not. Come on, when else do they get a real live Asian lily and a real live exotic Jewess to be their good ballerina-bad ballerina?”
Lilia chuckles a little into her knee, stretched over the barre. “I’m sure this is the first and only time such a thing has happened.”
Minako makes an angry sort of humming noise from the center, and Lilia drops her leg and soutenus around to look at her. Minako avoids her eyes in the mirror.
“First and only, that’s my whole deal,” Minako says, acerbic, and whips into a series of spins too fast for conversation.
Rehearsals are sour after that. It’s not a fight between them, not at all, because they both practice and complain together and roll into bed together after a long day, but rehearsals are sour. Normally Lilia feels like she can avoid the sticky, nasty feeling of the storylines of ballets like this, thinks of Sulamith and Plisetskaya and Shelest and all the others like her who came before and pulled these roles off, even turned their looks and blood to their advantage. Normally she can focus only on how very beautifully she can dance, how elegant and graceful the steps.
This time, though, it feels different. Last time she’d danced Bayadère she’d been Nikiya, pure and innocent just like Minako had said, and in a way it felt like victory, even more than being Aurora or Giselle. It was more notable to be the good ballerina when there was a bad ballerina dancing alongside.
Now, though, she thinks about Minako’s reservations and feels- not resentment, but a wish that it was the other way around. And then, thinking about that, concludes that that would somehow be worse yet, with Minako the foreigner as the bad ballerina and Lilia as the pale-skinned local favorite. Bitterness, too, in knowing that she was only the good ballerina in comparison, on the too-good-to-scorn name of the Messerer-Plisetskys and her willingness to give up her Friday nights and high holy days.
Lilia feels rather ugly on the inside, even though she knows her dancing is as beautiful as ever on the outside.
Bayadère has a two week run, with Lilia and Minako in the first cast, on stage together roughly every other day.
Against company policy, Lilia and Minako insist on taking curtain calls together as well. Irek or whoever else is playing Solor that night will stand between them and hold up their hands, and then Lilia and Minako will step forward, join hands, and take a bow for themselves. Lilia feels a little shocked at her own rebellion, but Minako takes it as her due. Lilia thinks that there are perks to being the successors of the Messerers.
Curtain calls always feel special, regardless of what she has just danced or what partner she’s standing beside, but usually they feel like something that is her due, a recognition of what she already knows is perfect. Rarely do they feel exciting anymore, but these, Minako standing next to her in her sweaty glory and sharing the adulation of the crowds, these do. What they play out and perpetuate on the stage fades away in the face of the applause and the roses and Minako beside her. For ten minutes (or fifteen on a particularly good night), Lilia feels recognized. Even, sometimes, loved.
It takes her longer than it should have to notice that Minako feels differently. It takes Minako bowing and beaming next to her one moment and then taking her jar of pancake makeup and throwing it against the dressing room wall the next.
“I hate this!” she hisses. “I hate the way they look at me! Like I’m some kind of animal, some kind of exhibit!”
Lilia just stares at her for a moment, watching her pace the length of the dressing room. It is so unlike the Minako she knows that for a moment she can’t think of anything to say at all.
“I hate it,” Minako says, rounding the corner and stalking back towards Lilia, slightly quieter now but with a horrible shake in her voice that Lilia has never heard before. “Why can’t they just leave me alone?”
It sounds enough like the things Lilia asked herself when she was a child to spur out of her inaction. Minako paces by her and Lilia reaches out and reels her in by the arm. It feels silly to try to hold her when she’s so much taller and when both of them are still in their tutus, but Minako buries her face in Lilia’s neck anyway and allows the embrace.
“It’s because you are the kind of dancer the public dreams of seeing and the kind of artist every dancer dreams of being,” Lilia murmurs into her hair.
Minako huffs a wet breath and shakes her head, hairnet scraping at Lilia’s cheek.
“It’s not. You know it’s not.”
Lilia stands quiet for another second. “But you are exceptional. You are-“ she breaks off. How can she say this, how-
“You are the most beautiful dancer I have ever had the honor of witnessing,” she says softly. “You make me understand what beauty is.”
It feels like taking her heart right out of her chest and laying it at Minako’s feet. It feels like being a swan, or a village girl, or young Juliet. It is also entirely true.
Minako doesn’t respond, but she tightens her grip around Lilia’s waist and does not let go for long minutes.
From the beginning Lilia knew that Minako was a guest at her theater, a fleeting visitor to her country and her life. It still does not seem real when the summer ends and Minako must return to London.
They are in Lilia’s apartment again. Their teacups have nothing stronger than tea in them, but Lilia feels as shaky as she did their first evening together. Neither of them are asking the question Yakov asked Lilia just yesterday.
“It's 1995,” he had said, alone in her dressing room after their final show of Bayadère, having volunteered as the bearer of all her masses of flowers. Minako was taking down her hair and scrubbing off her makeup one room over, occupied for the moment.
“Nobody can stop you from leaving anymore,” he continued. “Irek Mukhamedov is leaving for the Royal himself. It isn’t defection. Why don’t you go with her?”
Lilia looked away from his face in her mirror. His Jewish face, like hers. She had never put in a visa to leave, for America or for Israel. Neither had her mother, a dancer, or her brothers, gymnasts. They had never felt the need to. Her aunts and uncles, doctors and engineers and bureaucrats, they had. They had felt the need. Some of them left, some of them couldn’t. Some of them died or were sent to Kazakhstan. She had never tried.
She hadn’t known what to say to Yakov then, and she doesn’t know what to say to Minako now.
Minako speaks first.
“Things would be better for you elsewhere,” Minako says, setting down her teacup with a sharp thunk. She looks Lilia directly in the eye, all that fire focused on her. “The people here are like butchers; they want to cut out all the parts of you they don’t want and then hang the rest in the window to stare at.”
Lilia swallows her mouthful of tea calmly and puts the cup back on its saucer with a gentle clink of china. Below the table, her thighs clench.
“When they stare at me it is because they know I am the best,” she says.
“It’s not,” Minako says bluntly. “You know it’s not. Or it’s not all of it. Maybe when they stare at you on stage that’s why, but the rest of it? The magazines, the gossip, your artistic directors? That’s not why they stare at you and it’s definitely not why they stare at me.”
“Let them stare,” Lilia replies. “I am worth seeing.”
Minako snorts. Her teeth are bared and it is not a smile. “They don’t appreciate you. That’s not appreciation; it’s waiting for you to trip up.”
“They will never see me trip up,” Lilia says. “They never have and they never will; I will make sure of it.” She picks her teacup up again, notes that her hands are shaky and wills them into stillness.
“Is it really so much better in London for you?” she asks. She knows it’s prodding, has seen firsthand the way Minako dances on the London stage, but Minako is being no more fair to her. “I know it is only you and one other there from your country. The year before you joined them they put on The Prince of the Pagodas; is that really so much better than La Bayadère every few years?”
“Yes!” Minako snaps. “They at least pretend not to care! I was the first but I’m not the only one anymore- they promoted Teddy two years ago, and Yoshida Miyako joined just this year. And there are others, boys and girls from Latin America, students coming up the school from all over. It’s not enough, but at least I’m not the only one!”
“I’m not the only one either!” Lilia retorts. She tries to keep her face calm, at least, even knowing that her hands are clenched into visible fists on the table. “I am the latest in a line of greats. My mother was a dancer. My teacher trained Plisetskaya before she trained me, and me before she trained you!”
Lilia presses her mouth shut and takes a hissing breath through her teeth. She begins again, more evenly, “We kept our people in this theater for decades. Sulamith was the best, and then Plisetskaya was the best, and now I am the best. I am their legacy; I am proof that they could not be rid of us and they never will be.”
Minako glares at her, lips pursed almost to invisibility.
“Aren’t you sick of it?”
Minako laughs, and it’s hardly beautiful at all. “Don’t you love the dancing? How can-“
Lilia barrels through her, not caring how inelegant it is. “Of course I love the dancing. I have given my life to dancing, to this theater, to the people who come to watch me! How couldn’t I love it? Of course I could dance anywhere- I’m the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi, I could dance anywhere on Earth and they’d beg me to stay. But it isn’t just about me!”
“Oh, so you think I’m being selfish!”
“That is not what I said!”
“No, but you sure implied it!” Minako jumps up from the table and strides into the kitchen. Lilia pushes her chair back and follows her. At this particular moment she doesn’t care if Minako wants that space. She wants Minako to understand.
“Russia has wanted Jews out of ballet since the first pointe shoes touched the stage, and never mind that we practically invented it,” she says, and now that she is on her feet she makes a better effort to keep her voice under control. “I will not let them push me out.”
Minako opens and closes Lilia’s drawers seemingly at random, just looking to let out the energy coiled in her limbs. If they had been outside, if they hadn’t been arguing, Minako would have twirled into an arabesque on the street, or reached over to pull Lilia into a kiss. This evening she just shuts the silverware drawer hard enough to rattle all the knives.
“I am so, so tired of being the first and the only and every company’s trick pony,” she says, not looking at Lilia. “I don’t care anymore that I’m a role model, that it’s good for people to see me, that being first means I’m important.” She crosses her arms, hunches. Lilia feels the line of her own spine, straight as a poker.
“It makes me hate the dancing,” she whispers, and Lilia herself feels it like a punch. “Even now that there are more of us, I’m still the first. If I guest, I’m the only. I’m the only one here. Even you don’t count in the same way. I don’t understand how you do it. It gets into everything. Everything people see and think about me is through those glasses. Spite isn’t enough for me.”
“It isn’t spite,” Lilia says, but does not reply to the rest of it. She doesn’t know what to say.
“I said I didn’t understand.”
“I don’t know how I would explain it differently to how I have already.”
“I don’t know how to explain how I feel, then, either.” Minako finally turns back around to face Lilia. Her eyes are dry but her jaw quivers. “Proving them wrong doesn’t feel good to me anymore. I want to be able to dance again and not worry about it. I don’t want to be the first and only ever again, but I always will be. They made me into that.”
She takes a deep breath. “You don’t make me feel like that. You help me remember what it is to love to dance.”
Her hair falls around her shoulders, still round and hunched, like Minako is trying to protect her chest from her words. She is wearing old practice clothes and an expression like dirty ice, rotten underneath. Lilia can’t breathe for how beautiful she is.
Lilia stretches out a hand to her. She tries, consciously, to do away with the swan curve of it, the tweak of the fingers. Just a hand, another person reaching out.
Minako looks at it, and Lilia leaves it there for her.
“You won’t come with me,” Minako finally says.
Lilia lets her hand drop. “No,” she says. “I can’t do that and do right by my teacher, or my people, or myself.” She makes herself smile. “And you won’t stay.”
Minako smiles back, a halfway thing that makes Lilia’s heart twist in her chest. “No,” she says. “It would hurt me too much.”
Lilia, horrifyingly, feels a lump forming in her throat. She turns around sharply and blinks, tilting her head back. She will not cry. She hasn’t cried in years, and no one has seen her cry in even longer.
She is so focused on battling down the tears that she doesn’t hear Minako’s light step on the tile behind her. It’s just that suddenly Minako’s arms are around her, turning Lilia gently to face her and pulling her down to the kitchen floor. She tucks Lilia’s head into the crook of her neck and strokes her hair.
“You’re the bravest dancer I know, Lilia,” she whispers. “You’re strong. You never give up. You’re the kind of student any teacher would be proud of.”
Lilia gasps a breath into Minako’s neck. It’s wet and raspy and the humiliation is terrible, but Minako keeps stroking her hair until her breathing evens out, quiet and still. Lilia waits until her breath is reasonably even once more and then tells Minako, “I understand.”
Lilia is the one to drop Minako off at the airport, driving in Yakov’s horrible old Lada which she is always sure will die on her this time. Despite the crashing and creaking and bone-jarring thuds that shake the car every time Lilia shifts into third gear, they arrive without incident.
Lilia waits quietly next to Minako in departures, thanking heaven that the old Soviet ways haven’t disappeared so fast that the prima of the Bolshoi can’t pirouette her way past security with a couple of tickets as enticement. They’re both quiet. They’ve said all they needed to say the night before, at dinner with Yakov and Irek, and this morning, one last hour in bed.
“Write to me,” Minako had said, spooned into Lilia. “Tell me all about scandalous Bolshoi politics and how good the principals are in bed. Let me know when you finally decide to date Yakov.”
Lilia had pinched her stomach and ridden out Minako’s squeal and thrash. “Tell me when you go on tour. Tell me if you come back. I’ll tell you if I go touring. Maybe one day I’ll visit, even. It’s like Yakov said: it’s 1995.”
“Yakov is a wise man,” Minako said solemnly, and Lilia pinched her again.
“Cut it out, you hag!” she yelped, and twisted around in Lilia’s arms to look her in the eye. “I mean it. I want the details. Don’t forget that I know you’re not some ice queen; don’t treat me like I’m one of your baby soloists! I don’t-“ she let her grin soften a little- “I don’t want to lose touch. Friends?”
“Of course,” Lilia had said, as softly as she knew how. “Friends. Dancers?”
And Minako had laughed, and grinned wide again, and nodded, bunching her hair up under her cheek. “Dancers. No matter what.”
So now they sit quietly at the gate, holding hands. Lilia kisses her one last time before she boards, and Minako rests a hand on her cheek and gives her a smile that could illuminate the whole of the Bolshoi Theatre.
One year later, Minako wins the Prix Benois. Lilia can’t deny the slight twinge of envy it causes in her, and she calls Minako directly to tell her so.
Minako laughs right down the line, crackly and happy.
“Do you know,” she says, “I’m the first Asian dancer to win? I’ll probably be the only for a good long time, too.”
“Your favorite thing to be,” Lilia replies drily. “Are you happy?”
“I’m beginning to understand your way of doing things,” Minako tells her. “It is nice to have an I-told-you-so statue. But, Lilia,” and her voice turns serious, “This is it for me.”
Lilia takes a deep breath and lets it out, lets her silence be gentle. “I understand,” she says.
“I knew you would,” says Minako.
Lilia doesn’t attend the Prix ceremony. She was not nominated or awarded, after all, and it’s not so easy as all that to get a travel permit even now. She does read about it in the newspapers and in the magazines she has recently begun to subscribe to, the foreign ones beginning to trickle into the country.
She makes it for Minako’s retirement performance, though, with Yakov in tow. Rubies, the Tall Girl.
A Farewell Gala, she snorts to herself. Just like Minako to take something historic for the theater and make herself the star.
She brings Minako a bouquet of roses so long it touches her toes, red like rubies and white like diamonds.
“You’ve improved greatly,” she tells Minako, letting her lips twitch up at the corners. She’s fairly certain a corps member sees her smile and actually faints back into the wings. She smiles wider.
“You’re beautiful,” Minako replies, and she’s a mess of tears and stage makeup and radiance, and she is the most beautiful dancer Lilia has ever seen. “I can’t believe you stole my thunder by bringing Yakov as your date.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Lilia says. “You’re the latest in a line of greats and the last dancer this stage will ever see. Sulamith and Plisetskaya couldn’t have stolen your stage from you if they had tried.”
Minako comes to Lilia’s wedding (and more importantly, her divorce), and Lilia comes to the opening of Minako’s studio, and they guest together three times (though never in Russia), and they send letters that Lilia collects and sorts into binders with little pockets that Yuri, the Plisetsky boy, helps her pick out.
In the end, though, it is difficult to keep perfectly abreast of all the happenings of two decades from more than seven thousand kilometers away. The first Lilia knows of Minako’s dabbling in the skating world is watching a video of the Japanese Yuuri skating against Yakov’s very own Plisetsky-Messerer scion and seeing Sulamith in his port-de-bras and epaulment, the tilt of his head. She knows immediately.
She calls Minako the very next day. She trusts Minako's friends to keep an eye on her like Lilia used to when teacup vodka was Minako’s drink of choice, but she knows Minako better than to try to call that very night.
“I see you’re training Japanese national figure skaters now,” she says in lieu of hello.
“Lilia!” Minako exclaims, sounding much less hungover than Lilia had honestly anticipated. “You’re training the next Plisetskaya!”
“Plisetsky,” Lilia corrects, and lets the smugness bleed through. Minako is an old friend, and old friends can tolerate a bit of smugness. “He will be the latest in a long line of greats and the only reason he must prove his skill is to win.”
“Mine is Katsuki Yuuri,” Minako says, and she sounds equally pleased with herself. “He is neither the first nor the only, but he is unique and he is the best.”
“That remains to be seen,” Lilia drawls, and Minako laughs and laughs.
“The next time I’ll see you will be at the Grand Prix, then,” she says.
“Yes,” says Lilia. “You will come to the house and have Friday dinner with myself, Yakov, and the boy. And you may bring your Yuuri Katsuki as well. I have a set of candlesticks to show you, and of course you may stay the night.”
“I wouldn’t dream of turning you down,” Minako says, still laughing. “Even if Yakov still isn’t quite as good as Darcey Bussell.”
Lilia snorts. As with smugness, old friends can hear a snort every once in a while. “Better than Vasiliev,” she says. “Are you happy?”
“Of course I am,” Minako says. “Are you?”