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Greasepaint and Bliss

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After morning class, Vicky paused at the northwestern corner of the market at Covent Garden to admire the flowers. Dahlias, peonies, zinnias, hollyhocks, a symphony of colours and a cacophony of sweet scents. Fresh and beautiful, freshly cut that morning, already wilting, their decay almost invisible to the untrained eye.

Just like ballerinas, Vicky thought for a morbid moment, before she shook off her mood, laughed at herself, and went to have lunch at Lyon’s Corner House before she caught the tube to Notting Hill Gate.

It was absolutely pouring by the time she arrived at the Mercury’s stage door, but Vicky felt warmed by all the old friends who greeted her arrival. She had smiled to see her name prominently displayed on the soggy playbill, as though she were a big star, and perhaps for Notting Hill she was. This was home: here she had taken her first serious ballet lessons, here she had continued to take class till Ballet Lermontov took her on as an apprentice. Here she had danced a Wili, a swan, a fairy, even a swan queen. Here she knew the measure of all things.

Yet having lived and danced away from her first home forced Vicky to see it anew. Everything at the Mercury was the same as at Covent Garden, but scaled down and paltrier, like a cardboard, doll’s-house version of a stately home. The narrow corridor from stage door to the backstage area could be crossed in a dozen fleet pas de bourrées. Instead of three or more mothers and chaperones, only Old Susan sat in her cubby near the tea kettle and the rosin tray, on her three-legged stool that no one else would dare claim, no matter how tired they were; there she sat, like a queen darning stockings and the torn hems of tulle tutus. No one knew for certain how Old Susan had come to the Mercury; some whispered she was Madame Rambert’s mother, though Vicky never believed it. Electricians, carpenters, runners, dressers, and of course dancers – all were present in their ones and twos and threes and half-dozens, like the court cards taken out of their deck and all shuffled together. The game may have been smaller, but ah, how much more precious!

And among them all, a galleon among bobbing yachts and dinghies, there was Madame Rambert. She had responded to Vicky’s greeting with the coolest, most perfunctory of nods, but Vicky was not put off. She knew that Madame would not shower the prodigal daughter with warmth, lest it put the notion into Vicky’s head that she was indeed a big star. Not so, not to one who had known Nijinsky and Pavlova, oh no! Vicky made her way to the shared dressing room, finding the right door without conscious thought, remembering how Madame would declaim to her dancers that they were but unfortunate successors to the divines of old, not worthy to wear the same satin shoes.

The Mercury’s stage was small. Vicky realised that she had forgotten this, her limbs had grown used to the oceanic size of the stage at Covent Garden. Dressed in white and nearing the end of the second act of Swan Lake, in three pirouettes she was in the middle of the stage. In four and a half pirouettes, she was perched en pointe on its edge, smiling directly at a matron in a gingham pinafore, two bedazzled schoolgirls in plaits and grey knee-socks, and a portly gentleman wearing a cabbie’s hat and the enraptured look of a true aficionado. He beamed at Vicky like a fairy-tale prince. She returned the smile of a princess under a terrible curse.

Then she looked up, over the small pond of faces, and spotted him: Lermontov! Still as a sphinx, intent as a hawk. Watching her.

Vicky felt sweat slide down her ribcage and soak into her costume. Was this why he had permitted her the rest of the day off to dance with her old company? So he could watch her in secret? So he might steal her away from Madame or toss her back to the Mercury, like an old, broken stage prop? Surely he must have known Vicky would notice him, but why should he have cared? Boris Lermontov would be amused at a little dancer’s presumption in thinking she might have snagged his attention.

Vicky could not tear her eyes away from Lermontov’s impassive face, but he showed no sign that he knew her. And the music played on, compelling her.

So she danced.

She was not Vicky in that moment, she was not even Odette. She was the distillate of pure dance, clear as a pane of glass, light as hollow bird bones filled with air.

Vicky was exhausted, yet she danced as though her legs would break as soon as she finished, but as long as she stayed en pointe she was safe. She danced as though Tchaikovsky himself were conducting, a pocket-sized Tchaikovsky perched on the rickety gramophone table in the wings. She danced for the discerning cabbie and the Notting Hill matron and the starry-eyed schoolgirls, as though they were the king and queen and the little princesses themselves, gracing the first row of chairs covered in fading yellow velvet.

The second act was nearly finished, as Odette’s hope and despair swelled with the final notes of the score. As she drifted backward, away from the stage’s edge, Vicky dared to steal another glance at the audience and saw a stranger occupying Lermontov’s seat. He had come, he had watched her dance, he had gone. Venit, vidit, reliquit.

Just behind the concealing lip of cardboard scenery, Vicky came off pointe and fled deeper into the wings, her heart pounding like a tam-tam.

She was not needed till several minutes into the third act, and so had the dressing room to herself. She sat down before the mirror, stood, sat down again. Stood again. Turned in place, restless and unhappy, for why should it all feel so different, and all at once? The speckled mirror, the mingling scents of greasepaint, smog, fried fish, tea, and dust, the rosin on her shoes, the sweat on her skin, the ache in her muscles and feet, the sense of elation, of bliss, which she always felt in the minute or two right after she finished dancing – all were the same.

Vicky saw clearly that it was not the same. None of it, not at all. She had suspected as much over the weeks she had spent at Covent Garden, yet refused that knowledge due to the feelings it inspired in her: disloyalty, ingratitude, misplaced pride. The Mercury was a small theatre, always struggling with money, the local council, the people it presumed to employ. Only its audience never caused headaches, and for that reason even the humblest spectator was cherished. But Vicky wanted more than an adoring audience, or even a company where she would be pushed and pushed to the human brink of perfection.

She had seen the world, in glimpses and snatches, from between the velvet curtains at Covent Garden, in the glare of its lights, conjured up by the whirling dervish that was Grischa Ljubov and the sage monolith that was Boris Lermontov. She had seen it, known it, and now she craved it.

Vicky faced herself in the speckled mirror, an exhausted, sweat-bedewed white swan with smeared makeup, and grimly she accepted reality: she wanted the world. No! She wanted the sun, to hold the sun in her hand, to be at the centre, to be the centre, and to know that she was worthy of the world’s trust and adoration. That she, revolving on one foot, en pointe, was the steadiest point of the universe.

Still exhausted, still aching, Vicky accepted herself.

Just then, the new dresser – Vicky had not caught her name – entered to chivvy her into the black swan’s costume and touch up her makeup. Vicky allowed herself to be fussed over, while in her heart she prepared to seduce and devastate every last person in the audience, to give them the finest Odile they would ever see, for they would never see her, Victoria Page, dance the role again, not on that too-small stage during a matinee.

After the performance, Vicky had to wade through another avalanche, this one of goodbyes, even more effusive than the greetings which had met her arrival. Madame Rambert came last.

They faced each other just inside the stage door: two women, one young, one old. Madame looked her over, from the crown of her flaming hair to the tips of her walking shoes, and Vicky recognised, as somehow she never had done before, that this woman was Lermontov. A female Lermontov. But where Lermontov had always been a dandy, an aesthete, and a lover of finery in all its forms, Madame had known true penury and hardship – knew them still, as visitors that often graced her theatre with their presence, yet could not be turned away at the door.

Vicky suddenly felt very spoiled and silly under Madame’s flinty gaze: a girl of her class and breeding, adopting ballet like a pet kitten, when she was young and had a loving and mildly eccentric aunt to pay for her classes and encourage her. Oh, she was paper-thin under Madame’s scrutiny, for all that she had fallen under ballet’s spell as into a hundred-year sleep. Although they both gave themselves sincerely and wholeheartedly to the art as to a selfish lover, a vast chasm lay between Vicky and Madame.

“Ballet is danced by women, but ruled by men who are great artists and think much too highly of themselves,” Madame Rambert said without preamble, her voice betraying no awareness of the contradiction she had just uttered. She was given to such gnomic whimsy.

A chill seized Vicky – had Madame, too, spotted Lermontov in the audience?

Madame watched her, unwavering as a cobra. “You will likely never again work in a company that will accept you as we do.” Not value or, heaven forefend, cherish. That would be to spoil the child – Vicky knew Madame’s beliefs on the matter. Yet coming from Madame’s lips, the word accept carried far greater weight than base flattery. “I say this not in order to keep you, but only so that you will think twice and three times before you leave us for good, dear Vicky.”

“I do so value all that you have done for me, all that you taught me.” Vicky caught her breath, certain that she would weep if she spoke more, like she’d just done the black swan’s thirty-two fouettés and could not draw enough oxygen into her lungs. “But I…”

Madame’s smile resembled the bleak day outside. “‘Have done,’ ‘taught.’ Marvelously expressive, the English tenses.” She cupped Vicky’s face in her hand. “I do wish you the very best, my dear girl. You must conquer the world.”

Her hand dropped, and Vicky stomped viciously on the impulse to seize Madame’s hand and put it back on her cheek, softly as a white feather drifting down to still water.

Madame’s last words to her were said with a small shrug, like they were a bad hand of cards or maybe a glove thrown down. “For if you do not, what is the point of any of it?”

Yes, Vicky did not say out loud, but only with her eyes and her arms wrapped briefly around the startled Madame’s narrow shoulders. I understand.

Vicky caught the bus, could not abide sitting still, and so got off after a few stops and walked the rest of the way back to Covent Garden. Emerging from Hyde Park into the dull, pewter city air, she realised she had left her hat at the Mercury. Aunt Ottoline would be scandalised, but Vicky positively flew down the pavement, heedless of the impropriety, enjoying the rush of sooty air through her curls.

She was very nearly late for curtain-up of Giselle because she had to brush out her hair again and again, to get all the soot speckles out. Under the merciless lights, the black and grey would have stood out like a widow’s veil in her Titian hair, next to the flower crown she wore in the first and the white Wili headdress in the second act.

Unacceptable, she could almost hear Boris Lermontov and Madame Rambert intone as one.

The thought of them scolding her together made Vicky smile while she waited for her cue. Then the music summoned her, and she ran onstage, clutching a basket of flowers and strewing petals around. No one applauded her entrance, no ecstatic voices called out Victoria! Miss Page! just for her, but Vicky smiled and smiled at the invisible faces beyond the footlights. She twirled, she jetéd, she piquéd, one among many, yet she might have been the only one dancing on that wide stage.

I dare not let you down, any of you. Just you wait! I shall illuminate the world.