The pain began at the feet. In the ball of the foot where it pressed into the sprung floor, in the arch with too high a rise. At the back of the ankles where the tendons weakened and snapped for the incautious they ached nonetheless in those who were meticulous about their stretches. The knees weakened from the effort of holding the body, the hips creaked. The shoulders ached where they supported the arms that held the tiny women aloft for seconds upon seconds.
They all knew. They all endured, and while only some gave a little ground to a dancer, prima or chorus, they all knew to take into account when someone took a little longer rising and walking away from their seat. Or when someone took longer than usual on the stairs.
No one knew what to make of Vaslav. He had his good days and he had his bad days, and unlike all the others they never seemed to coincide with how stiffly he moved. Or whether he had been out too late the night before, as some unwise dancers were prone to do, or what he had been eating. They whispered about him amongst themselves, how strange he was, his interjections and his outbursts and how he managed to singlehandedly offend the newly crowned prima ballerina and then win her favor back again all in one night.
If he noticed any of this, he ignored it until it suited him to scream at someone for passing tales. He stretched at the barre, keeping his own count in his head, while the circle cleared around him and everyone talked in whispers.
"I heard he sleeps only three hours nightly," one chorus girl, Svetlana, murmured to her friend Elena.
"Right! And when he retires in the evening, certainly not to sleep..." Their heads bent together, only the giggles emerged for anyone's scrutiny, which of course no one gave. Chorus girls were for giggling in corners with conspiracies and gossip and who was sleeping with whom. If they became skilled at it, they became dancers. That was how things were.
Vaslav raised one foot on demi-pointe and worked his ankle, frowning. No one said anything, but conversations trickled to a halt in rivulets extending from his quiet center of the room. If their shining star was injured or had overstrained, they would be in grave trouble. From the wrath of Diaghilev, if nothing else.
No, there was nothing; he grimaced and went back to practicing en relevé all his kicks and rond de jambes and they could breathe again.
"Is not right," one of the older chorus girls muttered. "This company rises or falls upon his shoulders. Is not right."
"Oh, quiet your grumbling," Elena threw a flat shoe at the woman. "You only grumble because that you will never become what he is."
"Lover to Diaghilev, or ..."
Everyone hissed, hushing the new dancer before she could raise her voice any louder. Whatever they all knew, whatever they might whisper to each other in the wings or in their bunks at night, it was never spoken of aloud. Not in words, not acknowledging the unnatural habits of their lead performer and choreographer. Saying it in words would force everyone to confront the fact that Vaslav was a creature of immoral appetites and lewd behavior such as could not be tolerated in a company that represented their mother country. Folk might take ideas from that.
At the barre, Vaslav turned and began it all again at the other side.
"See, why he is the greatest of you," the old tutor, mistress to the youngest of the chorus girls and ruler of their dormitory with her iron-tipped rod. "Because he always practices, he is always dancing. When he sees the movements of the leaves out on the square he thinks of dancing, and how he can make his body be as the leaves."
The girls all nodded and sighed and pretended they knew what she meant, and some of them even did. But it was hard to be a leaf afloat in the square when all you could think of was how your shoe crushed your toes together and rubbed the blisters until they broke and wept inside the wooden tip. Already they had lost two dancers, one to a broken foot and one to a collapsed knee. Neither of them would ever dance again.
Svetlana rose to her feet before anyone could stop her, advancing on flat, bare feet with her dress still hanging down in pieces where it had come unpinned. "Vaslav..." She waited till he was on flat feet again, not wishing to interrupt. Even at several paces away she could smell where the sweat had stained cotton and shoe leather.
He looked over at her. Sunken eyes and paper-white skin; he had not been sleeping well the past few nights, if at all on this tour. She wondered whether that was due to worry about the performances, needing to adjust some aspect of the dance, or to something else.
"Yes?" he gestured, spoke sharp and loud though his eyes stayed wide and his face stayed slack.
She took a breath, conscious of everyone staring at the both of them, and said his name again with the exhale. "Vaslav. We wondered..." No, they hadn't. "Do you want to come out with us tonight? We could see the town, there is a beautiful, cozy café in one of the side streets..."
He shook his head in a violent way that would have made her head ache, lolling about on his neck. "No," he interrupted. "No, I have to work."
A wind of exhalations drifted around her, heads lowering to the mending of their shoes and the sewing of their ribbons again. She slid her foot out to one side, en dehors, en dedans. "Yes," she bobbed her head, making an arch of her neck as she looked at the floor again. "Sorry. I was only asking."
Vaslav watched her as she swept her feet walking back to her little circle of chorus girls, she knew it when she felt his eyes burning into the space between her shoulders where her dress hung down and left her bare. She didn't know what expression he had on his face, and she didn't dare to look. Harsh taskmasters and shouting choreographers, directors, old pinched and wrinkled women who had themselves been raised with the thumping of the rod on the sprung dance floor, all of them a cacophony of shouted commands and rebuke and scorn, these were the usual things for a company. They always had been. This silence of Vaslav's was new, and more than a little unnerving.
But then, every dancer from the chorus to the lead and from the moment they put on their tiny slippers to the day they drew their last breath, they knew the virtue in silence. In enduring, without complaint or cry or anything that compromised the dignity of the dance, the suffering it took to bring it to the stage. Vaslav took silence to an uncomfortable extreme, but they were all familiar with it. So Svetlana mused, as she taped her blisters so that when they broke, they would not bleed through the pale pink satin and break the audience out of the dance.