“The Third Act”
By Eleanor Antin
I danced with Diagheliv for 10 years. Where did they go, those years? Here. In my head. They are all in my head. And when I’m gone – phsaw… They were my family. Sergei Pavlovitch was our father. We were sisters, brothers. We slept four to a bed. It was cheaper. Two bargained for the room while the others sneaked up the back stairs. And took the best places. You should remember the friends who share your bed. But the nights blend into one night. Sometimes I can’t remember any night…I’m ashamed to confess this – I hope you won’t misunderstand – I can’t help it – to this day – I am partial to Russians. I feel friendly to them. Maybe not friendly, but familiar. A Russian is a Russian, even a bad one. I remember St. Petersberg better than London or Paris and I was never even there. By my time, most of the Russian girls hadn’t been there either. Paris rats. The last they saw of Mother Russia was racing through the ice fields of Finland on a sled. But there is no St. Petersberg anymore. What’s the new name? A ridiculous name, very likely. I always get it mixed up with Moscow but it isn’t. Moscow was always there. Stanislavsky was from Moscow. Chaliapin, too, I think. Leningrad. That’s the new name. A stupid name. Tanks, not white nights. Am I a snob? It’s hard to live with Russians and not be a snob. Even Lenin was part of the family. There’s no getting around it. A Russian is a Russian.
I knew the girl he lived with in Paris. She found him in a café. He was starving. She took him in and fed him like a stray cat. They say she was very beautiful, one of the famous artists’ models. All the girls in those days were from Martinique, Jamaica, Haiti. She was from Martinique. I was the little girl from America. They felt sorry for me. They looked at me like I was a savage. But that was later. I came later. By the time I knew her, she was over the hill. Absinthe. Syphilis. People didn’t know about health then. Later, when Lenin made a name for himself, they wrote to him for help, but he wouldn’t answer their letters. They say he had a hard heart. But why should he remember those days? What was there to remember? That he was poor and wretched? Now he was an important person. He lived in Kschessinska’s palace and made revolutions. I think Kschessinska was secretly proud that he chose her palace. They made the revolution from that palace. And it was only a little palace, new, not very important. So look at Eiffel. That was only a tower.
Indeed, she was a great ballerina, Mathilde Kschessinska, but narrow in her outlook. A terrible snob. We were all terrible snobs. Not a penny in our pockets but we sailed through the doors of the Ritz as if we owned the place. We did. Kschessinska’s Grand Dukes were the doormen. Grand Duke Andrei formally pinched our bottoms. It was an honor. Wasn’t he the Tsar’s brother? “Go little flowers,” he would say. “There are two counts from Alsace. They are old and ugly but their pockets burn with gold.” Our stomachs rumbled. We lived on piroschkas and café au lait. Dounia adjusted the veil of her red hat. That afternoon we lunched on oysters and frog’s legs and escargot and salmon roe and wines from the private cellars. Everything fell before Dounia’s delicious red hat. It had a spirit, that hat. And why not? It came from a corpse.
Though she wasn’t always a corpse – the tall skinny lady who crept close to the walls of the pension and never smiled. “Opium!” Dounia announced. “She is rich but will not last long.” Dounia had spies everywhere. She gave the maid some extra francs. When the poor lady died in her sleep, the maid knocked on our door. Later Dounia showed up with a red hat. A Chanel dress. Silk underthings. She gave me a pink chemise. She was furious. “That whore Katya. We fought over every piece. What does a slut like her need with a Paul Poiret dress.” We were shocked. A Paul Poiret dress! What couldn’t we conquer with a Paul Poiret dress?
For who knew how the day would end. Fortune came and went. There was no reason. No cause and effect. Things happened. Fortune came or it didn’t. By not coming, it didn’t. So much of the time, it didn’t… I never did what I should do. I always did what I wanted to do. In the end that’s what I did. What I wanted to do. And the dances I made. I made the ones I wanted to make… Did it matter? I don’t know. In the end it’s all the same, isn’t it? Gone every one, except here in my head. Was that what it was all for? For some pictures in my head? A couple of phrases, an embarrassment or two? Yes, I still cringe when I remember some of the things I said and did…I’m so ashamed… In life things come out wrong…as in the theatre – events cross, mix up, mask, pretend – like life… But it all works out in the third act. There was a ballet I wanted to do, nobody would produce it. If there is nobody to produce it, there is nobody to dance it. I called this ballet “Act 3” All ensembles. No solos. The corps de ballet working in perfect harmony… I loved third acts… You are happy in the third act… I never even got to the third act……
Europe was decadent. I came home to find my roots. The intelligentsia was in a ferment. They were searching for an American idiom. A new culture was at hand. We had high hopes…but it was not meant to be. The Great Depression. Those were terrible times.
Theatres were closing left and right. Bookings were very hard to come by. People were on breadlines. Jumping out of windows. I worked up some lighter numbers. I had to eat. I heard the Ballets Russes was starting up again in Paris under the Count de Basil. I had hopes. There was talk. But it was a new generation. The baby ballerinas were in demand. Still things were looking up. I did a number in the Greenwich Village Follies which was well received. The young Martha Graham was on the bill. A couple of shows. A safari number with an elephant. He was dropped in New Haven.
America was a Corsica. What did she know of the dance? So many unemployed dancers. Though I was fortunate. The American girls were all running off to have babies. But after 10, 12 years of training, a Russian girl does not run off to have babies without a good return on her investment. That was how I met Orlando. In Madame Albierti’s studio where I taught the beginning classes in exchange for attending the advanced classes. His last girl…pfft…off to have babies. “I have lost 3 in one year,” he wept. “I am a doomed man.” I had been living off of a snappy little diamond but the proceeds were running out. “I have no babies,” I said. “They all say that,” he shouted. “It is a plot to kill me before my time.” I looked at him closely. This man was no spring chicken despite his powdered face and darkened hair. “I do not know of what time you are speaking,” I said. ”But I have no use for midgets.” We went on that night. It may not have been Swan Lake but it was an honest job. The theatre had a real dressing room. And the manager did not run off with the money.
We took to the road. Did a lot of touring over the next couple of years. They were very lonely those tours. For years I lived in trains and hotel rooms. I was always cold. I used to wear a coat even in June. And after spending so many years with Russians, Americans said I talked funny. “I am from Azerbaijan, Bessarabia, Kazmestan, Shirvan, Karabagh,” I said. “Take your pick.” It was safe to say the name of a rug. They were less worried about my dark skin, which wasn’t exotic here like it was in Paris.
At first we danced acrobatic ballroom numbers. It was the vaudeville circuit, after all. But maybe we should try something classier. Perhaps dance for a better element. Orlando had ballet training. We worked up some interesting numbers. Audiences seemed to like them. We would try them out on the road, then hit L.A., New York. We dreamed of the big time again.
For a while, I had a friend who was like a daughter to me. A little soprano with a sweet voice. She sang old mountain songs about her home in Tennessee. Later, I told her about Paris and the Russian dancers. The dear little soprano hugged me. “How lucky you are, Eleanora.” Her nasty husband sneered. He was a pirate, that one. Kept pinching me under my coat. But maybe he was right. Maybe it was a fairy tale. The snow was falling all around us. It fell in my heart, my soul. In the morning it stopped. A white blanket covered the windows. We heard the whistle. We kissed. Promised to look each other up. We knew we wouldn’t. But it warmed the heart to say it. The camaraderie of the road. The family of artists. And who could tell? The next week you could hit it big. We had some good club gigs. A show here and there. A couple of films. We started a school but nobody came. I still dreamed. A letter would come. A phone call. “Eleanora, return to us. We are starting a new ballet company.” But everywhere there are spies. Toumanova’s mother spies in Los Angeles. Slavenska’s sister in Houston. They will say terrible things about me. They are not to be trusted. I have danced with the Russian Ballet. I know what’s what. There will be no letter.
The hotels are such nasty places. Evil smelling closets. Often there is no window. It is the custom here to give the show people the first floor rooms. They are over the kitchen. We are always awakened before the sun rises. We are lower than the salesman on the second or third floor. He appears for breakfast smiling, rested, hungry. He rubs his hands with vigor. Let the day begin. He will sell many bibles today. We look at him. Our eyes are red. Our hair is wild. How ugly we look. “The hotel is empty,” I protest. “There are only three salesmen in the dining room. Give us rooms upstairs. We must sleep.” Is there a species lower than the hotel clerk? “This is a fancy establishment,” he shouts. “Every room is spoken for.” He jumps up and down. He is indignant. “We don’t want your kind here.” Rita, our strong lady, comes to my aid. “Leave her alone, you two-bit jerk.” She makes a fist at him. The muscles ripple up her arms. The clerk is respectful. He drops back. “That is how they treat us,” she says. “Stinking cowards!”
At night, after the last show, I come back to the hotel. My trunk waits at the door.
“You are mistaken, ”I say. “I am not leaving till the end of the week.”
He is jumping up and down again. “Your room is rented.”
“You are very nervous for one so young,” I advise him. “You will get apoplexy. You will die of a stroke.”
”’You people always cause trouble,” he says.
“I do not want to cause trouble,” I say. “I am tired. I want to sleep.”
He pounds the bell on the counter. Two men come out of the back office, One is chewing on a greasy turkey leg. They are old but there are two of them.
“Call the sheriff. One more colored down there cain’t make no difference.”
My companions are not robust. Even my friend Rita, the strong lady, turns away. After holding up 500 pounds of chairs and wriggling bodies over her head 4 times a day, her muscles are weary. Her soul droops. She does not want to be noticed. She wants to sleep.
Greasy fingers reach for me. “I am an American citizen. I have done nothing.”
“Yeah, well,” he sneers. “I thought you was a princess from India. This is a free country. We got no princesses here.”
I turn away. I’m bored with the whole business. I’m not even angry anymore. Just tired.
But the bastard won’t let up.
“You aint nothin’ but a dirty nigga, aint ya. Comin’ in here tellin’ lies. False pretenses, that’s what it is. False pretenses.”
“Yeah,” the senile one grunts, waving his turkey leg in the air. “False pretenses. That’s a crime, surely.”
‘Go to hell, “ I say, while Rita hoists my trunk onto her shoulders and walks me back to the theatre. “I’m sorry,” she says. Her eyes avoid mine. We kiss and she goes back to the hotel. The old super lets me into my miniscule dressing room. I make a place for myself on the floor and wrap myself in my old fur coat. I am comforted, But first I take some crumbs from my pocket and place them neatly on the floor in the shape of a heart.
A little boy, an acrobat, used to perform here. They say he was tops. His father had big plans. He wouldn’t let him eat. ”Later you can eat,” he would say. “When you are a star in the big time.” He wasted away. But he was beautiful. He flew through the air like a glittering bird. He tried to hold on until the big time. He dreamed of chocolates and lollypops. But he grew weaker. The show people slipped food to him when his father wasn’t looking. It only made him sadder. “I must become a star first,” he would say. ”Then I will eat and eat and eat.” On Christmas Eve there was a party. The little acrobat sat up on the ropes. The smell of chocolate maddened him. His friend, Dainty June, waved a chocolate angel. “Finish up honey. Its Christmas.” With a cry of pain the little acrobat offered her his shaking hands. The old super is a hundred years old. He saw him fall. He just broke, he said. They could hear him crack. And to this day you must leave food for his ghost or he will keep you up crying into the night.
But vaudeville is dying. Old timers work for $10. a day. My friend Rita, the Strong Lady, tears telephone books in half. It goes over big with the yokels. But this is a 4-a-day house. She must tear up four telephone books a day. A book costs 50 cents. That’s $4 a day. $14 a week. “I have to steal them”, she confesses. “I am so ashamed.” She even saves the nails she bends. She just bends them back before the next show. These are terrible times. I must get out of this business. I am looking into the nightclubs. They are patronized by gangsters. Gangsters can be very generous. I know a singer in Chicago who did very well with a gangster. A handsome fellow with satin lapels and Derby hats. They put on the dog together. When the bookies shot him, she wore white fox to the funeral. She looked stunning. Now she has a new gangster. Not so handsome perhaps, but generous. There is no shortage of them, it seems. I am not so snobbish as I was. One gets older. There are setbacks. A girl must look out for herself.
Time is irresistible. In Seattle, I remember a singer, Sylvia Froos. “The Little Princess of Song.” When she skipped out on stage shaking her Shirley Temple curls, the band played “My Heart belongs to Daddy.” Once she was a class act in the big time. And she still dresses like one – pink frocks, petticoats – long white gloves with rhinestones. Once I saw her without gloves. When she saw me she hid her hands behind her back. But I saw how wrinkled those hands were. Like an old woman’s. She cries in her dressing room. Drinks.
Life is short. Memory is longer. I think sometimes of “Before the Revolution”, my most famous, perhaps my least understood work. It was the only ballet that was mine all the way. It was produced during what turned out to be our final season, since Diaghilev died soon after in Venice. He always knew he would die on the water and he did though I don’t believe he ever dreamed it would be Venice. He loved it so much. Maybe that should have been a clue. They say all men kill the thing they love. But maybe its the other way around.
We were at a real low point that spring and money was scarce. Besides the old man seemed to lose all interest in the company. Perhaps it was his way of saying goodby. So I had little trouble convincing them to let me dance the role of the white queen.
Marie Antoinette was the first, and as it turned out, the only role I ever danced that fit my own skin. She was my balletic swan song. The White Queen dancing through the empty streets of peasant villages and dairy farms was the spirit of ballet…as the flightless white swans gliding swiftly over the little pond in the Bois de Bologne was its soul. She neither touched history nor was touched by it. The revolution erupts in her dream and kills everybody with a fountain pen. Like ballet she had the innocence of childhood…and its cunning. Her dance was as lovely and futile as swans on the royal pond. …I wonder if there are still swans in Paris….My friends are gone, of course. They’re all dead except for the ones who are still dying. Pascin too died a long time ago though he was still a young man. How generous he had been, how kind. But he painted in an unfashionable manner. Later he killed himself. Art is not generous to her children. A young man asked me recently how one knows that a work of art will last. Nothing lasts! All those years I worked and dreamed. Some mornings I woke up famous. I don’t think I ever woke up feeling understood…Sometimes I wake up in the dead of night and can’t remember where I am….
Copyright ©2014 by Eleanor Antin.