Slaves of Dance
by Genia Blum
In 1895, two decades before the Great War, almost a quarter of a century before the October Revolution, during the rule of Austro-Hungary, when Vladimir Lenin, the future father of Soviet Communism, still stewed in Siberian exile, the planners of Lviv’s new civic theater chose a marshy area in the center of the city for their prestigious structure. The architect, undeterred by the Poltva River running inconveniently through the site, devised a solid concrete base to stabilize his construction and banished the stream to a subterranean tunnel. Henceforth, the Poltva coursed beneath the Grand Opera House, oblivious to the inaugural gala performance, ignorant of the dramas and comedies that played above, unconcerned by the ravages and holocausts of the unfolding century, and unaware of the moment when, during a relatively peaceful period between two World Wars, my ballerina mother first slipped between the darkened wings and stepped out onto an illuminated stage.
My mother fled Lviv at the end of the Second World War. She met my father in a displaced persons’ camp in Austria; they married and immigrated to Canada. An only child, I became a dancer like my mother, and my ballet career took me to Europe. I had settled in neutral, prosperous Switzerland when, in the late 1980s, Glasnost and Perestroika triggered an inevitable political avalanche in Eastern Europe. This shift of events and the subsequent disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a good half-century after my parents’ flight from both the Wehrmacht and the encroaching Red Army, led to my very first visit to Ukraine.
As a participant in a Swiss-Ukrainian cultural exchange, I’d spent an entire week in Kiev, sitting through back-to-back orchestra and chamber music concerts, theater performances, folkloric entertainment, and—despite official shortages of food and drink—extravagant receptions enhanced by relentless vodka hospitality. My bags were already packed when the last concert and its attendant grand banquet drew to a close. With toasts of, “Na zdorovya! Budmo!” still ringing in my ears, I took leave of Ukraine’s capital, and boarded the night train to Lviv.
It was an excruciating journey. Lying fully clothed on a damp mattress in a frigid compartment, I was jounced back and forth all night, painfully aware of each screeching stop and laborious start at every deserted station on the Kiev-Lviv line. Yet, in the morning, when the train pulled into Lviv’s main terminal, I felt neither cold nor exhausted. Disembarking, I looked up, energized to be standing beneath the same Art Nouveau steel dome under which my mother had once boarded a different train, its cars overloaded with passengers, each one inhaling and exhaling the smell of their collective fear. She was taken far away from home and would never return—nor want to. My mother’s entire family fled or perished in the war. Now, only her Opera House remained, sheltering, perhaps, some remembrance of her.
Lviv’s historic core had been spared bombing in World War II and, although grubbier and more rundown, presented itself much as it must have in the days when a young ballet student hurried through its streets to lessons. Lenin Boulevard, known in previous political times as First of May Street and, during the German occupation, as Adolf Hitler-Ring, still cut a broad, green swath through its center. In a gesture of hope and optimism, the promenade would soon be renamed Prospekt Svobody—Freedom Boulevard. Setting out on a reverent path between its double rows of chestnut trees, I, too, felt hope and a longing that, when I’d traversed the avenue’s entire length, I would catch, at its very end, a glimpse of the girl my mother had once been.
The Lviv Theater of Opera and Ballet during the German occupation, 1939
From across a large, sunlit square, a trinity of patinated goddesses greeted me, balanced on the roof of an opulent, fin de siècle building. At the pinnacle of Lviv’s Grand Theater of Opera and Ballet, Winged Glory, flanked by Poetry and Music, stretched her verdigris arms aloft and presented a giant, golden palm frond to the cloudless, azure sky. Below, a cluster of tourists had turned their backs on the Opera House and ignored the Muses. They considered a razed spot in the center of the square, where another bronze, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, had twice been toppled from his base, once by Hitler’s troops in 1941 and now again, when the Soviet Union imploded. The Russian ballet director German Isupov, People’s Artist of Ukraine, met me at the stage door on the left side of the Opera House. Gray-haired and paunchy but still handsome, jaunty in ironed jeans and a brown leather coat, he proffered a heart-felt welcome in passable Ukrainian and embraced me like a prodigal daughter.
Lenin no longer eavesdropped.
Six decades earlier, young Daria, freshly apprenticed to the ballet company, was in morning class, practicing grand battements in the high-ceilinged studio on the theater’s top floor, when the Opera’s artistic director appeared, unannounced, in the doorway. The ballet master clapped his hands to interrupt the exercise and signal the pianist, who responded with several loud chords and a series of arpeggios. Cued for a révérence, the male dancers, perspiring and breathing heavily, placed the palms of their right hands over pounding hearts and, heels together, bent forward with mannered humility. The ballerinas sank into deep curtsies. As their damp shoulders heaved, most gazed modestly at the rosin-dusted floorboards, but a few ambitious girls had already tilted their chins in the direction of Pan Direktor, and were now flashing the whites of their eyes like Odile in Swan Lake. In the farthest corner, my mother righted herself and looked around, too inexperienced to feel intimidated, curious to see what would happen next. The director spotted her inquisitive stance and gestured for her to approach. A short, whispered conference with the ballet master followed and, before my mother could quite realize what had happened, she was surrendered to Pan Direktor. Grasping her hand, he pulled her out of the ballet studio and into the hallway with its closed doors to the administrative and dramaturges’ offices, down the stairwell, past the musty dressing rooms, across the windowless artists’ foyer, past the entrance to the orchestra pit, up another set of stairs, and into the darkened backstage area. With a curt, “Go!” he pushed her onto the stage.
A rehearsal for an effusively dramatic staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida was in full progress, with everything happening at once, a spectacle my mother described, embellished, and elaborated upon over the years. The ballet interlude, a light diversion in an otherwise serious opera, would be added later, like an amusing afterthought. My mother had been plucked, not to dance, but to portray, statically, a Nubian slave—alongside the singers and an enhanced chorus, a legion of extras, a trained falcon, and a pair of retired carriage horses. The entire symphonic ensemble was also present, tucked away in the orchestra pit, heard but not seen, tuning its instruments simultaneously. Only the conductor’s bald head was visible, bobbing up and down as he yelled instructions to the stage assistant, a young man in rimless glasses who scurried back and forth between Pan Maestro, Pan Direktor, and the soloists; and who seemed greatly relieved when he spotted my mother hovering near the wings, half-hidden, behind two corpulent female members of the chorus.
The stage assistant pounced on my mother and began striding upstage and downstage, his hand clamped firmly around her wrist, as if afraid she might slip away before the director had considered every advantage and disadvantage of the locations in which he positioned her. The bass and tenor soloists expanded their chests and flared their nostrils when she passed, but the baritone went to great lengths to ignore her, turning his entire frame away when she was posed in his vicinity. The men of the chorus ogled and rearranged themselves for a better view, which infuriated the director, and he bellowed for everyone to stand still. This caused the mares to rear, and the agitated falcon, still hooded and perched on the gloved hand of a professional falconer, began flapping its ample wings. As the rehearsal came to an unruly halt, a stagehand lunged into the rumpus to calm the horses, offering them sugar lumps. The falcon settled down in due time, but every cast member now refused to carry it onstage and, since the property master insisted a taxidermy specimen would be impossible to procure before the premiere, a seamstress, summoned from the costume department, led the falconer, still holding his raptor, gamely offstage to be measured for a costume.
My mother did not perform a single dance step in Aida. Holding a large papier-mâché palm frond, she was instructed to remain stiffly upright, with her feet placed together, and to neither sway to the music nor move in any way whatsoever. Arriving in the theater hours before curtain time, she was painted pitch-black from head to toe and dressed in an Egyptian headdress and a gold-colored loincloth. Staring straight ahead while the entire act unfolded before her, she stood perfectly still, upstage center. The orchestra played, the singers sang, the dancers danced. The animals misbehaved—and their messes were cleaned up during intermission. My mother gripped her giant branch and did nothing else but breathe.
After each performance, when other cast members paired off or went home to their families, my mother waited for an oversized pot of water to heat on a wood-burning stove. She then stood naked and shivering in a tin tub while the elderly dresser, grunting with exertion, lathered her up and scrubbed away, intent on removing all traces of the tenacious greasepaint that settled into her skin like coal grime on a miner in Donetsk.
For my mother, a stage career came as a matter of course. Both her father and her grandfather were classically trained stage actors and singers; her cousins and their parents, great-aunts and great-uncles were opera singers, musicians, actors, and composers. Her mother’s family members, on the other hand, although impoverished and degraded at the hands of the Bolsheviks, had aristocratic roots and considered themselves above certain occupations and behavior. My grandmother Genia was a great beauty, dark-haired and long-limbed, with eyes set wide apart in a striking, heart-shaped face. Her parents believed she deserved a real prince, not a swashbuckler from the theater. But Babusia Genia was stubborn. She loved my grandfather Ambrosij and she loved adventure, and she had her way and they married, and then she followed him, much to her family’s mortification, directly onto the stage.
The Ruska Besida Theater, 1908
The Ruska Besida Theater had been founded in Lviv in the mid-1800s by a group of actors that included my great-grandfather. It was dedicated to staging original or translated plays in the Ukrainian language, and Dido Ambrosij and Babusia Genia continued this tradition, touring cities, towns, and villages of Ukraine. The actors of Ruska Besida built all their sets and sewed all their costumes. The glory onstage was hard-won through the labors backstage and, when not performing, my grandparents rehearsed and, when not rehearsing, they were busy founding and expanding their family.
Each child was born in a different city. A girl they named Olga died soon after birth, before the boys arrived, Taras and, a year later, Bohdan. Raucous and demanding, they kept my grandmother occupied, first with constant nursing and swaddling, and then with chasing after them from daybreak till bedtime, trying to quiet them by last call before curtain time. My mother, delivered during the theater’s season in Chernivtsi, soon joined the two rascals. All three children often slept backstage in a large wooden trunk padded with straw and pillows, with baby Odarka tucked in between the boys, while their parents declaimed and gesticulated in front of a provincial audience. The arrival of their fourth offspring, Natalia, and the fact that the other children would soon need regular schooling, as well as the realization that her dashing husband was an incorrigible drinker and occasional womanizer, prompted my grandmother to take her final bow. Once more, she followed her heart and, resigned to fate, settled with the brood in Lviv.
My grandparents’ separation was barely consummated, when the Great War broke out. Ambrosij, conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army, exited his domestic drama with the same abruptness with which he and all able-bodied colleagues of Ruska Besida abandoned the theater stage for the grim reality of combat against the Imperial Russian Army. When World War I ended, and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy collapsed, Ambrosij re-appeared in Lviv, not to come home, but to join the Galician partisans in the Polish-Ukrainian War. Poland won this bloody struggle, Western Ukraine gave up its short-lived independence, and Dido Ambrosij returned to his home: the theater. He embarked on a never-ending artistic junket, disappearing for weeks and months on end, and his family visits—mere guest appearances—became progressively shorter and increasingly rare.
My grandmother’s financial situation in Lviv was austere, but her costume-making skills proved useful. While her children played under the kitchen table with empty spools and remnants of bright-colored taffeta or, when they were older, handed her scissors or flattened seams with a warm iron, she constructed elegant worsted wool ensembles and silken ball gowns for wealthy clients. A certain Pani Doktor, her husband a preeminent professor in Lviv, would arrive with her maid in tow—both simple village girls, but only one blessed with good fortune—to arch her back in front of a narrow mirror propped up in Babusia Genia’s homely sitting room. She would try on the half-finished frocks and demand a deeper décolletage, or more gathers on the sleeves, and a far tighter waistline. “Please make more of my figure!” She would then leave a coin for diligent little Odarka, who sat on a footstool with an enameled box on her lap, passing pins to her mother. All the fine ladies of Lviv came to be fitted for party dresses by Babusia Genia, and they only stopped climbing the rickety stairs to the third-floor flat on Ruska Street when World War II erupted, and the fancy balls and flamboyant parties ceased.
When I was a child, my mother told stories and read to me from books, both in Ukrainian and in English, about princes and princesses, kings and nobles, wizards and dragons, but the narratives I loved most were her descriptions of ballets and theater productions in which she’d performed. Dancers and other artists of the stage were royalty of another kind, and the theater world no less magical than the imaginary kingdoms of fairy tales. A battered album, its inlaid, cherry wood cover warped and separating from the binding, was filled with black and white and sepia-toned theater photos that bore witness to the marvelous exoticism of my mother’s life before she was swept off the stage by the course of history and deposited in the middle of the Manitoba prairie like a reverse Ukrainian Dorothy, in a topsy-turvy production of The Wizard of Oz.
I pored over the images of my mother in winged eyeliner and false lashes, and marveled at how different she appeared in each monochrome photo. Lunging in Greek sandals and puffy silk shorts, she stretched one bare leg behind her and pressed two bronze cymbals like trophies against her chest; or she posed in front of a black backdrop in a man’s suit and a beret pulled low on her forehead, her feet wide apart and her eyes hooded, Marlene Dietrich-like, pretending to smoke an unlit cigarette. My favorites were of her in tulle and satin, in ornamented tutus and shiny pointe shoes, beautiful things I aspired to wear one day. One picture showed her onstage with the entire corps de ballet, draped in flower garlands, balancing en pointes, no one moving, except for one blurry girl on the far right. There were many more photographs, of dancers whose names I would never know: a scantily clad blonde with long, undulating hair, body curved like a scythe, attached to a giant wheel; a trio of laughing girls in striped skirts and peasant blouses holding beribboned tambourines above their heads; a young man with slicked-back hair in a black velvet jacket and white dancer’s tights, his stance natural and uncontrived as he stares past the camera, perhaps at my mother, captured forever in front of the painted backdrop of an enchanted forest.
Perusing her old photographs brought a measure of lightness to my mother’s mood that wasn’t always present. When she turned the album pages, she often hummed the themes from her performances: Anitra’s seductive dance from Peer Gynt, Dulcinea’s dream scene from Don Quixote, the fiery habanera from Carmen, melodies that provided the musical background to my childhood. My mother sang her way through her entire stage repertoire while doing household chores in Winnipeg. Wearing hoop earrings and black toreador pants, she warbled and danced around the kitchen in a pair of red high-heeled clogs, while I followed her in my gingham pinafore and felted slippers. I watched in awe as she demonstrated complicated port de bras; stamped my feet and pretended my teddy and I were bear cubs entering the Hall of the Mountain Kings; and she’d lead me through the living room, straight up the stairs to the bathroom, and sing to me while I brushed my teeth.
Finally, when I lay snug in bed, my mother would recount her own favorite story, taken from Greek mythology, which she told so many times that every scene remains imprinted on my memory. It was the tale of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Proserpina, who was abducted by Hades and carried down the River Styx to the dark depths of the Earth, to be kept prisoner in the Underworld. I was Proserpina, plucking daisies in the backyard, ambushed when our lush green lawn split open, and the god of the Underworld emerged in a chariot drawn by four dark horses. He embraced me with his steel clad arms and, before the black chernozem soil swallowed us up, I heard my mother cry, “Bring her back! Please, let her go!”
When she reached this point in her story, she’d draw me closer. Demeter’s sorrow was unbearable. All of nature grieved. The sparrows and robins in the garden no longer sang; the bees and grasshoppers fell silent. The cherry tree outside our living room window lost its blossoms and bore no fruit, and the orange monarch butterflies I’d chased all summer disappeared. The sky darkened and snow fell, and an icy prairie wind swept white dunes up against our house, blocking doors and windows. Proserpina was trapped beneath the frozen earth and, while Demeter wept, the world succumbed to a winter without end. I’d be drowsy by now, yawning and burrowing deeper under the covers. I knew the other gods would intervene, and Hades would allow Proserpina to return home. I floated into sleep, weightless and untroubled. The current of the River Styx reversed its flow, and I drifted up from the belly of the Earth and settled back into Demeter’s enveloping arms.
My mother was a wonderful storyteller, but she recounted very little of her childhood or her youth. She told me next to nothing about her friends and offered no information about her lovers. What I know about her adult life away from the stage I learned from my father, second-hand, and not until after she had passed away.
When history lessons in school broached the subject of World War II, I asked my mother about the German occupation. She described a morning when she’d walked to the theater and a military truck lumbered past on Rynok Square. She saw people in its open back, among them her friend Hannah, also a dancer. “And then?” I asked.
My mother turned to the window, and pointed outside, “Look how beautiful the blossoms are,” while I imagined a truck, picking up speed, taking Hannah away forever.
My mother preferred fantasy to reality, humor to tragedy. She’d often act out skits for my father and me, or amuse us with impersonations of people we knew. Her talent for mimicry was inherited from her father, by all accounts a Chaplinesque figure, renowned not only for comedic stage roles, but also for his readiness to amuse offstage. In the early years of my grandparents’ marriage, he’d often embarrass his young bride in front of others, contort his face and adopt silly postures, distressing her even during Sunday promenades, when he’d suddenly collapse both legs and waddle down the street beside her, knees pointed outward in a deep plié.
A hand-tinted postcard, its colors faded to pastel, shows my grandfather Ambrosij in the role of a gray-haired patriarch in a play called Love and Death. He reclines heavily against the back of a bentwood chair, costumed in a long, flowing coat, a patently false beard attached to his still-young face. The card’s design has been refined with narrow borders that resemble traditional polychrome embroidery, a nod to the Ruska Besida Theater’s dedication to Ukrainian culture. Its edges are worn from handling, and one corner is broken off, while the others are soft and rounded. It was passed countless times between the small hands of his four children, who often wondered where their father was, in which town and in which theater, portraying which character, in which play.
I gleaned information about Dido Ambrosij’ stage career from old newspaper articles, and I found his photos in books on Ukrainian theater, but there were no clues about his private life. My mother did not speak of her parents’ marriage, nor did she mention the unhappiness they must have known. Besides a sigh that sometimes heaved her bosom and, on the very edge of silence, escaped her lips, she also concealed all evidence of sadness in her life.
After the war, Babusia Genia fled Ukraine with her daughters; of her sons, Bohdan followed later, but Taras disappeared in the chaos and was never found. Her actor husband remained in the Ukraine. Records show he joined the civic theater of Stanyslaviv during the German occupation, and when he died in 1944, he was buried in his birthplace, Kolomyia. Dido Ambrosij’s final resting place fell into disrepair and was almost destroyed by neglect, but half a century after his demise, a citizen’s group initiated a drive to find and restore the graves of the acclaimed artists who lay forgotten in their city’s cemetery. My grandfather’s remains were located and reinterred, and he now rests beneath a well-tended gravestone, his handsome features, copied from a photograph taken when he was a young man, engraved on an upright slab of hard white marble.
Babusia Genia came as far as the wooden barracks of the displaced persons camp in Landeck, Austria. She arrived with my mother, the most devoted of her children, carrying only a few belongings. When she fell and broke her hip, she was taken to Innsbruck, almost fifty miles away, and when my mother arrived at the hospital next morning, bringing fresh clothing and a gift of fruit, she was told her mother had died.
The morgue released the body without a coffin, and my mother received no help in finding a vehicle to transport my grandmother’s corpse to the camp for burial. She sat in the back of an army truck during the drive to Landeck, holding the shrouded remains of her mother, protecting her as best she could from the bumps in the pot-holed road.
When I was a little girl, we visited Babusia Genia’s grave in Landeck. Her son, my Uncle Bohdan, a writer, had composed a poem about a mother’s love that was chiseled on the headstone. In the late 1960s, the marker and my grandmother’s coffin were removed, along with others’ whose families were unknown, or who would or could not pay for the space. My mother was not contacted in Canada, and by the time she found out, my grandmother’s remains had been pulverized, and the gray dust that was once Babusia Genia was swept up and dispersed by the dry air of the Alpine Föhn.
There was another gravesite in Austria, one my mother never mentioned, which was emptied at the same time. The casket it held was much smaller, the right size for an infant, a boy, only a year old. He died in his mother’s arms as she fled across the shifting borders of Europe. She carried her child until they reached the displaced persons camp, praying for a miracle. A priest anointed the tiny, malnourished body and delivered her son to the cold earth.
The year they opened his grave, he would have been a man of twenty-five. Two or more laborers would have hoisted the coffin; they might have joked about how light it was. One man alone could have pried the lid open, and the boy’s skull would have stared past him into the sun. They threw the bones on a heap and crushed them to powder. A breeze caressed the dust, as gentle as a sigh from long ago, when someone had whispered, “Alexander,” before he’d fallen asleep. Another caress, and one more, and another; and then the breeze swelled, and swept my brother away.
The ballet director, Isupov ushered me into a vestibule, past the doorman, down a corridor, up a short flight of stairs, and through a heavy door. We entered the cool blackness of the theater wings. He nudged my elbow, urging me onward, while he stayed behind. When I reached the center of the empty stage, I heard him shout something out in Russian.
The footlights went on, illuminating ascending motes of dust, while the glare of the gilded auditorium’s immense chandelier intensified, revealing tier after tier of vacant, red plush seats. From the void of the orchestra pit, silent chords from nonexistent symphonic instruments swelled, mute harmonies rippling and rebounding through shadow and dancing light. An invisible audience clapped and, as specters of flower bouquets rained down, my mother, translucent in tulle and satin, appeared before the arched proscenium, and accepted accolades.
The stage lamps dimmed, and I sank into a tearful révérence. Isupov offered me his handkerchief, but I declined. He refolded the thin, white cotton square, and then he placed it, with tender care, back into the pocket of his battered coat.
Essay first published at Under the Sun. Republished here with permission of the author.
About the Author:
Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian dancer, writer and translator. Her literary work has received several Pushcart Prize nominations, and this essay, based on excerpts from her memoir in progress, Escape Artists, was named a “Notable” in The Best American Essays 2019. When not writing, she tweaks fonts and photos on her website www.geniablum.com, and haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum.