Edition 28: La Voshnikaya by Beth Deitchman
The Russian ballet is in town performing Swan Lake. An understudy watches the Prima Ballerina from the audience with awe, and she is not alone. The performance floors the audience, in ways it is not supposed to. Beth Deitchman brings the house crashing down in this paranormal tale. SY
The opera house hummed with opening night excitement. Voices rose in animated conversation, punctuated by bursts of laughter. Beautifully dressed people stood near their seats, scanning the auditorium for their friends, their eagerness to see the great ballerina palpable. The men cut gallant figures in their tuxedos and crisp bowties; the women dripped with jewels, hair coifed to perfection.
Although my seat awaited me above, I lingered near the dress circle railing. From my vantage point, I observed with amusement the dance of interactions—a nod here, a smile there, the flourish of a fan, the flash of opera glasses. Below us the orchestra warmed up, its well-ordered cacophony of trills and glides cutting through the symphony of voices.
I turned my gaze to the heavy gold curtain where a spotlight played against the plush fabric. Backstage, pre-performance preparations would be underway—a last-minute costume check, a final stretch, a quick review of choreography. I almost regretted having the night off to watch the ballet from the theatre.
The lobby bell chimed and the house lights flickered, so I hurried up the stairs and slid past a couple of older women into my seat. All around me patrons took their places, still chatting with animation.
“They say she hates to be photographed, but aren’t these lovely?” The woman sitting next to me held her program in front of her companion. “And this is her first performance in the West!” The woman’s body trembled. “Just think, Vi! We’re here for Irina Voshnikaya’s first performance outside of Russia!”
Vi’s mumbled reply was cut short by the dimming lights. The audience fell silent. A lone note sang through the theatre; other instruments joined in. The sound faded, followed by a hush. Then came applause, a smattering at first before gaining strength, for the conductor entering the orchestra pit. Though I could barely see the top of his head, I knew he took an indulgent bow. Gregory Peterson was well known for his flamboyance. He raised his baton, and we held our breath, releasing it in a collective sigh with the first strains of Swan Lake.
As the music soared, energy crackled through the theatre. I smiled. The audience’s excitement would hit the dancers as soon as they came onstage, driving their performances and inspiring them to push harder, stretch farther. At the thought of dancing with them, my body tingled. I rolled my shoulders and flexed my feet to dispel some of that longing for motion.
Finally the curtain rose on Act One, the celebration at Prince Siegfried’s palace. The audience applauded. Through my borrowed opera glasses I could see the smile creasing André Soulier’s handsome face. As always, he moved beautifully, and for a little while the audience seemed engaged. But impatience for the White Swan’s entrance soon rippled through the theatre.
In front of me a man leaned toward his wife. “When does the famous one come on?” he whispered.
The woman paged through her program. “Soon, I think,” she hissed back.
I stifled a giggle. All around me people began to stir, restless. A few rows down someone leaned forward, straining to see into the wings. Her companion pulled her back. Their impatience amused me, though I shared it. I tapped my right foot in time with the music. The act was coming to an end. Soon the Prince would take his new bow and go hunting, and we would see the White Swan.
Applause met André’s exit, followed by a thick hush as the curtains closed on the scene change. I uncrossed my legs and rubbed my lower back. Someone coughed into the silence. Chairs creaked as other spectators rearranged themselves.
“Not long now, Vi!” the woman next to me breathed.
Vi’s response was lost to the orchestra. The violins swelled in the familiar theme as the curtains opened on a moonlit stage. A well-worn backdrop depicted a lake surrounded by trees. Daniel Jackson leapt onto the stage as the villainous sorcerer Von Rothbart, commanding our attention before sweeping back into the wings. Then Siegfried returned to the stage with his bow.
When Odette the White Swan finally entered, the audience drew another deep breath, too stunned by her sudden presence to applaud. I nearly wept at the perfection of her first arabesque, and my body moved with hers, chest and chin lifting into that exquisite suspension.
“She’s so delicate,” Vi’s friend whispered. “Yet magnificent!”
I peered through the opera glasses at the figure dancing with Prince Siegfried. She was small, though long limbed, with delicate bones and a porcelain doll’s face. Under the spotlight, she appeared almost translucent. I had seen pictures of Irina Voshnikaya, but in none of them had she seemed so ethereal, so fragile. I didn’t see how she could possibly manage this demanding role.
Yet as the act progressed, Irina Voshnikaya grew less delicate, her movements more powerful. At the start of the pas de deux, I leaned forward, drawn by her magnetic presence. She danced with liquid grace, stretching each movement to fill the music. Like all the great Russian ballerinas, Voshnikaya was also a masterful actress, communicating Odette’s passion for Siegfried with every inch of her body. Again tears filled my eyes. How I longed to dance as she did! I clasped my hands to my mouth and rocked gently in my seat, enchanted, aware only of the music and the ballerina.
The curtain coming down and the lights coming up in the theatre freed me from the spell. I blinked and looked around. The people near me had also slid forward in their seats. A stunned moment passed. Then we leapt to our feet, clapping furiously. My hands stung for several minutes after the thunderous ovation ended.
“And this is just the beginning!” a young woman behind me said. “Goodness!” Her laugh held an edge of hysteria.
I sat back in my chair, letting my twitching muscles relax. All around me people chattered.
“What did you think, Vi? Wasn’t she astounding?” said my neighbor as she and her friend made their way to the aisle.
“I had no idea that the ballet could be so amazing!” the man in front of me said.
“I have no words to describe her,” a young man muttered as he passed me.
I stood and stretched and then headed to the nearest ladies’ room. Voices echoed off the marble, praising the ballerina. An older woman waited in front of me for the toilets. She was shaking, her breath coming in little gasps.
I touched her shoulder. She flinched.
“Are you okay, Ma’am?”
“What? Oh, yes, I’m fine.” She dabbed at her pale brow with a pink handkerchief clutched in a trembling hand. “Just a little warm, a little flushed.” She barked a laugh. “Some day you’ll understand.”
“Vi, is that you?” someone called from the closest stall.
“It is, Rose. A nice young woman asked if I was okay.” Vi gave me a shy smile.
The toilet flushed, and Rose emerged, handbag slung over her arm. “How very nice of—oh!” Rose stopped, staring at me.
“Rose?” Vi said, concern in her voice.
“Goodness, Vi, don’t you know who that is?” As Vi studied me, Rose huffed impatiently. “We’ve seen you dance so many times. I was thrilled when you were promoted to soloist last year!”
“Thank you,” I said as Vi slipped into the newly vacated stall.
“I’m surprised you’re not dancing tonight,” Rose continued.
“I have the night off.”
“Oh, how wonderful that you can be here!”
Another stall opened, but Rose touched my arm. “I don’t want to hold you up,” she said. “But I have to tell you what a wonderful dancer you are. I am sure we’ll see you dancing Odette and Odile sometime soon.”
She smiled at me again and then called toward the stalls, “Vi, I’ll wait for you outside!”
“All right, Rose,” came Vi’s muffled response.
I ducked inside in the free stall, pleased by the encounter. I was slated to understudy those roles next season. Sometimes understudies went on for matinee performances.
While I washed my hands, the bell summoned the audience to the auditorium. Eager for the next act, people crowded into the theatre. Rose and Vi had already returned to their seats.
“Hello again,” I said as I passed them to get to my seat.
“Oh, goodness! I had no idea you were sitting next to us,” Rose gushed. “Are you enjoying the performance?”
Rose patted my arm with a veiny hand. “You will be as great as Voshnikaya one day. I just know it.”
“Thank you,” I whispered, touched by Rose’s sincerity.
The curtain rose. The lake had been transformed back into the palace, golden light bathing the scenery. Dancers in luscious dresses and tunics roamed the stage. Ordinarily, I enjoyed the campy theatrics of Swan Lake‘s third act—especially Von Rothbart’s dramatic flourishes—but now I cared only for Irina Voshnikaya’s return. Judging by the tension building in the audience, I was not alone in my desires.
As yet another group of dancers in character shoes performed yet another tarantella, someone whispered, “She’ll be back soon, won’t she?” No one shushed the whisperer.
At last La Voshnikaya burst onto the stage on Von Rothbart’s arm, and the theatre erupted in applause. Drawn by the ballerina’s presence, I slid forward, enraptured. But too soon she exited. I looked at my fellow patrons. Next to me Rose sat perfectly still, spine erect. I glanced the other way. Our entire row mirrored her posture.
I closed my eyes and clenched my hands. Some day, I vowed. Some day I would hold an audience this way. Then I fixed my attention back on the stage in time for Voshnikaya’s next entrance.
Given the lyricism of her Odette, I did not expect the ferocity with which Irina Voshnikaya danced Odile, the Black Swan—every motion full, deliberate, with a rich sensuality that no prince could resist. From time to time a wicked smile played on her lips, and her eyes sparkled.
As she devoured the stage in the pas de deux‘s virtuoso coda, I gripped the soft arms of my chair, suddenly dizzy. I took a long breath through my nose, exhaled slowly, and then took another, attempting to regain my equilibrium while Voshnikaya whipped through those famous fouetté turns. My head stopped swimming only after Odile fled the stage with Von Rothbart, triumphant in her seduction of Siegfried.
The Prince, desperate to correct his mistake, followed them, and the curtain fell on the bereaved court. We staggered to our feet.
“Brava!” a man called in a hoarse voice.
“Brava!” someone echoed weakly.
Next to me, Rose clutched the seat in front of her, knuckles whitening. I stretched, rolled my head, and shook my arms. The lethargy in my limbs felt foreign, but I dismissed it—I hadn’t eaten before the performance.
The audience moved toward the exits. Rose collapsed in her seat, hand to her chest.
“Are you okay?” I asked. She had gone pale, and a fine sheen of sweat dampened her forehead.
“Oh yes, dear,” Rose replied with an unconvincing smile.
“Are you sure? I could bring you some water.”
“Thank you. That would be lovely.” She fumbled in her purse.
“It’s okay,” I said, refusing her money.
“Are you sure?”
“I know the bartender.” I winked.
The lobby was eerily quiet, though filled with audience members. A couple of women sat on a bench against the window just opposite the door to the dress circle.
“Goodness, I’m exhausted!” one of them said.
Her companion nodded. “It’s been a long week.”
I made my way to the other end of the lobby where my old friend Jeffrey was pouring a glass of wine. His customer, a middle aged man in a well-tailored suit, was bent over, elbows on the polished mahogany bar and head held in his hands. When I approached, the man looked up and gave me a weak smile.
I nodded to him and then said, “Hi Jeffrey.”
“Oh, hi!” he replied, handing the glass of wine to the man. “What can I get you?”
“Three bottles of water, please.”
“You got it.” Jeffrey pulled three bottles from the ice well. “How’s the great ballerina?” He set the bottles on the bar and, as I knew he would, waved away my money.
“She’s unbelievable,” I said, twisting off one of the caps. “So gorgeous.” I took a long pull of water.
“Maybe I’ll sneak in for the last act.” He winked, and I laughed. The bell chimed. “Better get back!” Jeffrey shooed me away.
“Thanks for the water!”
Our return to the theatre was slower than it had been after the first intermission. I got trapped behind a shambling group of women wearing red hats. No one complained about the bottleneck. I managed to slip past the ladies and regain my seat.
“Rose, I want to go!” Vi was saying.
Rose kept her eyes forward, shaking her head.
“Please, Rose! I don’t feel well. I want to go home.”
Rose turned to me. “My sister wants to leave. But I can’t imagine abandoning Irina Voshnikaya mid-ballet! Can you?” I agreed with Rose, but didn’t say so. “You can go if you’d like, Vi,” Rose said without looking at her sister.
Vi stood and glanced uncertainly at the exit. Then she looked back at her sister. Vi’s mouth was drawn in a slight frown, her brow furrowed. She sighed and dropped back into her seat. Rose patted her sister’s hand. “You’ll thank me when it’s over. I promise!”
I handed Rose and Vi a bottle of water each.
“Thank you, dear,” Rose said.
“Yes, thank you,” Vi agreed meekly.
“You’re welcome,” I replied.
The ladies sipped their water, Rose blinking rapidly. I watched the audience settle into their chairs. A dark-haired woman a few rows down fanned herself with her program. The man next to her slumped in his seat, head draped forward. She nudged him with her elbow. Slowly he straightened. My stomach growled, and I wished I had gotten something to eat at the bar. I took another swig of water, blinked my eyes a few times, and waited for Act Four to begin.
The applause for the conductor’s return was quiet, listless. Out of the corner of my eye I caught someone glancing at his watch. The curtain rose to reveal swans already onstage. I yawned. My eyes wanted to close. I opened them wide and pinched my thigh.
Despite my efforts to stay awake, I must have nodded off. Blaring horns from the brass section startled me awake. My head pounded, and my mouth was dry. I rubbed my eyes and strained to see the stage. The ballet was nearing its end, yet Irina Voshnikaya appeared stronger than ever. The opera glasses seemed to have doubled in weight, but I held them up, forcing myself to focus on the ballerina.
In my career, I had been onstage with at least a dozen Odettes. I knew the toll the choreography takes on a ballerina’s body—especially the exhaustion that causes little slips in technique mostly unnoticed by the average audience member: a floppy foot, a fudged pirouette, a little hop out of a balance. But Irina Voshnikaya made no mistakes. Her movement was perhaps even more pristine, more electric than it had been three hours earlier. Supporting my elbow on the arm of my chair, I studied her through those heavy opera glasses. Her makeup was unsmudged, her brow undampened. Not so the other dancers. Sweat stained André Soulier’s costume and dotted the breastbones of the corps de ballet.
An arm cramp forced me to lower the opera glasses. They fell to the floor, but I couldn’t make myself pick them up. I turned my attention back to the stage where Odette thrust herself in front of Siegfried, protecting him from Von Rothbart’s wrath. The violins screaming from the orchestra pit sounded so far away. Cold trickled over my feet. With enormous effort, I bent down and felt the floor. Water. Confused, I looked for the source. Vi had fallen asleep, her silver head resting on Rose’s shoulder, and dropped her water bottle. Poor thing, I thought.
When I sat up, my ears buzzed and my head felt light. Nausea welled in my stomach. I rested my eyes. When I opened them, Von Rothbart was carrying Odette, arms outstretched toward her Prince, upstage. Surrounded by swans, Siegfried writhed on the ground. The curtain dropped, and the last note died.
A heavy silence filled the theatre. People slouched in their seats, heads tilted at uncomfortable angles. I swayed, willing myself to breathe. The curtain lifted and the corps de ballet trooped forward for their bows.
Still no one clapped. The dancers exchanged glances. A few heads popped up above the orchestra pit while more dancers emerged tentatively from the wings. A hiss went across the stage. Then a dancer tiptoed forward, shading her eyes against the lights, and peered into the audience. She screamed and pointed. The others stared into the theatre as the house lights flared.
My head fell forward. More screams accompanied by pointe shoes clumping across the stage. From the orchestra pit came crashes of instruments falling to the floor.
Cold fear gripped me. I could barely bring myself to move, but I pulled my head up and forced myself to stand, grasping the seat in front of me for balance. I looked at Rose. Her head had flopped backward, eyes wide. I shook my head until the meaning of those staring eyes became clear.
“No!” I croaked.
I pushed past Rose and Vi’s lifeless bodies and stumbled down the aisle stairs, clutching the shiny brass bannister. Bodies draped over the edges of seats, pale hands trailing on the red carpet. I swallowed hard against the bile that burned my throat and kept moving.
At the bottom of the dress circle, I stopped, my attention drawn to the stage where Irina Voshnikaya took a majestic bow. Below me the bodies of the audience slumped in their seats, some half on the floor, others propped against their neighbors. Gripping the railing, I struggled to understand what had happened, horrified by the sight that arrested my gaze. Desperate to find another survivor, I scanned the silent auditorium. No one stirred. My eyes stopped on a young woman about my age. I stared at her unmoving chest, willing her to draw a breath.
Then Irina Voshnikaya looked up, and met my eyes. I couldn’t read her expression. Triumphant? Angry? She took a few steps toward the edge of the stage and regarded me.
“You are dancer,” she said, her voice carrying across the theatre.
Surprised, I nodded.
She smiled. I tried to turn, to flee that smile, but my legs would not obey. Over a sea of dead faces, our eyes remained locked. My chest tightened and my knees buckled. As another wave of nausea hit me, the edges of my vision grew black. Still Voshnikaya smiled, an impish sparkle in her eyes that reached me through my haze. My body melted until I slumped by the railing, barely conscious.
Suddenly a jolt of energy hit me in the chest, stealing my breath. My heart pounded, but my head cleared. Strength coursed back into my limbs, and I regained my legs. I turned to run, started up the steps to get as far from Irina Voshnikaya as I could. But then I remembered that first arabesque—the painful beauty of its length and lift.
I stopped, one hand resting lightly on the cool bannister, one foot poised on the step above. That arabesque. That power. I thought about the audience held in such rapt attention by Voshnikaya’s dancing. I turned back to her, returning her smile.
“Now you are ballerina,” La Voshnikaya said. “Like me.”
Beth Deitchman has been a dancer, a university lecturer, and an actor. In 2013 she co-founded Luminous Creatures Press with Emily June Street. Her books include Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven, and Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas, both part of her Regency Magic series. Additionally, she has co-authored two collections of short stories. Beth lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband Dave and dog Ralphie.
And follow her on Twitter: @beth_deitchman