It’s not only star dancers and choreographers and impresarios who contribute significantly to the art of ballet. Crucial, too, are the teachers, coaches, and ballet masters who keep classical technique—and classical dancers—honest. In our day, Elena Tchernichova, who was trained as a dancer in the Soviet Union and later emigrated to the US, has been a conspicuous example of a person who has performed all three roles. Her Dancing on Water is an important account of “A Life in Ballet,” as its subtitle has it: a book as illuminating as it is interesting, revelatory about how ballet works, and fascinating as an account of a life devoted to an art—and to survival.
The immediate interest stems from the extraordinary arc her life has followed, and the clearheaded intelligence with which she (and her excellent coauthor, Joel Lobenthal) recount it. For someone who has experienced the tragedies that have fallen her way, she’s remarkably free of self-pity and, more remarkable, of self-dramatization. Which doesn’t mean she’s free of self-regard. But why should she be? She has more than fulfilled her early promise. That she’s not a household name only reflects her uncommonly early understanding of where her talents really lay and of how she might best deploy them, rather than spending her considerable resources pursuing a fame and fortune that didn’t attract her.
Elena Tchernichova was born in Leningrad in 1939 as the war broke out in Europe, and her childhood was all too typical of many others who lived in that place at that time. When she was three, her father, of German origin, who oversaw a munitions factory, was summoned by the KGB and never returned from the meeting; there was never a definitive account of his fate, but Elena distinctly recalled him muttering, “I don’t want to go; I just don’t want to go!” Her mother, Maria, was a beauty, an aspiring actress, an indulged young wife: “She liked to bake, do needlepoint—and of course dress flamboyantly.”
Then, with her husband having vanished, she was on her own during the siege of Leningrad, trying to keep herself and her little girl alive:
Government rationing had dwindled to one scrap of bread a day. We were forced to eat anything we could snatch, uproot, or improvise. We crowded around my grandmother as she fried pancakes from a batter of rice-based face powder.
Maria took a lover, then when the war ended got a job managing a warehouse, but by this time she was an alcoholic. One day she slashed her wrists and Elena, aged eight, came home early from school and found her just in time. On her thirtieth birthday she threw herself a “farewell gala,” and that night took poison and died. Elena’s aunt forced her to go to the morgue to identify her mother’s body—an ordeal she never forgave or forgot.
Elena was now officially an orphan, although she was living with her grandmother, and a distinguished family wanted to adopt her. The mother was Evgenia Vecheslova-Snetkova, a leading teacher at the Kirov’s school, by far the most important ballet academy in Russia, among its graduates Fokine, Pavlova, Nijinsky, Karsavina, Danilova, Balanchine, Ulanova. Elena refused to leave her grandmother—“As long as you’re alive I’ll be with you”—but she often visited the family. Snetkova saw a future in ballet for the child, brought her in to the school to be auditioned, and Elena was accepted. She was ten.
Her account of her training is consistent with other accounts we have (like Danilova’s):
Our school was something like a cross between a naval academy and a British public school, with a bit of Dickens peeking around the edges of our ruthlessly regimented lives. Punishment followed misbehavior as inevitably as night follows day…. Our teachers weren’t really cruel, but oh, were they tough!
It was a nine-year course, and for all those nine years Elena’s teacher was Lidia Tyuntina, who had been a favorite of the great Agrippina Vaganova, after whom the school was eventually renamed.
Elena was clearly talented, but she wasn’t easy. “The other kids obeyed me. I was never afraid of teachers or directors, and they respected that.”
Sometimes I would just have a fit, running out of a class and out of the building while a teacher screamed, “Where do you think you’re going? Don’t you realize that class isn’t over yet?” “I have to see the sun!” I cried, and threw myself into the street.
She got into serious trouble when her briefcase was stolen, and with it her Komsomol notebook—her membership passport for the Communist Youth League. Essentially, she was put on trial, threatened with expulsion—“Your Komsomol book is the most important document in your life. You must carry it with you all the time. An enemy could use this to spy on us!”—but she remained defiant. “What secrets can they get from our ballet school?” “Don’t be smart. They can use it to show that they’re a citizen of this country.” “There is my name and my picture and my age. I don’t think they have spies who are fifteen.” She more or less got away with it, “But so great was my disillusionment that I don’t think I was ever again the same person.”
She drove Tyuntina crazy by appearing to be lazy—dancing off pointe, neglecting her studies. But when the final examinations were coming up, she rallied and did well, and she had a real success dancing the Raymonda dream pas de deux at her graduation performance on the Kirov stage. There were supposed to be two more performances, but she announced that she was hurt. “I preferred to observe…. I thought I had done my job already. Why suffer through two more Raymondas when I could be watching and enjoying?” Invited to join the main company, she accepted, but by then she had realized that she didn’t want to dance professionally. “I lacked a true performer’s mentality and concentration. Dancing in the studio was for myself and I could enjoy it sometimes. But dancing on stage was living up to my responsibility to others.”
By this point in her story we realize that what she had been doing through her years as a student was observing, watching, judging. She was, for instance, reaching conclusions about the Kirov’s ballerinas, most importantly Natalia Dudinskaya, who with her husband, the company’s artistic director, Konstantin Sergeyev, ruled the roost and who with her amazing allegro technique dazzled the world but “knew that she didn’t have the line, the cantilena, for adagio, and so she danced the Shades [in La Bayadère] faster than any other ballerina in history.” And in contrast the glorious but ill-starred Alla Shelest: Elena’s page-and-a-half description of Shelest in La Bayadère should be required reading for every dancer who assumes the role of Nikiya. We also grow aware of how Dudinskaya (that “inveterate intrigante”) managed to block her rival’s career. The Sergeyevs, here as in other accounts, emerge as the Macbeths of the Kirov.
Elena was also observing her extraordinary classmates, who included Nureyev, Natasha Makarova, Alla Sizova, and Yuri Soloviev. About Nureyev in particular she has a good deal to tell us—about his willfulness, his obsessiveness, his defiance of authority. “Don’t ever show them you’re afraid of them,” he tells her, “and then they’ll become afraid of you.” The only person he fully respected was his teacher, the great Alexander Pushkin, who would afterward be responsible for Baryshnikov as well. But even with him Nureyev could be naughty. Once, Elena reports, he snapped a rude word at his teacher, “but after class Rudi jumped on Pushkin like a monkey and kissed him, pleading, ‘Don’t be angry with me! Thank you, thank you!’” “What a strange relationship,” she noted. She realized not only how driven Nureyev was but how different—how special: the vanguard of the future.
She also appreciated Makarova’s special qualities. Makarova had started late and had only five years of schooling behind her when she joined the company:
Her first years onstage were a trial by fire. Her technique lagged well behind her emotional and her interpretative depth. Yet for me it was always ten times more interesting to watch Makarova fall off her pirouettes than to see some other ballerinas execute every step perfectly.
The dancer who interested her the most, however, was Igor Tchernichov, a couple of years older than she was, with whom she fell in love as a teenager and married—after three years of a passionate but unconsummated relationship. Even then she wasn’t sure she wanted to marry, but he was determined, and by the time she was twenty they had a son, Alyosha. While still at school she had been asked by Tyuntina to teach some classes. Now, although she was performing in the company, she was more focused on coaching the highly ambitious Igor, who had become a leading dancer and an aspiring choreographer. When he was invited to take over the ballet company in Odessa, she went with him to help stage his Nutcracker (they were given a two-year leave of absence from the Kirov), and soon she was the principal ballet mistress there. “I rehearsed everything and staged all the classical ballets.” The company was lax. “The girls were lazy and overweight; they approached their job as a hobby.” She started teaching company class to the corps de ballet girls, and during
the first month they went to the Opera House supremo and complained about me. He called me to his office. “Maybe you could be a little bit nicer to them, and give an easier class.”
“Absolutely not,” I told him. “I’m being honest with them. If they don’t want to take the information that I’m giving them, without playing games, too bad, they’re stupid. I’m not going to make myself stupid, too.” But within two or three months I felt as though I had them in my hands. We all got along very well.
Perhaps. What’s certain is that although the Odessa company was now doing very well (a big success at a Moscow festival, touring), she and Igor weren’t doing very well. He “became more and more full of himself and more dictatorial, more high-strung and volatile…. And yet if it hadn’t been for his drinking, we might very well have stayed married.” Deciding that life with him was no longer possible, she returned alone to Leningrad, where the head of the Kirov told her that if she didn’t want to dance, he would make her a ballet mistress. She accepted, and went back to work in the company. Later, her mind on the future, she succeeded at being accepted at an elite choreographic institute in Moscow, and was soon creating dances for television and the theater. Her career was on track.
But in the early Seventies, her thoughts were focusing on America. In 1962, the New York City Ballet had made its historic first visit to the Soviet Union, bringing Balanchine back to his native country for the first time since his departure in 1924. The old guard was skeptical and critical of what Balanchine was doing; they despised his innovations, they declared he was unmusical. Igor’s mother had been in Danilova’s class at the Kirov school and she