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 …