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
was baffled when Balanchine returned triumphant to Russia with his company. A great choreographer? A genius? And so many Western wives? But he always chased the most beautiful girls in the school…and they didn’t want him…. Balanchine wasn’t a great classical dancer, [Igor’s mother] said; once she had offered him half an apple if he could do a double tour. He tried and failed and received no apple. Besides, his face was covered with pimples, she recalled. Someone so gauche, so afflicted couldn’t possibly have become famous!
But the students and the other younger dancers “were skylarking with joy.” Elena was overwhelmed—by Balanchine’s genius, by his personal modesty, and most of all by Allegra Kent as the Sleepwalker in La Sonnambula. “I saw every performance she gave; I wanted to somehow impress irrevocably on my brain every single step of hers.” By the time Balanchine was gone, “I was ready to follow him to New York.”
The year before, Nureyev had defected to the West. Makarova followed in 1970, and four years later, Baryshnikov. Elena wasn’t surprised: after a performance of Giselle, he had taken her aside and asked her whether his performance was “on an international level.” “Yes, absolutely,” she replied. “That phrase ‘international level’ had an odd sound. As I reassured him, his eyes were X-rays searching for any false flattery. I now was sure that he was making plans.” Two days before he left on the tour from which he defected, she was talking with him in his apartment and told him that she was hoping to emigrate. “I wish you would stay there” (i.e., abroad), she said. “But it’s your life.” “I will be back,” he said. “Of course he wasn’t going to drop any hints,” Elena remarks. “Misha would have been insane to have told even his own shadow anything out of the ordinary.”
Several of her close friends had succeeded in getting to New York, and were pressing her to join them. But how to get there?
In those days the bulk of emigration from the Soviet Union was granted to Jews. Since my father’s father had been born in Dusseldorf, there was some credibility to claiming that I was Jewish, even though my passport didn’t say so…. I wasn’t officially listed as Jewish, I told them, because my mother was Russian.
It wasn’t easy, even after she was granted an exit permit. There were last-minute dramatic (and dangerous) moments before she was on the plane to Vienna. But the most traumatic crisis had come when Alyosha, now sixteen, under pressure from his father, decided not to accompany her; he would, he said, come on his own in two years, when he would no longer need his father’s permission. It would be twelve years before they saw each other again.
In Rome, where Tchernichova waited for an American visa, she was receiving an émigré allowance from the Tolstoy Foundation and earning some money by teaching. It was six months before the visa came through, and when in 1976 she finally reached New York, a limousine sent by Baryshnikov was waiting at the airport to collect her. That night she watched him and Makarova in The Sleeping Beauty. “ABT looked like an immature company. I had the distinct impression that many of the dancers did not entirely know what they were supposed to be doing. Stylistically, they weren’t academically clean or refined.” When Makarova in her dressing room insisted on hearing her opinion, “since she seemed to really want to know, I did tell her diplomatically that I didn’t think her arms were very correct and her extension wasn’t as high as before.”
Soon she was giving Natasha private classes, teaching at the Harkness Ballet School and elsewhere, becoming part of the international ballet community. Inevitably, she was invited by Lucia Chase to work for ABT, where Misha, Natasha, and the young Gelsey Kirkland were the greatest stars. Her observations of them and others—their strengths, their weaknesses, their differences—are significant as testimony and delicious as gossip. Her judgments are cool—severe yet generous:
Whenever Natasha danced, improvisation always co-starred with structure; she invited impulse, the imperative of the moment, to guide her as she lived and breathed her roles…. The slate was blank for every performance, and that meant extraordinary excitement for the audience—but torture for some of her partners.
Makarova never compromised with a partner; her personality was too vehement, her artistic impulses too sure…. No approach, however, could have been farther from Natasha’s than Misha’s. He was disciplined, programmed. What he rehearsed, learned, and planned in the studio he did on the stage. Natasha nettled him because she was so utterly unpredictable. When they danced together, he might feel abused and she might feel thwarted, her fabulous expressiveness a little pinched.
In some ways Natasha and Misha were made for each other onstage. Their training, their bodies, and body language blended perfectly. But there was more rivalry than rapport between them.
Kirkland was another matter:
For me, her Giselle was a revelation…. What she did was perfect for her; I wouldn’t have changed anything.
Kirkland couldn’t be a medium for Giselle the way Makarova was; she didn’t feel the character so deeply inside. Yet Gelsey’s elfin appearance was perfect for this heroine, and whether moving or poised in arabesque, her body was a portrait of infinity. If in Giselle her style was Russian-influenced with a British accent, her statement was altogether American. Gelsey’s rebel spirit manifested itself in sublime revisionism. I loved the way she broke rules that were inviolate in Russia. Altering the musicality and timing of familiar passages, she produced effects that were startling, freshly expressive. In the spectator they produced the emotion that Gelsey herself did not experience.
The issue of American vs. Russian approach—of being American vs. being Russian—is a subtle theme of Dancing on Water. From the time of that first Balanchine visit, in 1962, Tchernichova is comparing and contrasting. When she arrived in New York, it was immediately apparent to her that Baryshnikov had changed:
The influence of Western classes and dancing Balanchine’s repertory at ABT had already made Misha faster and crisper than he’d been at the Kirov. He had honed his attack; he now pointed his feet extra hard, as if to give his line a Manhattan dynamism.
Her own ideas begin to modify. ABT’s physically commanding ballerinas Cynthia Gregory and Martine van Hamel didn’t conform physically to the Kirov belief that Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora should be short and slight, but the audience believed they were Auroras, “and so did I. Perhaps that was the beginning of my reconsideration of some needlessly stringent parameters of Russian casting.”
On the other hand, she deplored the backstage behavior of the American dancers—the environment at the Kirov was “more respectful and more hierarchical.” Everyone at ABT was talking in the wings.
Corps de ballet members in a crowd scene could be late for their entrance, or even fail to show up at all without any penalty…. Once I walked into the wings and saw dancers who were supposed to be on stage, drifting in from the cafeteria. “What is the matter with you?” I screamed.
She was also dismayed by the quality of ABT’s orchestra and conducting.
The latter sections of her book are punctuated with the gossip, intrigue, alliances, and resentments that are the daily stuff of the ballet world. Elena assisted Baryshnikov in staging his Don Quixote and Makarova with her La Bayadère. When Baryshnikov became the head of ABT, her situation grew even stronger. (After a terrible fight with Kenneth MacMillan over his new Sleeping Beauty, MacMillan tried to get her fired. “I can’t fire her,” Misha told Kenneth, “she is ABT.”) But when Baryshnikov left, she was no longer ABT—“Overnight it seemed as though ABT was a different company. A race to erase the prior decade and put the clock into reverse had begun.”
Her account of these ABT years is not as disinterested as her memories of her Russian years. Slights are recorded, blame is accorded, scores are settled, triumphs are registered. There’s more detail about certain second-tier dancers than any but the most ardent balletomane (or critic) requires. But always her trenchant grasp and passionate application of important principles continue to enlighten. This is why she’s against girls taking entire classes in pointe shoes; this is why the lower back is so crucial to strength and to style. (“There wasn’t a single dancer in ABT who used his or her lower back completely correctly. Dancers trapped their tension in their shoulders and neck. That became their center, and as a result their gravitational stability was off-kilter.”) Class has to be varied:
If the whole class is very fast, muscles will spasm and they can’t respond, can’t develop anything. Too much tension stays in the thighs and behind, and circulation to the feet is blocked; it stops at the knee. If too much of the class is slow, then dancers never learn speed and attack and their muscles become overblown.
Others may not agree with all her principles, but unquestionably they bore fruit over the years; the results were up there on the stage, for all to see.
Tchernichova’s personal life, naturally, changed through the New York years. She married a dancer fifteen years younger than herself—it lasted four years. Alyosha finally reached America, where she had the joy of working with him. (After twenty-five years he’s still in the West.) She made close friends, among them Joseph Brodsky, whose thoughts about her appear as the moving afterword to her book. After ABT she was for several years the embattled new artistic director of Vienna’s state ballet, and brought it back to life. She worked with the Trocks—the wonderful all-male Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo. (It’s to be regretted that she doesn’t talk about her experience with them—about teaching Giselle to guys. Vaganova’s school surely hadn’t prepared her for that particular assignment.)
Recently, she’s been coaching the brilliant international star Diana Vishneva—another story replete with tensions and rivalries. Vishneva was returning to the Kirov to dance Swan Lake despite active resentment from the administration. “The idea that it was all right to let any teenager contort her way through Odette/Odile on the Kirov stage, but letting Vishneva dance the role was somehow going to violate hallowed traditions was nothing less than delusional.” Whether writing about New York, Vienna, or St. Petersburg, Elena Tchernichova remains outspoken, confrontational, and honest.
Today she’s living back in St. Petersburg, and in her mid-seventies she’s still working—though not at ABT under the regime of Kevin McKenzie. (“I had thought for a long time that he should be replaced, and he probably knew that.”) Nor, of course, at today’s Kirov, of which she takes a dim view. But her value to dance is too widely appreciated for her to be left without important things to do. “In 2014,” she tells us at the close of her book,
a new arts center named for Diaghilev is scheduled to open in Moscow, the centerpiece of a vast new development on the Moscow River waterfront…. I have been asked to direct all the dance that’s programmed there: classical, popular, and ballet featured in opera. It means building an artistic operation from the ground up, choosing the dancers and rehearsal staff. It will be an enormous challenge.
No one who’s read her book will doubt that she’s up to it.