“A Dancer’s Shadow” by Mark Sadler, read by Vesper Liu

Performed at “Shadow & Substance” on February 25, 2019.

 

During the night, the door connecting to the street had blown open and the snow had flurried inside. A stooped man was shovelling at the drift with the short-handled coal scoop from the boiler room.

Olia climbed the stairs to the studio. Borya was waiting there in his formal army attire; the jacket with the medals. A girl of maybe eleven years, dressed in a white tutu, was exercising at the barre. Her left leg was raised vertically above her head. Her stockinged toe pointed towards the ceiling.

“The door is still broken. There is ice on the stairs. Somebody will break their neck,” grumbled Olia

She glanced coldly towards the girl.

“Is she to be my shadow?”

In the wall mirrors, her reflection mouthed the words back at her.

“You are to train her.”

“I know that I wobbled on stage. I felt your eyes on me when it happened. It was the same the first time we met, but then it was youth and nerves.”

Borya lowered his gaze.

“We will look after you, when you retire,” he said. “You should consider this child your legacy. Do not do as your predecessor did.”

After he was gone she called twice to the girl, who approached her irritably.

“My name is Olia. I have danced alone on stage for 24 years. Before that time I trained with Anitchka.”

She paused, waiting in vain from a spark of recognition to kindle in the girl’s blank expression.

“When I was young, every girl who was schooled in the ballet dreamed of performing with her. I danced beside her for almost two years, mirroring her actions. At first I was clumsy. Later we moved together in perfect symmetry. She did not want me as her shadow. I was her replacement. Our union would have lasted only as long as she had lessons to teach me.

“There are connoisseurs who only attend the ballet for the duets. They claim to find sad beauty in the passing of experience to youth. They are all sadists. They take their enjoyment from the humiliation of the younger pupil when she missteps. They find pleasure in the sadness of the older instructor, who knows that her time in the spotlight will soon end.”

Olia placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder guiding her towards the row of tall windows that looked out across the city.

“It is pleasant to dance with the windows open during the Summer. They will open only a few inches now. Here is the window where Anitchka attempted to push me into the street, 30 feet, head-first. Borya ordered her execution by firing squad. I was instructed to attend. I was a girl of 13 years. What else could I do but go? Anitchka refused the blindfold. She held my gaze until the moment the bullets struck her body.”

She looked down at the girl who stared back at her fiercely with wet blue eyes, like the sun shining through thawing winter ice.

“Maybe we will share a better relationship than I did with my teacher. What is your name?”

“Irinka.”

She spoke confidently, with a heavy accent that was tinged with contempt.

“When the air pollution is low you can see the mountain from the window,” said Olia. “There is a dance that mimics the climb along the winding path to the summit. You will need to memorise it, so that, if you were forced, you could dance from the foothills to the peak with your eyes closed and every step would be perfect. The ascent is four hours. We will dance it here in this studio each morning until it is perfect. Every ballet is a different mountain to climb. In time I will teach you all the different paths. Two years from now you will be a perfect reflection of the girl I was at your age.”

Irinka stared back at her with disdain.

“I will be better than you. And it will take me only a year at most,” she said dryly. “I saw you dance like a cow at the Khovansky Pavilion. I thought you should have been made to retire long ago. I told Borya this and he laughed.”

A delighted cruelty danced behind the girl’s eyes. Her pink little mouth twisted spitefully as it formed words:

“I heard him tell one of his guests you have aged like spoiled milk.”

Olia raised her open hand then thought better and slowly lowered it.

“I see we will get nothing done today. We will resume tomorrow morning at six o’clock.”

“I will come at eight. Do not ever think of hitting me and do not ask Borya to send another girl. He will ignore you. He says that I am special.”

“At your age I heard the same words from his lips. His infatuation with you will soon pass.”

The girl wrapped herself in a fur coat. Halfway through changing her shoes she paused and looked up at her teacher.

“You are a faded old woman.”

She departed, leaving the studio door wide open, allowing the bitter wind to chase into the room.

Moments later, Olia heard a scream, followed by a succession of bumps, then silence, then drawn-out wails and curses. She entered the narrow corridor without urgency. Irinka lay crumpled in the snowdrift at the foot of the stairs. Next to her head, the door to the street banged open and closed.

“I slipped on the ice,” sobbed the girl.

A broken bone protruding from her pale, delicate shin had reddened one corner of her fur coat.

“I will speak with Borya on the telephone. He will send the vet to examine you.”

She left Irinka whimpering at the bottom of the stairs. For a while she stood by the window contemplating the view. Eventually she approached the phone on the floor in one corner and dialled the number.

When she arrived at the studio the following morning, the door had been replaced. As before, Borya was waiting for her.

“She will not dance again. I will send you another girl.”

“Maybe in the summer. I will perform the Spring dances without a shadow.”

“It is not for you to decide.”

“Maybe your superiors will hear more about the circumstances of the accident. How I warned you of the danger many times and how you failed to act.”

Borya adjusted one of the medals on his breast. He did this habitually when something made him nervous.

“The summer then,” he said. “I will leave you to bask in your small victory.”

He left Olia standing by the window in the reassuring stillness of the room. The cloud had thinned and she could spy glimpses of the mountain top. After a while she walked over to a bank of switches on the wall and brightened the spotlights. On the polished wooden floor her shadow snapped obediently to her heels.


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