Behind the Scenes of the Russian Ballet, July 1942: An Excerpt from Agnes de Mille’s ‘Dance to the Piper’

Born into the famous de Mille family of writers, playwrights, and filmmakers, Agnes de Mille felt a calling to become, instead, a dancer and choreographer. It’s a lucky thing, too, for as Joan Acocella writes in the introduction to an important reissue of de Mille’s own classic memoir, Dance to the Piper — out this month from NYRB Classics — de Mille’s contribution to the art of dance cannot be diminished. If George Balanchine worked to import the classical tradition of Russian ballet to the West, then we might say, according to Acocella, that de Mille cultivated a realist tradition, one that deals with “the world around us, with sailors and spinsters, fellers and gals,” a tradition that argues dance should not be “abstract or even ambiguous but forthrightly figurative and narrative.”

So it turns out that de Mille was a writer like her father and uncle and grandfather, and not only a writer of bodies in space. She wrote prose, too, and gorgeously, with tremendous and purposive contradiction, about her life as a dancer and choreographer. To my mind, Dance to the Piper is as good a book about dance as any book about cinema written by a director. (It reminds me, in fact, of Josef von Sternberg’s great Fun in a Chinese Laundry.) And it is funny, too. (“It seems I was very funny,” de Mille wrote, “I who always wanted to die for beauty.”)

In the below excerpt, de Mill peers behind the curtain of the Russian Ballet in 1942. Somehow she both puts the lie to and embellishes their glamorousness.

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From Agnes de Mille’s Dance to the Piper:

What does the Russian Ballet look like on tour? Different from what you’ve been led to believe. Most of the girls and boys are simply, even poorly, dressed. They have no money. In fact, they have borrowed months ahead on next season’s contract in order to get through their two months’ vacation. They live like indentured servants. The stars are smart. They look like stars. But they travel without maids. Danilova has a faithful follower who maids for her; Slavenska has her mother.

The stars travel in Pullman berths with the company. Denham travels in a compartment, and Massine when he is with them sleeps and eats apart. He is the reverse of chummy even with his lifelong companions. But of course, at this time, he is absent in Mexico building up the Ballet Theatre repertoire.

The girls usually sit mending their tights or sewing the ribbons into their shoes or darning the ends of their blocked point slippers to preserve the satin from floor friction. The care and preparation of tights and slippers as well as the cost of the tights devolve upon each dancer personally. The girls have to wash their tights at each wearing to make the silk cling, so the washroom is full of pink legs swinging in the train vibration. The girls talk shop, intrigue and knitting patterns. Never anything else. Never, although war, flood, strikes, elections and plague pass over them. Never. They talk technique and what so-and-so’s mama said to Mr. Denham last night. The older men play poker in three or four languages. The younger men look out of the window and hold hands. Some few read. Not many. They eat five or six meals a day. They are always hungry. They take cat naps, like animals, wherever they drop.

Mia Slavenska sits coiffed and perfumed with a Bruckner score opened on her smart tweed knees. The topaze on her hand is enormous and gives her a sense of reassurance as she leans her exquisitely manicured forefinger against her lovely brow and contemplates choreography. Miss Twysden, Danilova’s companion, biographer and helper, knits Danilova’s practice tights and discourses on the inferiority of all other companies. The inferiority of all other ballerinas she considers axiomatic. But she is a lady bred and cannot say what she thinks with Slavenska contemplating in the next seat, and with Slavenska’s mama staring at her with a hard gaze. Libidins progresses down the car greeting his wards. Slavenska leaves off her intellectual pursuits, smooths the coils of her sun-red hair, straightens the seams on her stalwart smooth legs and corners him. She has been waiting to explain that if she doesn’t dance more Giselles she will be distraught and she details what that condition implies in Yugoslavia. David Savielovitch manages to turn the talk into reminiscences of Chaliapin. Mia is distraught. Both voices rise. But no one can compete with his reminiscences. Libidins was once an old-style basso in a provincial Russian opera company.

A great deal has been written about the ballet’s glamour. This is an elastic word. In a recent play, Look, Ma, I’m Dancin’! and in the film The Red Shoes, the impression is made that they are a hard-working, healthy group of boys and girls rather like a traveling university. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Hard working they are to the point of slavery, and gay frequently. But healthy? Not very. Raddled with sexual insecurity, financial instability, ambition, jealousy and terror, they are herded from one engagement to another locked within the frenzied confines of their group for ten months at a stretch. They never stop anywhere en route long enough to make outside contacts. Intrigue assumes Renaissance proportions. Romance is a kind of round-robin tournament, and psychosis the hallmark of every experience. Most of the men are homosexual. Most of the women are sex-starved. Occasionally there is a nervous breakdown and a girl is unloaded at some station and left behind in a Midwestern hospital. Occasionally someone has a temper tantrum and beats up his girlfriend or his wife, forcing her to seek succor in adjacent bedrooms. Next morning they are all doing pliés in a row in perfect decorum.

There are a few gay harlots in the old tradition, very few, for the girls simply haven’t the energy. And there are a few happy marriages. These stand like rocks in the currents of emotional chaos.

But it is the bewilderment of exhaustion and transience that clouds most spirits and energies. Janet Reed said to me once, later, when I was traveling with Ballet Theatre, “Last night I came out of the theater and I couldn’t remember what city I was in or which way to walk toward my hotel. It turned out to be Cleveland.”

So they jog on together locked in the stewing, untidy cars. On arrival everyone frantically stuffs belongings into bags and boxes. Down come Slavenska’s furs from the case on the rack. Slavenska’s cat is put in a basket by Slavenska’s mama. Danilova unpins last night’s orchids from the back of her seat. The poker players settle their debts rather loudly. Wet wash is stuffed into hatboxes, knitting into the cosmetics. All, girls and boys, load up and stagger out. There are not arms enough for gallantry and no one can afford a porter; the girls lug their own suitcases. The car looks like an abandoned picnic ground. The porter, untipped, is not charmed.

They pour out of the train chattering, swearing, calling. In the rear or well in advance, Sergei Ivanovitch Denham and David Savielovitch Libidins trundle in dignity down the platform complete with briefcases, porters and neat luggage.

The company mobs the taxi racks, eight to a car, and goes off in search of lodgings. The stars, of course, have hotel reservations, but the corps de ballet have to rustle their own rooms. This sometimes takes two or three hours. They sleep always two to a room, sometimes six or eight. One person registers for each group; one person only attempts to pay.

Once settled in they assemble at the theater for replacement rehearsal. The usual breakage necessitates constant last-minute substitution. They snatch a malted milk at six and start warming up for the evening performance. They eat dinner at midnight. They eat in hash houses or drugstores except when they are being fed champagne and French cuisine by leading hostesses.

The next morning sees them either on a train or taking class with the best local teacher. As there are only six cities in the United States in which ballet can play a week’s stand, this procedure is followed two or four times weekly—room hunting and all.

For this they were paid $45 a week, the basic minimum wage for a corps de ballet dancer in 1942. Soloists received anything up to $300. Markova and Dolin received the highest fees in the business, $400 and $450 respectively (their salaries have multiplied since then). The basic wage for a scene shifter or grip was $121 and for a pit musician $140.

Every evening I do a barre with the boys and girls hanging on to the costume trunks. I change my practice clothes in the star dressing room shared by the two great ladies of the troupe. They sit at opposite tables, fitted out with their dainties, and they quarrel delicately and precisely over precedence, choice of roles, and the other paraphernalia of their trade. Mia’s mama rummages in her trunk. Twysden, the lady helper, knits and practices scorn with unmodified English assurance.

Behind every great star there is usually a sad quiet woman mending or knitting. Some of them are quite horribly young women. Being a ballet mother is a métier in itself and different from any other function in the theater, and they develop occupational symptoms like extreme aggressiveness, extreme nervousness, extreme jealousy, and as regards their own persons, extreme selflessness. They spent their youth sitting in smelly practice studios; they spend their middle age standing in the wings. They are drudges and do all manner of menial and selfless service forever underfoot, in daily oblivion. A few of the ballet boys have mothers too. These are rarer, but I believe more formidable.

The hour before performance is a visiting time in a ballet theater. Outsiders are not welcome, but the girls and boys go back and forth between dressing rooms, gossiping, chatting, relaxing, letting go the outside, integrating more and more closely within their group. They seem to be wasting time. Actually they are undergoing a change. They are warming up, quieting down, cutting off from daily life. None of them will stay away from the theater and miss this hour; it is very important to them.

I visit the corps to go over tomorrow’s notes with some of my girls. The corps girls dress in barrack rooms at long trestles. Their tutus hang overhead like large inverted flower corollas. They make up nearly always stripped to the waist, the complicated tapes which pull up their tights dangling loose from their thighs. They are a very pretty sight as they lean forward to apply their enormous false eyelashes or put the markings around their eyes as elaborate and formal as a Japanese actor’s mask. Their hair is greased flat and nailed to the head with bobby pins so that they could be shaken like a rat in a terrier’s mouth and not a strand would be loosened. With the foliage of tarlatan fluff overhead, the candles for mascara twinkling in front of the glasses, and the naked pearly young bodies stretching and moving, the scene suggests a kind of grotto. They have the most beautiful bodies in the world and they are all pre-adolescent. There is not a hip or a bust among them. But that’s all right. It’s better for dancing and they all, whenever it suits them, have babies with the greatest aplomb, showing that everyone, but chiefly Mother Nature, is wrong. Between the nymphs move Madame Pourmel and wardrobe women with freshly ironed costumes. They say nothing. Their tired, raw fingers zip and hook and fasten. Their faces are bleached and faded. They are reminders of what lies ahead.