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When We Danced on Water (HarperCollins, May 2011) 

Teo is writing a letter on heavy paper the color of sand.  He uses a thick pen he does not like; it bleeds dark blue onto the page if left in place for even a second too long, but since it is relatively easy for him to grasp he has little choice.  He has written the date and Dear Margot at the top.  Soon the rest of the page will be filled with his tiny, precise handwriting, perfectly straight row upon perfectly straight row marching across the paper like troops on a march across the desert.  A Polish dictionary lies open at his side.   

There was a long period of time, maybe sixty years depending on how you figure it, with one or two significant exceptions, that Teo did not think about his early years as a dancer, when every minute in the studio brought the promise of a great career, a career of the most immense dimensions imaginable.  At first, during the war, he forced himself to forget how close he had come, realizing that to save himself, his sanity, he would need to distance himself from those cruel memories.  Then forgetfulness became habit, or perhaps it was the fact that his life was busy, filled to the last second with teaching and choreographing and events and worries so that when he tumbled into bed each evening for four hours of restorative slumber he was so spent that he could barely make it through even a few pages of the ballet journals that piled up on the nightstand; certainly there was no time for reflection, for reminiscing, for wondering how different things would have been without a war.  

So now, as he approaches his eighty-fifth birthday, he is surprised to discover himself visiting the past more and more.  There he is, dancing with that charming partner of his, a freckle-faced girl who stayed her whole life at the Royal Danish Ballet, all the way into retirement; he cannot recall her name, only that her own mother, an Austrian, had been a dancer in Vienna.  There he is, too, lifting his dear Sofie high in the air on a warm summer evening, her thin skirt fluttering in his face.  There he is again during his first winter in Copenhagen, performing in The Nutcracker along with the whole student body of the ballet school on the old stage at the Royal Theater.  And here he is in a Bournonville ballet, The Konservatoriet, on stage at the Berlin Staatsoper on a beautiful, ominous Friday evening in 1939, so young and unaware.  It is this dance he visits most often now, after having expunged it, he thought, from his memory over half a century ago.  

He can hum the music in his old man’s quivering voice, but he prefers it in his head, where it lives on in violins and reedy winds.  If he imagines it in rehearsal he can remember every step of his three-minute solo as if he had danced it only yesterday, but he knows, too, that one time, on stage in Berlin, he had not danced it as he had learned it; this much he knows but cannot recreate, could not recreate it even a moment after he had finished dancing it.  While dancing he had felt blind to the stage and audience, deaf to the music.  He had let his body do what it needed to do, free to expand and contract in space, to soar and spin.  So, accordingly, when he tries to remember the way he danced it on stage, he cannot hear the music or feel his feet or get a sense of the audience.  He is embryonic, momentarily cut off from the world around him.  The three most important minutes of his life, the ones that determined his fate and future, are the three to which he cannot gain access, ever.

Dear Margot,

Your last letter amused us greatly.  Nelly and I agreed that your eye for the smallest detail brings a priceless richness and humor to your stories.  We could not help but admire the mice of the convent for their tenacity and sheer cleverness, but woe to the hapless exterminator!  And the postulant with such notions of God and the world, how lively you made her questions sound!  We could picture the young woman in question so clearly and accurately.  Please do continue to regale us with even the tiniest details of your life.

We are underoccupied here, or at least I am underoccupied so causing our Nelly to work harder than ever.  I still spend several days a week in the studio – in fact, my time there has been unusually productive lately, as the Tel Aviv Municipality has commissioned a restaging of one of my ballets and I am serving as an advisor – but this ‘extra’ work causes Nelly to worry about me incessantly, can you imagine?  Turning eighty-five is not something I am looking forward to, in spite of all your exhortations to the contrary, but I suppose the alternative is still worse…

His hand aches too much to continue.  With difficulty he caps the pen and places it next to the paper, planning to finish the letter in the late afternoon or perhaps even tomorrow.  What does it matter?  His news will not change, Margot will still be where she is another day and then another after that and so on until she dies; so what is the hurry?

His mind flits and wanders.  To a snippet of ballet, an appointment later in the week, his mother’s face.  There is no longer any logic to the meanderings of his mind’s eye.  It crosses decades and continents without pause.  Still, he is surprised when it settles on the girl from the coffee shop.  Vivi: this name he can recall.  That look on her face – the shock, the dismay, the mortification – comes to him in intimate detail.  What had possessed him to speak so frankly and upset her?      

There they are again, the first two chords of his solo.  He is dancing it in the old Bournonville studio at the top of the Royal Theater, oblivious to the noise of the busy square below him.  The half-moon windows near the floor remind him of the jellied candies covered with sugar that he and his mother would buy from a street vendor just outside the Saski Park in Warsaw.  The bust of Auguste Bournonville looks down at him as he poses to begin: tendu croisé, arms in third position.

They are dancing the Pas d’Ecole.  A Danish boy, Niels, has finished partnering the andante maestoso and first allegretto with that half-Austrian girl – what is her name? – who is now dancing a short andante solo.  Teo will dance the second allegretto with her, moving her deftly to the corps de ballet posed along the back wall in preparation for his own solo, the moderato and final allegretto. 

The music is fast and frilly.  His dancing, too, is frilly, but still it sparkles.  If only he had danced it thus, in Berlin.  Pirouette, pirouette, chassé, grand jeté.  Repeat to the left.  A series of grand jetés to the back of the stage, where he brushes up against clusters of his fellow dancers, knocking into them if he overshoots.  A skipping run so fast he can feel the breeze he is making.  High, turning leaps ending in arabesques.  A masculine dance full of height and sharp lines, the role that of a student at the Paris Conservatory dancing to impress his teachers. 

And impress them he does, far beyond what is prudent. 

Evan Fallenberg




© From When We Danced on Water, © 2011 by Evan Fallenberg; all rights reserved.