Sunday June 23, 2019 By: Magda Saleh
Word reached us in Alexandria: the Soviet ballet professor had arrived, and an audition date was announced. Hurry! Hurry to Cairo. Came the day. Excitement and trepidation! My anxious mother carefully braided my long, black hair and pinned it up around my head in a coronet. She arrayed me in my best and prettiest dress. An amazing seamstress, she made all my clothes. How well I remember that favorite confection- a three-tier flounced skirt, with a boat neck top and short puff sleeves, Egyptian fine cotton fabric in a design of red cherries scattered over a white background. Finally, white socks and my patent leather party shoes to complete the outfit. Thus, attired I confidently set out to impress.
All the applicants had been directed to the Opera House, where we were gathered, girls and boys – yes, boys! – groups at first, in the Green Room, situated offstage left. Though not spacious, it doubled as a warm-up and quick-change room for the artists, as well as a post-performance reception area. It was furnished with barre and a large mirror. The wooden floor was dusty and timeworn, the walls dingy. I had my first glimpse of our future teacher, the heralded ballet expert, Mr. Alexei Jukov, former soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet and teacher at the Bolshoi School. He stood among a group of flustered local officials overseeing this unprecedented event, and I remember even then, for a man of medium height and quite ordinary features, in baggy, ill-fitting clothes and socks with sandals, his air of unmistakable authority.
My group stood in a huddle. Our parents had been barred. We eyed one another warily. We were separated by gender and age. An older group was intended for an accelerated program. Nine years – the length of the Russian academic training course at the time – was too long to wait for a first crop of dancers. There were a number of older applicants, some of whom, like myself, had previous ballet training. The sorting over, Mr. Jukov requested though his interpreter that we all remove our clothing, down to our underwear. No bras. What! Seething with indignation at the very thought of such an offense to my feminine modesty – though I was a very underdeveloped fourteen-year old – I clung fiercely to my party dress as the assistants awkwardly strove to wrestle me out of it. By dint of coaxing and insisting, they eventually succeeded. Fuming, I kept my arms crossed over my non-existent bosom and glowered.
We had then to submit to the further affront of an intimate physical examination, during which we were manipulated impersonally like so many rag dolls. First, we were stood in line, arms to our sides. Mr. Jukov stood back, looking us over, eyes narrowed to slits. One by one, the first eliminations took place. He was checking us first for an overall harmony of proportions: head, neck, shoulders, torsos, legs, feet. Then, as he proceeded, more eliminations. We were next made to lie flat on our backs, and draw our legs up till our heels almost touched our behinds. Spine to the floor! No arching! We were asked to let our legs flop outwards. This position, we later learned, was dubbed the “legushka” (frog). It was the test for turnout, so critical to ballet dancers. Some kids’ bent legs, simulating a grand plie in first position, effortlessly rested on the floor on either side – the one hundred and eighty degree ideal! Lucky them. Others’ legs formed a resistant “V” shape, and no amount of gentle pressure could ease them further. Exeunt unhappy rejects. Some, including myself, though found somewhat wanting, were held over. After all, there was not a sizable pool of first-time candidates allowing for picky choices.
In Russia, an examining committee could choose among hundreds, or even exceeding one thousand, applicants a year. Such was the demand for a coveted place in a state ballet school, and the possibility of a secure career as an artist – a privileged breed in the Soviet Union, as in Czarist Russia. Extension and flexibility: stand straight! Give me your leg. Sharply: don’t bend your knee – as the supporting leg buckled. Strange hands holding and immobilizing. Free leg lifted – up up up – ever higher. Almost touch your own nose? Ear? Back of your head? Good. Stay. Tight? No give? Goodbye. Stand straight – again. Arms up straight. Everything straight. A firm arm at your lower back, supporting, hand on chest pressing as you are nudged into a backbend. Deep? You’re OK. Can’t arch easily? Gone.
What next? A close examination of feet. Shape, toes, instep… a pail of water is brought in. One by one, we are picked up bodily and feet are dunked. Walk across the floor. Wet footprints are scrutinized. Do they reveal a flat foot? No good. More depart, crestfallen, some weeping at rejection. The whole setup is becoming thoroughly intimidating. The original group is really winnowed by now. Somewhere along the line, I recall Mr. Jukov commenting about me: “belles jambes.” That was encouraging. How much more? Jumps. He holds his hand above my head. Jump off two feet, and keep jumping till told to cease. Touch my hand with the top of your head. Higher, higher. Fine. Keep her. Others cannot achieve liftoff or even a passable elevation, and are dismissed. Musical ear: someone sits at the piano and starts thumping out a tune. Waltz, march. Walk around in a circle, in time. Clap in time. Switch time and tempi. Keep up, keep up. Some are hopelessly deaf to rhythm, and are dismissed. At last it is over. The dazed surviving group, some thirty–five in all, are thanked. We shall be informed of the results. Later, I learn I have been accepted. Elation! Thus, begins my career as a real ballerina.
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