Ballet fanatics like myself generally possess not only worn toe shoes signed by favorite dancers and piles of old theatrical programs, but a whole library on the subject --- from biographies to encyclopedias, criticism to coffee-table books. Ballet novels, however, are rare, and good ones even rarer. Among my favorites are Rumer Godden’s A CANDLE FOR ST. JUDE, Colum McCann’s DANCER (in which he reimagines Nureyev’s life), and a few gems for kids (notably Noel Streatfeild’s marvelous Shoes books).
THE TRUE MEMOIRS OF LITTLE K is Adrienne Sharp’s third foray into ballet-themed fiction; her previous works include a short-story collection, WHITE SWAN, BLACK SWAN, and a novel set in the dance-crazed 1980s, THE SLEEPING BEAUTY. I must confess that I wasn’t thrilled by the first two. Although the balletic details were fun and gossipy, I found the narrative and characters rather melodramatic. But here Sharp explores her fascination with dance through the lens of history, giving us prerevolutionary Russia from the perspective of Mathilde Kschessinska, prima ballerina assoluta at St. Petersburg’s Maryinsky Theatre.
The setting, for a balletomane, is iconic: the wondrous era in which many of today’s classics --- from Swan Lake to Le Corsaire, Don Quixote to Nutcracker --- were created and feats like the Black Swan’s 32 fouettés first accomplished (Kschessinska learned how to do them from the Italian ballerinas who dominated the Russian dance scene at the time). Storied choreographers, composers and impresarios like Petipa, Tchaikovsky and Diaghilev people the pages of this novel, and backstage politicking abounds. In order to sabotage a rival, Kschessinska --- a born diva --- once let live chickens loose on stage!
Kschessinska was a survivor. She escaped revolutionary Russia and wound up in Paris, where she had a school (she taught such ballet luminaries as Alicia Markova, Andre Eglevsky and Margot Fonteyn); in 1971, before her death at 99, she wrote her memoirs. Sharp’s book, based on this autobiography and other historical sources, is written entirely in the aged ballerina’s voice (by turns ambitious, greedy, vain, calculating, tender and romantic). It focuses on her years as a student and then as star of the Imperial Ballet; it merely sketches her life in exile. In the end, THE TRUE MEMOIRS OF LITTLE K isn’t really about ballet as such, though there are some piquant details (for example, performers then wore corsets and wigs on stage --- heaven forbid that they should show their real hair, a private thing --- as well as the lavish jewelry given to them by admirers). It is about a woman caught up in one of the most turbulent political upheavals of the 20th century.
Essentially, it is the story of the Russian revolution viewed from inside the tsarist court, for ballerinas at that time customarily had aristocratic “patrons,” and promotions at the Maryinsky Theatre were clearly ruled by royalty, not solely by artistic directors. Thus, Kschessinska --- who had an intermittent but long-term affair with the man who became the last tsar, Nicholas II --- is able to maintain her preeminence not simply through her talent but by working her powerful connections.
While Sharp evinces a certain fondness for the grandeur and tradition of Old Russia, she makes it clear that the tsarist regime dug its own grave through arrogance, corruption and an unwillingness to make any sort of democratic concessions. Overshadowing the entire novel is the ultimate fate of the tsar and his family (they were sent to Siberia and executed, a grisly event you might remember from popular books and films such as Nicholas and Alexandra and Anastasia). Reading it is a bit like watching a slow-motion train wreck, or a fictionalized version of a term paper: “Causes of the Russian Revolution.”
In the first half of the book, I often felt that Sharp was laboring to use every scrap of her research. The background material tends to crowd and encumber the narrative (besides, it’s hard to believe that a 99-year-old woman would have total recall). Why would Kschessinska describe the wintertime balls given in St. Petersburg, down to descriptions of the floral arrangements and servants’ uniforms? Why would she know or care to mention that 130,000 soldiers were involved in summer maneuvers? Sharp’s accounts of such turning points as the “Bloody Sunday” massacre of 1905 are gripping, but they seem like set-pieces, disconnected from Kschessinska’s intimate recollections.
As THE TRUE MEMOIRS OF LITTLE K proceeds, however, Sharp becomes more successful at integrating history and fiction. At the heart of the book is the love story between “Niki,” as Kschessinska calls the tsar, and “Little K” (his nickname for her). Thus, when he marries the German princess Alexandra, she feels like the “poor girl” of several classical ballet plots (Giselle; La Bayadère) who is thrown over in favor of an aristocratic bride. (She takes her revenge by comparing her figure to the less athletic tsarina’s: “Well, of course, I had not had four children and I was a dancer --- an occupation that preserves the body better than a dip in formaldehyde.”) But Kschessinska isn’t cut out for victimhood. Needing protectors, she attaches herself to Nicholas’s cousins, the Grand Dukes Sergei and Andrei; she even draws the tsar himself back to her bed for a brief coda to their affair and bears a son, Vova (although in the novel the child is supposed to be Nicholas’s, leading to dramatic plot complications, the historical evidence for this assumption is shaky, as she was not exactly a one-man woman).
Kschessinska grows on the reader. Her toughness and strong will come to the fore when she is tested by the chaos of the revolutionary years, and she evolves from a naïve, flirtatious maiden infatuated with celebrity and her royal connections into a world-weary woman honed by tragedy and motherhood. Just as Russia’s character is an ambiguous mix of East and West --- part credulous, earthy peasant; part refined, elegant European --- so is Kschessinska’s, and her acerbic, tell-it-like-it-is voice is Sharp’s finest accomplishment. Here’s my favorite passage: Disparaging the younger generation of Russian dancers, Kschessinska calls Anna Pavlova’s famous solo The Dying Swan “mawkish” and adds smugly, “I’ve outlived her, you know.”
So she had. And you can’t help yelling, “Brava!”
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on October 4, 2011