It was at the conservatory in Prague where we first met. Johan had come from Stockholm at ten years old, shy as a skittish cat with his blue eyes hidden every time he lowered his chin. On his first day to class he stood at the end of the barre next to the stack of wooden chairs kept there for when visitors came to watch. He was shorter than the rest of us boys, and even some of the girls, so you can imagine how the others teased him. But it was Alina who was the first to stand behind him. Every time we’d finish a tendu combination, she’d quickly turn around so he’d have to look at her, which is how she softened him—by looking at him in that wry way of hers that seemed flirtatious.
Between classes we’d sit by the exit staircase at the side of the building where the tall windows were, and she’d tell us all about how Johan never failed to remember the combinations. At that hour so early in the morning, at that age—we began pliés at nine—it was common to make mistakes. Our ballet mistress, Madame Provinska, was in her seventies back then and would hardly demonstrate what to do. She announced the barre combinations, often sitting in a chair too small for her at the front of the room. She wore a black dress and a black shawl and her only color was the red lipstick applied to her thin lips. With her black shoes that had wooden heels she’d walk around the room during an exercise and you could hear her coming—cluck, cluck, cluck. All of us would raise our shoulders in fear, because if a knee was bent or a wrist lazily bent, she’d slap it with a thin bamboo stick.
Between combinations, in the middle of her explanations on grand plié or the importance of épaulement, if you caught sight of a bird flying past the window you’d miss the combination. Then a sudden panic would come over you, and between trying to figure out what the steps were and what the por de bras might be, and the pianist rushing to begin after she clapped her hands, there was only enough time to rest your hand on the barre and begin.
“But,” Alina said, “Johan does it perfectly every time. And all I have to do is follow him. Then, when we turn around I get embarrassed because I’m the one who makes mistakes, and I’m sure he’s laughing at me.”
“But he doesn’t smile, he’s so serious,” Oskar said.
“That’s not true,” she said. “I’ve seen him. You have to give him another week, give him some time.”
This was one of her qualities, to invite the ones we felt curious about into our group. Most of the other students were from Prague and were attending the conservatory to acquire etiquette, posture and good breeding. Johan was a foreigner and that’s why we liked him, but also because he was congenial and dedicated. Alina, Oskar and I were Czechoslovakians—what we called ourselves before becoming Czech.
How I came to it, I really can’t say. Perhaps because I loved music but couldn’t play an instrument well enough to entertain a dog. My mother mentioned many times how, when I played the piano, even our Spitz would leave the room or try to cover her eyes with her paws. I played the right keys and on the right tempo, but when I’d look up after playing something I’d see bored faces from whoever was listening. It was clear to me then, as it would be to anyone, that I lacked talent. No matter how much I loved music I couldn’t reverse the irrevocable truth that it didn’t love me back, no matter how hard I tried.
During our time at the conservatory we were tested every year in piano, classical folklore, art history, and ballet. I received good marks in all subjects, but it was ballet my professors urged me to pursue. They said it had a liking towards me, because of my ‘facility’. I was flexible and could turn out my legs a perfect 180 degrees. The coordination in my legs to get ballon was impressive and much desired in male dancers. So after I met Oskar and Alina—who’d been in the conservatory before I arrived, when I was eight, and had wanted to be dancers from the moment I met them—they took a liking toward me, perhaps because of my ‘facility’. I was lucky for that because once they accepted me I was a member in their world of daydreams, in their world of dancing and music that existed even outside of the conservatory. With them, I spent all day listening to the music I liked, Janacek, Hayden, Bach, Dvorak, and so there was no reason to stop taking ballet classes. When it was time to choose a discipline as our major focus when we turned twelve, it was easy to decide. I chose music and I chose my friends.
Oskar and Alina had been there since they were six and had started the same year. He had wanted to be a gymnast in one of those German circuses that came to Prague every summer. An aerialist. A tumbler. A ringmaster even. He was fascinated with the flame swallowers and the wild animals they’d import from African countries. When we were teenagers, he’d drag Alina, Johan and me to it every day it was in town, and even though the thrill was gone after a few days, Oskar’s enthusiasm made it worthwhile: telling us his ideas of how he wanted to choreograph; how he wanted to find a way to choreograph a circus. “Isn’t an aerialist a dancer?” he’d ask us. “Aren’t we circus performers?” he’d say, fascinated with it all.
Johan and I were content with the coin slots that would treat us to small colored marbles if we answered a question correctly. We’d buy cotton candy and it’d stick over our faces and around our fingers. We’d attach some underneath our chins and along our jaws to seem like old men, then joke with Oskar and Alina, sticking our tongues out and poking them in the ribs. But Alina would scoff at us in a way that made us feel immature, but still with a flirtatious smile, because it was she who was attentive when Oskar shared his choreographic ideas. Simply by the way she looked at him, she encouraged the pictures he described. Even back then, when none of us had romantic interests, it was obvious they’d end up together; they were inseparable. And even if the years that followed might dim something between them, they would never be able to live without each other. They were partners when it came to dancing and they spent hours talking about it and watching it. Sometimes it seemed they loved it so much it was as though it were a competition between them: Who would sacrifice more? Who would dedicate themselves more than the other? But whatever the answer, neither of them wanted to leave the other behind.
As we got older and us boys passed our growth spurts—Johan was no longer as short as he was—Oskar began asking us to stay in the studio during lunch so he could practice some of his choreographic ideas. Johan and I would sometimes attend, but Alina would always stay behind. When all of us were in the room we’d work on a trio, sometimes a duet. But when it was just Alina, Oskar would choreograph solos on her, and if not a solo then a duet between them.
When we were fifteen Oskar and I shared a room in the dormitories on the top floor of the conservatory. He’d sometimes play a record repeatedly, listening to the opening measures until I’d have to tell him to stop; otherwise, I wouldn’t get any sleep. “Enough already, enough of the dancing.” He’d shut off the gramophone, but then in the dark I’d hear him hum the melody over and over again. The following day during lunch I’d see the choreography that went along with that melody, and Alina would be dancing it.
To see her was a wonder. There’d be dark spots under her arms that turned her pink leotard red, and from two feet away you could smell her sour tights. But not a single drop of perspiration ever fell from her forehead. She’d sweat everywhere on her body except her face, and during short breaks, she’d walk to the side of the room and sip from a container filled with juice—her only lunch—then dance Oskar’s choreography as many times as he asked. She had more stamina and more determination then the rest of us, that’s for sure. If it were me, I would’ve asked for a five-minute break or asked if I could mark through the movement instead of doing it full-out every time. But it was as though it never crossed her mind. She believed that giving only 50% of herself would’ve committed a disloyalty to the work; and to her, it wasn’t just physical; it was emotional, it was everything.
Not long before we were meant to graduate Gerard arrived. The girls in the studio would huddle in corners and whisper things about him, his looks, his build, his green eyes and long nose. He had trained at the ballet school in Paris and arrived in Prague when he was sixteen. When he spoke, his accent was so thick you could hear someone snickering nearby, not out of ridicule but because they thought it was charming. And it was charming, I’ll admit. He was indeed handsome, practically a man ready for the stage. Not only did he have good looks either, but he had an amazing training. The day we ended class with the girls doing 32 fouettés and the men doing a la seconde turns, besides keeping his leg out to the side during the entire revolution and keeping the line of his leg completely straight, Gerard ended with seven pirouettes in fourth position with his right arm in fifth—which had not been the way to end the combination. That kind of magnificence had only been seen onstage, when the Royal Ballet had come to Prague. But there it was in front of us, and of course all the girls applauded. The instructor didn’t say a word—what could she say? Johan nodded, raised his eyebrows in disbelief, and Oskar and Alina seemed absolutely pleased. As for myself, I was speechless. He was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. He was clearly the most talented, and we kept our distance from him at first because we wanted to get a sense of his character. With that kind of talent how could he not know how good he was? And if he knew it, would there be space for his arrogance in our circle of friendship? But besides his background and irrefutable technique, for whatever reason, he treated us kindly, as though he were just like anyone else. Among all the students at the conservatory we were the ones he chose to be friends with. Of course we didn’t mind. We felt privileged, especially Oskar, who’d later use him in his choreography.
* * *
We spent all day taking classes, and we took them seriously—because we shared the hope of becoming professionals. Before our eleven o’clock curfew, if the bars didn’t kick us out for how young we looked, though we were of age, we’d drink beer and be merry and dance to American music the way we couldn’t in the studio. That was a big deal back then being that we had lived all our lives—especially Oskar, Alina and I—in a communist country. But during that spring at the hands of Dubcek, who had taken over Czechoslovakia at the start of that year in 1968, he began to liberalize the Communist regime. And to us it meant the freedom of expression. We listened to rock-and-roll and daydreamed about a Prague where contemporary art was possible, and it motivated us in way that made us anxious to get out and begin our professional lives.
This mattered most to Oskar, because his choreographic ambitions were not in classical tradition. Immediately, he had the idea to ask for the faculty’s permission to choreograph a contemporary ballet for the end-of-year program of our graduating year. He would use all of us, four boys and a girl, and we’d rehearse on our own time and make all the arrangements. We were in the studio on the fourth floor when he rushed in after speaking to them, and you would’ve thought they’d given him a great sum of money. “They said maybe!” he said. “Maybe!”
We cheered, of course we did. It meant we might possibly perform something besides the classical repertoire already scheduled. We hugged and jumped as though we were going to a resort in the mountains and we were ten years old. But it was Alina who got into position in the middle of the studio and wiped her cheeks. She stood there without being told and was ready to begin.
During the end of that year the artistic director of Hamburg Ballet Bernard Barth came to visit the conservatory. In trying to show-off his students, the director Julius Clementis invited Bernard to see a rehearsal of Oskar’s quintette that he was choreographing on us. The piece was set to Janacek, and it had been the first time Oskar had decided to use all of us, including himself. Most of the choreography was lifting Alina above over our heads, passing her from one to the other so that she never touched the ground. Oskar wanted it to seem as though she were flying, like some hawk or eagle soaring through the air while trumpets in the music blared.
The day Julius and Barth walked into the studio—we had been warned of their visit—it felt as though we were auditioning for something. Hamburg Ballet had been known for performing contemporary ballets and here was a chance not only for Oskar to present his work but for us to present ourselves. If I remember correctly, it went rather smoothly. And no one, back then, ever clapped when we finished a combination or a variation in the studio. But after Oskar took the needle off the gramophone, and we stood there in the middle of the room, Bernard Barth clapped. He thanked us, then left the room with Julius.
Three days later Oskar was called into the offices and was told that Quintette—what he’d named the ballet—would be included in the Spring Program the following year as part of our graduation.
But that summer amidst rock-n-roll music and the ambition to begin our lives, the Soviets came, and everything changed.
It was August when the tanks arrived.
We had gotten together after spending weeks with our families on vacation and were in the middle of rehearsing Quintette. No one was in the conservatory because classes hadn’t started yet, but Oskar had a key because he’d asked for one so that we could rehearse during the summer break
At first, we might’ve not heard the horns from the bridge coming into the city. The music we danced to had trumpets in it and it disguised the sounds coming from outside the window. But we heard a sound of a horn that was slightly different, and then another. We were in the middle of a lift with Alina above our heads and from outside the window we heard someone screaming from the street, “The Soviets are here!” We put her down and ran to the window and looked out to the river. A line of ten tanks lit with white flashlights was crossing into the city over the Charles Bridge. Soldiers marched alongside them.
During the weeks preceding that night, as dancers we were in our own world. We paid little attention to what the Soviets might do in reaction to what was happening in Prague. All we cared about was our future, of graduating and stepping out into the world. We heard there’d been opposition, but I don’t think any one of us expected an invasion. There’d been rock-n-roll on the streets and the newspaper Literarni had been printed all over the Europe. Everyone seemed perfectly happy about it. Writers were writing whatever they wanted; musicians were composing whatever they wanted; and there was a feeling that we could be whatever we wanted. We were stunned at the sight of those lights on the bridge, so late; it was night out. Janacek’s trumpets blared on the gramophone.
“Let’s get out of here,” Gerard said. “If they’re going to come in and put things back to the way they were, then let’s go to Hamburg.”
“But why?” Johan asked. “We don’t have to go anywhere. We don’t know what they want.”
“Barth likes us,” Gerard said. “You could tell when he came to see us. And we’re ready, aren’t we? What are we waiting for? Why wait another year? We’re going to have to leave at some point.” He said it with such enthusiasm that it was hard not to imagine the possibility.
Perhaps it was fear, or the excitement that was ignited from under that fear, of not knowing what would happen if we crossed that bridge and went after a future we’d been working towards, that made us consider his proposition. When a dream like that comes to you so quickly, so abruptly, and you have no time to understand the tug of separation you begin to feel for your parents and your home, the tug you’ve always known would come, you have to make a decision, and there is no way to justify your decision.
As we stood there, quiet and thinking, we sensed between us that if we went through with it, if we decided yes, then we’d be fine because none of us would be left alone. Not even Johan, who simply nodded after we all agreed the way he would when he turned shy. Out of all of us, he was the one who continued to live at home with his parents and two younger sisters. I could see it all over his face, but Gerard was right. If not then, it would’ve come in a year’s time. We grabbed our bags and went to the dormitories and packed our things.
Downstairs, there was a crowd of people protesting on the street as the soldiers passed. Those who stood before the soldiers and yelled in their faces were beaten. We heard gunshots from down the block and people hollering to the soldiers to go back to where they came from. Every direction we walked in was full of people protesting and screaming. There was such defiance in the air from both sides that you couldn’t tell who would win, and it was dark, very dark. We pushed through the crowds to the Charles Bridge, the bridge I had crossed so many times when I was younger before I shared a dormitory with Oskar. When I think of it now, that night and the colors that surrounded us, all I remember is a sea of brown and gray. Though it was August people were wearing coats and hats, all the same shades of one of the saddest days in Prague.
The war had long been over, and we couldn’t imagine there’d still be remnants of anti-Semitic bigotry. But perhaps memory is playing a trick on me. Perhaps they stopped us not because of the hamsa Alina had tied to her bag, but because it seemed we were running towards them. It seemed as though we were about to attack them, but all we intended to do was to run past them.
A group of soldiers led by a tall Polish officer pushed us with batons and told us we couldn’t leave. We saw people on the other side of the river and it didn’t make sense why they wouldn’t let us pass. Some of the protesters were shouting that Dubcek had made an announcement: We should resist! We should not bow down to the oppression! But civilians were beaten unconscious if they fought back, and who was there to protect them? We thought of walking to another bridge, but there were so many people and commotion we decided to wait it out and see if things would calm. We didn’t even think of returning to the conservatory.
The following day was passed waiting in the streets. Johan and I wanted to call our parents but Oskar stopped us. He reminded us how soft we’d become if we heard their voices and their pleas for us to come home.
“But we should let them know,” Johan insisted. There was no harm in letting them know, and so what we decided was to go back to the conservatory and write a note to Julius. We had the key. And in entering the building, there was a ghost of some kind that followed us and made the rooms no longer comfortable. In the letter, we asked him to contact our parents as soon as possible. We were going to Hamburg.
On that day, once the sky began to darken, we tried to pass again over the Charles Bridge, but two tanks were left at the entrance under the Old Town Tower with soldiers guarding it. The Polish officer who had stopped us before was in charge. When he saw us he called out, “Jews!”
Though he didn’t mean anything by it, I’m sure, Johan turned toward us—he was the fairest one out of all of us. Alina’s mother was Jewish, but I couldn’t recall her ever mentioning how faithful she was. In truth, none of us were religious. The hamsa on her bag might’ve been a gift from her grandmother. To this day, I don’t know why she had it.
“We just want to pass,” Oskar told him, stiff as stone and holding Alina’s hand.
The officer turned his back and nodded to his soldiers, then turned and looked at Alina. At her knees, pale and exposed. Civilians were on the street, all around us, but their voices had calmed in front of the soldiers pacing the streets.
“You want to pass?” the officer said, and bit his lower lip. He grabbed Alina by the elbow and pulled her towards him, then aimed a pistol to Oskar’s face.
“I’ll let you pass,” he said. “But there’s a price.”
Standing behind Oskar all we could see was the eye of the barrel and Alina’s face looking back at us. The officer pressed the pistol to Oskar’s forehead when he wouldn’t let go of Alina’s hand, and shouted, “LET GO! Or I’ll shoot you all.”
Gerard and I stepped forward to grab her, but just as we moved other officers stepped in and pinned us against the wall under the tower. Alina glanced at us when two soldiers grabbed her and took her away, and to this day I don’t know what they were trying to say. Oskar began screaming, “Wait! You can’t! What are you doing? Where are you taking her?” — until she disappeared behind the third tank on the bridge. One of the soldiers filled Oskar’s mouth with the end of a gun to shut him up, and protestors on the street, other civilians, had hardly even noticed because they were either shouting themselves or exhausted from the hours of tension they had already endured.
The steel end of the rifle pushing against my chest is what I remember as I tried to listen for her, as we all did. None of us said a word, and nothing but silence came from behind the tank.
* * *
She had always worn her long hair in a bun, even when she wasn’t dancing. Out in public it was a way for her to make clear to anyone who passed that she was a ballerina. It wasn’t a low bun, but a bun that looked as though it were a small crown on the top of her head.
From behind the third tank she came walking out alone, looking at her feet. Half her hair was still pinned while the rest of it fell down her shoulders. None of us called out to her, not even Oskar, but she found us as though she could sense us merely by the memory of senses. She walked with a limp and reached for her suitcase next to Oskar. The soldiers lowered their rifles and stepped behind us, then pushed us toward the bridge.
As we walked I noticed something below us: a crowd of students yelling near a group from the Warsaw Pact who were guarding someone. “DO IT!” the students yelled. “DO IT ALREADY!” It wasn’t until we stepped up the ramp to cross the bridge that I noticed someone had drenched himself in gasoline and was threatening to light himself on fire.
We walked in single file holding tight the handles of our suitcases. For all we knew we could’ve been walking towards our deaths. And we could’ve fought back, if we would’ve dared, but in the face of that chaos and what had happened we were somehow stunned with an embarrassing cowardice, staring at the cobblestone path.
Alina walked in front of us with Oskar behind her. I followed, and Johan and Gerard were behind me. We walked along the edge of the bridge afraid there might be another soldier waiting for us behind a given tank, but all we saw were a few of them snickering, leaning against the tanks and taking sips from silver flasks, biting mouthfuls of red potatoes. It wasn’t until we reached the other side of the river that they turned their backs to us.
Afraid to say a word, we followed Alina who continued walking toward Malostranksa Station. She did not walk to the entrance, but instead, walked to the bathroom on the side of the building, a private bathroom that had a line of people curled around the corner. We waited there, and she stood looking straight ahead, waiting for her turn. When she stepped inside, Johan, Gerard and I guarded the door while Oskar faced it. He held his fist up to it as though he was about to knock, but he didn’t. When someone in line complained that she was taking too long, we pushed them back. We stood there trying to protect at least that space for her. Now, now we guarded her.
When she walked out her hair was in a bun again. She’d buttoned her shirt and tucked it in. The skirt that had been ruined by a stain at the hem had been turned inside out. Still with a limp as though she had something sharp in her shoe, she walked past us and toward the train station, then stopped at the bar near the entrance doors. She turned and looked to me, at no one else but me, and said, “Get the tickets.” And I did, along with Johan. When we returned there were three empty glasses in front of her at the bar. She looked at her ticket and walked to the gate and it was she who led us, it was she who took us to the platform.
On the train there was a physical calm that came with our eyes closed, though our minds raced with thoughts of who we were, and our family, our mothers, I am sure, but at least there was calm. We found a compartment with a family taking three young and quiet children; we squeezed into it. The mother sat by the window and rocked forward and back with a newborn in her arms. She stared outside as the train rolled out of the station and Prague disappeared behind us. No one said a word, which was strange, I remember, because in the compartments next to us, men argued about the invasion and what they thought would happen next. They weren’t as loud as the protestors we’d heard in the streets, but still, their voices kept us imprisoned with the reality of what had happened. We felt the wheels of the train beneath our seats, which eventually lulled us, and before I closed my eyes, I leaned out of my seat to check on Alina who was sitting by the window opposite the mother. It seemed as though her eyes were frozen, staring at the baby in front of her, and she didn’t turn to me.
* * *
In the morning we arrived in Hamburg, having not said a word since we had boarded at Malostranksa. Gerard asked an attendant standing on the platform how to get to the theater, since he was the only one who knew German. His brisk movements and authoritative tone impressed me, since I could not imagine speaking. When he replied to the attendant’s questions and we heard him say Prague, and because the news of the invasion by the next morning had spread throughout Europe, there was sympathy in the attendant’s eyes as he turned and looked at us. None of us held each other; none of us held on to anything but our suitcases. Every time Oskar lifted his arm to Alina she’d flinch or step away from him.
“We need to get to the National Theater,” Gerard told the attendant. “We’re dancers for Benjamin Barth.”
Immediately, the attendant found a vehicle and the driver took us directly to the center. From there all I remember is stepping inside Benjamin Barth’s office and him looking at us, with his glasses perched on the edge of his nose as he had just finished writing something on a slip of paper. At the sight of our suitcases he understood. He embraced us with a hand behind our heads and gave each of us a kiss on the forehead. But when he approached Alina, she shuddered. She extended her hand to his chest to keep him from getting any closer, and as he stopped, we heard her begin to weep.
It was good for us to dance again and to lose ourselves in the discipline of ballet. In fact, it might’ve been that first day when we stepped into the studio and took company class that we felt lucky, blessed even. There we were, what we’d set out to do—and what came was a sense of gratitude.
Within a few months, Gerard began dancing soloist roles, and the rest of us were members of the corps de ballet. During that time, we waited—I waited—for Alina to start speaking again, which she did, but after days and months spent losing herself in the work, as though it were through dancing she could find recovery. In the moments we were alone together, going to the canteen to get a snack or waiting for a rehearsal to begin outside a studio, I waited for the right opportunity to ask her if she was alright. For a long time I thought that moment would come, when she’d open up to me. But the few times I tried to mention what had happened, before I could even ask, as though she could feel the question rising inside of me, she’d look at me in a certain way and change the subject. After awhile, I stopped waiting for the chance and no longer tried.
In our third year Barth asked Oskar to choreograph, originally asking him for Quintette, the piece he had seen us rehearse in Prague that summer he came to visit us. But Oskar decided to do something different, and instead of using us he used other dancers in the company. We didn’t take that as an insult but as an indication that we inspired memories he’d rather forget. And secretly, we were pleased that he didn’t choose us. At least I was.
Alina, however, was in the ballet. In fact, she was in every one of his ballets that he choreographed afterward—the lead soloist in every one. And as Barth’s confidence in Oskar grew, and the reviews encouraged more commissions, Oskar took the work more seriously, rehearsing for longer periods and often keeping the dancers until eight in the evening every night of the week. He became resident choreographer, and the style of the company changed because of him. With his ballets, along with the classical repertoire, we toured London and Paris, the United States and Australia. And during that time we remained close. Johan, Gerard and I never resented the fact that we were never included in Oskar’s choreographic success. Even Gerard, who was cast in principal roles all the time, Romeo and Don Quixote, wasn’t offended; if he was, he never showed it.
What had happened in Prague was a private matter, something we had put away and what Alina had clearly decided to keep to herself. She returned to what she enjoyed doing and was happy for Oskar, happy it had been worthwhile. She danced for him passionately for as long as her body allowed. They returned to revel in the relationship they had at the conservatory, and sometimes, we’d sit in on rehearsal and watch them work together. After she’d dance a movement she’d look at him and wait for his acknowledgment, or his criticism, secretly hoping for a criticism, I’m sure, so she’d have to do the movement again. She liked doing things over and over again, as though the act of repeating things gave her a sense of calm.
But when he was hard on her, when he gave her what she seemed to want and told her she wasn’t completing the movement correctly, that she had to be more dynamic, project something besides beauty because he’d gotten sick and tired of it and he wanted something else from her—“It’s still not working,” he’d say. “Again!”—she’d rub her thighs on the verge of collapsing and we’d want him to let her be, to stop. Her body would sometimes give out in the middle of a ballet, and he’d throw his hands up. “Come on!” he’d yell. We hated him in those moments, hated seeing him treat her that way, hated seeing her not resist or speak up for herself. And if we tried to defend her he’d tell us to leave the room, which we did because it wasn’t our place to interfere with their work. Later, at a bar or restaurant, they’d meet us for dinner and Alina would be close to him, clinging to his arm.
When it was time to perform Alina would always dance beautifully, so beautifully it was as though she had abandoned herself to some other existence that gave her a sense of dignity, a place where no one could touch her. And there, she moved with grace yet had the technical instincts of a beast, which surprised us—the surprise of an unexpected move. Sometimes, when the lights caught her at a certain angle, from the wings we could see her make-up streaked with tears, and we all questioned whether she was crying because of how much she loved dancing, the safety she felt within it, or if she cried because she was reminded of what had happened to her. There was a part of her that had been taken from her, and it was through her dancing she tried to speak to us about it.
* * *
In 1989, socialism fell under Gorbachev’s rule in Prague, and The Hamburg Ballet was asked to perform an original ballet commissioned especially for the Opera House that would celebrate the liberation of contemporary arts. Twenty years had passed since the invasion, and miraculously, we were all still dancing. Oskar, being from Prague, was asked to choreograph. This time, he used everyone in the company. He chose music by none other than one of his favorites, Janacek, and the piece came with a virtuosic end. He ended the ballet with all the dancers crossing the stage in grand jetés, one after another, and when we performed it, more than half of the audience literally stood up on their seats and threw their programs in the air. Here was a Czech choreography set to Czech music, music that had been composed during Prague Spring, and by the end we couldn’t even hear the music because of all the applause. It was not only a premiere but a historical moment for Prague. If Oskar had not already been given a promising future by that point, that performance laid out for him the certainty of a future company.
It wasn’t surprising then that four years later, he took over Benjamin Barth’s position as Artistic Director of The Hamburg Ballet.
* * *
After so many years of dancing our bodies began to feel the consequence. The joy of movement had run its course.
One year before he retired, Gerard joined the Paris Opera Ballet as a Premier Danseur because he wanted to go back home to his own country. Johan, too, left Germany because he had fallen in love with someone named Mika in Stockholm, who he’d gotten to know during his visits home over the years. And with her, he raised a family and taught ballet at the academy there. Soon after him, I followed, not to Stockholm but to Prague. I wanted a simpler life, and I wanted to teach. The conservatory offered me a job teaching music appreciation, not even ballet, and I accepted immediately. My mother and father were older now, and I wanted to take care of them in their old age, being their only son.
Before I left, Oskar and Alina’s relationship had slowly evolved into something else. Though they never married they lived together, but she was no longer the prize he once held. As his popularity grew as a choreographer and director and younger dancers were available to him, offering their talent as much as she had, he couldn’t resist them. Not in the studio, nor in private. This was no secret among the gossip in the company, yet it was something we all grew accustomed to dismissing if it bothered us, especially Alina. He began using her less and less in his work, and her stamina began to weaken. Her technical ability faltered. She couldn’t endure rehearsals that would last for hours at a time. She began smoking and drinking too much, and her face began to show age.
I remember one night at a gala reception after a performance neither of us had danced in. It was a few days before I was scheduled to move back to Prague. She was drunk on too much whiskey and champagne, but she clung to me in a way she never had. She had never been a disgraceful drunk, not that I can remember, but that night she smiled at me in a frightening way, as though for the first time she wanted to ask me something but wouldn’t dare say the words. She threw her arms around me and I had to turn my head because of her terrible breath. Oskar was speaking to members of the artistic board, in another room. She kissed me and stuck her tongue down my throat, then asked me to hold her, tightly. And I did, because I loved her. But it was the strangest feeling—wanting to help her yet wanting to leave her alone. “Why don’t you just come with me?” I whispered. She pushed me away and shook her head.
“This is where I belong,” she said, drunkenly and foolishly. “This has always been where I belong. You should stay.” She pushed my chest and looked at me. “You should stay.”
I rocked her back and worth and she repeated those words, but three days later I took a train to my home country.
* * *
I don’t know what their lives were like after I left, and the five of us rarely ever came together again the way we used to when we were in the company, before Oskar had gotten famous. We called each other sometimes, wrote letters, but things changed; life continued and years passed. We were never together the way we used to be in the hallways of the conservatory during lunch or before class, and it was something I missed as I built my simple life as a music professor in Prague.
We all received the same letter from Oskar, I’m sure, and I suspect we all dropped it when we found out Alina had died. He didn’t offer too many details other than that she’d died of ovarian cancer. It happened very quickly from the time the doctor gave her the first diagnosis, the letter said. She did not want to see anyone, and she begged him not to tell. For a time, they thought she’d survive. But perhaps after so much dancing, he wrote, she was exhausted. She’d been buried in Hamburg, where they both had stayed after we left, but he wanted to ask us for the most ridiculous favor. That’s how he put it: Ridiculous. And it was, in some respect. We were nearly sixty years of age and hadn’t danced in over twenty years. Johan had two children, one boy and one girl. The boy, Alexander, had gotten married and was already a father of two young girls. Gerard had been married twice, and was single again, flaunting his money to young ballerinas who adored him for the stories he told. I never married. I enjoyed flirting with the boys that passed through the conservatory, I admit, but it was harmless, I never slept with them or abused my position. I merely watched them through the windows of the ballet studio and blushed when they asked me why I wouldn’t teach a men’s class. I had many friends whom I spent most of my afternoons with, and they had children whom I’d sometimes look after. My mother died when I was fifty-three, and my father lasted only three years after her. Orphaned, I thought of myself as old. I’m sure we all did. And I regret that I never took a serious lover. So yes, Oskar’s favor might’ve seemed ridiculous at a time when all of us had been tired from the episodes life had given us.
Oskar asked us to come to Hamburg because he wanted to choreograph a ballet for all four of us and perform it for the Queen of Holland who had been invited for a special ceremony to celebrate the arts in Germany. As a longtime friend, he wrote, I’d love to see you. I’d like to do this for Alina. Then, of course, how could we say no? Later, I’d exchange stories with Gerard and Johan and find out that all of us, as a reflex after reading his letter, grabbed a slip of paper and an envelope and wrote: Of course. It wasn’t merely an excuse to step out of our lives, but a chance to return to the place where we’d come from.
Oskar organized the travel arrangements and we were all to stay with him in his home, for three months, in the spring—enough time to put the piece together and premiere it at the start of the summer. We all replied quickly, but he hadn’t explained what he wanted us to do. Just the thought of a grande plié or an arabesque brought on a sharp pain. How in the world would we dance?
* * *
I was the last to arrive. Oskar—tall and thin as ever, with only a bit of gray above his ears—opened his front door and hugged me without saying a word, until finally he whispered, “How long? I’m happy you came.”
I was so nervous I don’t remember what he might’ve said after that. In the hallway, there were posters in glass cases along the wall, advertisements for the Fall Season, Spring Season, Summer Season, Gala Season of various years. Everywhere I looked there was company memorabilia. I hadn’t seen Oskar in over twenty years. And what a shame it’d been, I thought. Because there was a time when we thought our friendship would last forever no matter what kind of fame befell him.
A few years earlier, the company had traveled to Prague to perform—Alina was still alive—and I had written to them telling them that I’d wait for them after the performance near the stage door. But even after the crowds had gotten autographs from the dancers in the company, there was hardly anyone left save for the stage technicians coming out on their way to a bar. When I didn’t see them I walked home. A month later, after they’d left Prague, I received a letter from him mentioning that it was a difficult time, and he was extremely busy. He was deeply sorry. But I can’t say I believed him. I could only imagine how much fame and responsibility had changed him.
Gerard and Johan were sitting in the front room of Oskar’s four-flat home, their coats draped over their thighs, drinking wine. Johan’s cheeks were pink, and with his new haircut—he’d shaved it all off—he looked incredibly well. Almost exactly the same. Gerard had gained weight and grown his hair, but because of the low-hanging skin under his chin, age had made an obvious mark on him.
“Tomas!” they both called when they saw me, and as I walked towards them: “My god! What’s with the limp?”
“The train,” I said. “My hips freeze up when I sit for too long.”
We hugged each other and shook each other’s shoulders, repeating, “How long? How long has it been?” Whether it was melancholia or joy we shared tears at the realization of how much time had passed.
The apple wine helped to calm the nerves. Oskar brought out another bottle, which made us hungry, and so we walked to the kitchen and sat at a long wooden table. Johan prepared an arugula salad, Oskar and Gerard grilled some chicken over the stove. I sat and watched them, my friends, and waited to hear about Alina, wondering if our nerves would settle enough so that Oskar could mention her.
We spoke of Gerard’s ex-wives, and Johan’s family, and the ballet company. My students, my simple life in Prague. And after we were full, and less dizzy than before, though we continued to drink, Oskar told us about the ballet he wanted us to be in. But at the mention of it—Gerard stood up and turned on the lamp above us, since night had fallen—I asked, “What happened?”
Oskar lifted his eyebrows as though he were in a meeting: “What’s that?”
“Why didn’t you tell us she was sick? Why didn’t you call?” And perhaps it wasn’t the right way to bring it up. But I spoke for all of us, I’m sure. Because we would’ve come. We came for him; we would’ve come for her. She was our friend too. So why? Why hadn’t they given us a chance to say good-bye?
He scoffed. But Johan and Gerard waited for him to reply. We all did.
“What do you mean?” he said.
“What do I mean? You called us here for your ballet but not for her?” I pressed my hands on the table. “What do I mean? Why didn’t you call? That’s what I mean.”
“You’re here, aren’t you?” he said. “I’ve asked you to come, and you’re here. Look! I’m grateful.” There was something in his throat, but he pushed it down, grabbed the bottle and filled our glasses.
“This isn’t for me,” he continued. “She didn’t want you to come, that was her choice. For God’s sake don’t you remember how proud she was?”
We looked at him, though he stared at the flames of a three-wick candle at the center of the table. “I made her that way, so perhaps it’s my fault. Blame me then, fine! It’s my fault she didn’t want you to see her like that. But this is for her, not for me. All of us together again, sitting around a table for five, onstage. Understand? That’s what she would’ve wanted, and that’s what I plan on giving her.”
It was late, and it was all he needed to say.
We bowed, we listened, we drank, then he showed us to our rooms. That night as we slept, we felt, I’m sure, the smallest of animals curled inside our stomachs pacing back and forth, worrying about the days that would follow.
We brought with us ballet slippers we hadn’t worn in ages. Torn and stiff as paper heated in an oven. When we were dancers that’s what we used to do to them to get the smell out, just for a few minutes. And if not for the smell then for warmth. In the mornings during winter, right before going to class, we’d put them on right out of the oven and when we arrived at class our toes would be warm.
I found Johan boiling water and having some muesli for breakfast after our first night. When he opened the oven door and took out his black slippers, I laughed. “But we’re not going to be dancing,” I told him. “You heard him, didn’t you? It’s going to be a character piece.”
“You never know,” he said. “Besides, what else are we going to wear?”
“Socks, the way the kids do these days. If they can get away with it, they wear socks over their slippers during class. Can you believe that? Madame Provinska would’ve slapped us with that bamboo stick of hers.”
* * *
When we walked into the studio, I could tell by the way we looked at the barres and at the exact places on it where we used to stand, and at the window that looked out towards the center of Hamburg, that we missed it.
We got dressed and did some stretches, what little our bodies would allow. I could no longer place my leg on the barre, not even the lower one, without feeling a pull in my hamstring. And as I leaned to the side, it was as though my torso were bandaged with elastic tape. Gerard, out the three of us, seemed to be in the best shape. He wore gray sweatpants and practiced pirouettes in the center of the room, behind a long table that had been there when we walked in.
Oskar came in at twenty minutes after ten. He had just gotten out of a board meeting upstairs. He mentioned, as he took off his shoes and sports coat, that the rest of the dancers in the company were still on vacation but would be back the following week, which meant there’d be a ballet class to attend if we wanted. “But do as you feel,” he said. “It’s there if you want it.”
He walked to the stereo in the corner of the room and said, “This is what I’d like to use, Mozart’s ‘Symphony No. 31’.”
Before he pushed play I’d already known what it was. When he mentioned it a smile had crept over my face. It’s a joyously quick piece, an allegro, andante, allegro form.
Oskar walked to a phone near the wall by the door and asked someone to bring up the props. Five minutes later, two young boys dressed in black marched in with a box full of pots and pans, measuring cups, silverware, cutlery, five plates, five teacups, a rolling pin, a brown paper bag full of flour, a carton of eggs and a gallon of milk. We exchanged looks but waited for Oskar to explain what in the world we were going to do. We sat at the table, considering these things, then Oskar said, “I’d like us to make a birthday cake. We won’t make a real one, of course. We’ll mime it. We’ll wear eighteenth century dresses with big white wigs. And we’ll fight over how to make the cake properly, moving to the melodies of the music. I’m thinking a food fight, something fun. We’ll throw eggs at one another and flour from across the table so we dance in a cloud of white. We’ll chase each other around the table. Pinching each other. Spitting in each others’ faces. Crawling under the table. Standing on it and lifting our skirts. Everything we’re not supposed to do. And above us, there’ll be a light, the only light that illuminates the stage. And what starts off as a clean surface—because it will begin with just the table—will end up a ridiculous mess. But it won’t be pathetic because it’ll be fun. It has to be! And after twenty minutes of this seeming absurdity, after the stage and our faces are covered with milk and paste and a gooey mess of eggs, the music will end. Gerard, you will be at one end, staring at your plate, and Johan, you at the other. Tomas, you’ll be next to me. I’ll sit in the middle with the empty seat next to me. And there’ll be silence. There’ll be cake—one we’ll have prepared—and I’ll light five candles.”
It might’ve seemed sentimental, but it was the least we could do: to celebrate. We hadn’t mentioned her name, but it was in keeping her name unspoken that kept her close. In it’s own way it was a brilliant idea and it was exactly what we had to hear to get us motivated to learn the piece and begin rehearsing it, which is, in some way, a choreographer’s talent—to inspire his dancers.
In the following weeks when there could’ve been an argument between us, because of how belligerent Oskar was known to get, there wasn’t. Sometimes he’d get upset with himself at the things he couldn’t do correctly, but we’d patiently wait on the sides and watch him repeat the movements to the music until he got it right. Sometimes, an entire day would be spent on one phrase, on one eight-count combination. There was a video camera at the front of the studio. Oskar would look at the video after a rehearsal, upset at one of us or with himself because it wasn’t right—his own choreography! It wasn’t the way he wanted. But after rehearsing for a month and a half, finally, we had learned the steps and could do it from beginning to end.
Two weeks before the premiere, when we had wigs to work with and crinoline dresses to wear for rehearsal, we were inspired to a greater extent; it gave us and the piece an even stronger sense of a tragic-comedy. Members of the administration started coming to the studio to watch, and when we’d run through the work there was nothing but laughter coming from the front of the room. But by the end, when the music ended and we sat quietly—milk dripping off our chins, egg splattered on our wigs—staring at the plates in front of us, Oskar would light the candles and nothing but silence filled the room.
* * *
One week before the premiere, a beautiful woman with gold hair walked into the studio with an infant small enough to be held in a wrap in front of her. A child still unable to form a sentence. Oskar went to her and kissed her, then led her by the elbow towards us, staring at the child.
“This is Esther,” he said. “The mother of my son.”
He had never mentioned anything, and so you can imagine how surprised we were, and how embarrassed he must’ve been because he avoided looking at us. He stared at Henrik, the blond baby boy she held, who was sleeping and sucking on his thumb.
“He’s beautiful,” I said, and Johan and Gerard agreed. Esther did not speak either Czech or German, and so there wasn’t much we could communicate besides our enthusiasm. She sat and watched us rehearse for a few minutes, then left once the baby began crying. At the door of the studio, Oskar hugged her and kissed her goodbye.
That evening we went to a bar that we used to go to when were in the company together. Johan and Gerard left early because it was getting late and they wanted to call home. When the bar was empty and it was just me and Oskar at a wooden table, and the waitress was drying off glasses with a red washcloth, I asked, “Did she know about him?”
The child couldn’t have been older than a year, and Alina had died nine months ago.
He finished his glass of beer and shrugged his shoulders like a young boy unable to answer a question, unable to answer a question he well knew the answer to. “She couldn’t have children,” he said.
Then, as though some soft yet heavy weight pressed down upon him from above, he lowered his head and refused to say another word about it.
* * *
The Queen of Holland arrived for the Summer Arts Festival, and we were ready to perform Oskar’s ballet: The Party. Even though we had no technical feats to worry about or partnering lifts to frighten us, before the curtain rose we were anxious in the most wonderful way, in a way that reminded us of what it was like to perform.
Within seconds after the curtain went up we could hear the audience laughing, and when the laughter began it fed more laughter, so much that we began laughing ourselves. But because we’d rehearsed the movement so many times, and it had become muscle memory, there was opportunity in the middle of the performance to think of her, and I thought: how wonderful it’d be if she were sticking her tongue out at us the way we stuck out our tongues at each other, like fools, when we were younger. My heart raced at the thought of her presence. I had so much energy the music felt as though it were playing too quickly, it was passing too fast and my movement could not keep up. Yet, besides the giddiness—I was, we were, after all, old men—my memories of our younger selves pushed tears out of me.
That’s when I lost my head and forgot what I was doing. My mind went blank and I stood there in the middle of Oskar, Johan, and Gerard maniacally moving around me. Gerard noticed me first, with wide eyes, then he stopped. And then Johan. When Oskar realized what was going on he yelled at us right there onstage, half-whispering half-screaming, “Come on! Grab the milk bottle, grab the milk bottle!” At those words, the absurdity of them and what we were doing, I started improvising. I wasn’t even on the music but I felt like a child. I threw flour into the air from a ceramic bowl. Gerard joined me and so did Johan. We chased each other around the table. We were kids again, like those days at the circus. My laughter broke into tears when I saw Oskar join us. In the moments we looked at each other we knew how much we cared for each other. It was a party, and we were around a table again, together, the way we used to be.
Once the music stopped, the audience fell silent with anticipation and we could feel them wanting more, more jokes, more reasons to laugh. But we went to our places at the table we were meant to finish in, and as far as we knew, we were meant to stare at our plates; we were meant to sit in peace as the light began to fade. But what happened—last night—as we sat there catching our breath, trying to calm it, was that the seat next to Oskar, somehow, in the way only a stage can execute, began to rise. It rose like a balloon rises from the floor, and Johan was the first to notice. It was his head turning that caught my attention, then I saw Gerard to my far left lifting his gaze, following the chair to the top of the theater. I didn’t have to look because I could feel it. I could feel it rising and I knew what was happening. It was the way to say goodbye, and Oskar had planned it all along. I turned to him and watched him light the candles. I watched him stare at his plate, sensing the shame inside of him, that I too began to feel—until the lights dimmed and the chair was gone, and we were seated in darkness.