How a Shared Passion Keeps a Mother and Daughter Close
She whispered, "He's making fun of the big classical roles."
I sat back, offended. Those roles were my favorites.
Afterward, in the car, I said I didn't know why anyone would prefer modern dance to ballet. There were no pretty sets or costumes, no story. Mom listened, and then she explained how Baryshnikov had left—fled—his home country because he wanted artistic freedom. He had risked and sacrificed so much, she said, for a life where he could make fun of Giselle.
Ballet, I began to see, could be about more than watching feet.
Every so often I would steal into Mom's closet to try on her old pointe shoes, going up on my toes while clinging to a doorframe. She kept them on the highest shelf, in a Capezio box stacked on a Bruno Magli box that held an impossibly spindly pair of pink heels. I tried those on, too, marveling at how uncomfortable and perilous both pairs seemed, how alien they were from Mom's preferred felt clogs. These boxes held bits of the past, accessories for a graceful, nimble girl who danced on her toes and pranced in stilettos, a youthful stranger who still sometimes surfaced unexpectedly. In junior high, filling out a homework questionnaire about how well I knew my family, having aced my father's birthplace and grandmothers' maiden names, I read aloud the question, "Can your mother stand on her head?" "No," I scoffed, writing before she could answer. Without a word, she walked into the living room, planted her head on the carpet, and effortlessly swung her socked feet up to point at the ceiling. The dogs milled around her, puzzled. I applauded in astonished delight.
By the time we saw Baryshnikov again, I was 14 and had outgrown my mother's shoes. This time, he performed HeartBeat: mb, a piece accompanied by his own heartbeat as transmitted and amplified by sensors on his chest. He drove the beat up, let it fall. The dance was about mortality and aging, a dancer's intimate, collaborative, sometimes antagonistic relationship with his body. Inevitably, our bodies disappoint and betray us, the dance said, but how glorious to have a body in the first place, even just for a while.
It was 1998, and Mom and I were about to visit St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, the city where Baryshnikov became a star and where he has never returned since his defection. As a child, I developed a fascination with the Cold War that manifested in book reports on fat spy thrillers and expanded to encompass Russian history. That summer the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his murdered family and servants, having languished in Siberia for almost 80 years, were being reinterred in St. Petersburg. I decided I had to witness this strange event (a cortege of speeding black minivans; Boris Yeltsin waving from a limo; clanging church bells), and after a protracted campaign, I got Mom to agree to take me.
The trip daunted us both. We were sisters in timidity: afraid of the subway, shy about the language barrier, skittish about the city's subterranean, curtained restaurants. But aware that this was all my idea, I rallied. I took charge of the foldable map. I puzzled out the Cyrillic street signs. I took my turn negotiating admission to churches in phrase-book Russian. That great, decisive separation—college—had begun to loom large between us, and I was beset by conflicting desires: to cling to Mom and also to protect myself by pushing her away. I marched impatiently down the street, pretending at independence, but as soon as something confused or startled me, I'd hide behind her like a lost lamb.
One of her conditions for the trip was to see the Mariinsky Ballet, formerly the Kirov, in its namesake theater. We saw La Sylphide. It was immediately apparent that the company hadn't yet recovered from its loss of Soviet funding or from the flight of dancers seeking better pay in the West. Cruise ship tour groups took flash photos. The imperial box stood empty. We did not have a good view of the feet. Afterward, at dinner in our hotel, Mom said, "I wouldn't bring back the old system, but I'm a little sad." I was taken aback by how sad I was, too. I'd barely noticed it happening, but over the years, she'd taught me enough about ballet that I didn't need her to tell me what was good anymore, when to be amazed or disappointed. I'd always wanted to see ballet as she saw it, to connect with it as she did, and finally, sitting in that creaky Russian theater, I had. We had become, in a small way, equals.