Ludmilla Gribovaya

We managed to get ourselves invited to have tea with the legendary
ballet teacher Ludmilla Gribovaya at her Upper East Side apartment
the other afternoon. It was a cold dark Manhattan mid-winter day.
A desultory snow was falling, the flakes melting and immediately
turning to gray slush when they hit the pavement. It was about as
far from the enchantment of the ballet as we could imagine getting.

Yet, we found ourselves so excited during the elevator ride up to
Ludmilla Grobovaya’s fourteenth floor apartment that we literally
could not stand still. We got off the elevator, made an effort to
still our feet, sighed and found her door. We rang, then listened
to the chime echo on the other side of the door.

Ludmilla Gribovaya answered the door herself. She wore a plain
gray smock. She had her hair pulled back away from her face into
a bun. Without any further ado, she invited us in, settled us in
a comfortable armchair by the fireplace and got us tea.

Although we had trouble catching our breath, we plunged in and
asked her a series of questions that seemed foolish to us. After
a while, we found ourselves relaxing. We were able to diagnose,
then, that we had been in terror of her and that the depth of our
relaxation response was proportionate to the terror we had brought
along with us

“People talk about muscles. Yes, that is right. Muscles, yes,”
said Ludmilla Gribovaya. “But that is not enough. Only a part.
People talk about music. Yes, that is right. But that is not
enough. Only a part. Music makes a space for dancing. Music
makes a place for dancing. But dancing must find its own way.
Dancing must find its own weight. Dancing must find its own reach.
Dancing must find its own height. Dancing must find its own

“All of dancing rests on the skeleton. The skeleton, yes. The
bones, that already know where they are going. In no other art, in
no other ritual, is death so present. Imminent. Immanent. It is
because of this central presence of death that, for all the
masculine flourish and bravado of a Nureyev or a Baryshnikov or
whatever name you choose (I myself remember so many others), dance
remains feminine.

“Our best choreographers, our geniuses know this. No, they could
not say it. They do not need to say it. They are women in their
hearts and that puts them at the heart of the dance. They can feel
the beat, the doomed fragile contractions trying to give birth.
All steps lead to death. Individual names, positions, gestures
mean nothing.

“In the first exuberance of our talent each and every one of us
knows we will fail. We know it. It is part of the talent. When
I work with a young ballerina, I always remember this. I always
respect this. Her pleasure is the same as mine. Her pain is the
same as mine.

“We can not get away from each other because we are trapped in the
same place by the same thing. She knows it in her heart as well as
I do. So, when we look at each other, we can look directly, not so
much pupil to teacher, but pupil to pupil, eye to eye.

“When I work with a young ballerina, I know she has already her own
way. I don’t know what it is, but I know that she has it. I know
this better than she does. I have seen it before. I have felt it
in myself. She knows more about what her way will be than I do.
Of course, she does. Because she is her way. She was that way
from the time she first drew breath. Maybe from before that time.

“But she doubts and she worries and she frets. She tries to
distract herself. She has so many wishes and worries that I have
left behind. I know she has her own way. So she will hate me and
love me because she thinks I won’t let her get away from her way.
It’s silly. It’s not me. But we play this game. It is a little
conspiracy we have between us and we must be very serious about it,
because we both know how foolish it is. I am stern. She sulks.

“I know how to sulk, too. She is really the stern one. She is
more cruel to herself than I could ever imagine being to her. I
know, because I was once that way, myself, to myself. I spared
myself nothing. First, you dance and then you teach. The wagon is
the same. The harness is the same. The difference is between
being a young horse and an old horse.

“You pull what you can. The old horse knows that the smell of
oats, even the memory of the smell of oats, is sometimes better
than the oats. The young horse has more energy. The old horse was
once a young horse. The young horse knows that one day, if she is
lucky, she will be an old horse. She watches the old horse out of
the corner of her eye. She knows that the old horse knows not just
this road, but other roads, too. She is too shy to admit how
carefully she is watching the old horse.

“The young horse dreams. The old horse remembers. Is there really
so much difference between the two?”

Ludmilla Gribovaya took a sip of her tea. Her gray eyes dipped
under the rim of the cup and came up twinkling, as if they were
still dancing.

“The dance starts from inside. The dance rests on the skeleton.
Yes, that is true. And the skeleton knows where it is going. It
yearns to go up, because it knows that it is going to go down. It
yearns to spin, because it knows it will be so still. The whole
weight of the dance rests on the skeleton. Yes, but what holds the
skeleton up?

“Dancing is thinking that moves. Thinking holds the skeleton up.
The skeleton rests in the flesh of thinking before it rests in the
flesh of the earth. What is this thinking? How would I ever know
in words? There is no knowing this thinking in words. It is a
different moving than the moving of words. It is that thinking
which can only be dancing. If dancing could be said, there would
be no dancing, because no need for dancing.

“The thinking that is dancing needs a mind that floats on the vast
lake of the heart, like, yes, a swan, landing, taking off, gorgeous
in flight, seemingly effortless. But always coming back to that
lake, resting there, its long graceful neck tucked against its
body, sleeping, all its knowing warmly tucked away beneath its long
feathers white as sweet cold new smooth snow.

“I started dancing when I was six. There was only dancing for me.
I was only good for dancing, not for anything else. So I was
lucky. That was lucky, to be good for something that actually
existed in the world and to find it. So many people are good for
something, only what they are good for has not yet been invented.
Or they never come into the same place as what they are good for.

“So they waste away. They pine without knowing what they are
pining for. Dancing can be about this pining, this longing.
Dancing can show what is not there yet, what does not exist, what
is missing, even though it should be there. Dancing can make what
does not exist almost come to be.

“The beauty and the heartbreak of dancing are in the ‘almost,’ the
way in which dancing always falls short. Because it always does
and it always must. The best dancing is dancing that already knows
this and accepts this and goes on with it. Who knows why we go on
with things? This is just the mystery of life, that we go on with
what is beyond us.

“A dancer dances because what a dancer is for is to dance. Not so
different than why a worm burrows through the earth. Or why a
mushroom pops up from the ground. You probably don’t know that
that is what my name means. Mushroom. Such a funny name for a
dancer. In a way, like the mushroom, the dancer draws life from
death, breaking down what was already there, recomposing it,
knowing that what she does will break down, too.

“I did my best dancing, they say, after I was twenty-five. Ten
years. I stopped dancing when I was thirty©five. No, I didn’t
stop dancing. I stopped performing in public. You know, my knees
hurt. They had started hurting before I was twenty. I remember my
old teacher Madame Sukaya said to me, ‘Ludmilla, you are having
headaches in your knees. That’s not such a bad place for a
ballerina to have her headaches.’

“She looked at me and smiled such a kind, teasing smile, more like
a fairy or an elf than a grand old terrible ballerina who had
become a tyrant and a teacher. The worse we are, she went on, on the outside,
some of us, the more gentle we are on the inside. We don’t want
anyone to find us out. We try to keep the worst foot forward.
Yes, dancing is a way of hiding from yourself, if you find yourself
too much of a nuisance. Who wouldn’t?”

Ludmilla Gribovaya looked at us and laughed a deep musical laugh
that had a teasing caress. We couldn’t tell if she meant what she
said or if she was trying to pull our leg.

“The last ten years I danced, death was my partner. I thought
about nothing but death those ten years. I danced and I thought
about death and I longed for it. All this, without ever saying a
word to anyone about it. Maybe that’s what they loved about my
dancing. I don’t know. No matter how often you look in the
mirror, you can never see yourself dance. You are wrapped up in
your dancing. You feel it, but you don’t see it.

“I didn’t say a word to anyone because it never occurred to me to
say a word. My involvement with death was nearer than that. It
was so close. I got married during this time, to Ivanov. He never
knew. I never said a word to him, not even in the middle of the
night. I would wake up in tears and lie in bed and sob until the
first pale pink blush of dawn.

“It seems so foolish and so romantic. How much I hurt and how much
I suffered and how much I missed. How intense my suffering made
everything. And only now, afterwards, do I start to know about it.
I danced and the dancing cast its spell over me. I was famous and
a refugee all at the same time. I had no home and no country. I
danced and the audience clapped and shouted and threw flowers.

“How strange that was, the flowers flying over the footlights. I
never knew what the audience saw or what they felt. I only knew
that I danced with death, as if it were a bird, always close,
always singing, occasionally touching my cheek even as I danced.
How soft its feathers were against my skin. Sometimes the bird
sang its own song in the midst of the music and the motion and the
sweat and the pain.

“I listened and even as I moved it seemed to me that I was still as
stone. Oh, it’s hard to talk of those days when I was so frightened
of life that I tried to put death between me and all the
living and all the tenderness and hurt and squalor there was around
me. Dancing, like so many other things, is an effort to make
things simple when they’re not.

“I’ve changed. When I was dancing and performing on the stage. I
didn’t talk. If I thought, I never let it get into words. I
didn’t dare know what I thought. I was afraid that, if I let the
thoughts take hold of my tongue, all my limbs would go limp. I’ll
tell you a secret. I never minded the pain in my knees. The pain
in my knees told me they belonged to me.

“They were my knees, when so much else did not seem to belong to
me. Sometimes I didn’t feel it was I who moved my body at all. It
moved and I went along. I was carried along by something much more
powerful than I. When I wanted to die, it was the way a child
wants to run away from home. She needs something that is too big
for her to have and that she can’t live without. So she runs away
from home because it’s impossible. It’s impossible to live there
and impossible not to live there.

Ludmilla Gribovaya shook her head. The head, like a gray flower on
the white stalk of her long neck, still remembered more than all
but a very very few people ever know about posture and address and
grace of carriage. Despite her years, her ballerina’s body was
still slight and long and clean in its lines.

“When you work with a young person, a young ballerina, for even a
ballerina is somehow a person, if in a very indirect and peculiar
way, you must be practical. Not ‘why do you do it’ or ‘when do you
do it’, but always ‘how do you do it’. And ‘how’ in the smallest
pieces you can imagine. The little things. These support the
larger movements.

“If you break things down into small pieces that are right, these
pieces have the architecture of the larger movements in them. The
pattern of the breaking down shows how to put it together. The
fracture points make a blue print. Otherwise, it is like building
with sky hooks. Nothing underneath.

“I am a teacher because I can’t do it any more. I can’t dance to
the standard I once reached. Yet, I once did it. It is not only
that I remember. No, I understand it more. Sometimes I think that
I experience it more now than I did then. Sometimes I think that
I am experiencing it now for the first time. I also feel that what
I am feeling is not new. Other teachers of ballet have felt it

“Madame Sukaya knew about this. It was why she teased me. She was
trying to give me a hint. When you love something, it is like when
you love someone. You love it because you love it. You love it
because it is there to love. There is no reason or explanation.
Love can’t explain itself, ever. Is it good, because I love it?
For me it is. It is the good I know because I love it. For me
that’s enough. You see, what I tell the ballerinas I work with is
that I am very simple¨minded. It is true, too. I am very simpleminded.
Should someone else love what I love?”

Ludmilla Gribovaya looked at us again with the twinkling eyes.

“No, of course not. I am too greedy for that. Someone else should
only love what she loves. This is true of the dance. Another
ballerina can only dance her dance. We are so different, there is
never any reason to compete. Before we start competing, we have to
make the dance very small. But it is not small. It is very big.
As big as the night.”

When we left Ludmilla Gribovaya’s night was falling. The city’s
lights showed the cloudy sky which screened the stars off from
view. We stood for a moment on the sidewalk, realizing we had had
a glimpse not just behind the curtain, but also far beyond the
clouds into a realm infinite of stars, each one unique, each one
lending its own distinctive heat to the region of cold space
surrounding it. We had been transported.

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