From 'An Artist's Life as Told by Eleanora Antinova to Eleanor Antin'
[A BRIEF NOTE FOR THE FOLLOWING. I spent many years working in a variety of media performance, photography, writing, film, video, installation, drawing) inventing what i called my alternate selves. My most complex self was Eleanora Antinova, the black ballerina of Diaghilev's Ballet-Russe. I am now working on her memoir “An Artist's Life as told by Eleanora Antinova to Eleanor Antin”. The following section is from that work in progress. (E.A.)]
The best times were between seasons in Monte Carlo, when we rehearsed the new ballets. Afterwards we would spend our free time on the boardwalk. The costumes were amazing. We saw the most advanced designs before they reached the boulevards of Paris. True, many ladies still floated by with heads wrapped in furry chignons, sparkling with diamonds and pearls, long lacy hems and scarves trailing behind them. “Reactionaries,” Katya spat in contempt. “When will they enter the twentieth century?” We dancers adored the sleek heads of the modernist party, their skinny bodies defiantly devoid of curves, blood red fingernails bringing onyx cigarette holders to matching lips in short defiant jerks. Bored eyes said no man will weigh me down. Life is beneath contempt …
The notorious Contessa de Chevigne rumored to have been the lover of the mysterious Ida Rubenstein, was always followed by a tall African holding 2 leopards on a leash. “Where is he from?” the girls whispered to me. “Why do you not speak to him?” “Don’t be ridiculous,” I hissed at them. “He is an Ethiopian for sure. I do not know Ethiopian.” “How do you know he is Ethiopian?” Katya asked suspiciously. “He looks Nubian to me.” “Because she is Italian, that’s why,” I explained angrily. “He is a slave.” The girls were shocked. “Is that why his head is shaved?” someone asked in a hushed voice. “Poor man,” Tania said, crossing herself. “The Contessa is very wicked. Perhaps she feeds the ugly ones to the leopards.” “Don’t be absurd,” I said. “This is not a Fokine ballet. It is life.”
One warm day in May, we were unwilling witnesses to one of the scandals of the season, when two identical frocks of the modern mode encountered each other. As it turned out none of us actually saw it since as we learned later discussing the event in hushed tones, we had all been looking in the opposite direction.
It was Natalya who pointed us to where her sharp eyes had already observed the approach of the elegant Contessa de Beaumont, her long thin body wrapped in satin folds of orange, black and silver rectangles. At the same time, gliding towards her was the Contessa de Chevigne. “Oh sweet Jesus,” Tanya crossed herself, she was always crossing herself. “Hold me up, my darlings. I am faint.” Two identical frocks of the modern mode were preparing to encounter each other on the boardwalk.
A hush fell upon the crowd. Waiters stopped in their tracks, trays poised dangerously in the air. Only the principals seemed not to notice except the young Contessa stopped moving. Her legs appeared to levitate in a miraculous manner until one noticed the tight grip upon her arm maintained by her escort who had a stiff upper lip in the English manner and looked neither to the right nor the left. The Contessa de Chevigne turned a high color.
“She is having a stroke,” Katya whispered.
Surely nobody had ever witnessed such a color.
“But she is smiling,” an indignant voice protested. “Shameless woman.”
The daily costume represented the wearer’s soul and aspirations. For two persons to display the same soul was an intense personal embarrassment for everybody. That they should be modernist souls was a severe loss of face for our group and sure enough, shortly after the event, the old man and Kochno, deep in animated conversation, hurried past us in the direction of the theatre.
I learned later one of the unfortunates, the Contessa de Beaumont, on her arrival home was overcome by such a melancholy frame of mind her family removed her to a Swiss hospital for the remainder of the season. The Contessa de Chevigne, on the other hand, was older and of a severe character. She maintained a fixed smile for several hours but was forever after unable to remove it and her mouth continued to turn up at the corners irrespective of whether the poor lady found herself at a wedding or a funeral.
“And the last shall be first,” Carla whispered, crossing herself in the Italian manner.
Pavel, our resident Bolshevik, laughed.
“We shall see what we shall see,” he warned all who would listen.
“What shall we see, idiot?” Katya demanded.
He laughed and rolled his eyes. They bulged a little and were not pleasant to look at even in the best of times.
Katya turned away.
“You are disgusting,” she said.
“When the worm turns you will speak differently of Comrade Pavel,” he shouted, waving a fist in the air.
“Careful,” I warned. “He is vengeful. He may partner you one day.”
“Have no fear,” she sighed. “The pig will act the rooster. Is the red so different from the white?”
“What is the use,” Tania said.
“You are like my father,” Carla shouted. “We were depressed to look at him.’ Is that how it is, then?’ he asks me. ‘Is that how what is, papa?’ ‘You know little Button,’ he winks and pinches my bottom.”
“What did you know, Carla?” Natalya asked.
“What is there to know,” Carla shrugged. “He fell into a quarry and died and poor mama is so old she does not remember her daughter.”
“Still, what is the use,” Tania insisted. “When one fine day without any warning, and for no reason, one is made to feel a fool.”
“One must always remember one is a fool. Then one can not be too surprised when it is made public.”
“It is terrible to be a fool in public. In private, one can keep oneself busy and not think about it.”
“All men are fools.”
“We are not men, simpleton.”
“We are fools,” Katya said, “because we sit here at Chez Pasquier where they forget to wash the tablecloths while the old man sits at the Café Paris with a silk hat.”
“But, Katya, it is terrible there. It costs 10 francs for a bottle of mineral water.”
“Yes, and why can I not afford to pay it?” she demanded.
“But only a fool would pay such an outrageous sum.” Natalya was appalled.
“You do not understand. It is a hypothetical question.”
“So ask a real question,” Carla shouted.
“Yes. One with an answer,” Natalya agreed.
“How can there be an answer,” Tania said mournfully. “How can there be an answer when you do everything right and you are still a fool.”
Later that week, the waiter at Chez Pasquier leaned over and whispered the price of piroschki was going up 2 francs.
“What? Tania shouted, shoving her daily allotment of 6 francs for 2 piroschki at him. She was on a tight budget. Every week she sent money to a farmer in Brittany who boarded her young son.
The waiter shrugged.
“I, too, must pay,” he said.
“You?” Katya was appalled. “You who work here in this miserable place?”
“It is the proprietor. He is a miser. A skinflint. He would charge for an open bottle of mineral water.”
“Had we known we would never patronize such a beast.”
“Perhaps,” the waiter smiled. “But where else would the Russian dancers go? This is hardly Montparnasse.”
He was right, of course. With the rapidly rising prices Chez Pasquier was the only establishment on the boardwalk we could afford. The others didn’t sell piroschki. What would the elegant bistros and cafes do with little meat pasties invented by Polish peasants?
I looked at the waiter for the first time. He was not old but already had a hump on his back as big as a dwarf. He was too tall to be a waiter. Even now, when he didn’t need to, he stooped over us.
“Stand up straight,” I said. “Why do you stoop?”
He bent yet further over me, smelling of peppers and onions.
“Shall I sit beside you, Mademoiselle? Would that be to your liking?”
The poor man was awful!
There was nothing to be done for it. We ordered a piroschka each with mineral water.
“Still, it is outrageous,” Katya announced to his departing back.
“And what is there to do about it, Excellency?” Carla snapped. “Go down on our knees and thank God for our good fortune. … You, who have never been to the University. What are you, an educated woman?”
“It would be better to be a cashier. You do not get so hungry,” Natalya said.
Carla snorted. “Yes, and grow fat like a sausage.”
“At least we do not get water in our legs,” Natalya agreed.
Lizaveta began to whimper. “I have a dream. I will grow old. I will be a concierge.”
Katya shook her head.
“We will merely be a little hungrier, my friends, n’est ce pas?”
The mineral water arrived.
Olga and her new painter joined us for an aperitif after rehearsal. The little Spaniard rubbed his nose into her ear under the large straw hat she always wore.
“He is smelling me, the scoundrel.” She stuck her fingers into his nostrils. “Stop that, pig! Stop at once!”
“They say you are a painter but you are a puppy dog,” I teased him.
“He is a bulldog like the English.” Olga tweaked his nose showing him off affectionately.
“Look, look, Eleanora. What kind of nose is that?”
“An insignificant nose,” I giggled.
“A negligible nose.” She shook her head severely. “Alas, poor Pepito. You will never get anywhere in this world with a nose like that.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “It is a timid nose.”
“A puny nose. It is absurd. It is invisible, that nose,” she shouted, tugging at it mercilessly.
He bit her cruel fingers with his teeth, coming down hard. She screamed.
They struggled but he wouldn’t release her fingers from his mouth. She began to shout and curse in Russian.
“Look, look, over there.” She rolled her eyes desperately. “Now there is a real man. Such a nose!”
He turned to look and she pulled her fingers away, moaning softly as she licked each one gently. The teeth marks were still there.
He stared at the rival nose.
“It is certainly a nose of substance,” he agreed.
“It is coming this way,” I whispered.
And sure enough, a dark lugubrious man with a serious nose was bowing and introducing himself to Olga.
“You are a friend to my family,” he said, “for you make love to my cousin, the Count Sylvestre.”
She smiled sweetly blowing on her bruised fingers with her lips.
“My dear man, it is all the same to me. I have made love to all of your cousins, but, alas, I do not like you any the better for it.”
Sure enough, she surprised everyone by marrying her little Spaniard soon after. But he was already rich from his paintings even then and it wasn’t long before she left us.
On the way back to my room after rehearsal, I tried not to look directly at the wretched little pile on the ground. The night sweeper from the Casino passed the letter to me. He was an old hand and didn’t appear impressed.
My Dear Mother,
All my hopes have been ruined. I fancied myself a man of genius.
The reality has proved me to be a fool. I die, because life is no longer
to be supported. Look charitably on this last action of my life.
“No name?” I asked the sweeper.
“He is Albanian,” he shrugged.
“Yes, I know. I have heard.”
I went back to the girls.
“The poor woman,” I said sitting down on the bench.
“He was demented,” Tania answered. ‘His mother it seems has been dead for many years and it is his wife with whom he has been traveling. She, on the other hand, wants no part of him and refuses to receive the body.”
“Who will get the suit? It is a good one.”
“She is mad. She will not accept the suit. She will not even speak to the Inspector. She threw her clothes at him. She tore up her passport in his face and then tried to eat the pieces. She is very angry at the French.”
“The inspector is not French.”
“She does not know the difference.”
“Perhaps she is right. There is really not much of a difference.”
“This is a terrible place,” Hilda said.
“What will they do with him?”
“They are trying to learn if he was Catholic or Orthodox.”
We stared silently at the flourishing garden. Exotic flowers rioted along the walls. Overhead, the sky was a clear blue, almost white.
“It will be hot today and we have much to do,” Tania sighed, getting up. She was always practical. We used to say, when the angels came for Tania she would ask to see their papers. She was more French than Russian. “The Duke of Connaught will be in the audience tonight. The old man hopes he will pay for a new ballet.”
“I have certainly lost my pirouettes now,” Hilda sighed. ”It will be a bad day, for sure.”
[NOTE. A major exhibition of Antin’s visual work, “Eleanor Antin: Passengers” is on view through May 31 at Diane Rosenstein Fine Art, 831 North Highland Avenue, in Los Angeles, and another, “Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antin’s ‘Selves,’” through July 7 at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston. An excerpt from her earlier memoir, Conversations with Stalin (Green Integer Books), appeared in Poems and Poetics on December 17, 2008.]