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A ballerina remembers

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 29, 2002
[Courtesy of Marina Brown]
As a teenager, Marina Brown toured the country with the Ballet Russe.

As soon as my parents left for the grocery on Saturday mornings, I would put our one classical record on the turntable and, in front of the living room mirror, I would dance the orgy and suicide scene from Scheherazade. Over and over. I was 12.

A few years later, I had left Indiana. I was Zobeide, favorite wife of the Sultan in Scheherazade, glittering on stage in jewels and gold lame and dancing my dream with the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

I would be a swan, a French tart, a sylph, a Polish noble, a Queen of the Wilis (dead, jilted maidens who come back to harass their fiances), a Spanish diva, and many, many princesses. In Ballet Russe we were expected to be dancers and actors, as diverse and exotic as the repertoire itself.
New life for a beloved ballet
Decades after its demise, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo is winning fresh attention for its contributions to American dance and culture.

Even when we disembarked from our daily eight hours on a Greyhound bus, the company wanted us to project an aura of glamor and high art to the public. We wore dramatic makeup at noon, smoked with cigarette holders (this was when smoking was thought sophisticated, not deadly) and spent our $100 weekly paychecks on clothes and shoes.

Most of us wrote poetry; some attended rosary services. Only a few drank, and we were all intensely dedicated. We lived for the transient moment of transfiguration when our art carried us to some other plane.

But backstage, most of us were still teenagers living in a kind of rolling commune that combined the histrionics of The Red Shoes with goofy gags and moments of artistry. Memories abound:

  • Susan's skirt catching on a chair as she twirled among 20 leaping can-can dancers; the lace unraveling from under her skirt to make a cat's cradle of the stage that tripped one dancer after another.
  • Hester's bralike costume top flipping up over her face as she executed a deep backbend.
  • Me slapping Ali as the curtain fell because he'd dropped me during a lift; and Ali kicking me from behind as we took our curtain calls, sprawling the Swan Queen onto all fours.
  • And of course, Scheherazade. Usually the last ballet of the night, the one before we either clambered back onto the bus heading for the next theater in the next town, or shuffled back to a 1920s-era hotel to wash tights and drop into bed.

Scheherazade -- old-fashioned, lush, pure Ballet Russe -- the ballet where after being "killed" by the returning Sultan's troops, we "orgists" were to lay where we dropped; slave's heads on harem girl's stomachs, armpits across faces, thighs on backsides, and all of us giggling and snorting at the hilarious tangle. All the while, the wildly hissing ballet master would fume from the wings, "You're all fined! You're supposed to be dead! Twenty dollars everyone!"

And the giddy teenage artistes would shake even harder with laughter while the Sultan muttered curses beneath his breath.

-- Marina Brown, now a Treasure Island writer, painter, musician and nurse, danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo for three years before its demise in 1962.

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