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Balletomane

by Graham Hillard
Illustration by Michael Worful

Balletomane

Graham Hillard
13 Snaps

…in sharp contrast to the public spectacle surrounding the former tsars’ appearances at the ballet, audiences and dancers never quite knew when Stalin might appear or which of his surrogates might be there, watching.

—from Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, by Jennifer Homans

First the murmuring, then the air turned peculiar:
the sudden, stifling closeness of two thousand breaths
drawn and held like the fermata before an entrance.Though no one can be certain of his presence,
all know at such a time to fall silent, to press themselves
against seatbacks polished by decades of shoulders,incline their heads toward the stage and await
the safety of music, the violins compelling the movement
of the dancers. To survive is to be still: to see without seeing

the bulletproof box nestled at stage right, its shelves
stocked with vodka and cigarettes, each unknowable
man within a single, thoughtless error away

from a traitor’s death. Above, the three-tiered chandelier
sparkles, lends brilliance to pinewood plucked
from Siberian forests, gold bought on the backs

of serfs long perished, insensible to the cries of revolution,
the glorious dates woven into the curtain’s fabric—
1871, 1905, 1917. From this stage, Lenin pronounced

the birth of a new country. Now, dancers plié and tour.
Men grip armrests, order their affairs. Outside, Moscow
braces for winter as workers crush against the Bolshoi’s walls,

desperate to hear the footfalls of the ballerinas,
the closing notes ephemeral as moonlight, the applause
so thunderous, so sustained, it seems to go on for hours.

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