An Incredible Story of a Life Devoted to Dance and So Much More
THE WAY BACK TO DANCE THROUGH TATIANA DOKOUDOVSKA
This time, everything was going my way in Leavenworth, Kansas. My husband had risen in rank and experience and was delighted with his new position as Chief Executive Officer of the installation. Our house was absurdly large, mainly furnished with “Quartermaster” elegant, traditional furniture. It had maid’s quarter’s downstairs and a large attic reaching back to the preceding century.
Amongst the new neighbors, there happened to be a former ballerina, Phyllis. When we met at the first scheduled “welcome” coffee, I learned that she was teaching ballet through the Army’s recreation program.
I was uncertain how the first class would go—couldn’t find my dancewear—but need not have worried. She was a very good teacher and gave a solid standard class. And… I remembered “how” as soon as I began to move. It felt as if I had never been away from it. After the class, she suggested I take classes from German trained Renate Edwards who had a studio in town and connections with the Kansas City Ballet and the University of Missouri in Kansas City. Meanwhile, I had joined the Theater Club and quickly performed in Blithe Spirit, an Oscar Wilde humorous play and the musical The Boy Friend.
Renate Edwards recommended that I go into Kansas City to see Tatiana Dokoudovska, the Russian Kirov Ballet trained ballet mistress. I went to Kansas City via the University of Missouri where Dennis and Kathy Landsman taught. They were husband and wife who had each danced with the celebrated Robert Joffrey school and company, performing all over the United States and abroad. They had also founded the Kansas/Missouri Youth Ballet, which had attracted a positive following. I studied with Dennis for a semester. He introduced me to Madame Dokoudovska, and I began taking classes from her.
Madame Dokoudovska was a tyrant out to break the will and spirit of any “new” dancer, which I was. From our first encumber, she ridiculed and demeaned me, asking me repeatedly to demonstrate how “not” to execute the art from. I learned over time, after training with the Russian pedagogues, that this was the “Russian way.” It was such punishment that for the first time in my life, I wanted to give up.
Tatiana was in her mature middle years with grey hair pulled into a severe bun, thin lips, aquiline nose, and a pinched expression. She began every class getting in front of the class in an upright chair scanning the unsettled dancers, looking for fault. She always used a stick for rhythm and dynamic emphasis—and occasionally to tap an offending body part while making a specific correction. It must have been a relief to the class members when I seemed to be the singular focus of rebuke. She would stand right behind me while I was working at the barre and offer instruction in a harsh Russian accent. The class was way beyond my skill level, and I struggled. She knew my first name and used it harshly rrrrolling her rrr’s—“Brrrrrendah”— a guttural rebuke accompanied by thumps of the stick. It was a physically exhausting class characterized by enough repetitions of an action to defeat the strongest members.
I was rebuked for a stray wisp of loose hair and sent back to the dressing room to fix it while the whole class waited. I was singled out to demonstrate a fault and pivot the faulty design as if on a pedestal, so everyone could see it clearly and learn an important lesson. “Let us watch Brrrrrendah show us her leaning tower of Piz-za,” (not Pisa, unfortunately), and I would have to demonstrate my faulty arabesque with the torso incorrectly aligned.
I vowed after every drive home, sobbing, that I wasn’t going back. And every next time, I walked robot-like to the car and drove the 40 miles into town.
One day, without exploration she asked me to attend a company rehearsal the next Saturday morning. I did so, and she had me understudy a role for an upcoming ballet set by a visiting choreographer for performances at the Kansas City Music Hall. I shadowed that dancer, enjoyed the role, which was like a character or peasant style ballet dance, and felt that I could do it well.
On Saturday, a week before the scheduled concert my “model” dancer showed up with a broken arm. Before I could take in the full significance of it, I looked toward Tatiana, and she gave me an inscrutable smile and a nod. Suddenly, it was possible to actually dance with the company at that very special stage before an audience of knowledgeable ballet enthusiasts.
The company members showed me how to do the proper makeup, and I joined them in company warm-up before the performance. I belonged. And I know I fulfilled that role. Afterward, both Dennis and Mme. Tatiana were generous with approval. My cup ran over.
If I had ever needed a confirmation that this dream that had inspired and driven me all my life, through frustration and humiliation, was right, it was that gesture of approval from Mme. Tatiana. I felt that I had, in a sense, arrived at last!
The American ballet was founded by Russian immigrants from St. Petersburg, Russia where the Vaganova system had evolved as the ultimate training system. Impresario Lincoln Kirstein brought Mr. Balanchine over to establish the New York City Ballet, and others followed founding the Pacific Northwest Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and so on. I felt that in a very small way, I was a beneficiary and a proponent of that ongoing process.
(To be continued in following sections…)