Sunday Stories: “At the Ballet”


At the Ballet
by Martha Anne Toll



“We need her in white,” Mr. Yanakov said to the wardrobe mistress as he smoothed back his silver hair. “I’d like to see the exact line of her breasts. The skirt should cling to the ankle.” Katya Symanova stood in second position as her choreographer sculpted the length of her leg. “And the boy in black. Maybe with red trim. No…more red than black. Sputnik and the damn Soviets.” Tossing his head at Paolo and Katya, Mr. Yanakov continued, “Rockets inspire the fear of naked aggression. But the specter of the heavens as well. The endless universe, the skies above.

“Only in the U.S.,” he muttered to himself, snapping his fingers for the pianist to begin. “There’s a special brand of American arrogance. The certainty of rightness, cowed by the threat of bombs.” He moved Katya and Paolo around. “I love the sweep of an orchestra,” he barked over the piano. “The Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. We’ll call this one Space Race.”

He put Katya’s hand in Paolo’s and lifted their arms to an inverted ‘V.’ “Tendu to second, and plié. Into first and again. Miss Symanova, hold your head high. Throw back your chest. Electricity in the fingers. Show the connection between you two.”

“Bend over Miss Symanova,” he said, motioning for the pianist to stop. He placed one hand over Katya’s breasts, and the other at the small of her back. “From here,” he said sliding his hand down her buttocks. “Diaphragm parallel to the floor. Legs apart. Derrière to the corps. The slow stepping of danger. But sexed. In my ballets, there is always sex between a man and a woman.”


Katya danced palm against palm with Paolo, charting the nation’s anxieties, burying innocence. Mr. Yanakov’s voice orbited Katya’s head as Shostakovich blazed from the orchestra pit. Russian music to underscore her Russian name. Pounding bass; melodies pulled one from another, weaving plaintively through the strings. Tonight, please may she deserve the name her choreographer had given her. She was born Katherine Sillman.

She faced the dark cavity beyond the stage and danced for Mr. Yanakov. It was he who fueled her performance. He was waiting for her in the wings; she sensed it. No, knew it. She was lit. Her white dress, tight against her skin, evanescent. She arched her back and flung her arms from herself. From the nape of her neck to her unfolding legs, a comet streaking the sky.

“Now.” Mr. Yanakov stepped in front of her as she came off stage. “You are ready to come home.”


Mr. Yanakov closed the door and turned on a light in the vestibule. “Your coat.” Lifting it off, he smoothed his hands down her sides, and hung it in an overstuffed closet. He took Katya’s hand and led her into his living room. From the dim light at the front door and the city lights coming through the window, Katya could see the outlines of a room crammed with recordings. She made out a stereo system and an armchair.

He pulled her into him and pressed his lips against hers. She could have choked for the shock of his tongue, probing her core. Whatever she had expected, it was not this.

“Relax,” he whispered. “It’s not so different from the studio. Mr. Y knows what to do.”

Could it be? He had the same intent look he had while choreographing.

“Do you want to freshen up?”

She nodded. He pointed to the bathroom next to his bedroom. “You’ll find a clean towel in there.” He held her chin for a moment and gazed at her. “Just wrap yourself up in it, let’s not bother with clothes.”

She had never been so nervous. Was that a kiss? She climbed into the claw-footed bathtub and turned on the spigots. Her virginity dragged beside her, an alarming and intimidating appendage. Knotting the towel around her chest, she cautiously opened the door.

He was lying sideways on the bed in his underwear. His chest was covered with white hair. He walked toward her and tipped her head. “Let me see you, angel,” he said, smoothing down her hair. “We’ll have a good time together. Would you like to take off your towel?”

She struggled to unknot it, wondering if her thumping heart was visible.

“Stand and be proud, just like I see you doing every day in ballet class. I know what you’re capable of.” He stepped back and stared her up and down, then picked up the towel and wrapped it around her. He put one hand on her shoulders and the other on her crotch. “Here is where I live,” he whispered in her ear. “This is the seat of power and glory. Woman.” He walked her to his bed.

What was an audition, or even a performance compared with this? She was suspended from a precipice; he alone controlled whether she fell.

“Katya Symanova,” he said softly, kissing her eyelids.

She was being named anew. “Mr. Yanakov,” she managed, sitting down on the edge of his bed.

“Please, it’s Boris,” he said. “I’ve waited so long.”

“You have?” she blurted out, before she had time to think. It was she who had been waiting. Tentatively, she lay down.

“Nice. Beautiful,” he said. He bent over and sucked her nipple. His lips pinched. And sent a rush through her. “Patience is a virtue, especially at my age.” He looked almost sad to acknowledge it. “The sight of you coming out of that coffee cup on stage in the Arabian Dance.” He moved his head side to side and stroked her abdomen the way he had at The Nutcracker. “So sexy. Les Sylphides too. You made me want to devour you.” He studied her naked body. “But I waited for Space Race. You’re electric.”

His words were an alternate universe. She was floored. “I didn’t know you noticed.”

“I notice everything,” he said. He kissed her lips, his searching tongue expanding her mouth. “We’ll warm you up, just like in class. I wouldn’t want to hurt you.” He took his index finger and dipped inside to moisten her.

She could feel his fingernail. It took all her courage to put her arm around his back.

“That’s it,” he said, “hold me.” She had never heard him speak so tenderly. Reassured, she held him tighter.

“So new.” He pressed his lips over hers again, his kiss a mix of curiosity and drive. “Now see what you’ve done.” He took her hand and placed it on his groin. She was nowhere familiar. There were no steps, no music, no rhythm she recognized. She did as she was told. She had never felt so exposed, not in class or rehearsal. Not in the dressing room where she changed with the other dancers. She may as well have been standing naked in the middle of Broadway, or dancing nude on stage. He pulled her legs apart and bent his head in that direction.

“Slow is beautiful, remember that Katya?” He looked up and grinned. She couldn’t control her shaking. He was sparking jets of lightning. “Relax,” he whispered. “Mr. Y promised to take care of you, didn’t he?”

He reached next to the bed and opened the drawer to his night table. “You don’t have a body that’s meant to make babies,” he said, sliding on a condom. “We have much more interesting things to do with it.”

He climbed on top of her.

She wanted to scream with pain. And with the bulk of him, thrusting and heaving. And with the occasion, which she understood to be monumental. His body was a force field. He closed his eyes and pushed. Her sense of responsibility, ever present. She had to make him happy.

With a final panting snort, he released himself; his weight crushing her. Is this what people did behind closed doors? It was taxing to breathe with him spread over her.

“You’re precious,” he said at long last, propping himself on his hands and opening his eyes. “With a big talent.” He looked at her—longingly?—then rolled off her and sighed. “If you work hard enough. Don’t let’s forget that.”

He wanted her, that was sure. It was a new ordering. Maybe she would not be left splayed on his bed like a rug made from a skinned animal.

For the second time tonight he said, “We’ll have a good time together, you’ll see.”

She wanted desperately to believe him. “Boris,” she said quietly.

“That’s the spirit,” he said gently. It almost felt like love. “Do whatever you need to do.”

She picked up the towel and headed for the bathroom. It hurt to bend over and turn on the faucets. Warily, she stepped into the shower and let the water wipe her tears. She couldn’t tell if she was crying from pain, from relief, or joy. “Katherine thinks Yanakov’s the cat’s meow,” she heard her mother say. Good God. Katya slammed her wet hands over her ears to shut out the comment. She couldn’t have her mother in this bathroom.

Katya wanted to be his. Still. More than ever. To bring peace to her restless choreographer? To help him create?   Maybe he would love her.

She put on her clothes and opened the bathroom door.

“I don’t do well with sleepovers,” he said, running his finger under her chin. “But maybe if you’re agreeable, we’ll do this again?”

She had a fleeting thought that naked, he looked smaller, more diminished. She smiled weakly and nodded yes. He reached for the bathrobe draped across the back of the wicker chair next to his bed and walked her to the vestibule. “You’ll learn to enjoy yourself,” he whispered, putting her coat around her shoulders. “Think what a good teacher you’ve got.” He took a long look at her, the way he sometimes did during rehearsals, especially recently.

“Here’s cab fare,” he said. He picked up some change from a bowl by the front door. “I don’t want my girls walking the streets at this hour.” Then patted her bottom and sent her out into the night.


“At the Ballet” is an excerpt from a novel in progress.  Martha Anne Toll’s fiction has appeared in Vol.1 Brooklyn, Yale’s Letters Journal, Poetica E Magazine, Referential Magazine, Inkapture Magazine, Wild; her book commentaries in The Millions, Heck, [PANK], The Nervous Breakdown, Tin House blog, Narrative, NPR, and Washington Independent Review of Books.  She directs a social justice foundation focused on preventing and ending homelessness, abolishing the death penalty, and reforming other aspects of criminal injustice.  Please visit her at; and tweet to her @marthaannetoll.

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