Exiled in Paris, tiny, one-hundred-year-old Mathilde Kschessinska sits down to write her memoirs before all that she believes to be true is forgotten. A lifetime ago, she was the vain, ambitious, impossibly charming prima ballerina assoluta of the tsar’s Russian Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg. Now, as she looks back on her tumultuous life, she can still recall every slight she ever suffered, every conquest she ever made.
Kschessinka’s riveting storytelling soon thrusts us into a world lost to time: that great intersection of the Russian court and the Russian theater. Before the revolution, Kschessinska dominated that world as the greatest dancer of her age. At seventeen, her crisp, scything technique made her a star. So did her romance with the tsarevich Nicholas Romanov, soon to be Nicholas II. It was customary for grand dukes and sons of tsars to draw their mistresses from the ranks of the ballet, but it was not customary for them to fall in love.
The affair could not endure: when Nicholas ascended to the throne as tsar, he was forced to give up his mistress, and Kschessinska turned for consolation to his cousins, two grand dukes with whom she formed an infamous ménage à trois. But when Nicholas’s marriage to Alexandra wavered after she produced girl after girl, he came once again to visit his Little K. As the tsar’s empire—one that once made up a third of the world—began its fatal crumble, Kschessinka’s devotion to the imperial family would be tested in ways she could never have foreseen.
In Adrienne Sharp’s magnificently imagined novel, the last days of the three-hundred-year-old Romanov empire are relived. Through Kschessinska’s memories of her own triumphs and defeats, we witness the stories that changed history: the seething beginnings of revolution, the blindness of the doomed court, the end of a grand, decadent way of life that belonged to the nineteenth century. Based on fact, The True Memoirs of Little K is historical fiction as it’s meant to be written: passionately eventful, crammed with authentic detail, and alive with emotions that resonate still.
A Q & A With Author Adrienne Sharp
Q: You were a trainee for Harkness Ballet in New York City. What was the path that brought you there?
A: Like most little girls, I entered the ballet world at the age of seven, but unlike most little girls, I didn’t leave that world until I was eighteen and a trainee at Harkness. If you have the right body type and show a facility for movement, you are going to find your training encouraged and intensified. By the time I was ten years old, I was on full scholarship and taking ballet class six days a week, and when I wasn’t dancing I was going to the ballet and reading Dance magazine and collecting souvenir programs from all the leading ballet companies. By the time I was fifteen, I barely attended high school at all, and by the time I was seventeen, I was living on my own in New York and studying on full scholarship at Harkness.
Q: What was that like?
A: Very magical and very humbling. I was a called a trainee, but the company had disintegrated a few months before I arrived there. Photographs of the dancers were still all over the walls, and the school—with a faculty that included Renata Exeter and David Howard—was still going strong. Unfortunately, I was miserable in class, where I slumped at the barre, no longer the star pupil. I came home after several months and threw myself on my bed with no idea what to do next. My parents held nervous worried conferences outside my bedroom door because they, too, had no idea what I would do next. All I had ever done was dance.
Q: What did you do next?
A: Eventually I went to college and discovered writing. But I was lucky to be admitted to college at all, since education--any class that didn’t have to do with dancing--was of no interest to me up until that time. All dance students struggle to combine high school academics and dance training. If you’re going to be taken into a company at age 16, 17, 18, your most intensive training is going to be done during your high school years. Many dancers give up on high school. Suzanne Farrell in her autobiography writes of struggling through an algebra test in the morning and running in late to a rehearsal with Balanchine and Stravinsky. Finally she told her mother she just couldn’t do both anymore. I spoke recently with a young dancer in New York City Ballet, who at age 20 finally got her high school diploma, and she only managed that because she was sidelined with a foot injury for a year.
Q: What are some of those issues that you wanted to explore in your writing?
A: For one, every dancer’s life is a race against age and debilitation. A dancer has a very short season in which to perfect her craft and display it on the stage before injury or time overtake her. Most leave dancing somewhere in their twenties. Only the soloists and principal dancers last longer and they find themselves with fewer and fewer peers. The greatest dancers retire in their early forties and there are only a teaspoon of dancers of that age in each company. I imagine it’s increasingly lonely at the top.
Q: What is the draw of dancing?
A: I think it’s not only the beauty of the art that draws us, but also the discipline and rigor of it. You devote yourself to the barre and to the ideal of perfection and everything else falls away. That was my experience, an utter single-mindedness that becomes the center of your life. Which is why so many dancers and serious dance students have enormous trouble readjusting to the outside world.
Serious ballet study begins when children are at an enormously impressionable age. If you study long enough, you’ll be haunted by it forever. There’s all the worship of the older students and their beauty and perfection. I remember sitting under the big piano at Washington School of Ballet, watching the fabulous Mary Day coaching Kevin McKenzie (now the director of American Ballet Theater) and his partner Suzanne Longley for the International Ballet Competition at Varna, where they took silver and bronze medals. Talk about idol worship. I trembled when Suzanne spoke to me, spent hours trying to do my hair just the way she did hers.
From Publishers Weekly
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