Fan Mail: A Lyric Essay in Five Acts
by Lisa Nikolidakis
Greetings, Mr. Baryshnikov:
Never before have I written a fan letter. Frankly, I know little of the form except that opening with “never before have I written a fan letter” is bland as boiled chicken, and you’ve likely already lifted your pale, Latvian eyes to the window before you, your vision hinged on the tangle of twigs that swing from the eaves of your neighbor’s brownstone, the cutting winter air finally here and you breathe, flooding your lungs with all of that earth and wet and the deep and smoky burn of peat, and I am sure this pleases you as you look so dashing in scarves.
Clearly, I am doing this wrong. Forgive me.
Dear, Mikhail Baryshnikov:
I knew how to spell your last name before my own.
Listening now to the Moscow Symphony Orchestra’s “Danse de Cygnes,” I am thinking of how impossible it was for me to be a petite cygnet when the girdle beneath my embroidered bodice shifted great bulbs of flesh—the very ones that sprung from the arm holes of my leotard—and my pointe shoes swamped thick with blood after just two minutes of aching échappés and relevés, then uncoiling the ribbon from my ankles and off with my left shoe peeled a toenail, easy as turning a page, forcing me in that moment to admit what I’d always known: I am no ballerina.
And I wonder: do you regret not having performed Swan Lake in Russia before you defected? Or were you so satisfied with your insurmountable Nutcracker and leaps in Giselle—those audible gasps, the palpable glee of the crowd—that you thought, No. Let Nureyev have that one?
I would not have been so selfless.
In Sinatra Suite you worked through Twyla’s choreo, a relationship’s lifecycle confessed in dance from the grace and glide of “Strangers In The Night” to the fuck-all surrender of “That’s Life,” and it was those last minutes, the love leaked clearly away, the breakup brimming with the repeated push and shove and grunt of partner gone wrong that forced me, without will, to hold my breath until at last I choked. The abandonment of your body and gravity so clear from the start, your limp arms not at all fifth en bas and the gum in your mouth, the open-lipped clap of it—my teacher would’ve had my arrogant head!—in those two and a half minutes I saw precisely what I crave: deceit. The full-bodied slight of hand lies in your slick coolness, how little you seem to give a damn, but I’ve worn the shoes (character, pointe, tap) too many times and know that it’s a ruse, nothing more. Again and again I watch you to stave off my craving and if I could, I’d devour that footage with fork and knife, would carve the celluloid into tiny, digestible pieces and let it permeate my blood until my body (or more to the point my mind) believes again what I knew twenty years ago: the trick to this messy life is to look profoundly nonchalant while trying so hard.
And when my body drills into the earth with the weight of fight or flight, I want to free the tension, to lasso the mounting anxiety and toss it over my shoulder, but my brain wails to fight it fiercely, and I think of you and the grandest of grande jetés, your legs aligned so perfectly that they carve the air and there, in the widening chasm between you and the floor, I can see clearly that flight, yes, flight is the answer.
On stage, my mother radiates sequins; not once have I seen a twitch of her hand or eyes clamped in prayer or a breath rich enough to unleash that intrepid army of neurohormones that knows best how to stomp out the invisible nerves. And I am thinking of her, the impossibility of being at once someone’s daughter and so utterly divergent, when I stumble upon grainy interview footage of you shifting in your chair, legs crossed, re-crossed, fingers raked through your loose hair with compulsive resolve: each of them signs. And you confess easily, so easily, that you are a nervous performer, and my hand involuntarily moves to the contents of my desk drawer, past the copse of chocolates and love notes and mechanical pencils until I find the perfect curve of the bottled Alprazolam I fitfully gulp when my shoulders creep tighter, ever higher, when in bed I’ve alphabetized the States five times and still, beneath my pillow, my fists won’t unclench, when the snaking hum of carpenter bees boring into my walls sounds so close, their mandibles thundering against the wood, that I’m sure they’re coming right for me.
But in my youth during the hustle of costume changes in the dark of the wings, I never felt my sympathetic system set into motion, the crawl of my waking hypothalamus. I do not know when this changed, when walking not on stage but into the bright of day became enough to trigger my pulse, so that even now, nestled into an aisle seat, watching the show, I can almost feel the creak of hardwood beneath my feet, the unapologetic heat of the spotlight, and my muscles seize, a quickness of breath for a performance that isn’t even my own.
May I call you Misha? I’ve been told that I take liberties.
Martha Graham said, “The body cannot lie.” I am certain that you know this, and yet, “Heartbeat: mb.” This solo was flanked by others in that program, others that I cannot name because of your naked torso, stripped of everything but the wired nodes that broadcasted the thump, thump, thump of your own vascular organ through the speakers, the aural flood of blood entering your right atrium and ventricle, fat with oxygen, before feeding your starving lungs and escaping through the left, the invisible electricity of your being the soundtrack to your movement. To dance to one’s own heartbeat, to know that no deceit will work, that the machine will betray what you’ve become so good at hiding; just thinking of this terrifies me. And I can only imagine the stillness of the crowd at City Center, a wealthy set expecting traditional ballet and facing instead the speed of arterial pumping increasing as the solo went on, and then the stifled coughs and fear and hands in the dark tracing the canals of pacemaker scars through double-breasted tweed.
And all of that would be enough, Misha. Really it would. But then the impossible rumor: nearing the dance’s end, your body picking up momentum, your rapidity visible to all, somehow, surely through some magic, your heartbeat slowed. And it is for this that I write to you: please, when your nerves were alive with frenetic intent, when the audible evidence of your anxiety was transmitted to an entire theater, how did you manage calm? My mother says her resting pulse is 60, like that of an ox in the shade, an animal barely active, and yet she, like you, has an ease of movement and confidence that I do not understand, and if I don’t pay attention, if I’m not careful to keep those thoughts pressed flat against some shadowy corner of my mind, I will again and again and without much warning weep.
Certainly, you are a busy man, but if you would be kind enough to respond, I would be forever grateful.
Lisa Nikolidakis’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, The Rumpus, [PANK], Hobart, The Greensboro Review, Los Angeles Review, and her flash fiction won A Room Of Her Own’s Fall 2014 Orlando Prize. She currently teaches creative writing in the midwest.