In the Shadow of the Greats

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In the Shadow of the Greats

By Nicolas Petrov ©

Chapter One: Baby Steps
I was quite a happy youngster, born on December 13, 1933 in the Kingdom of Serbia. According to my mother, Irena, on the evening of my nine o’clock arrival a huge snowstorm blanketed the ground with two feet of white powdery snow. Perhaps this is why I am so keen about snow.

My father, Sergei Nikolaevic, a former young officer in the Czar’s army, had fled Russia during the Revolution, sold his horse, and sought refuge in Serbia, where with government help, he became a lawyer. My mother Irena Roboz Petrov, who was the youngest daughter of a railroad station chief and the granddaughter of a wealthy Austro-Hungarian architect, was a housewife. My parents met while my dad was a young professional and I arrived a few years after their marriage.

My father was quite a large man and by the time I reached thirty, it was obvious that I had turned out like him. My son also, as he approached thirty resembled the family tree. My mother, who grew up during the First World War, was an attractive, small woman, not corpulent, but definitely Rubenesque. She always complained of physical aches--her legs, her back, and her heart--and other malfunctions. Yet, she lived ninety-nine and a half years before she left this Earth, God bless her soul.

At an early age, I already knew that law studies were not for me. Perusing all the books on my father’s bookshelves--the tools of his trade--I found them dull. Those Roman rights held no interest for me. I gave no thought to what I would like to be, but was better attuned to what did not appeal.

I do recall saying, “I don’t want to be a solider.” That wish was granted, as I never served active duty in the army. While I did have an inclination towards medicine, I suspect that was only because my doctor had a beautiful car. I thought that by pursuing medicine, I could have one too.

In the thirties life was comfortable in Yugoslavia. Our extended family--Grandma Theresa, Aunty Lenka, my parents, and I--lived on an estate inherited from my great-grandfather, who was one of Novi Sad’s founding fathers. (My mother also had two other siblings. Aunty Elizabeth, whom I liked very much, lived in Zemun. Uncle Oscar, whom I only visited a few times and did not know well, resided in Zagreb with his family.) The property encompassed four houses, a sizable courtyard, and garden. My mother continued to live in our house, which was in the heart of the city and amid modern high rises, until she passed away in 2004. (It has since been razed to make way for a multistory apartment complex.) We had neither horses nor cars, but Novi Sad (New York in English) was small. Bicycles were sufficient.

I recall that we took family vacations and years afterwards, my father often asked, “Do you remember when you were little and we vacationed in Rateca Planica in the Slovenian Alps?” I would always reply, “Certainly, Dad,” though I remembered very little of that tiny, last whistle stop at the foot of the mountains, as I had been just four or five-years-old. I do recollect our visit to a cheese factory, where one of the wheels was about two-feet thick and at least six-feet in diameter. It was the biggest cheese I have ever seen. And, I recall that when I grew weary of the steep mountain climb, Aunty Lenka carried me on her shoulders. I remember pine forests, meadows of green grass, and our picnic of gavrilovic (hard salami) sandwiches. That is all I remember of Slovenia.

I was quite spoiled, especially by Grandma Theresa and my black-haired, dark-eyed Aunty Lenka, whose fiery and energetic nature I admired. I spent most of my early years under their care. As an only child, all attention was directed towards me. Naturally, I had no qualms with that and enjoyed it fully. The surrounding houses had children, who were not just rich, but quite wealthy. So, we were supplied with a large quantity of astonishing toys. The garden and yard served as our playground because we were forbidden to play in the street.

As my father was Orthodox and my mother, Catholic, we celebrated holidays according to both calendars. This of course was relatively profitable for me--two Christmases, two Easters! I was showered with material goods, especially wonderfully crafted, high quality, German made toys, but I did not appreciate their quality.

When I was about six-years-old, this wonderful life was abruptly disrupted. On Easter Day, 1941, as sirens blared, Germany declared war on Yugoslavia, which was then a republic of six small nations: Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Montenegro, ruled by Alexander II, a Serb. (In more recent history, Yugoslavia disintegrated during a rage of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and through internal clashes between Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosěvić, and the Kosovo Muslim population. Only two existing republics comprise today’s Yugoslavia.)

I vividly remember my mother walking into our house that sunny Easter. Worried and visibly uncomfortable, she announced that Germany had declared war on Yugoslavia. She knew that my father must register for active army duty. What she did not know was that this period of mobilization and war would be very short.

Our ears were glued to the radio that morning. Later in the day, we heard the growling of German schtukas (war planes) that flew over Novi Sad en route to Belgrade. It was an astonishing picture of shining silver birds thundering above our heads. For the first time, I felt fear of something that I barely understood.

Panic struck our community. We--my family, including my grandma and aunt, plus our neighbors--prepared to move underground into a collectively built bomb shelter that had been installed on our grounds in October 1940, as a precautionary measure. It was large, well equipped, and could accommodate more than twenty people. It gave everyone a sense of security. As the neighborhood children and I played, we forgot about the threat of war.

In early afternoon, Radio Belgrade announced that Yugoslavia had surrendered to German forces. Oddly, there was no resistance, as Germany was playing “cat and mouse” with the Yugoslav politicians. It sold Yugoslavia outdated guns, leftover from the First World War. The shipments were distributed to one area of the country, while ammunition (which was not compatible with the guns) was shipped to another.

Recruits (like my father) quickly realized that the army was disorganized, as King Alexander II fled to France with some of his generals. The soldiers, without leadership, soon returned to their homes. Unbelievably, Belgrade was conquered after intensive bombing by six German pilots. Within three days, the rest of the invading army occupied the entire country.

The German army outfitted in green-gray uniforms resembled something from the pages of science fiction--cruel and futuristic or from a Star Wars movie. My six-year-old mind was impressed. The advancing Germans were quickly succeeded by their allies, the Hungarians, who wore yellow-brown uniforms. They just passed through Novi Sad like ants at a picnic. They were well regimented and detailed from their helmets to their heels. They shone like the chrome on a well-polished car. The King’s guards (known as the Tchetniks) and the police offered slight resistance to this parade of soldiers, which actually lasted for only a few days before Novi Sad was subdued. Afterwards, everything superficially returned to normal.

For three years, we felt very little of the war, probably because we lived in Novi Sad Vojvodina, an old part of Austro-Hungary. We saw none of the resistance that was developing in Southern Yugoslavia. In those southern mountains, the resistance sprung up quickly in retaliation to the German terror spreading through Serbia. Led by Josip Broz Tito, a political leader trained in Russia, the resistance received help from England and Russia, which sent food and ammunitions. The Germans took drastic measures to punish the Yugoslavs. For every German soldier killed, up to fifty innocent local citizens were executed. People fled their homes to join the resistance. They preferred to die fighting than to be executed defenselessly.

After D-Day, the Allied victory was assured. Although we survived the war, an unknown fate befell Aunty Elizabeth’s husband, a Slovenian who worked in a commercial airplane factory. The Germans had occupied Zemun and Belgrade and taken over the factory to produce leisure planes for the German army. After their withdrawal, the partisans moved in. We think that one of his workers shot him or took him away, as he went out on the street and never returned.

The fantastical German army, minus its previous luster, withdrew from Yugoslavia without fanfare. However, while exiting, they blew up everything that was still standing and took our food and sustenance with them.

During the severe winter of 1944, we starved. I learned to appreciate every meal or scrap of food that I acquired and to clean my plate. The hunger haunted me for many years afterwards. Rations provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency became our sustenance and these were also served to the liberating armies. Besides chocolate and chewing gum, the rations contained my introduction to nicotine--cigarettes. Needless to say, I did inhale for thirty years and was a serious smoker. Now, with hindsight, which is always 20/20, I would have never taken that first puff.

Hungarian authorities governed Novi Sad during the war. As I finished elementary school, the Hungarian language predominated. Afterwards, Novi Sad reverted to Serbian rule. Adjusting to the new language in middle school was difficult. Despite the transition, we were happy to have survived the war, even if we were living on rations. It was the spring of a new life. The first two years of it were uneventful.

In 1946, three strangers appeared in our gym class. Among them was a middle-aged woman, who seemed to be looking for new prey. She was most certainly looking for something. These guests were government agents from the U.S.S.R. They represented the newly formed government school of the ballet arts Državna Pozorištna Škola baletni atsek (The Ballet Division of the Government Theatrical School.)

At the time, I unfortunately had no clue of what ballet was. The audition was boring and I could have cared less who they chose. I responded nonchalantly, but they discovered what they sought in my friends and me. We lifted and turned our legs, pointed our feet, and jumped as high as we could, pretending to dunk imaginary basketballs. We executed these movements with joy and laughter--and correctly.

Following these tests, they selected a number of boys from our all boys’ class and dismissed the rest. They explained that a ballet school was opening. We had been auditioned. Classes started in two weeks. Did we want to join?

They lured us with extra privileges. We would have food, two weeks paid summer vacation to the beach, and a chance to work in the theater. After the meager rations we had been receiving, these promises sounded wonderful. I was especially exited about the vacation, as my father, whose salary was now limited, certainly could not afford a seashore holiday and working in the theater aroused my curiosity.

We were between ten and twelve years of age (I was almost twelve) and hesitated to make the commitment without parental approval. The agents dismissed us, agreeing to wait until we had discussed the offer with our families.

“I’ve received a proposal from a ballet school; they would like me to join,” I announced to my parents. I was impressed by the promised “goodies.” It thrilled me to have privileges that others my age did not. I had already convinced myself that I was interested in an art that I had very little knowledge of.

Father, who was the personification of Russian aristocracy, spoke little. He was one of those people who thought a great deal about the subject before he would speak. He looked at me with slight humor on his face and replied, “You don’t want to be a ballet dancer.”

My mother, a talkative soul, who always looked exhausted from her daily chores, dried her hands and sat down. She glanced at my father with an inquisitive look on her face and remarked, “What is wrong with ballet? At least, he will be busy and out of trouble.”

I eagerly explained that we would have privileges and better food!

“I don’t see you as a clown,” my father said ironically. “I’m a lawyer and expect my son to be at least a doctor or an engineer!”

“Well Papa, we would have two weeks of paid vacation and after all, there is still six years before I would have to go to college. What is wrong with a dancing doctor?” I reasoned that working in the theater meant extra income. “You see Papa; you will not have to give me pocket money. I will even be able to help Mom to buy better food,” as I would be offered a Grade One ration card.

My mother supported me and reminded Papa that there was nothing wrong with a little extra income. She usually agreed with me, except when I was bad. She felt that ballet would be a good thing for me.

Father reluctantly agreed, but demanded that I complete high school and prepare to study medicine at the University.

Well, I was uncertain about medical school in my future or even about good grades, but agreed anyway. Actually, I was not sure of anything and was allowing the pieces of my life to fall into place as they may. Consequently, I was off to ballet school and the beginning of my dance career. As time would prove, I would never concoct a medical cure to save humanity, but I would build a major ballet company, were none had previously existed.

Our ballet school training was reciprocal to our middle school academic schedule. From 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., I concentrated on academics and was excused from gymnastics and extracurricular activities. From 2:00 p.m. until 5:00 p.m. I trained at the theatrical school. Dinner was at half past five and afterwards, I reported to the theater at seven to perform at least four times each week, as a dancer or an extra in an opera. During this time, I was living at home.

The ballet school, officially known as The Government Theatrical School, was an old yellow brick building, a former synagogue, situated in the middle of Novi Sad. Our school, which contained only one forty-foot by sixty-foot studio, occupied the rectory, which was formerly the rabbi’s offices and living room. That studio was really just a simple classroom with wooden barres installed on three walls, while the fourth wall was mirrored. The comfortable room boasted three big windows, a baby grand piano, and one padded leather chair. The soft pinewood floor was resilient for jumps. We used watering pots to sprinkle the wood, as non-slip rubberized flooring did not exist. Decades later I revisited the school, which had been designated as a historical monument--and it still looked exactly the same.

I remember my first class in that studio. There we stood with sheepish smiles on our faces and wearing short shorts and tee shirts on our gawky bodies. Our feet, shod in gym shoes, were planted in a turned out position, which was somewhat less comfortable than during the audition. The ballet shoes--on order from Belgrade, as Novi Sad did not have any ballet shops--had not arrived.

The middle-aged woman who had auditioned us--Margita Debeljak--was our teacher. She was a cheerful and good-humored lady, who tried to put us at ease with light jokes. She explained that we were to squat a little bit. She said that in French, it was called demi-plié. We repeated this movement quite a few times before she decided to demonstrate another--called battement tendu simple. She insisted that we maintain that same turned out stance while bringing our “working” legs to the side without raising the entire foot from the ground. We were permitted to raise just the heel from the floor so that the toes touched the wooden surface. It gave me the impression that the pine floor was sticky. Today, I regard it as a very elementary step, but back then, it required considerable concentration and effort to achieve. After seven or eight repetitions, my calf cramped. Grunts issued from my classmates. We asked ourselves, “Is this ballet?” We decided that it was quite boring.

Days passed, as the boring became the habitual. Our French improved and our legs grew accustomed to these movements. Our inspiration fluctuated from week to week and sometimes from day to day.

Our spirits elevated when our class was combined with the girls’ class. We were too young for romance, but our hearts beat faster--and our boyish impulses to showoff overcame us. We competed fiercely with the girls, who were more beautiful, softer, and much more flexible. They could do splits--grand écart--which we could not, and raise their legs higher. We, by contrast, jumped higher, soaring towards the ceiling. Through this childish competition, I developed extraordinary power in my legs. As my technique advanced, my elevation was something that others admired.

After the drive to compete evaporated, the hard work remained. Yet the repetitious daily drill with its sweaty expenditure of energy was never boring--something unexpected always happened.

We were barely through our first semester, when the theater produced Tartuffe (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme). They needed dancers, as after the war, there were very few male dancers, and even female dancers were not abundant. So, yet unripe, we were pushed onto the stage prematurely, but it was a great experience.

Yuri Rakitin, a former Stanislavsky actor, staged the piece. He certainly had an uncommon appearance and was a very imposing person. Although retired, he was still a fierce director and actor. I estimated that he was a little bit less than one hundred (although in reality, he was probably about seventy-five-years-old). His movements were a little shaky and now I suspect that Alzheimer’s disease was setting in. When he got excited, you needed an umbrella if you happened to be standing in front of him.

Rakitin’s explanations were flamboyant and spectacular. I easily pictured what he was verbally expressing. He introduced me to the Stanislavsky School of thinking, though at age fourteen, I was very unaware of the scope of Stanislavsky’s teachings and even less interested.

The accompanying dances were choreographed by Dancia Zivanovic, then a beautiful blonde woman. Besides ballet, she also specialized in East Indian dances. She was a queen--her movement, voice, and manner, were just so gracious, so voluptuous, so witty. At age fourteen, with my masculine hormones stirring, I thought Miss Zivanovic was fantastic--the most beautiful woman on earth.

Prior to my first stage appearance, we rehearsed for six weeks during the summer. We had a Turkish dance, a Tarantella, a Spanish dance, and a jig. I cannot remember the last dance, but vividly recall a scene with Rakitin. Two of the dances were spaced very close to each other and required a quick change. I wanted to be smart. Instead of removing the previous costume, I layered the second costume overtop of the first.

Suddenly, a big growl issued from the director’s chair, “STOP!” Everything and everyone froze, including the orchestra. Rakitin was gesticulating wildly and I sensed that he was pointing directly at me. “You, youngster there, come here,” he yelled. “What are you wearing?”

With a low and trembling voice, I said, “my costume.”

He seemingly tripped with his tongue, saying, “I mean under your costume! You are not supposed to wear long johns under your tights.”

I froze for a moment then tried to explain that I was wearing the costume for the second dance. However, he insisted that this behavior would not be tolerated. If I wanted to become a professional, I should always be neat and not wear tights that looked like old, worn-out, sagging socks. He turned and marched back to his chair. The humiliation was unbearable. I seriously thought that perhaps my father was correct, maybe dance was not for me.

The performance was a great success (at least I thought so). The audience probably preferred the dramatic action with its comic appeal to the dance. However, we provided diversity. After a series of performances, I do not recall how many, I felt like a stage veteran.

Because I was young and influenced by the older actors and dancers, I copied them. Theater people (including me) engage in pre-curtain rituals--such as warming-up, concentrating on a specific role, or maybe taking a vitamin, or having some glucose. I made the sign of the cross before performing, which I had observed the others doing. This ritual stayed with me throughout my career.

While on a summer tour, the Belgrade Opera Ballet performed at an open-air theater, showcasing their productions of Schéhérazade and The Legend of Ochrid, a folk-flavored Yugoslav national ballet. I was struck by the intensity of the dramatic action, though initially this non-verbal communication was disconcerting. However, the power of the music, the dancing, the lights, and costumes so inspired me that the following day, I was compelled to create my own class. I wanted to duplicate, absorb, and achieve the technique I had seen on stage. The impressions from that performance only lasted a short while, but nevertheless it was an influence on me.

That fall, we were summoned to an audition for a new ballet company organized by Marina Olenjina, who was a high strung, short-tempered, nervous redhead (natural or dyed, I never knew) with a heavy cigarette habit. The former prima ballerina of the Belgrade Ballet had been a freedom fighter with the Yugoslav resistance and subsequently directed the Yugoslav Army Ensemble for three or four years until it dispersed. She was invited to Novi Sad as ballet director. She brought her dancers, but wished to supplement her company with students. Via the grapevine, I heard that after observing our class, she had highly praised us to her troupe. Allegedly she thought that we possessed beautiful and correct placement. She instructed her dancers to regard us as role models. This created initial tension between us and those professional dancers.

Although they were professionals, some had been in the army during the war and had scant more training than our student group. Crawling in trenches had not improved their pliés. They were actually very swell kids, and one of the ballerinas was attracted to me. She showered me with compliments, which I remember that I liked. I was very inexperienced in love relationships and did not know how to respond.

Incidentally, I was head-over-heels for a cute little Hungarian girl, Irina Kisch. She flirted sweetly with me, but at fourteen, I was too immature for an intimate relationship. Irina proved to be a major influence in my youth, as I teetered towards tossing in the towel on a dance career. Dance was consuming my freedom.

Between middle school, ballet training, and the theater, I had very little time for a personal life. I saw my parents on the weekends and my mother, a bit more frequently, as she prepared my breakfast and supplied late night coffee to keep me awake while doing my homework. The relentless grind left no time to join my friends to play ball, run after girls, or hang out on street corners. Perhaps my mother was on to something when she said that ballet would keep me busy and out of trouble.

I decided to quit dancing. Ya, but at the ballet school there was adorable Irina with her black hair, always well-coiffed, her beautiful face with grayish-blue eyes and rosy cheeks, and her very flexible body. She was just my dream girl. I could not imagine spending a day without hearing her giggles. I purred like a cat when she was near me. I decided to stay.

Marina Olenjina was a sweet lady, but often lost her temper. Rehearsals were filled with crying and yelling. I thought that her outbursts were the norm for Russian dancers and that I had to behave like her and a zillion of my other teachers--by throwing fits and throwing chairs. Later, I discovered that such histrionics shocked the Western world, especially the Anglo-Saxons, whom I thought had “no temperament!” (I once frightened a very young student so much that the baby wet her pants--and I felt so badly afterwards.) Branded as a crazy man, I had to tame my fiery nature and temper my reactions to be cooler and less explosive. Actually, I did not entirely approve of such outbursts, but influenced by monkey see, monkey do, I monkey did. Only recently have I come to understand that this kind of behavior is to blame for some of my past failures.

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