New York

Eleanor Antin

One initially couldn’t be sure of just how seriously ELEANOR ANTIN’s Eleanora Antinova wanted us to take her. Inviting a small group of people to a typically modern gallery space to sip sherry among the potted plants and to listen to this alleged “once celebrated black ballerina of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes” share her recollections at first seemed the height of artistic contrivance. But Antin, in a discreet short black dress and pumps, didn’t perform in the predictably self-conscious manner. When the ballerina’s funny but sad monologue finished, it was, as it is with any good actress, hard to imagine her in any other role. In keeping with the unexpectedness of the experience, we, in the end, were the ones on display.

For the first part of this meeting, Antinova sat in an armchair to read from her memoirs, Recollections of My Life With Diaghilev, 1919–29. Surrounded by sepia photographs, and text and illustrations from the book, she told us in a slow, somber voice of the initial thrill of being a part of such a brilliant and romantic company, but her personal anecdotes quickly turned this history into an absurd tragicomedy of personal idiosyncrasy and vulnerability. Antinova, a struggling dancer in Paris during the ’20s, hooked up with a dapper Scotsman who seemed promisingly rich and glamorous: he ended up presenting her and the entire ragtag troupe with only the goods of his trade: wool sweaters. Though Antinova’s misunderstood accomplishments as a choreographer are drawn in detail, Diaghilev is hardly mentioned. When the obviously troubled, aging dancer (filling her sherry glass throughout the act with a ragged expression as she modestly mentions her apparent affliction) bangs the book shut, she moves to a waiting slide projector, to show melodramatic pictures of herself in her most illustrious roles. As her laconic narrative systematically deflates their importance, the audience begins to feel self-conscious about laughing—fearful that they may insult the emotionally troubled dancer. Pocahontas was her debut as a choreographer, because, she tells us, “it appeared to address itself to both my darkness and my Americanness.” As for her first “success,” l’Esclave, it was a “stationary dance,” because she wanted it to mirror the constrictions of her life. Apologetically, she calls it a “preposterous” event, but the pain with which she confesses this is too familiar, for those of us who have tried and failed, to ignore. It was during this time, she tells us, that she had become a drunk and a drug addict, because their was “nothing else to do.” As for The Hebrews, since everyone was talking about Futurism, progress, and the Egyptian craze, she set the dance in the period of the Pharaohs, but had the dancers move as if they were cogs in a modern assembly line. Though it was dropped from the repertoire, she maintains it was “all very modern.”

The success of Antin’s Antinova lay in Antin’s artistic cunning: her subtle mixture of convincingly serious character portrayal and undermining parody of artistic self-importance finally made me uncomfortably self-conscious—as conscious of my own vulnerability as I was of Antinova’s. To feel for this misunderstood character, to not be sure that she was aware of the joke, made laughter unsure and politeness self-indicting. The dancer’s pathetic attempts to imitate life in art with l’Esclave, or the heavy modernist symbolism of The Hebrews apply to far more than the trials of the Ballets Russes—that is, if we are willing to acknowledge it. But then we would have to answer why we were sitting so quietly and patiently on the floor, expecting the vulnerable performer to entertain us.

Were it not for the experience of live Antinova I doubt the wicked edge of the ballerina’s memoirs, represented by the photographs and texts on the gallery walls. would be so sharp. The melodramatic sepia prints of the “black” dancer as Marie Antoinette, or of the dancer as Baudelaire’s mistress Jeanne Duval posing in front of a leopard skin are evocative but light enough to dismiss. As we shuffled awkwardly out the gallery door, the by then drained dancer (and all for the sake of art) stood, poised but wet-eyed, thanking us properly for attending, looking hopeful that we might purchase a copy of her non-existent book. So successfully did she reverse the conventions of polite performance, so thoroughly did she destroy the conventional barriers between actress and audience, that my impulse was to ask if there were any available.

Joan Casademont