A Royal in Appalachia [Nonfiction]

By Renee Nicholson

Though it was only noon, we cleaned the flutes and Mr. Peter Franklin White poured champagne. My student Megan had finished cataloging a box of ballet artifacts to be sent to the Performing Arts Library in New York, part of an independent study project in Dance History, and I was the lucky instructor tasked with overseeing her work. If champagne seemed like overkill for a job well done, you have to know Peter.

Peter regaled us with a story from his company days, of a “minor nobleman of major means” who invited the Royal Ballet Company to his castle. The host, a patron of the company, decided to serve every member champagne. “It’s what you do in a castle,” the host had told Peter. And though Peter’s house is no castle, it is filled with unlikely treasures. From his basement, fitted to be a make-shift wine cellar, he appeared with a bottle, a spring in his step, which at 90 years old, is quite a feat.

In a house on top of a hillside in the First Ward neighborhood of West Virginia, Megan and I toasted friendship with Peter. I also live in First Ward, in a little house on a gentle slope, down hill from where Peter’s house looks out over the neighborhood. I had once danced, too, but never with a company as lofty as the Royal. Queen Elizabeth was never “my boss,” and my treasures are only of personal importance.

Peter lifted his flute into a ray of light cast from the sun’s angle through a small window. Watched it bubble up, like laughter made visible, and then he brought the flute to his lips and sipped. Megan and I followed suit, the champagne dry and ticklish in the mouth, but satisfying in that way that good drink is.

“I only drink champagne with friends,” he said. I find this to be quite right. I watched Peter sit and sip, and despite his advanced age, I could see, by his fluid gesture in raising the flute and his easy yet erect posture in the chair, those shadows of the principal character dancer he once was. Behind him was a framed bit of creamy silk, edged in gold tassels, with printing of gala’s offerings: Second Act Swan Lake and the whole of the Firebird. For me, the stuff of biographies and documentaries, but for Peter, stories, as much as champagne in a castle, as any royal would do.

 

To be a former dancer is a precarious thing because I’m not really sure what to do with myself. Teach? Write about dancing? Become something else? These questions linger and haunt, tease and taunt, and I’m left with the careful wreckage of what used to be a dancer’s body. I find myself trying on different roles—not unlike learning variations from different ballets—trying to figure out which one suits me. They all do and don’t. And while I had many role models on stage, ballerinas I still too easily mythologize, I don’t have many role models on how not to be on stage.

Perhaps I should be looking toward my old teachers, those who performed and retired and taught me and hundreds of other girls the ropes of plié, tendu, dégagé. But I find that my teachers stay tucked in that part of my imagination left to memory.  I find myself preserving and mythologizing them, just as I do the ballerinas, the stars of my youth. Nostalgia, that pretty place, often rebuffs critical assessment, like the thorns and vines and leaves that surround Aurora’s castle inThe Sleeping Beauty. And while I’m not in 100 years of sleep, waiting for a prince to kiss me, waking the slumber of dance and movement from my limbs, I still feel caught in ballet’s fairy tale place, wanting to preserve that sense of magic that drew me to it when I was young.

I don’t know how to be in the here and now—thirty-nine, sidelined by a chronic disease, teaching some and writing some and sometimes just being a wife or friend or daughter, nothing at all to do with dance or art. How does one live as an ex-dancer?

 

“I lost my hearing in the Blitz,” Peter told us. During this time, living in London, Peter danced with Sadler Wells, the predecessor of the Royal Ballet. He lived in the theatre, danced despite the bombs, when London refused to kowtow to Hitler’s barrage.

Picture an eerie December day, too warm for holidays, but with a grayness that Peter will call a “half night day.” We three, assembled in the small but comfortable dining room, are all former dancers. Yoav is the only modern dancer among us, but we all had careers in dance. I can’t help but assess us physically, as dancers do. Yoav is tall, but seems taller for the fact that Peter and I nearly look each other in the eye. I’m five foot, five inches, no longer the whittled girl of my dancing days, but slender, with long brown hair flecked with strands of gray. Still, dancer hair, which could be coiled neatly into a bun. Peter’s hair is full and white, and Yoav’s salt and pepper gray, but full like Peter’s. We all support ourselves upright in the chairs with back muscles that have been worked as part of a dancer’s posture. Perhaps we all show leftovers from a life in dance—the fluidity in which Peter gestures to a picture, or Yoav’s easy, graceful stride, or even the way I tilt my head, gently craning my long neck, a feature once praised by even my harshest teachers, as if I could have willed myself into producing it.

This day the stage was Peter’s, though, and as dancers we understand how rank and file works, the hierarchy particular to dance. He is principal, Yoav is soloist, and I am, as I often was, the girl in the corps.

 

I visit Peter often, stopping in as the winter slumps into spring. On one particular visit, in his kitchen, Peter instructed me to sit on a high, stool-like chair, as he went about the preparations.  Water heated to “nearly boiling.”  A pot warmed in the ancient microwave.  Peter kept his tea, Earl Gray loose leaf, in the freezer, neatly wrapped and placed inside a Ziploc bag.  He scooped a generous portion—three heaping tablespoons—and dropped it into the pot.  When the water was ready, he poured it in the teapot from an electric kettle.  Then he covered it with a cozy.

“It must stay at least three minutes,” Peter said. The directions are as precise as any combination or corrections in a ballet class. Dancers are creatures of peculiar habits, even with non dance activities, even, perhaps especially, tea. I had to wonder, would there be a test?

Peter’s movements were slow and deliberate. To serve the tea, he used a strainer over the cup so that there were not loose leaves.  Opening his yellow fridge, he asked if I would care for a splash of milk in mine.  Afraid of getting it wrong, I asked if that’s the way tea is supposed to be served.  Peter shurgged. He said milk or sugar was personal preference.

“My father drinks tea with milk,” I said. “So that’s how I’ll take it.”

“Your father has an English background?” he asked as he pulled a carton of milk from the fridge.

“No,” I said.  “Scottish.”

His eyes lit up.  “That’s an important distinction.” Peter’s features curved into a sly smile.  For a man of ninety, he has finely tuned facial gestures.  A holdover from a life in the stage, where each nod, wink, and bow can mean something important.

As I walked out of the kitchen with my tea, I stopped to look at a picture on the wall, hung over copper pots.  It’s from Giselle; Margot Fonteyn on the ground, the newly dead Giselle, and around her Rudolph Nureyev, as Albrecht, and Peter as Hilarion. Anywhere in Peter’s house, even next to the pots and pans, were snapshots of ballet history.

Peter caught me considering the Giselle picture. “It’s a dress rehearsal, although you’d never know it by Nureyev,” he said.  Nureyev was a brilliant performer, and even Peter will grant him that—but never as much so as when he was dancing with Margot Fonteyn.  She tempered him. The magic was in the pairing.

Later, when I tried making tea at home, it didn’t taste as good as when Peter made it for me. It required practice, a guiding hand.

 

When I think about Peter, our unlikely friendship, I wonder if our backgrounds in dance paved the way for that friendship. Ballet for him lives in the stories he tells, and I recognize my own wish to live on in the stories I tell about my own experience. I have a humble story, and yet when I listen to Peter I hear humility there too. So often, his stories of ballet aren’t about him, they’re about her. Margot Fonteyn.

They called each other “Daughter” and “Dad” as these were the characters they so often played on stage. “She dressed in Dior,” Peter told me, pointing to pictures he has of her on tour. Margot may have been an international star, but for Peter, she lives in his stories as both a great friend, and the hallmark of the classical tradition. Pulling out a gala program, he gestured to her upper body. “No one will ever have lines like that,” he said.

So much of Peter’s collected treasures are in homage to her. She is on his walls, in his library, always on his mind. He showed me a picture of the original cast of Sir Frederic Ashton’s Nocturne, pointing out Margot before pointing out himself.

Part of Margot Fonteyn’s international fame was sealed when she danced the role of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty while on the American tour in the late 1950s. Ironically, Peter was often cast as Carabosse, the evil fairy whose spell is tempered by the benign counter spell of the Lilac Fairy, changing a death sentence into 100 years of sleep. In real life, Peter would have never been party to such a fate. He’s too alive. Now considering Margot and the role of Aurora, I considered my own ballet students, so few would recognize the names of today’s leading ballerinas, if I asked. They often respond with blank expressions when I mention the late great Dame Margot Fonteyn, Prima Ballerina Assoluta. I find myself on Peter’s quest, telling my own students, “If you’re not familiar with her, check out YouTube,” even though I know the black and white clips won’t do her justice.

I have never danced Princess Aurora on stage, but I often feel I know her plight. I did not prick my finger and fall into 100 years of sleep, but I did have a needle pricked into my skin, in the form of blood work, that revealed a disease that would still my body from the dancing it once knew. So, perhaps, a kind of sleep, dance kept dormant inside me. And if I wasn’t kissed from a prince to return to it, it did take one major event—surgery—coupled with breakthroughs in the therapy to treat the disease to allow me to re-awaken to the art, if not as a dancer, then at least as a teacher. My story is not Fonteyn’s, and I have no Peter to tell it after I am gone, but like him, I find myself yearning to make the past present, to tell those tales I have carried in sleeping muscles.

There are moments, too, in our unlikely pairing, where Peter and I don’t talk ballet at all: Peter told me of his visits to the wound center after slipping on ice (“Such a bore,” he complained); or my recent trip to Chicago, where I didn’t make it out to any of that city’s famous steakhouses (“Pity,” he said, “But most are just overpriced.”). Peter enjoys Formula One racing and thinks of driving, in his 1993 Honda, as a craft. I like to read poems. He likes to cook. Sometimes we just get caught up in being friends, even without the dance.

But ballet has its way of always inserting herself into the conversation. For both of us, ballet is about what has passed, what we try desperately to preserve in words and pictures and other souvenirs. Though my house, downhill, isn’t filled with pictures of past great dancers, it does have its fair share of snapshots and old pointe shoes and programs. Relics of days gone by.

What is the drive to preserve? Is it the comfort of nostalgia, whose robust arms envelope us like a hug? Or could it be that we recognize that who we’ve become is so much who we once were, too? I’ve not had a lot of formal training in History, but I have to think that our desire to study a history—personal, political, popular, or otherwise—stems from the need to better grasp who we are now. There is a backwards-facing pull.

When I am with Peter, I often find myself letting go of who I once was, happy to take the trip with him through his memories. The need to tell becomes, instead, a desire to listen, an impetus a little like prayer. The more you listen, the more you are answered.

 

“That awful little man.” For as many pictures and books of Nureyev that Peter owns, this is the remark I’ve come to expect when he talks of the late great Tartar dancer. Tartar, not Russian, with the temperament to prove it. He would never properly rehearse. He would scream at the other dancers. He would scream at Margot, the greatest sin of all, according to my host.

Before we could talk of Nureyev, Peter assigned me homework in the form of a one of Nureyev’s biographies, one that Peter determined had “got it mostly right.” For Peter very few, if any, get it right, which, I suppose, is a dancer’s mindset. We never get anything wholly right; there is always some thing to improve. So it is with dancing, and so it is with everything else.

I can tell you I heard a faint sneer in Peter’s voice when he pointed out that in the dress rehearsal picture of Giselle above the copper pots in his kitchen, only Peter, as Hilarion, and Margot, as Giselle, are in dress and there’s that awful little man in his sweater tights, as if dressing for rehearsal is beneath him. I hardly witness joylessness from Peter except when he talked of Nureyev. For him, Nureyev represented equal parts talent and carelessness, recklessness towards others.

“God only knows how many he infected,” Peter said, referring to AIDS, the disease that would claim the unconquerable Tartar. To say Nureyev slept around doesn’t quite capture his sexual appetite. His exploits were nothing less than legendary, both according to the biography and to Peter.

Peter made it clear that what bothers him about Nureyev has nothing to do with his sexual orientation. In fact, Peter had spoken fondly of other dancers who were openly homosexual with warmth and affection, recalling their days together in the company as anyone would speak of their old and dear friends. He often points out pictures of Alexander Grant, his easy smile betraying the friendship he misses. Grant, like Peter, was a principle dancer with the Royal, one who shared many of the same roles as Peter. He tells a great story about how Grant and choreographer Frederick Ashton—Fred to Peter—got lost in a borrowed car. It reminded me of antics from my own dancing days. Ballet Companies have a reputation for being very stoic, full of discipline and work—and they can be—but there are days of hi-jinks, of cutups, of fun. I remember when the entire Snow corps from The Nutcracker wore snowflake earrings instead of the requisite rhinestone studs, and how our choreographer simply hung his head in mock disappointment. Ballet breeds great friends, if, occasionally, a nemesis.

Peter is less charitable to his former Artistic Director, Ninentte de Valois, the woman responsible for bringing Rudi Nureyev into the Royal Ballet, and therefore into Peter’s sphere. “She let him do whatever he wanted,” he said, words spit out as if his mouth was full of chalk.

The dislike of Nureyev has deep twin roots. The first comes from Nureyev’s cold and careless ways with people, especially other professional dancers. But the second comes from Peter’s deep admiration for Margo Fonteyn, whose legacy he protects with the determination of a knight errant. His chivalry includes protecting her memory of all ugliness or stain, and so when talk turns to the inevitable question—did Margot and Rudi ever sleep together—Peter is resolute. “A person’s private life is just that. Private.”

For me, what has been private for so long are my struggles with rheumatoid arthritis. I have no famous couple to comment on, of course. Even if I did, I suppose that RA would still be that thing I’d want to keep private. It’s not out of chivalry and friendship, like Peter’s closed mouth. Mine is less selfless. I am not so graceful as Peter.

As to Fonteyn and Nureyev, no one has ever definitively confirmed what many have suspected about the onstage pair, whose palpable chemistry in front of an audience was part of their allure. I’d never asked about the affair, and if Peter tells me the truth, then I make him a promise that what he has told me would stay between him and me. Because, if nothing else, Peter and I had become friends, and above all, he considers me “a sensible girl.”

 

At his birthday celebration, Peter makes a toast to thank his boss—Queen Elizabeth, II—making sure everyone has a drink or glass of wine. He celebrates his 90th year on earth surrounded by his Morgantown friends. I am the only one here who has also been a dancer. It’s hard to choose how to phrase that—meaning, I want to say that he and I are dancers, as though we are both actively engaged in the art of ballet. But that’s not quite right, of course. And yet, it’s perfectly correct.

We dine on a feast Peter cooked, a traditional English beef dish and chicken prepared in the Provincial style, which he learned, appropriately enough, while in France. The retired professor enjoys the beef, while Peter’s friend the jeweler asks about the wine. Peter complains about his doctor’s appointments—“what a bore”—and how slowly his wound from the winter has healed. “Nothing heals as it should,” he said. “Fast.” In his company, Peter reminds me how much life he still has to live and how he’s not letting age slow him much. It’s not so much what he says, but the way he acts, the purposefulness in even the little things he does, like pouring tea or wine.

Dance has fashioned Peter into a true gentleman, has made him easy to be around. And thoughtful. He has met, learned from, and worked with extraordinarily interesting and creative, gifted people. He has morphed into one of them, and it draws other people to him. At his birthday celebration, this seems clear to me. I can’t help but wonder if, perhaps, one day I might become a true lady, letting the extraordinary people, like Peter, like my past teachers and other dancers, influence my own character enough that I could become something better than myself. Get it right, perhaps.

We are all still in the long process of learning how to be.

And then there is dance, which for both Peter and me is as much a part of us as our height or eye color or skin. At its essence, I believe dancing is about joy, and joy for us ordinary people is this huge, difficult, messy thing to handle. Dance tries to tame joy through technique and steps and the pursuit of defying gravity. But in the end, to really be a dancer, you have to soak in the joy, like a bath that leaves your hands prune-y. Dancers become, in their best moments on and off stage, vehicles for joy. And amongst his friends, this former Royal radiated that same kind of joy toward all in attendance.

As for me, it’s like I’m a child stuffing my pockets full of candy, but instead it’s this joy. It spills out and fades, but I’ll keep lining those pockets in hopes it might stay.

Returning home after the festivities, a quick jaunt down a zigzag of streets, I consider where we live. Our neighborhood is a quiet place filled with a collection of folks: university professors and pharmaceutical chemists and retired miners and Orkin men and fledgling writers. Where lawns are mowed regularly and grandparents fill swimming pools in the summer, so the grandkids visit. A place where people walk dogs—beagles and boxers and labs and miniature pinchers and Boston bulls. Flying WVs decorate lawn flags and car decals.  At the top of a hill in this neighborhood lives a man who is as Royal as the ballet company he danced for, a man who sometimes drinks champagne in the afternoon, in his unassuming house, dreaming of past castles.

*

Renée K. Nicholson lives in Morgantown, WV, splitting her artistic pursuits between writing and dance. A former professional dancer whose career was cut short by the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, Renee earned teaching certification from American Ballet Theatre and an MFA in Creative Writing at West Virginia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Chelsea, Mid-American Review, Perigee: A Journal of the Arts, Paste, Moon City Review, Cleaver Magazine, Poets & Writers, Dossier, Linden Avenue, Blue Lyra Review, Switchback, The Superstition Review, The Gettysburg Reviewand elsewhere. She serves as Assistant to the Director of the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, and was the 2011 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State-Altoona. She is a member of the book review staff at Los Angeles Review, is co-host of the literary podcast SummerBooks and co-founder of Souvenir: A Journal. Her website iswww.reneenicholson.com.