The Ballet Dancer
Fiction by Johnny Cumlately.
This brief biography is based on a diary discovered in the archives of the Russian National Ballet.
Boris was born on 30th April 1958 in Moscow in Soviet Russia and even when very young, his parents took him to see the Bolshoi Ballet. It was not surprising, therefore, that he soon declared that when he grew up, he wanted to be a ballet dancer. He did well at school and later won himself a place in the prestigious Bolshoi Academy.
Training there was hard. A ballet dancer has to be 100% fit which meant long hours in the gym as well as at the bar. And there was normal school work as well. Boris showed promise, but was well aware that only a very few dancers really hit the headlines. For the rest, its just hard slog.
He was in due course accepted into the Bolshoi corps de ballet but never seemed to get offered solo roles and eventually auditioned and was accepted by the Leningrad (now St Petersburg) Mussorgsky State Ballet. This was a good company based in the old Mussorgsky theatre but always overshadowed by its neighbour, the Kirov at the Mariinsky. However, he was able to realise his ambition to dance some of the leading roles. The company's repertoire was almost exclusively the traditional classical ballets such as Giselle and Swan Lake.
Dancers of both sexes regularly wear tights and Boris had always felt that men's profile was spoilt by the inevitable bulge. He envied the girls their smooth fronts! As time went on, this envy was constantly on his mind and became an obsession. In those days the internet had not arrived but he heard rumours of an American surgeon who had “gone native” after the Vietnam war to help people in remote rural communities. He was reputed to conduct pioneer surgery in relatively primitive conditions which had even included the removal of a man's penis as a result of cancer. Maybe that would be the answer? However, Boris then had absolutely no prospect of going to Vietnam, still less
paying the surgeon a visit and he tried to put the thought out of his mind.
Fate was to take a hand when two years later, the company embarked on a strenuous “cultural” tour to communist countries in the far east. They gave short seasons in Peking (now Beijing), Shanghai and several other Chinese cities. They then went south to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in Vietnam.
Boris had managed to contact the surgeon who had locally become known as “Doctor Sam” and found that he was not averse to doing any surgery on demand for an “immoderate” fee and asked no questions about such a strange request. Boris had managed to save quite a lot as ballet dancers in Russia were comparatively well paid and he lived very cheaply. He was relieved that Dr Sam was willing to accept payment in roubles which was not a convertible currency.
As soon as the curtain came down of their last performance, Boris disappeared. A local friend of Dr Sam's met him at the stage door and escorted him up-country to the tiny clinic. The authorities made a rather perfunctory search for him but it was feared that he had managed to reach a Western embassy where he would ask for asylum and such publicity would not have been welcome.
Dr Sam's clinic was primitive but he had honed his surgery skills while on active service and had earned a good reputation since in spite of limited facilities. He assured Boris that he was confident about the procedure which involved removal of testicles and scrotum and amputation of the penis down to the root while preserving the urethra to create a new exit for urine just ahead of the anus. A large wad of rouble notes was handed over and the surgery was conducted next morning.
Boris was in considerable pain for several days afterwards and his recovery and convalescence took longer than expected so that its was about four weeks before he was fit enough to face the long journey back to Leningrad – mostly by train including four days on the Trans-Siberian railway.
The director at the Mussorgsky theatre was surprised when Boris walked in but seemed to accept without question Boris's rather unlikely story. As the situation would have become apparent as soon as he donned his tights, Boris explained that he had had a urinary problem for some time but put off getting medical advice before and during the tour. By the time they reached Vietnam it had become urgent and penile cancer had been diagnosed necessitating an urgent amputation.
He hoped to resume his career but badly needed to regain his strength. He was allowed to use the company's gym and rehearsal facilities for four weeks after which he would be assessed before returning to the stage in minor roles. Boris worked hard during that time and succeeded in rejoining the company.
His fellow dancers could not fail to notice the change and some of them teased him, calling him a lady boy. When would he be dancing on points and wearing a tutu? He just had to put up with it.
Apart from that, all went well for about three months but a major problem then arose. Dr Sam had told Boris that he would need to take male hormones for the rest of his life and had provided six month's supply. But such medication was to prove unobtainable in Communist Russia and there seemed no possibility of getting the pills sent from abroad. Boris just had to hope that there would be no noticeable consequences of going without.
But it was not to be. Several more months later, he became aware of slight swellings in his chest and increased sensitivity of his nipples, together with putting on a little weight around the hips. He became noticeably effeminate, even by ballet standards. More importantly, he was losing strength and found lifting his partner increasing difficult. It was not long before the inevitable happened and he lost his job.
His body was found in his tiny one room flat in a depressing concrete apartment block in the suburbs of Leningrad. He had taken an overdose of sleeping pills.
Among his meagre belongings was a diary which detailed his life in the Mussorgsky ballet and before. It was filed away in the company's archives and only discovered by a researcher many years later. This story is a very brief account of Boris's sad life. The final entry in 1987 reads
“No job. No future. I don't even know whether I am a man or a woman now.”
Fiction by Johnny Cumlately.
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