The patter of toe shoes, the aroma of onions

By

TOURING America as the youngest member of the famous Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1939, my mother, Yolanda Lacca, was chosen to perform a solo as one of the dreamlike creatures in ``Les Sylphides,'' a well-known ballet about a young Poet lost in a maze of Romance, his nocturnal plight enhanced by Fr'ederic Chopin's breathtaking music and Michel Fokine's choreography . . . yet, just before this extraordinary occasion presented itself, during the company's halt in Waco, Texas, my mother experienced what proved to be A Major Danger To The Evening's Performance, that is, Madame Mathilda Gelespova, in person! Madame Gelespova was an imposing, large-boned Russian whom life's events had brought all the way to the freeborn States from the Ural Mountains in snowy Russia. Tall and taut, always arrayed in black, Madame Gelespova marched onward in her leather boots sustained by the necessity of supervising the artistic achievements of her daughter, Tania.

As a dance, Madame Gelespova could certainly be compared to a czardas.

Mama and Tania were best friends and shared every conceivable secret under the sun; but not so their mothers, each of whom considered the other with just as much as a condescending nod. As the only two mothers ``touring,'' they thought it wise to keep dignity within personal reach but alas, a ballet troupe roaming through new frontiers by train was not the best place to act aloof. Occasional squabbles would erupt, only to melt away just as soon.

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Landing in Waco on a glorious, clear-skied morning, Mama, Tania, Madame Gelespova, and Mama's mother, Eug'enie, were faced with the alarming priority of finding a hotel.

For the non-English-speaking refugees, each detail concerning practicality was viewed as an insurmountable problem; great consultations in Russian preceded a choice, and after much deliberation all four would file into the hotel lobby captained by Madame Gelespova proudly carrying three or four enormous bundles from which emerged her cherished kitchen utensils. Glaring straight at the astonished clerk, Madame Gelespova would thump her bundles beside her and demand a room; almost always the room was granted.

Between the hustle and bustle of Novelty and obeying their mothers' orders, Mama and Tania often managed to elude restrictions and enjoy everyday views of America: grits for breakfast, Nehi fruit-flavored soft drinks, corn on the cob, and barbecued beef were wonders to two young girls having just escaped from wartime Europe. Not even the Dust Bowl that was sending millions off toward California distracted their attention from hot fudge and ice cream, an unquestionable delight.

But, most of all, they were artists under contract to impresario Sol Hurok and as such, Duty on Scene was scheduled at 8 on the dot the night they arrived in Waco. Reaching the theater two hours before the performance, the corps de ballet and soloists proceeded with the intricate dress and makeup ritual.

Mentally rehearsing her part, Mama sat in front of the huge, lit-up mirror smoothing a layer of white foundation over her cheeks; a pair of thick black eyelashes followed, glued to her eyelids with surgical precision, the finishing touch being a wreath of camellias pinned to her hair as a crown.

Now, appearing from a cloud of glistening tulle she no longer resembled the 13-year-old ice-cream lover, but a ghost-like, whimsical beauty ready to light up the sky in Waco. Meanwhile, backstage things were popping. . . .

Sol Hurok's personal assistant, Maurice de Winters, his fedora shielding him from unnecessary trials, surveyed the situation with serene authority as fair queens, machine decorators, and conductor Anatole Fistoulari scattered about.

Suddenly the orchestra struck the notes of the National Anthem, closely followed by Chopin's overture. Backstage a stifled silence froze the buzz, and as if by magic each and all resumed grace and purpose. The Ballet Russe was ready, and as the curtain rose, the audience was faced with the transcendent wonder of Art.

In the wings, her heart thumping, Yolanda stood waiting for her cue: All of a sudden a strong hand clasped her arm; Maurice de Winters, eyes glittering, his fedora somewhat askew, hissed an order in her ear: ``SNIFF!'' Sniff], surprised, Mama obediently followed the command, when she caught all at once, the oh, too-familiar scent of Russian cooking; the tantalizing odor of onion-stuffed meatballs poetically called Kotlietkis. . . .

Who on earth was cooking under Waco's main theater hall? Who dared hide beneath the highly inflammable wooden stage chopping garlic to the sound of Chopin's heart-rending ada-gios? Who, but Madame Mathilda Geles-pova, oblivious of all except her mouth-watering dish.

At that moment such culinary accomplishments did not seem to coincide with Mr. De Winter's approval, and he threatened to fire both Tania and her mother. Yolanda was given exactly five minutes in which to convince Madame Gelespova to immediately quit cooking and steer clear of onions.

Spurred on by an intense feeling of camaraderie, Mama ran following the spicy nose-tickler through the mysterious labyrinth of the understage.

There, crouched over a small black stove, the electric wire shakily connected to a light bulb dangling from the ceiling, Madame Gelespova was passionately shredding away at a heap of vegetables with a pocket-size scout knife, while at her side a mountain of kotliet-kis lay sizzling triumphantly. Lit up as by a halo, her back turned to where Mama stood staring, she resembled more a medieval alchemist than a Russian mother frying memories in an alien land. ``Please! He shall fire us all!'' entreated Yolanda in Russian.

Madame Gelespova bounced up with a start; without uttering a word she carefully piled up her kotlietkis and wrapped them in a large damp towel. Then, grabbing a stool and a chair, she placed one on top of the other and, displaying an amazing agility for a person so massive, climbed up and disconnected the electric wire from the light bulb. Muttering incomprehensible secrets under her breath, she speedily disappeared from a trap door through a rack of shimmering costumes and large boxes on whose sides were superbly printed in big red letters BALLET RUSSE DE MONTE CARLO.

Exactly one minute later, Mama flew, slow-motion, on stage. Twirling gracefully she swayed to and fro, while the music underlined her pirouettes with deep and pathetic tones; the audience watched transfixed as Igor Youskevitch portraying the young Poet leaped toward her in one eternal pas de bourr'ee, jet'e. . . .

Sitting on a bench in the park, her precious meatballs nestled fondly in her arms, Madame Gelespova looked up toward the stars and smiled; notwithstanding Monsieur Maurice de Winters, she knew better:

Kotlietkis, too, held definite promise of true Romance.

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