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Firebird

A brief tale of a ballet dancer, a tribute to a dead friend

· art

Light – bright and turbulent – had always been a great part of Sergej's life. Even at the precipice of death, the great Snuff to our candles, Sergej spoke of light, his improbably bright eyes green like glow-sticks.

In his telling, his life had revolved around beacons of luminescence that lit the grandeur.

Rain pours into the alleys of the Baščaršija, from God knows where, there's too much of it. It cascades off the roofs, and spatters the windows of the Turkish shops selling coffee as thick and forbidding as mangrove-flats mud.

 

The war has come and gone, leaving torn walls and sodden graves, and hearts asunder.

Sarajevo's Baščaršija, the old Turkish city, 1938

The thin sheet of water drifting down the windows makes candles in the opposite shops quiver like wisps.

He holds his cigarette like a French actress, and his eyes narrow like a despot.

As he talks, the thick smoke of his cigarette curls around the corner of his thin mouth like plaited grey sheets. It's as though his skin has been caked by decades of tobacco, until his sallow cheeks have yellowed like the tempura sheen of an Orthodox icon in the nearby ancient Serbian church.

We order more thick Bosniak coffee as the rain flows lazily over the cobblestones, like a creek bed, and I imagine silver fish springing from the shallows.

___________________________________

When he was only a boy, when he was all boy, and his hair was the colour of sun, and as soft as the closing of a book, a fire passed across the sky of Sarajevo.

The star lit the earth below, curved across the breast of the nocturnal scattering of silver, and disappeared as quickly and unexplained as it had come.

The young boy stood in the middle of the cobblestoned street of the Baščaršija, beneath the night shadow of the minaret of the Grand Mosque and looked with an open mouth, wide eyes, and an imagination as broad and full as that glittering canopy seemed to him to be that night of the burst of light.

He squeezed his father’s hand to feel the return squeeze, and asked his father what the light was.

His father had no explanation.

Haley's comet, 1910

His father knew of the boundlessness of the unknown, as a sailor and adventurer who had left his landlocked city to seek the tests of men and the vision the poets spoke of.

He knew that a diesel engine might turn-over when all is lost, if tapped, and humoured, and cursed, and kicked, but for no apparent mechanical reasoning, and that the fate of drifting ships and desert-locked trucks lay with this mystery.

He knew that with a wound nursed over time, born of a careless word, a woman might leave forever, her will to stay and love as dead as a hare with a burst heart.

And he knew that a hundred men and women forms a mob that might kill and burn and loot, in the vigour of revolution, or inflamed by oratory to turn on their neighbours.

He knew that mercy could be long in coming, but that vengeance was short in stealth.

He squeezed his boy’s tiny hand knelt down to draw his eyes level with his son’s, and to bathe in the wonder in his son's eyes.

“It is the light of the firebird my darling. When he spreads his wings, the light and beauty of all the children who seen him is reflected in his wings. That’s your light that you can see. It is the light from your eyes. Aren’t they bright and beautiful, your eyes my darling?”

Sergej would never forget that night. That light lived on in him to the precipice and beyond.

___________________________________

Sergej’s father had been born in the mountain kingdom of Montenegro, on the night in 1910 that Karsavina had premiered in Paris the famous Dance of The Firebird.

(which for many, on looking back, presaged the death of La Belle Époque, and whistled-in the bird of death which would soar above most of the 20th century).

As Sergej’s banker grandfather had sat smitten in the front rows of the Paris Opera House, oblivious to the onset of his son’s premature birth, his wife died in hideous agony as she gave birth to a son who would forever confuse, bewilder, and ultimately disappoint his scholarly father

He in turn had given birth to a son in good health, who would make him proud and happy, and who would reach such Icarean heights of grace, that an aching plummet to destruction was, of course, the only possible trajectory.

___________________________________

Tamara Karsavina in the costume worn as the title role in The Firebird (L'Oiseau de feu), 1910

One year, when Sergej was 4 years old, a famous Czech ballet company came to Sarajevo to dance The Rite of Spring.

It was a new era of hope, born out of bloodshed, and this great Prague ballet company had been stranded by the war in that ancient, distant, desolate, but peaceful continent, Australia, where they had been touring at the outbreak of war.

The return to post-war Europe of these Antipodean-bronzed children of the continent who had escaped war was heralded in every capital now sowing the fields of peace and freedom.

Their boisterous rendition of Stravinsky’s ballet was sought after as a symbol of the birth of the new, from Paris to Istanbul.

At the personal invitation of the patriarchal tyrant, Tito, who was in the process of transforming himself from Moscow vassal, Fabian partisan, and ruthless executioner into Father of Yugoslavia, the Czech ensemble toured Belgrade, Zagreb, and Sarajevo, to wild applause and rapturous reception.

As the great Czech dancers danced and fretted and jerked across the stage of the Sarajevo National Theatre, glittering plumes of wet golden feathers sent sparks of wet light skyward. The little boy sat in the fronts rows with his father and knew then (although it was not a conscious knowing, but the knowing of a weathervane that responds to the push of the wind), that he would dance that dance.

He knew that he would be surrounded by light, and that people would watch him and only him, like light at the end of a tunnel.

Sergej was born of a moment, re-born at that point in time, that flash of light.

Nureyev

At eighteen, Sergej was noticed by the greatest of this century’s dancers, Rudolf Nureyev, at a rehearsal of the Viennese Ballet Company, and taken under wing.

Nureyev was famous throughout the world then, for his flight from the USSR, and for his beguiling "one body, one soul" pas de deux dances with the Margot Fonteyn. They were one of the world’s great couples, photographed by Man Ray and Snowden for Life and Time magazines, feted in the thirty-one countries in which they danced and, like many of the world’s great couples, alive and in love in only the imagination of their audiences.

Sergej was perfectly handsome, when he was fully blonde, and while his youthful corpuscles could support the regimen of his extraordinary dancing, and his furious, arrogant, opium addiction.

At that age, more than ever, Sergej had a passionate attachment to his image, in mirror, in glass, in photograph, and in the faces of his audience. Not because he was conceited like Rudi, who held to a terrible arrogance, but because he knew that like an Andean flower he was probably destined to bloom only once, and so his life for as long as he lived it, must be like the fretting dance of the Firebird.

He sought his reflection in all things, for reassurance that he was still there, and for the first signs of decline.

Rudi sought to make Sergej great – perhaps as great as he was – as they roiled in love, but the two men were an alloy of two very different metals, Sergej’s success could only survive while he was with Rudi.

When Rudi threw him out of his Fontainbleu apartment in the middle of the night, Sergej cried tears of grief to the moon not because he knew that his light had begun to wane, but because he had come to love one who was incapable of giving love.

He wanted to kill himself, but he could only sit by the banks of the Seine, and slowly cut the flesh from a bag of blood plums, watching the crimson juice run down the blade of a knife he intended for his own throat.

After Nurejev, Sergej’s light began to die. His bloom had come and gone. He continued to dance for the next decade with great companies as a second or a third, but never as a first.

His father took great pride in him, however he danced, and forgave him the cruel stamp of 'homosexual' that people whispered, because he was a man who knew that nothing is what it seems.

When the old townsmen in Sarajevo drew on their hookahs, and stirred their thick coffee the colour and consistency of crude oil, and asked him about the women young Sergej must have possessed in his life, his father’s answer was always the same; my boy loves many things, and sees the light in many more.

Nijinsky as The Firebird, photographed in a French garden.

When Sergej was thirty-two, his life was struck by two great calamities.

His father died when felled by a piece of loosened masonry in the Baščaršija and, on the same night in which he heard about his father’s death, Sergej plummeted from the stage, injuring his back beyond salvation.

At the burial of his father in the Lion cemetery in Sarajevo, people wondered why the Firebird wasn’t there, how it was possible that this strange man, this comet born in Sarajevo, had breached the most basic duty of a son to his father.

 

When Sergej was fit to travel again and returned to mourn at his father’s grave, the townspeople shunned him as they always shunned his strangeness.

He slept that night in his father’s bed, awake to each of the Muezzin’s three calls, and left the next morning, swearing never to return to Sarajevo.

___________________________________

Suleiman the Magnificent

Fifteen years later he did return, carrying only a sum of money, and a light carrying bag. He returned to Yugoslavia, which was no longer that most perfect of countries, but a fragmentation of every seething evil that had ever dogged the Balkans, a darkness.

He arrived in Zagreb. Unsure of how he might reach the besieged city of his birth, and his starving half sister and her children, he made it as far as the battling city of Mostar, in barren Herzegovina.

 

There, armies of Muslims and Croats fought for their gangster bosses under the guise of a religious and territorial war, and shot away their once beautiful city piece by piece, and stone by stone.

There, while attempting to cross the front lines and reach Sarajevo, the fragile ageing dancer was arrested by Croatian men in uniform who called themselves police, and beaten on the soles of his feet, and robbed. He was held in a damp cell with five other men for a month, before being exchanged for prisoners across the front lines.

For three months he lay in a rank and ill-supplied hospital, tending to his feet as only a dancer could, knowing that he could never even return to teach in Hamburg again, ministering to the young bodies of hopeful dancers, now that he had seen the complete cruelty of men who torture birds.

Shellfire hammered the hills above him, and Sergej wondered about men who destroy the lives of those who have nothing. When they shelled the old bridge of Mostar, which had been built under the direct grace of Suleiman the Magnificent, until it’s ancient backbone snapped, sending its sculpture of white stones to the bed of the Neretva river below, Sergej found himself howling with a torrid grief he hadn’t had to cry since his father had died.

Stari Most (old bridge) astride the jade Neretva river. Mostar's bridge, finished after nine

years in 1566, destroyed with a few well-aimed grenades in 1993, re-built in 2004.

His tears gave him courage however, because Sergej believed that a man only cries the tears of pure grief three times in his life, and he had cried for the last of his three times. Now, he knew that since there was nothing left for him to cry over, and that perhaps death was very close now, he had the courage to try to reach Sarajevo.

He climbed the great mountains above Mostar where, across fields of fragrant medicinal herbs and vineyards, an army of Serbs held their own disinterested line as their brethren battled it out below (and to whom they traded arms to keep the combatants preoccupied with one another),

They let him pass unmolested. He traipsed the ridges and stumbled through the valleys, passing the sites of great battles between Christianity and Islam, sleeping in the walls of ruined Turkish and Austro-Hungarian fortresses, avoiding people whenever possible.

For seven days he walked across mountain roads, with soldiers, peasants, smugglers, and journalists. His fragility, now the fragility of a hungry bird, gave him the cloak of complete anonymity, and he was not bothered by the men in uniforms.

He was just another scarecrow, one of the scattered, ruptured lives that Bosnia had become. The Muslim concept of merhadija, or ‘the grace of kindness,’ kept him alive as he begged for bed and bread, and the discipline of the stage and the barre, and the bitter taste of love in his mouth, made him place one foot before the other, until he would collapse, exhausted, retching with the desire to vomit when nothing would come.

The tyres were hung by Bosniak forces in an effort to repel

Croat grenades, but the bridge eventually tumbled down.

He reached the foothills of Igman, the last mountain before Sarajevo, and hitched a ride with an Irish aid convoy, up and down its perilous slopes, at which the Bosnian Serb army loosed off volleys of cannon fire at the sign of a headlight or torch that pinpointed relief columns for the besieged city.

The Irish let him off at the little village of Hadžići, the last village at the outskirts of the siege of the city of his birth.

Hadžići formed the last touchstones of contact between the besieged city, and territory still controlled by the Bosnian Muslim army. It bordered the airport which, under an agreement between the besieging Serb forces who ringed the surrounding mountains with UN peacekeeping troops, was conditionally neutral territory.

A tunnel ran beneath the airport runway into the city's outer suburbs, and through which, for a price, everything was channelled, from dignitaries, to guns, to whisky and amphetamines to keep the troops fighting.

War

But Sergej had no money, so he would join the people who made the night-time crossing of the airport, a dash of three hundred metres avoiding the patrols of French peacekeepers, who suddenly illuminated arclights that were meant to deter the crossers, but which instead served to illuminate victims for Serbian snipers sights.

The French APC’s collected as many corpses as they snared siege-breakers, but still they shone their lights.

Sergej waited in a ruined house until nightfall, before moving across a field of ripening wheat, and into a low ditch next to the runway. He could hear the low rumble of an APC trundling across the tarmac a kilometre away and see the blue sweep of its light as it passed across a row of shelled houses, hundreds of metres to his right.

When the moment seemed right, after an hour or so (and when could the moment seem right!?), he lifted himself out of the ditch, and began running as low and fast as possible across the tarmac.

Love, and adoration.

He could hear other footsteps running, and began to run faster, picking himself up. Then more footsteps to his right, and he realized that others were running with him, as fast as him, gaining distance, and passing him, and that he was gaining distance then passing others, whose faces he couldn’t make out, just people running as silently and without breath as possible.

Then as if running into a tree or lampost, he was knocked to the ground by a runner coming from the other direction, and then some other ghostly black form tripped and staggered over the prone Sergej, and cursed, before running off into the gloom.

 

For a moment, briefly unconscious and dazed, Sergej thought he had died. How was it possible that a tree had grown in the middle of a runway? isn't that dangerous? Somebody could be killed!

 

Perhaps, though, he had been shot? He lay on his back watching unfiltered Milky Way, and the blades of arc lights sweeping across him.

He jumped up, clutching his dislocated and searing shoulder, and continued running to the outlines of houses on the other side of the runway.

Sarajevo's Baščaršija, the old Turkish city, 1938

Sarajevo's Baščaršija, the old Turkish city, recently.

When I knew him, Sergej lived in an apartment then, in Sarajevo. The rain fell, or it snowed, or it bristled with choking heat held in by the mountains.

He wore an earring, and his thinning blonde-grey hair was brushed severely back. He wore leather trousers, and a leather jacket, no matter what the weather.

He was living from a pension from the German government, for the years of work he had put in as a ballet dancer with the Hamburg ballet company.

He'd buy things for himself. A video and television, on which he watched pirated versions of famous ballets, but mostly he bought bottles of expensive men’s fragrance, with which he sprayed himself constantly ‘to keep cool, so cool,’ even if it was snowing outside the coffee shop in which we met.

His apartment is a curiosity shop of discarded, half-used fragrances.

Towards the end, before I left Sarajevo, and stopped treating it as my home, he stopped visiting the Turkish coffee shop in the old town anymore, because he had come to believe that the Albanian bakers who also went there wanted to kill him.

Querelle of Brest

Towards the end, he stopped looking at any of his friends when they spoke to him, although he laughed at everything they said.

It mustn’t be said that Sergej was mad. It’s just that he was dying, and he was preoccupied with that terrible arc that he'd travelled from the light in the sky as a boy, to the stage and love with a Firebird, and to the scourge of HIV.

Sometimes, when something seemed ugly or cruel to him, he drew himself up, and his eyes burned with haughty affront.

He would purse his lips like an old matron, and lift his chin with the cut of a sergeant-major, and, lowering his eyelids to fierce Slavic slits, declares the affront ‘impossible’ (knowing full well that all is possible).

Towards the end, he tried to go out as little as possible, but each day he bought a rose and carried it with him as he walked.

 

He was more dead than alive then, in his thinness, and in the cough that he hacked, and in the countless cigarettes that he smoked, and in the ugly brown moles that emerged to stain his face and the hands and body of the dying Firebird.

(and I haven't decided how I might finish this yet...)

The comet Hale-Bopp passes across the skies, 1997

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