Coco is at home in the rue Cambon, dancing spiritedly to some inner music. She sings to herself in front of a full-length mirror.
Qui qu’a vu Coco Dans l’Trocadéro . . .
Her lips are red, her eyes sable, and her white dress cut with ravishing simplicity.
Several times she turns around, admiring her slim silhouette. She relishes the crackly sound her petticoat makes as it rubs against the silk of her gown.
All week she has labored over that gown, fussing over the collar and fretting at the hem. Now at last she is happy. It looks stunning, and she knows it. Daringly the tiered white silk hangs well above the ankle. Straight and fluted at the bottom, the dress flows like a liquid down her body.
She has slaved away, too, at the hat: a broad brim of black silk and a close-fitting crown. She pulls it on, and tucks away a lick of hair, adjusting the brim until it hangs at a sly angle. A shadow falls across one side of her face.
Où? Quand? Combien? Ici. Maintenant. Pour rien!
She laughs. Then tilting her head back amorously, she dabs with a single finger a smidgen of perfume along her throat.
Tonight she is excited. She has never been to a proper concert before. Several works are to be performed, including the premiere of a piece by Stravinsky. Everyone will be there. It should be an event. She feels a little apprehensive, but experiences, too, a heady intensification of her senses. Each whisper of her dress, each spore of her perfume, every texture that answers the touch of her hands seems to sharpen her awareness of the world around her.
The telephone rings, startling her. She chooses to ignore it. The driver is already waiting, and she doesn’t want to be late. She checks she has her purse, her parasol. The ringing stops. She hopes it wasn’t Caryathis saying she couldn’t come. Too bad, she thinks, thrusting her hands into her gloves.
Descending the stairs, she’s conscious of the mannequins in the shop below. Cold torsos. Plaster heads. Stiffly angled hats and gowns. She feels the heat they are cheated of. Everything seems so quiet and still here compared to the agitation she feels inside. As she opens the door, the smells and noises of a raw spring evening greet her. She takes several head-clearing breaths, inhaling deeply as if receiving a new draft of life. Then with a quick movement, she steps into the back of the waiting car.
It is dusk. Lighting-up time. All around her the city’s lamps are coming on. A garish splendor spreads across the capital, extending up the avenues’ spurs. Trams thunder along the boulevards. Omnibuses bully up the streets. The car moves slowly past the bar at the back of the Ritz and turns sharply right into the rue St. Honoré. Idling for a moment in the traffic, the driver swings left down the rue Royale toward the Place de la Concorde. Crossing one of the tram tracks at an angle, the wheels protest with a high-pitched squeal. The car jolts from the impact. Coco’s hat bumps against the roof.
“Careful!” she scolds the driver.
“Pfff,” she says, waving him away.
She has been working hard all afternoon. Her stomach feels empty. She has not eaten now for several hours. She wouldn’t feel comfortable in that dress otherwise. And she’s keen to meet her escort. It’s all been arranged by a friend.
Her nervousness and the motion of the car mix together to make her giddy. The sensation of weightlessness stretches to her limbs. It’s odd, but as the car swerves lightly this way then that, she has the sensation of being drawn toward something by invisible lines of force. For a moment, she sees herself from above. She feels as if she’s floating.
Finally, after picking its way through the crowds in the avenue Montaigne, the car comes to a stop. Glued to a Morris column is a poster advertising Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The theater doors have opened. The flower sellers are out in force. Hundreds of people are milling around.
Coco slides out into the humming darkness. The air seems warmer here, as though charged. Something sappy in the atmosphere attracts her. The magnolia and horse-chestnut blossoms are brighter almost than the lamps.
She straightens her dress and retilts her hat to an even perkier angle. Something in the energy and press of the people here tells her this is going to be a good evening. She can sense the attention of men’s eyes upon her. Her feet seem scarcely to touch the floor.
Feeling almost bridal, she glides toward the theater’s lights.
Igor sits in his dressing room at the theater, cutting his toenails.
A scatter of crisp little moons has gathered on the carpet, the color of old piano keys. Snip. Bending low, he examines the horn of his big toe. He has cut too deeply with the cuticle scissors. A tender ridge of skin has been exposed, leaving a raw pink crescent around the nail.
Worse, his new shoes pinch him, and he winces as he stands. As he pulls on his shirt, it snags around his head. The buttons are fastened too high. For a split second he experiences the panic of being smothered. His vision whites out. He hates it when that happens. It reminds him of the time as a child he fell under the ice. Headless, he wrestles his arms into the sleeves. Then he reaches up to release a button, and surfaces with a gasp.
Looking in the mirror, he’s half startled as always by this extension of himself, this twin who appears with features tweaked, and with left and right queerly reversed. Testingly he raises a hand to his face. The motion agrees with a feeling in his cheek. He feels relieved, but when he coughs the noise seems to come from somewhere outside him.
Agitated, he paces around. His fingers perform complex phrases against his trouser legs. He worries that the first violin and flute parts are ill-balanced. He worries that the score is too difficult and that the dancers aren’t fully prepared. The choreography is too intricate, he thinks. It doesn’t correspond to the tempo. He’s told Nijinsky over and over, but he doesn’t listen. He seems incapable of counting properly and has trouble even clapping in time. Meanwhile Diaghilev just indulges him; his lover, of course, can do no wrong.
Igor has a premonition of terrible notices and humiliating reviews. His mouth feels scratchy; his throat is dry. He realizes he needs a drink and reaches for his glass. His spectacles catch the wine’s vibration as it rises to his lips.
Simultaneously the muffled sound of tuning instruments insinuates into the room: scales being played, little runs undertaken, complex passages rehearsed. Unperformed, the music seems not to have left him yet. Its jerky rhythms twitch inside him, pulling invisibly at his limbs. Something fluttery in his stomach responds to the woodwinds warming up. He hears the stepwise descending minor chords against a rising sequence of sevenths in the bass and experiences that queasiness again. His hands, he sees, are mottled. He feels almost sick with fear.
In his mind, he pictures members of the orchestra crowding the stage, thickening like knots of crotchets. He tries not to think about the audience. A restless spectator himself, it unsettles him to conjure the image of hundreds of people filing in.
In truth, he’s not quite sure they’re ready for this. He almost pities them, sitting there. Little do they suspect what’s going to hit them. God knows how they’ll react.
His thoughts turn toward his wife, Catherine: his ideal listener. He half wishes she were here. She’s pregnant with their fourth child. And sick with it. Instinctively he feels for the small studded crucifix she has given him as a good-luck charm for tonight. It’s in the left breast pocket of his jacket: the side where his heart is. Detecting its shape through thicknesses of cloth, he smiles, uplifted. He wants that new baby. And yes, let it be another girl as Catherine wishes. Two of each would be good, he thinks; the symmetry appeals. He wants tonight to be a triumph for her. He takes out the cross and kisses it.
In a couple of hours it will all be over, he reminds himself. But the success or otherwise of tonight’s performance could determine his whole future. His career as a composer may well depend upon it. In the last few years he’s done some good things; he’s been noticed. It’s said that he’s promising, that he has potential. And now, at thirty-one, he knows it’s time for him to realize it. He needs a big success to secure his reputation, to establish himself; to arrive. If tonight goes well, it could be the turning point.
A boy knocks. “Five minutes, sir.”
As he drains the last of the wine, slivers of red flicker across his face. He worries at his cuffs. For the hundredth time, he looks at the clock. He waits until the spasms of the minute hand reach twelve.
He takes one final reassuring look full in the mirror and brushes some imagined fluff from his lapels. He crosses himself. “Please, God, let it go well!”
Then, breathing in deeply, he opens the door. The music grows louder. His heartbeat quickens. He strides toward the hall.
Inside the new white marbled splendor of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, a line of gilt runs around the walls, connecting the boxes with a golden thread.
The whole of fashionable Paris is here. Everywhere there are perfunctory introductions and enthusiastic reunions between the coolest of friends. Laughter swells and ebbs locally. Fans ventilate the flames of gossip. Rumor and counter-rumor run along the aisles.
Coco has dreamed many times of taking part in such a spectacle, but now she’s anxious that she might not fit in. She feels ill at ease among these strange rich people. The opulence has a corrupt whiff to it. She looks closely at the men in their dress-suits tweaking their ringed fingers, and at the women swathed in turbans or strangled by ostrich boas.
They regard her, these women, with disapproval, without quite knowing why. It’s not as if she’s more decorative. Quite the opposite. If anything, the cut of her clothes is austere. The simplicity of her gown, its restrained elegance, makes them seem almost gaudy by comparison. And her silhouette is intimidatingly slim. It is this quality of understatement, this nonchalance de luxe, they find disrespectful. The impression she gives is that she’s not even trying. It seems so effortless, they feel undermined.
To Coco, conscious of the disdainful glances she’s attracting, these others seem ridiculous in their plumes and feathers, their taffeta gowns and heavy velvet dresses. If they want to look like chocolate boxes, then that’s their affair, she reasons. As for her, she prefers to look like a woman.
The place reeks of privilege. Diamonds glitter and pearls scintillate under the chandeliers. For a moment she feels like an imposter. Memories of her upbringing crowd her brain: a dilapidated farmhouse, a tiny allotment, mother sick and father absent, her brothers and sisters squabbling like so many hens in the yard. A dim recollection comes to her of carrying armfuls of carrots back from the fields. Now, though, surrounded by the supremely rich and casually amused, it is as if she has imagined it.
Believing in her own blessed destiny, she has closed her mind to that part of her life and reinvented herself, conceived herself anew. She has used men, and been used by them. She has learned how to operate in business and succeed. Everything she’s achieved, she has worked hard for—and no one works harder, she is sure of that. And here she is; she’s made it happen. Her shop is thriving. There’s a trail of men all besotted with her. And among her clients she can count some of the richest women in France. Not bad, she reflects, for an orphan girl. She will be someone; she knows it. She will cast a shadow. These women will see.
Her nervousness evaporates, to be succeeded by a sense of exhilaration. As programs are consulted and small talk pursued, she feels her confidence grow. She even begins to cultivate a slightly absent air, meeting several people with whom she shakes hands coolly, responding indifferently to their eager smiles.
The odd thing is, she had not meant to go. She is acting as an escort for Charles Dullin, who refuses to be a gooseberry in the company of her dance teacher, Caryathis, and her rich German lover, von Recklinghausen. So she is making up numbers. She has to start somewhere and is glad of the opportunity to be involved. For Coco then, tonight is a kind of debut.
Seated next to her, Charles is gentle and attentive. He’s an actor, and she has long enjoyed his performances and admired him from afar. Meeting him up close, though, he’s not as spontaneous as she’d supposed. She finds him quite ordinary, in fact. Without a script, he has little of brilliance to say. And if he intends to make an impact, it’s too late. He’s been upstaged.
Already tonight, Coco has felt herself on the edge of a sensation. For Caryathis has arrived hatless, and with her hair severely cropped. Scarcely able to contain her delight, Coco asks, “My dear, what have you done?”
Caryathis explains. A few days previously, rejected by a man to whom she was rashly attracted, she had attacked her hair with a pair of scissors. Then, feeling compelled to make a gesture, she’d tied the tresses in a ribbon, and hung them from a nail on the man’s front door.
“It was too long anyway. It just got in the way.”
Coco says, “But you look like Joan of Arc!”
“I know, and I’m going to play the part to the full.”
Coco is thrilled by the reaction Caryathis elicits from the gathering throng. The trajectories of most opera glasses confirm her as the focus of a thousand eyes. Sitting next to her, Coco glories in the attention. There’s something about the two of them together that invites scandal, she knows. She’s quick to grasp the impact they have on those around them.
On her other side, Dullin already feels superfluous: a bit-part player, an extra. She was meant to be his escort. Now it’s beginning to seem like the other way around.
Coco asks him to hold her program. She knows she is being watched. And while Caryathis whispers into her ear, she fans herself languorously, training her lorgnette on the company below.
Eventually the buzz of conversation distills into a hush. Coco sees Serge Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, seat himself in the front row to applause. The conductor and principal violin are greeted warmly. Soon the lights are dimmed.
From the darkness float the haunting tones of a bassoon. Six high notes reiterate a simple motif. The notes dissolve quickly into birdlike twitterings, thin scratches and scrapes. Blind flurries come from the woodwind, followed by scurryings on the strings, and then the entry of thumping brass. Great swerves of sound.
The transitions are so abrupt that Coco jumps. The instruments come together in choppy, dissonant chords. The spastic rhythms alarm her. She’s heard nothing like it before. The notes collide at odd angles and set the air vibrating strangely. Warned to expect something different, she has not prepared for this.
Then, against a painted backdrop of rolling steppes and sky, twelve flaxen-haired nymphs in black disport themselves and resolve into a provocative tableau. Adopting primitive positions—knees touching and elbows clamped to their sides—the dancers lurch awkwardly in time to the beat.
One of them makes an obscene gesture. Coco is shocked. Other spectators let out howls and shrieks. People stamp their feet. As the nymphs join in the crude movements, many in the audience begin to hiss. Not far from Coco, an old lady stands, her tiara almost slipping from her head. “This is a disgrace!”
Onstage the dancers continue, whirling around and coming together in startlingly ardent friezes. They leap about in splendid abandonment. The music harshly accents the movement of their hands.
“All very Slavic!” Caryathis remarks.
One of the foreign ambassadors, seated in a box to their right, begins to laugh out loud at the spectacle. Coco takes a mischievous delight in watching the scene unfold.
A man rises to his feet and appeals for silence. A lady in a nearby box slaps a neighbor, who is hissing, across the face. Enraged, another man shouts, “Shut up, you bitches!” aiming his abuse at some of the most refined and beautiful women in France.
“That’s Florent Schmitt,” Caryathis whispers. “I’ve seen photographs he has of the composer—pictures of him in the nude!” In the dance teacher’s mind flashes the image of Stravinsky naked, hands on hips, on a small wooden jetty—wedding tackle in profile, buttocks pert and muscular—a scrawny white horse incurious in the background.
Coco laughs, amazed that this kind of thing goes on in the upper echelons. The more one advances socially, it seems, the more depraved one is allowed—even expected—to be.
The audience is becoming more restive, she notices. Chords clash, and the rhythms seem ugly, foreign. To the Parisian elite, an impression of crudeness persists: of Mongolian brutishness and Tartar savagery, of herrings and bad tobacco.
And while Coco laughs along with the rest of them, something experimental and impulsive in the music chimes with her sense of novelty in being here. Like her, the rhythms seem driven. Her body feels beaten by the hammers of the piano, her skin abraded by the horsehair of the bows. The raw energy of it all feeds through her as if she’s a lightning rod in a storm.
Amid the conflicting rhythms, she senses Charles looking at her from the side of her vision.
Abruptly the pace of the choreography quickens. And so does the furious energy of the dancers, who twist themselves into all manner of agonized and erotic postures. The temperature rises detectably, setting fans flapping and generating an impression in Coco’s mind of trapped birds all over the theater.
The demonstrations reach such a pitch that it becomes almost impossible to hear the music. Some women in front of her are so upset—or so moved to hilarity—that tears thicken their lashes, where they mix with mascara and run in black lines down their cheeks. Of course, Coco has seen much worse in the taverns of Moulins and Vichy, where she used to sing and dance. But that was entertainment for the troops. Here, instead, it’s the costive calm of the upper orders she sees being broken—spectacularly.
Charles leans so close, his whiskers brush her cheek. He wears too much cologne, she notices. He whispers something, but she doesn’t quite catch it, such is the tumult of the music and the continuing uproar. She feels his hand take hers. Without looking at him, she extricates her fingers skillfully from his grip.
Where there is standing room only, the more impecunious enthusiasts are creating their own din. There is chanting and clapping; obscenities are hurled. And still the ballet carries on. To her astonishment, it is not long before fights break out around her. A few dozen people even begin to strip. Coco delights in the anarchy. The house lights, which have been flickering intermittently, go up while arrests are made.
Onstage, the prima ballerina enacts her sacrificial dance. Head tilted on her hands to begin with, soon her whole body is wracked with spasms. She jerks fiercely to the rhythms, ending in an ecstasy of trembling as she collapses on the floor.
Distracted by police whistles and startled by the sudden illumination, the conductor—a plump man with a walrus mustache—glances around at the turbulent scene behind him. Having reassured himself that at least no one is about to invade the stage or storm the orchestra pit, he keeps going, aware that dancers in the wings are desperately clapping time.
The lights go down again. Without warning, Coco feels Charles’s hand upon her knee. She looks across at him. He’s staring at her. Once she might have responded, but not now, not here. She recrosses her legs away from him, causing his hand to slide from her dress. Still, his touch sets off a tingle inside her, a tiny thrill.
Then, just as the indignant protests and peals of laughter rise to their climax, Coco sees a jaunty balding man, looking dapper in his dress-suit, stand up at the front. Small, five feet one perhaps, he marches down the center aisle in full view of everyone. His face shines whitely under the house lights. The dab of a bald spot glints. Hunch-shouldered and slightly bandy-legged, he strides on. Row after row, pairs of eyes turn to watch him as he sweeps heroically out of the hall. In a fury, he slams the door shut behind him. The action corresponds with a thud on the drums.
“Who’s that?” Coco asks Caryathis.
“The man with the nude pictures of himself?”
“You wouldn’t think it, would you?”
“And is he married, this Stravinsky?”
“He certainly is.” Her head moves closer to Coco’s as she adopts a scandalized tone. “To his cousin!”
“I didn’t think that was allowed.”
“It isn’t,” Caryathis whispers, settling back behind her fan.
The two women look at one another and begin giggling wickedly.
The orchestra and dancers battle on until the farce comes to an end. With a grave sense of duty, the principals take their bows. Members of the orchestra solemnly file out. Still buzzing, the audience swarms from the auditorium, spilling onto the streets and into the May night.
Coco emerges from the scrim. Sweating, she is glad to be out in the cool evening air. But she feels exhilarated, too, having experienced the same volatility within her that agitated the theater’s tight space. A spark still lingers, lighting her eyes.
Caryathis asks, “So what do you think?”
“No, not the ballet. Dullin!”
“Oh, Charles! I’d almost forgotten.” She allows her lips to sink with indifference.
Actually she did quite like him until he began feeling her knee. He’s charming company, and handsome. But he’s too forward, she decides; she doesn’t like that. Besides, he’s an actor. Actors are poor and, well, she’s rich. Success has raised her expectations.
“I feel faint. I want to eat,” she says. Her ears still ring with the music. Her body still hums with the vibration from the floor.
Caryathis gestures to the men. “Let’s go.”
Then Coco exclaims, “Hey, look!”
She directs her friend’s gaze toward the magnolias. As though shaken down by the force of an explosion, she sees that everywhere the pavement is suddenly scattered with white blossoms. For an instant, struck by the theater’s lights, the petals almost dazzle her.
Feeling again the excitement of a bride, she throws back her shoulders and presents her profile, poised as on a coin.
“Yes, come on,” she says, “let’s go.”
Linking arms, Coco and Caryathis lead the way. The men follow. A chastened Charles plants his hat on his head. He pokes disconsolately at the blossoms with the steel tip of his cane.
Signaling for them to hurry, Coco adds, “There’s a table waiting at Maxim’s.”