Dancers Leap to Death

Red Poppy

Early in 1990 Pawn encountered this article whilst perusing microfilm of The New York Times (April 29th, 1928):

Two Dancers Leap to Death on Moscow Stage

As Solution of Both Loving Scenery Painter

MOSCOW, April 28 (AP) – Agnessa Kereleva and Natalie Aksenova, beautiful ballet dancers, both aged 20, gave a tragic touch last night to the latest revolutionary ballet called “Red Poppy” when they plunged to death from the uppermost flies of the stage in full view of the public and just as the curtain was about to fall.

Both girls, their hands tied, crashed in midstage just as the thunderous revolutionary hymn, “The Internationale,” was struck up by the orchestra.

Fellow-dancers who knew the girsl intimately expressed the belief that the women had formed a suicide compact growing out of an unusual romance. They said that the girls had fallen in love with a scene painter named Kurilko, who lately has become renowned for his art.

Devoted to each other and yet both in love with the painter, it was thought that the dancers preferred a common death as the best way out of the situation.

The ballet is packed full of revolutionary heroic exploits, and to the spectators at a distance who had not heard the agonized cry of the dancers, drowned as it was in the thunderous music, the leap seemed like a novel state feat effected with dummies.

To the corps de ballet, however, who at that moment came from the wings advancing to midstage in a dance of revolutionary triumph, the tragedy was only too apparent in all its gruesome aspects. Before their eyes lay the two girl friends, the one dead and the other just breathing.

The curtain fell immediately, hiding from the audience the panic and tears of the ballerinas

The police authorities began an investigation into the deaths. The theatrical manager advanced the theory that a suicide compact had been agreed upon by the girls growing out of circumstances not yet ascertained, but fellow-artists were convinced that the girls’ mutual romance with the painter was the true reason.

For the record, Mikhail Kurilko-Ryumin, referred to above as a scene painter “who lately has become renowned for his art” was in fact the author of the book for “The Red Poppy” and designed the sets. Oh yeah, and he was in his 40’s at the time.

The Red Poppy, scored by Glière was a very important work in the history of the Russian ballet, being the first major original work staged following the revolution.

This story has haunted Pawn since 1990, and shows no sign of letting up. It was the inspiration behind this short piece…

1: They leapt, I tell you. They tied their wrists and lept — free fall. It must have taken two seconds, at least, for them to hit the ground. What do you suppose they thought about, huh? I can’t believe it…

2: Two seconds? Are you sure on that?

1: Two seconds. It’s physics, body in free fall, algebraic stuff. Pretty simple really.

2: But you don’t know how much they weighed, even.

1: Did you ever pay attention to Newton? A body in free fall falls at the same rate, regardless of weight. A feather or an elephant, fall at the same rate. Gravity, 32 feet per second squared. In the first second they accelerate from zero feet per second to thirty-two feet per second, and fall sixteen feet in the process. The next second they accelerate from thirty-two feet per second to sixty-four feet per second, falling an additional forty-eight feet. That’s a total of sixty-four feet. Now, if we assume that the fly gallery were at least sixty-five feet above the stage — they must have spent at least two seconds in the air — maybe more. For all I know, the gallery at the Bol`shoi is even higher, although in the next second they would have fallen an additional eighty feet. No, I don’t think it would have been much more than two seconds.

2: Two seconds. Hmmm

1: What would you think they were thinking? God Damn It! Two seconds to death, Two Seconds! It must
have seemed like forever.

2: I bet they were thinking how stupid they were that they didn’t just push him off, instead. Imagine, being so fucked up in love with some guy that you and your best friend decide to die for him. Pretty stupid. They should have just bumped him.

1: No shit!

2: How do you think they cleared all of the ropes and stuff, you know what I mean, the curtains…

1: the rigging?

2: Yeah, the rigging. I mean, here they are, wearing those Tu-Tu things, hurdling downward at — how fast were they going again?

1: Average velocity? or terminal?

2: God! Terminal. I guess that kind of describes it well. I don’t know, average, I guess.

1: Thirty-two.

2: Thirty-two.

1: Thirty-two feet per second. That’s like, oh, say twenty miles an hour.

2: Holy shit! They were really rippin’! O.K., so here they are, speedin’ through the air at twenty MPH, tied together, flailing about, and there’s like these ropes and rigging and shit all around them, right,

1: Right

2: And they didn’t get, like, caught up in any of it? Sounds far fetched to me. I’d have thought they would have been caught up in that shit.

1: Well, they hit the stage, didn’t they. So I guess they must have cleared it, otherwise there’d be no story. No story at all.

2: Guess you right. Twenty miles per hour, huh, wow!

1: What do you think they thought about? For those two seconds, I mean.

2: What did they think about? I don’t know. What did He think about, you know, when he sees these two girls, Splat! on the stage. Probably had a coronary or something.

1: I wonder if he was there, you know, or did he like hear about it later, read it in the paper like we did.

2: I don’t think they thought. I think they had empty minds, no thought, they just closed their eyes and counted, one- chimpanzee, two-chimpanzee, three – Splat!!

1: Shit, man, that’s cruel. Chimpanzee my ass.

2: No, I’m serious man. I think they tried to keep it out of their minds. You know it’s not like slitting your wrists, or taking pills — There’s No Way Back! It’s just you against gravity, and we know who’s gonna win that game.

1: You’re cold, man.

2: I’m cold?! You’re the one who’s got this macabre desire to know what they were thinking about. They were dying, for Christ’s sake. Maybe it wasn’t like the guy with cancer, who dies one step at a time, day by day, but they were dying none the less. From the moment their feet left the ground they were on their way to death. You know, that river, the river…

1: Styx, the river Styx

2: Yeah, that’s it. What got you so into this, anyhow?

1: I don’t know. It’s just so romantic, I guess.

2: Yeah, real romantic, you and your best friend, Splat! Splat! While your two timing boyfriend watches. Really fucking romantic. Stupid, if you ask me.

1: You know, you just made me think of something…

2: Like “Why the hell am I wasting my time wondering what two dead people were thinking?”

1: No, asshole, like what was it like for them to climb up there. You remember that tall spiral ladder at high school, the one at the side of the stage. What was it like for them to climb up there, knowing what they were going to do…

2: Man, there you go again. You nut’s or something?

Here we see, in this brief fragment 1, the subject that was to captivate Conners for most of the rest of his life. Was it an answer to these questions that he sought, or something deeper, some insight into the motivations and mechanics of death. While his works inspired a deep sense of pathos in his audience, there were many, especially amongst the critics of his time, who complained that this type of meandering dialog did little but waste the viewers time. Time which, as they loved to joke, would be better served if spent sitting in a crowded pub listening to the idle chatter.

It was, in fact, just this type of barroom talk that provided the fodder for many of Conners’ early works, not just in content, but in style and setting as well. It was only after the critical and financial failure of Two Seconds…, that he turned from the conversational, barroom style dialog, to a more Socratic dialog. Again, however, the dialog, with it’s inherent limitations and pitfalls, was at the crux of his work.

Examine, for instance, one of Conners’ first ventures into the Socratic style; an unpublished work entitled Homage to Titans2:

Socrates: But if one is to die, then
what can the purpose of our existence be?

Tortoise: We must, Socrates, mark the
time which passes before us, for it is, in fact, an endless thread,
linking us to our past, present and our future.

Socrates: Am I so simple, Tortoise,
that I do not understand, or is it meant to torment me like this.

Tortoise: Why do you let it torment you
so, Socrates. Methinks that, in earnest, it tempts you.

That he was not successful in publishing any of the fifteen Socratic dialogs he wrote, from the period 1975 to 1978, could serve as an explanation as to Conners’ relative success later in life, for these dialogs, in the words of Mr. Emery Jasmine “…portray the artist in a less than flattering light, as he gropes, unsuccessfully, to adopt the form of this dialog of enlightenment to his pathetic obsession with death and existential angst.”3

The author finds it interesting to note that during the early 1960’s, Conners was known to have had an unfortunate affair with a Ms. Jennifer Jasmine, during which time the two of them were reported to have stolen a small rental car from a dealership near the campus of Cornell University. They then drove across a good portion of the Northeastern United States, as well as portions of Canada, before settling at a commune in central Minnesota. It was in Hector, a small town near this commune, that Conners was later arrested for selling hallucinogenic drugs to an undercover police officer outside of the clinic where Ms. Jasmine was being treated for a social disease. Conners would later claim that it was the ensuing imprisonment, and embarrassing disentanglement from Ms Jasmine, that provided what he called his “Writer’s Fuel.”

The interested reader will find numerous references to the “Hector Years” in Conners’ thinly veiled autobiography The Death of the Artist as a Young Man, but, in fact, this period only lasted for three and a half months. It was later claimed by many of his contemporaries that Conners, himself, arranged for the arrest so as to elude the draft. While it is true that his dismal performance at Cornell offered him little further protection from being pressed into service for the war, it is doubtful whether he possessed either the nerve or foresight to have executed such a plan.

In any event, Conners did avoid the draft, served a brief six month prison term, and returned to Ithaca less than a year after he left. This episode serves to illustrate, however, Conners’ propensity for offending the very people whom he would later need to rely upon for critical support. That he received good notices at all is a reflection either of his critic’s benevolence, or of his inability to have offended them all. Conners did have his supporters, at various times throughout his career, and it is through their assistance that he managed to publish the first of his dialogs.

After his return to Ithaca, Conners found that he must wait out the semester before rejoining the school. He found employment as a chauffeur for a ladies social club, which provided a sufficient stipend for him to rent a room and get his typewriter out of hock. It was during this period that he met the first of his ardent supporters, Mdm. LeVears du Chalthae, a matron of the club.

There has been much speculation, amongst the literary community, regarding Conners’ relationship with Mdm. du Chalthae. While it is true that she was more than twice his age, and he was known to have had indiscreet affairs with many of the female employees of the club during his employment there, it is safe to say that there was, in fact, a romantic, or at least sexual, side to their relationship. It is now widely held that Mdm. du Chalthae is, in fact, the bawdy Mdm. Fonteniable in one of Conners’ first works, The Dying Lover to his Prick, a patchy piece of plagiarism which shows none of Conners’ skills save his ability at research.

Fonteniable: Fuck, where did you get hold of this pretty boy? He’s rather young, an a bit on the small side. But no matter – little man, big prick. Good God, He’s timid. Has the cat got your tongue?

Pego: Madame, with all respect!

Fonteniable: Bah! You drive me crazy with your respect! There my little fucker. You stay here and we’ll eat and bed together.

Then, later in the same piece, we see the beginnings of Conners’ fascination with death. Here, in a monolog by the character Pego:

Happy spark of heavenly flame!

Pride and wonder of man’s frame!

Why is pleasure so soon flying? Why so
short this bliss of dying?

Cease, fond Pego, cease the strife,

And yet indulge a moment’s life.

Hark! cunt whispers. Don’t she say,

Brother Pego come away?

What is this absorbs me quite,

Seals my senses, shuts my sight,

Drowns my spirits, draws my breath?

Tell me, my prick, can this be death?

That Pego actually dies, unlike the classic Connerian character, who merely talks about it, should not be taken as too significant, as the entire work was plagiarized from erotic parodies of the poetry of Pope from the mid-eighteenth century. Rather, within this piece, we can detect Conners predisposition towards ponderings of death through his selection of material.

It was through the assistance of Mdm. du Chalthae that Conners secured an appointment to the faculty of Cornell, late in 1968. While this position lasted only until Mdm. du Chalthae’s death, in 1973, it none the less provided an important incubation period for Conners while also providing him with a steady stream of material for his still rampant plagiarism. It is also during this period that he first saw one of his pieces performed on stage.

The production of You Know Me as Death debuted on March 23, 1971, produced by Mdm. du Chalthae, under a pseudonym, at the Circle In The Square theater, off-Broadway. As a midseason filler, the show attracted little attention from the press, save a sarcastic mention by Mr. S. G. Worthmere in The Village Voice (vol XXI, no. 18)

“A new hand has graced the stage of the Circle in the Square, and I know it as death.” … “In a banal and tragically sophomoric fashion, Mr Conners leads the audience down a path of myopic melancholia, rewarding the attentive viewer with little more than their ticket stub to show for the evening.”

Once again, however, we must be left to wonder if this reviewer’s opinion truly reflected that of the audience, for it would seem that Conners had lifted a large portion of this script from freshman efforts by Mr. Worthmere which Conners found in his office when he first moved in. It was in the wake of this dismal beginning in theater that Conners decided to start his autobiographical work Death of the Artist as a Young Man.

That such a seemingly mammoth undertaking as one’s autobiography could be undertaken by so young
and inexperienced a writer as Conners stands as testimony to the skill of Conners as a researcher and plagiarist. In between the paltry sentimental chapters believed, by this author, to have truly been penned by Conners, lay some of the autobiographical gems of the past several generations. Conners’ use of Bacon and Ford, intermixed within a single narrative, for example, represents a singularly stunning achievement in modern plagiarism — one cited to this day in scholarly seminars on the topic. To whit, this excerpt from Book the first, Chapter 3:

Once I had seen to the smooth operation of the assembly line, I felt it necessary to turn my attentions once again to the more mundane alchemical problems of the day. While it is true that the spark produced by the electrical arc was, itself, an energy using entity, I still felt it far superior to the process promoted by that infuriating German, Damlier. I quickly realized that, with the proper spiritual encouragement, even the common sparrow could efficiently navigate with the purity of purpose embodied in Herr Weber’s magnetic lines.

To gain a more complete understanding of the forces at work in the mind of the young Conners, it may aid the purpose of this manuscript to take a brief look at the formative years of Conners’ life. We would do best to ignore much of what he has written about himself, and focus, instead, upon the work of his stepmother Mrs. Adeline Conners. In her book A Study on the Causes and Effects of Juvenal Necromania (Oxford University Press, 1967), Mrs. Conners provides a fascinating case study of “Patient 617,” widely held to be Conners himself. An excerpt (Chapter 5, paragraph 3):

As a child, 617 was oftentimes found watching, with rapt attention, as his classmates tortured ants, and other insects, with a magnifying glass. While 617 was never witnessed partaking in this classic childhood experiment himself, he did appear to have a great appreciation of it’s impact. During mild drug therapy, following one of these incidents, 617 revealed what appeared to be a strong empathetic bond with the victimized. He carried on, at some length, about the nature and degree of pain and suffering experienced by these creatures and even after extensive electro-shock treatment, maintained this nearly para-psychotic tendency.

That Conners did not respond to his parents repeated and heroic attempts at normalization should come as no surprise to the studied follower of his life, for it was the noble efforts of his longtime lover, Delores Sheffield, and their meager results, which formed the topic for his first full-length novel, The Pyramid, My Home – The Sacaphogis, My Bed.

I have slept here for three thousand years, and I shall sleep for ten thousand more. While I sleep, beneath this stone, I dream a world around me. Generations come and go while I roll over and stretch. Men die, and die again as I dream it. I dreamt De Cartes, and let him think. I dreamt Judas, that he might tell the truth, and Moses, that he might lie. Beneath my stone, inside my home, I dream of you, that you might read. I dream your cognizance of my existence, I dream your skepticism and your fear. Before too long, I shall dream your death, as well.

Oh, but of course, she may try to wake me, as she has for these three thousand years. She will never succeed, for I have dreamt her as well, and her petty efforts. I let her live, as a counterpoint if nothing else, as entertainment. I dreamt her as a mountain once, for two hundred years, just to teach her a lesson. I shall dream her close to death, if I wish, only to bring her back just in time. Just in the nick of time.

1Two Seconds To Wonder, H. J. Conners,
Smythe and Weber Co. 1973. Act I, Scene i, “Dialog between two men.”

2Homage to Titans, from the private
collection of Mdm. LeVears du Chaltae. pg 125,ii. circa 1975

3Little Known Writers of the 1970’s, J.
Emery Jasmine, University of Chicago Press, 1985, pg. 167.

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