Antigone // Ismene by Elinor Hitt
Antigone and Ismene are sisters. Both speak now, at a moment when the dead must be grieved. Inspired by Sophocles’s Antigone, this is a dialogue between sisters as much as it is a dialogue with one’s own self. The scene was originally written for The Antigone Project at Columbia University.
ANTIGONE: Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Cicero, Vergil. Names that I know by sight. The men who built this place. I do not have a name here. Go ahead and blame me if I must be my own cornerstone, if I have no names to build on. This place was not built for me. Blame me, condemn me, if I am to be my own advocate.
Are you human if you cannot claim space for yourself? Are you human if you cannot claim your body?
You are afraid now, Creons and Haemons, that I claimed my space. That I claimed my body. You did not know that the space was rightfully yours before I took it. You feel threatened still, even after the threat of me passes. You felt most threatened when I took my own body. I am no “field to plow.” I am no progenitor. I will produce no sturdy sons, for I, myself, am not sturdy as you define sturdy. I will choose when and how I am sturdy, when and how I will be a progenitor, what I will sow and reap.
Ismene—my own flesh and blood—you couldn’t choose then, but you can now. Remember me.
ISMENE: I do not know what to choose. I do not know when silence or when voice is stronger. I know that in not knowing, things fall apart; the center cannot hold. In inaction, in silent protest, I am strong enough to endure the collapse. There is strength in silence. There is an image, an emblem in anonymity; an anonymous accusation tears down the system by way of its vagueness. Anonymity incites empathy in the least empathetic, and enrages those who cannot empathize at all.
Silence is a mirror, a reflection. Silence is moonlight, not sunlight. Silence is atmosphere. Silence is vague, the way Yeats used the word, sometime or another, cutting the page like a knife, sending meaning into decay. There is power in ambivalence. Silence is a small room that walls you in. Silence is a small room with little light. What light gets in must carefully consider where it is to fall, and must fall with precision. Patterns form on the walls and floor, making clear divisions. Silence, like light, grafts meaning onto darkness and noise.
Antigone, the reasons you became Niobe, unmoving, unflinching in the face of it, the reasons you spoke, compel me to silence. Yes, we are the same image, the same flesh and blood. But you get the privilege of death. You are respected by the law that condemns you. But I, who am honest enough to admit to a changing mind, must summon the strength to continue in the world of the living. Now, my body—which remains exposed unlike yours, which they still own—decays, dis-members, and is re-membered only into something strange and monstrous, which I do not understand. I will be allowed no graceful, westward ascent. I will not go west. But I will continue, silently, slouching onward to be born. Not a shade, but a new, strange form. Do not look back on me and see my braveness as less than yours. As a shade, can you not feel and can you not see my power brighten as yours fades?
On Display by Beth Miller
The muggy, sweat-filled air creates a breeze on my forearms as I move. I push through the heat—flying, soaring, turning. My feet touch the floor through my pointe shoes as I land. My chest curves backward and my head turns to the right. I see the audience sideways but only briefly.
My breath quickens. My feet cramp. My chest moves up and down, crashing each time like fast waves. My shoulders must stay in place; the audience must not know I’m tired. I must be an illusion, an image of perfection. Pretend you cannot see the sweat fly off of my forehead as I turn. Pretend you cannot hear me breathe. I press my shoulders down; I am trying to keep them still, perfect, and doll-like.
The fabric of my leotard inches down my chest. The overstretched straps cannot hold any longer. With each movement, another sliver of skin meets the hot air. Can they see my chest? How far has it slipped? I want this to be over; I want to cover myself. I am not allowed to break position to pull up my costume. They can’t know I’m human.
The music stops and I see the audience focus. I bow. I walk to the side and pull up my leotard. I am ashamed of my 15 year-old breasts and I long for the days when my body was straight all the way down. There were no curves to be seen, nothing to fall out of my tiny costume. Nothing for people to stare at with that look, as if my small leotard were not there at all.
Exposed. Naked. Vulnerable.
I am climbing up the stairs through the dark hallway of the dance studios. I hear someone behind me. I stop to look below as an older boy walks up on my right. I grip the cool handrail with my left hand. He stops next to me and looks at my shoulder from above like a hawk. He stands taller. My palm tightens around the metal railing.
His fingers reach out toward my shoulder and he spins my leotard strap around slowly, slowly. He slides his hand from my shoulder to where the strap meets the fabric, just above my chest. He lingers for a moment with his fingers hovering near my small breast.
My heart beats so viciously that I stare at my chest as my skin is pushed out and back in. My hands are shaking and my legs follow, I can’t move. His hot breath hits my ear and I want to throw up.
“There,” he finally says. “Your strap was twisted.”
His hand falls and he continues the climb up the black staircase, brushing me slightly as he passes. I sit on the step because my legs are shaking too much and I try to get my heart back into my skin.
At 16, I move into the higher level ballet class and he becomes my dance partner. I try to put that memory out of my mind. I try to pretend it wasn’t weird; he was simply fixing my strap. Dancers are supposed to be comfortable touching each other. It’s part of the job; it’s part of being a professional. And, at 16, I am expected to be a professional, although no one explains to me what that means. I only know not to cry—that’s not professional. Do not talk back—that’s not professional. Do not wear baggy clothes; slim-fitting, body-exposing dance clothes are professional. Do what you’re told without question—that’s professional. Be on time, be prepared, and do not be emotional.
Partnering class in the new level is different. Traditional pirouettes, where the boy holds your waist and you smile innocently at the audience, are gone. By now, you are expected to have mastered the classical pas de deux. Now, you must learn “mature” partnering. You must learn to use your body with another’s, not simply dancing alongside your partner, but dancing with them. You must learn to trust.
My teacher uses me to demonstrate the sequence in class.
“Use your muscles to support your body but let me manipulate you,” he tells me.
He takes one of my legs and pulls my body toward him. He wraps my leg around his hairy back, flips me, and lifts me up by my armpits. My arms are out to the side and I’m pressed up as if on a cross behind him. I’m high above the class, watching them watching me. I can see myself in the mirror, my long, slim body being lifted upward.
He tells me to bend over his shoulder and takes my waist with one hand. With the other, he takes my hair wrapped tightly in a bun and pushes my head downwards. He tells me to slide around his leg.
“No! Other leg!”
He smacks my back and I try to twist my body to the other side. “Good,” he says “and now roll onto the floor.” I slide between his legs and end the movement looking up at him. My sweaty back sticks to the cool marley floor. I look up to see the top half of my teacher’s chest obstructed by his bulging, middle-aged belly.
He looks down at me and then turns to the rest of the class. “Okay, now try with your partners.”
He focuses on the boys, teaching them how to support and move the girls’ bodies. He leaves it up to the girls to figure out their roles. Many of them come to ask me if they are doing it properly or if I could help them. I tell them that I don’t really know what I’m doing. I just tried to do what he said.
The next class, the teacher dictates the movements rather than demonstrating. He sits on his stool in the front of the room, his back leaning against the ballet barres.
“You two. In front.” He points to my partner and me.
We move to the front of the classroom and begin to decipher his combination through his thick accent and quick yelling. We try to understand the movements and remember the sequence at the same time. Meanwhile, the rest of the class attempts to follow what we are doing, watching us intently. We’ve gone through the choreography and made it to the floor, awaiting the next instruction.
“Good. Now, both of you place your hands down. Extend one leg behind you and lift yourself up, reach the other leg out into an arabesque. Closer.”
We inch closer to each other with our hands, dragging our legs behind, one foot on the floor, the other in the air.
“Good. Now kiss.”
The room is silent. The air feels hot and full. My skinny arms shake, trying to hold my body up. None of the other dancers move.
“Oh, come on! You’re going to have do this on stage someday. You need to learn that it’s not a big deal. Be professional.”
My partner leans forward and kisses me on the lips. My pink cheeks, already flushed with heat, deepen to a shade of crimson.
I have kissed a boy just once before. It happened on a swing set in the park behind my childhood house. I sat on the swing gently rocking back and forth in the autumn breeze. He leaned down. My heart picked up and my whole body felt as if it was hot and buzzing. He kissed me gently and pulled away with a warm smile.
I never imagined the next kiss would be in front of a room full of people, as I balance on my hands and one foot, wearing a small leotard.
After this, my dance partner begins to talk to me about my butt. He likes to tell me when I gain weight because he can see it getting bigger. He tells me this and I realize that he stares at my butt. I hadn’t thought about it before. Why doesn’t he focus on the choreography? When does he look at me? Can he see something I can’t?
My body expands. I watch it happen in the mirror, wondering if it’s the same thing that he sees. My breasts graduate from an A-cup to a B-cup and my partner keeps making comments about my butt. I tell him to stop but he thinks I’m joking. He says he’s just joking too. He tells me I have “a softness” about me that other ballerinas don’t.
My teachers begin to notice this too. They call me in for a meeting and tell me that I was much skinnier two years ago. What do I think happened?
I tell them it’s probably growing up, because I was fourteen then and I’m sixteen now.
“Ah, hormones,” the school director says. “Well we’d like for you to see the nutritionist and turn in food journals. You just looked much better two years ago. You know, some steps will be easier to execute if you have less around your thighs and butt.”
“Yes, and it will be much easier for the boys to lift you,” the partnering teacher says.
I tell them I will see the nutritionist, and yes, thank you for the gym membership. I’ll go there instead of doing my online high school courses. I live away from home so my parents won’t know about it.
The next time I go to visit my parents, my mom suggests that I go on birth control pills.
“It will help your cramps and your acne too. Your skin will clear up a lot. You’re 17 now and you’re about to have your own apartment. You may meet a guy soon and I’d rather you already be protected.”
I tell her that there’s no chance of that happening any time soon. She tells me that’s precisely when you meet someone: when you don’t expect it.
A few months after this, I meet a guy—another dancer. He takes my virginity and tells me I have a big butt for a ballerina.