Bowing Out: The final act of godsdancer Isela Vogel by Jordan Sabian
for Dance Europe Magazine
I’ve arrived early to secure a table but the bar is deserted.
In Prague on a sunny spring day, most people can be found at the park or the beer garden, not in a shadowed wine bar in old town. The only other occupant is the angular young man behind the counter, polishing glasses with a soft cloth. As I entered, he nodded toward a quiet table in the back near the large single-pane window but has remained silent.
I tap the end of my pen restlessly against my notepad, still stunned and slightly disbelieving at my good luck. After weeks of repeated inquiry, Isela Vogel, one of the most renowned god dancers in the world agreed to her first post-retirement interview—with me.
Self-consciously I glance up, expecting irritation from the proprietor at the repetitive noise. His eyes remain on his work. There’s something not quite normal about him, but before I have a chance to figure it out, the door opens and Isela Vogel walks in.
Wearing flats below fitted, faded grey jeans topped with a bulky cable knit sweater, she unwinds the fringed scarf from her neck as she leaves behind the cool shadows of a spring day. The layers make her look smaller than the promotional performance photos from the Praha Dance Academy. In those, she is bared in the body sculpting costume, muscles shining under the staged lighting—fierce, otherworldly even. Here, with the coils of her dark hair wound into a bun on top of her head and her golden brown skin bare of makeup, she seems fragile.
A smile quirks her full mouth. For a moment before the dark lashes narrow over earthy grey I think I see a flash of gold. Then she bustles in, apologizing for being late and takes the seat which frames her in sunlight from the window. It will make for great candid shots later. It’s perfect staging, and I wonder if the proprietor set it up, or her people did.
Two glasses are presented and a bottle of wine so old my eyes go wide with amazement. Up close I see the steel in her long spine and slim neck, the way she rolls her shoulders as she settles comfortably in her chair, begging my forgiveness for preempting my order of wine.
“It’s my favorite.” She lifts her glass for a toast. “I save them for a special occasion.”
The wine is incredible, surprisingly light for the depth of its color, and leaves behind aromas of smoked wood and flowers that bloom on my tongue. I check the bottle again. This wasn’t on the menu.
“Thanks for meeting me here today, Miss Vogel.”
“Isela, or Issy, please,” she says. “I hate to rush you but we really haven’t a lot of time. Can we get right into it?”
“Of course.” I fumble with my pen, slipping into the role of interviewer. “You’re originally from America, California right?”
She shakes her head. “Seattle. I was born there, but I don’t remember it. My family came to Prague when I was very young. The war, you understand.”
Though it didn’t last long, the power of gods unleashed on the world destroyed countries and crushed economies. Many fled as refugees hoping for a better life. Vogel’s family among them. It’s remarkable that she’s achieved so much having come from such humble beginnings.
Below is the transcript of our interview, with my notes in italics.
[JS] When was the first moment you knew you wanted to dance?
[IV] I’ve always loved dancing. It’s the time I feel the most myself.
[JS] You’ve had the most successful career of any godsdancer in history. What do you attribute it to?
[IV] Hard work, persistence, patience. You really can do anything you set your mind to, if you’re willing to work hard enough.
The answer sounds coached and I follow my instinct that there’s something else going on.
[JS] And yet you retired, at the height of it? Why give it up?
Vogel’s smile is as serene as ever, but her answer is slower and more direct.
[IV] As you know, I’ve been diagnosed with a hip injury that would end my career. I just chose to go out on a high note. My choice. And in any case, who says it means giving up dancing. I’ve only retired from performance.
[JS] So you will be continuing to dance.
Her gaze is assessing, and a bit forceful. I wait.
[IV] We’re now examining how I might transition to an administrative role at the PDA [Prague Dance Academy]. Perhaps teaching.
Her smile is tight now, forced.
[IV] Yes, if the needs of the PDA suit.
[JS] It’s impossible to imagine any school wouldn’t be delighted to have you on their faculty. In any case, you seem to be enjoying retirement. What’s been your greatest extravagance so far?
She waves her hand at the table.
[VS] Red wine was always my weakness. Now I get to indulge a bit more.
[JS] What is your greatest fear?
[IV] There is very little I fear anymore. [She pauses and an odd small smile creases her face] I’ve achieved everything I wanted in my career. Which is why I’ve chosen to retire, you know, leave things at the top of my game.
[JS] What do you most value in your friends?
[VS] Loyalty, honesty and the ability to make me laugh, no matter how tough it gets.
[JS] Who are your heroes in real life?
[VS] My parents. They fought so hard to do what was best for our family. They packed us up and moved to Prague to give us a chance at a better life. They’re my inspiration.
[JS] What is it that you most dislike?
[VS] People who try to intimidate and rely on fear to get others to bend to their will.
[JS] If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
She laughs, a full-throated sound, that is not fragile at all and her eyes narrow again mischievously.
[VS] Some people say I’m stubborn. I prefer to think of myself as strong willed.
[JS] What is your greatest regret?
Her eyes seem sad and ageless in a single moment.
[VS] I gave something up and it’s hard to say I regret it, but my life will never be the same.
[JS] You mean retirement?
For a moment I think she’s going to say no, but she smiles again, and it doesn’t meet her eyes.
[VS] Yes, something like that.
She looks up as the door opens. She returns to her wine, but my heart stops in my chest as I recognize the chiseled features and ice blue eyes of the tall man that enters like a Böhmwind. Even the proprietor goes still behind the bar, watchful.
The new arrival has impeccable taste and a tailor worth every crown of his fee. His suit appears to have been designed for his lean frame. He surveys the room once and though his gaze doesn’t linger on our table, I sense he’s quite aware of us.
I sit up a little straighter. He cocks his head slightly and his lips press together once before he takes a seat close to the door.
So this is Gregor Schwarz, the Necromancer Azrael’s enforcer. Hard to believe his presence is a coincidence, since he and Isela were quite an item the previous fall. Still neither acknowledges one another, so hard to say.
My journalistic spirit of inquiry is overridden by a strong survival instinct. Vogel’s interview is a major win, but even the celebrity paps won’t touch the Vogel/Schwarz rumors.
[IV] Where were we?
My laugh sounds nervous even to my own ear.
[JS] I thought I was asking the questions.
Her cheeks dimple slightly and her eyes resume their merry dance.
A throat across the room clears. Schwarz hasn’t looked up from his examination of the mobile phone in his hand, but two long fingers adjust the tie at his throat. Vogel sighs.
[IV] Unfortunately I’m late to my next appointment. I have time for one more question, I’m afraid.
I know I shouldn’t ask, what with Schwarz sitting just a few feet away, but who says a dance magazine journalist can’t be daring.
[JS] What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Her smile turns coy and she finishes her wine.
[VS] I prefer to keep my personal life out of the media. Thank you for your time.
[JS] Thank you. Miss Vo—Issy. We have promotional photos, of course, but I’m wondering if you would take a few quick shots, for the article, something more spontaneous?
She obliges, sitting so still and poised in her chair it will be hard for anyone to believe this is a candid moment. Then she gathers her belongings and shakes my hand. A moment before she reaches the door, Schwarz is there, holding it open. They do not even look at one another. She isn’t afraid of him but their relationship, whatever it is, is an enigma.
When she’s gone the warmth seems to have gone out of the room, though the sun still shines brightly outside. I contemplate the half bottle of wine on the table. My glass is refilled before I can ask by the shop’s proprietor.
It’s only as he returns to the counter that I realize what’s wrong with him: he isn’t breathing.
He’s a zombie. The undead. One of the necromancer’s mind controlled minions. He doesn’t look like the tormented souls that are punished. Rumor is that they also turn willing humans who want the closest thing to eternal life humanity will ever see.
I down the glass faster than it deserves, but my nerves are on end. I pour another, emptying the bottle.
The buzz hits as I go over my notes. Spontaneously, I glance at the photos. I took six in all with a quick burst of backups just in case the first didn’t come out. In the perfect light of the sun-drenched window, Isela Vogel seems every bit the prima dancer of record. The mischievousness in her gaze is replaced by something serene and distant, untouchable and even as it draws you in.
The light is good, and the camera shot at a high shutter speed, much faster than the human eye. Flicking through them something makes me pause at a shot in the middle of the burst. It’s the same as all the others, but something about the eyes is different. I zoom in, tight enough to make the pixels begin to blur when I see it. Her eyes appear to glitter because there are flecks of gold in them sending shards of light over her cheeks.
It’s too much. I pack up quickly, and head to the counter. The proprietor approaches. I try not to flinch. He doesn’t seem to notice, or care. I reach for my wallet but he slides a bag across the counter with a frown.
“Your bill is settled. A gift from Madame Vogel.”
Another bottle of the same wine. I check—it’s not listed on the menu. I accept, with as much gratitude as I can muster, and flee.
* * *
Note from the editor:
Kudos on the scoop, but I can’t run all this speculation and novelizing. Undead are a way of life, no need to embarrass the guy by pointing out how bad he is at passing. And the thing with her eyes. Way too mumbo jumbo for Dance Mag. You’re young but you’re a level-headed kid, and it’s not like you to get starstruck. You’re going to need to turn this into a profile piece, maybe interview the headmaster and some other dancers at the school.
And next time, no drinking with the subject, ok?
Thanks for reading!
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