It’s 1990, and New York soloist April Manning is trying to rebalance her world in the aftermath of her parents’ deaths. An offer to join the struggling West Coast Ballet Theatre as a principal dancer seems like the perfect opportunity for a fresh start—a new life in San Francisco, an exciting step up in her career, and the hope of a redefined sense of family. But the other dancers are wary, clannish and tight-lipped, particularly about an incident that hastened the departure of their beloved artistic director, leading to the arrival of his replacement, the young, inexperienced Anders Gunst. And no one wants to talk about Jana, a former company member who defiantly walked out rather than work under Anders. It is Jana herself who offers April hints, and even friendship, where she reveals a loneliness and hunger to belong that newly orphaned April well understands. But there is something troubling about Jana, and what April doesn’t know could prove deadly.
A prequel to the Ballet Theatre Chronicles, BALLET ORPHANS explores the work and sacrifices required to arrive at the highest tiers of the professional ballet world, coupled with the primal, universal desire to belong, to love and be loved, and the lengths we’ll go to protect those we call family.
“A stimulating and entertaining tale in which passion and art intermingle.”— Kirkus Reviews
“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”
— Jane Howard
New York City
Bad News from Omaha
The bad news arrived backstage at the New York State Theater, seconds before curtain. The timing couldn’t have been worse. My partner Mick and I had already settled in our opening pose onstage, the orchestra cued, when the in-house phone next to the monitor rang. Everyone knew only emergency calls came through during a performance. Alarmed, I glanced over at the stage manager as he listened with a few terse “uh huh” replies. He looked up and met my gaze. His face was impassive, but I knew, right then.
It was bad. And it involved me.
There was no time to think. The curtain began to rise, giving me no choice but to freeze in our couple’s pose, smile brightly, await our music cue, and dance. Which was fine in the end, because when something very bad is occurring in real life, it helps to switch over to performing life. My adrenaline had been triggered, because I knew, I knew, that something terrible had happened, and my biggest question at that point was, “Is my mother alive or dead?” I tried to tell myself it was simply a knee-jerk response after hearing of my dad’s death in the same way, two and a half years earlier.
The opening section’s lightning-fast pace, our arms moving as busily as our legs, required all my attention. A partnered arabesque en pointe flowed into a rapid pivot to the other direction, and a 3
Terez Mertes Rose
cartwheel-like lift that planted me on Mick’s other side. The blinding lights from the side booms cast the stage manager in shadow, mercifully obscuring him and his news. Our downstage right exit, however, brought us right to him. As Mick, panting, loped over to the table that held his water bottle, I approached the stage manager.
He’d swiveled away from his monitor to face me, headphones askew so he could hear both me and his crew.
“Just tell me this,” I said. “Do I need to catch a flight to Omaha tonight?”
He hesitated. “You should.”
Which meant my mom was still alive.
“How bad is she? It’s my mom, right?”
He nodded reluctantly. “She’s had a stroke. She’s in intensive care. Your aunt called. She said your mother’s condition is critical but stable, and for you to come when you can.”
“Please, can someone find Vincent and tell him the news?”
Vincent was my boyfriend and an ABT—American Ballet Theatre—
company principal. I paused to steady my shaking voice. “Ask him to get me a seat on a flight departing from JFK any time after ten.”
“All right,” the stage manager said, and nodded to his assistant, who sped off.
Vincent arrived backstage while I was finishing my solo. He was in costume, performing in the night’s third ballet with Natalia.
Natalia, like me, was a soloist with the ABT although five years younger. Russian-bred and Bolshoi-trained, she was sublimely talented, eyeing the promotion to principal that all the female soloists wanted. More disconcerting, of late, she’d been eyeing Vincent with the same hungry expression. But now Natalia was the least of my concerns.
Vincent enveloped me in a smothering hug the instant I stepped offstage.
“Oh, April!” he exclaimed in a tragic, theatrical voice, over and over until I pushed him away. It was cloying. It seemed to be more about Vincent showing everyone how caring he was, rather than Vincent aching with genuine compassion.
“Did you get me a flight?” I asked.
“I did. There’s a long layover; nothing gets you into Omaha until early morning.”
“That’s all right. I expected that. Thank you.”
“How are you doing—” he began, but I held up a hand.
“I can’t talk about the rest now. I’m sorry. I need to focus.” I turned abruptly away from him and stepped to the upstage right wing, alone, to await the next cue. But by now, others knew about the news. One wing down, two male corps dancers were discussing it, unaware of my presence nearby.
“Didn’t this already happen to her? Wasn’t her mom dying a couple years ago?”
“That was her dad.”
“Shit. Did he die?”
“Shit. Now her mom?”
“Is she dead?”
“Nah. But maybe dying.”
“What a drag.”
“Seriously. Hey, wanna go grab dinner tonight?”
“Sure. As long as I can ice my knee while we’re eating.”
“Antonio’s will bring you an ice pack if you order a full meal.”
“Sounds good to me. Where’s my towel? I’m sweating like a pig tonight.”
Mick appeared by my side. Unlike Vincent, he knew how to handle my news. He gave my hand a supportive squeeze and we stood without talking as the ensemble dancers waltzed off the stage and the music shifted from energetic to contemplative. Once onstage, we began our pas de deux. Midway, Mick lifted me high overhead. From this elevated view, I could see all the way out to the furthest tiers of the theater’s seating. Little ovals of light punctuated the darkness throughout, reflections of people’s eyeglasses, that right then seemed mystical. Like miniature celestial beings. Fairies. Spirits of the departed.
Spirits like my dad.
Please, God, not Mom, too.
Mick’s grip on my hip tightened, letting me know I’d hesitated a millisecond too long. I lowered my gaze, straightened my body and slid down his, making up speed so that I ended en pointe, in arabesque, right in time with the music.
My focus returned. Mick’s hands, sure and supportive, guided me through the trickier passages, and now I was able to remain in the zone, where only the dance mattered. Even my mom’s situation faded to a different sphere of existence.
Oh, to stay in this place forever.
When my dad died, he’d been weak, the cancer winning after a protracted battle. My mom and I had seen his death coming, watched it grow closer, step by ominous step, and yet, when the end came, it managed to surprise us all. In retrospect, it was as if he’d harvested a burst of energy to offer me one last gift, an illusion of well-being, so that I’d remember that delightful day, his warm smile, his lucid, even witty banter, and not the memory of his decline, that gaunt, bony face, his body as light as a boy’s, all bones and sinew and mottled skin. From Omaha, I’d flown back to New York City, confident I could finish the ABT’s current performance run and return home four days later. But he’d gone into cardiac arrest and passed away the next evening, precisely at curtain time. He’d died at age 74; my mom currently was only 65. She was supposed to have been the one to last long, like her own mother, living into her nineties, and like her three older sisters, still going strong in their late 70s. She wasn’t supposed to die. She hadn’t yet, I reminded myself sternly, as my plane departed that evening from New York with a shuddering roar.
Strokes could be managed.
Except that upon arrival at the hospital early the next morning, I learned a second, worse stroke had robbed my mother of most of her speech and right-side movements. Numbed by fatigue and the newest bad news, I pulled the chair close to my mom’s bed and sat. It was dim in the room, weak morning light filtering through the half-closed shades. The cool, sterile air and mysterious noises of the ICU
ward both soothed and jarred me.
My mom stirred finally. I reached over and took her thin, frail hand, its skin only now starting to speckle with age. Her golden-brown hair, its color and thickness in earlier years identical to my own, was now liberally laced with silver, but still long, in its customary braid. My mom had never been one to follow fashion trends, and her long braid remained eternal proof.
“I’m here, Mom.” I tried to sound confident, matter of fact. “I love you.”
In response, she clutched my hand. Her eyes transmitted all the feelings she couldn’t express through words. Anxiety. Fear.
“Don’t worry,” I soothed. “It’s okay. I’m here now. How about some more light in here?” Without waiting for her response, I adjusted the blinds. I spied a hospital toiletries bag that held the essentials—toothbrush and paste, comb and brush—and gestured to it. “Why don’t I brush your hair? Redo the braid. That would be nice, I’m thinking.”
The action of gently unbraiding and plowing the brush’s plastic bristles through her hair seemed to relax us both. As I brushed, I told her about the latest goings on at the studios, the theater, light-hearted foibles and adventures in my life as a New York ballet professional.
She always loved hearing my stories, first and foremost, before bringing the conversation around to how things were in Omaha. I described the challenging yet fun lifts Anders Gunst was incorporating into the new ballet he was setting on Vincent, Natalia and me. “Anders is the co-artistic director of Dance Theatre of Brussels, but he used to be our colleague at the ABT. A principal, like Vincent, except he’s younger, only twenty-nine. Latest news, though, is that Anders has been selected to take over directorship of the West Coast Ballet Theatre in San Francisco. That’s huge! Did I mention he’s Danish? You can’t tell when he talks—he speaks perfect English.” I knew I was chattering and that she couldn’t possibly follow everything, but I also knew it would upset her more if I treated her like the dangerously unwell patient she was. Best to converse as I always did. “The West Coast Ballet Theatre is a big company,” I continued cheerily. “Nothing like New York, of course, but still.
Anders is dynamite. I was so proud he picked me for his new ballet, alongside Vincent and Natalia. Those two are really good. It’s going to be fantastic—I can’t wait for you to see the performance in the spring.”
My mom made a muffled groaning sound. I stopped brushing to look at her face. The slack nature of her right eyelid, the way her mouth drooped on the right side, seemed more pronounced now.
She clearly wanted to speak, but was having trouble getting words out.
I studied her, mystified.
My mom’s body tensed. “Sssss. Sorry.”
“You’re sorry,” I repeated, and the anxiety in my mother’s eyes lessened.
“Mom, don’t be sorry. About anything. Please.”
What had I been thinking, bringing up the performance, the future?
“Ssss. Nnnn fmmm.” My mom still wanted to speak. It became like a macabre game of charades.
Sorry? Sorry no foam? Okay. Sounds like film? No, like fan. Like fam.
Family? Yes, family! Sorry no family.
After a minute of this, I finally figured it out. “You’re sorry that I’ll have no family once you’re gone.”
Bingo. Her straining body slumped back into the pillows.
“Oh, Mom. Whatever happens, I’ll be okay. Please don’t worry.
I have the company—they’re my family. I’ve known them, spent so much time with them. For eight years now.
“And there’s Vincent,” I continued. “Who knows? Dancers frequently marry dancers. They spend so much time together, and all, and understand the life of a performing professional. Maybe someday, Vincent and I…” I stopped. The words sounded absurd, even to my ears. My mother tried to speak again, and this time her words were clear and easy to understand.
“Nnnn. Not. Him.”
Which hurt to hear. I’d brought Vincent home the previous summer, certain my mother would be as dazzled as everyone else. He was a star, after all, as an ABT principal. And even though he was a little too aware of his good looks, and, okay, a little too flashy, I firmly believed Vincent was a good person, deep down. He’d grown up in working-class Ohio, and although he scorned his roots and considered himself a New Yorker at heart, I saw that humbler, likeable boy in him from time to time. I would have thought my mom had seen that, too. But looking at her expression now, I could tell Vincent had not won her over.
A memory from last night reinserted itself back into my brain.
Seeing, from across the stage, Natalia standing close to Vincent, all but pressing against him. Vincent not moving away. And while rehearsing Anders’ new ballet the previous week: watching Vincent and Natalia as he flung her up, caught her, cradled her tenderly, reluctant to let go.
The chemistry, the abandon the two of them had exhibited—I’d assumed it was simply great dancing by two brilliant dancers.
The instant the darker idea arose, I dismissed it. Vincent was not just my lover but my friend. He’d resist the advances of someone like Natalia, already notorious as a man-eater type who discarded as freely as she acquired. Vincent was smarter than that.
Stop being paranoid, I commanded myself. “Why don’t I read to you?” I asked my mom. “Remember all the years you did that to me when I was a kid? I loved that.” I rummaged in my bag and pulled out the novel I’d brought for the plane. “I know Jane Eyre is pretty old fashioned, but for some reason, I’ve had an appetite for the classics of late.”
She made a noise of assent and I began to read.
Disruptions abounded. Doctors made their rounds, offering prognoses that boiled down to a “wait and watch.” Nurses and assistants bustled in and out. When a nurse returned to attend to my mother around eleven o’clock, I slipped away to the bathroom, to wash my face and comb my hair, apply moisturizer, niceties I hadn’t considered since leaving the theater the night before. The nurse left and silence fell over the room. The peace was short-lived. I was applying lip gloss when I heard my aunts arrive.
Aunts Irma and Sally. Much older than my mother, they had grandchildren closer to my age than their own children. The extended family had been kind enough to me, the “caboose” niece, just as my own mom had been the caboose of four daughters, born twelve years after the other three. But she and I remained oddities within the family. My mom had been a spinster, a mild-mannered librarian who’d shocked all by courting and marrying my dad, an older physics professor, in scandalously short time. I was born ten months later, when she was a month shy of forty-one. Add my early signs of talent as a ballet dancer, my elite training far from home, my father’s eccentric brilliance, and this completed the image of differentness for our little family of three. I made the effort to spend time with extended family whenever I visited Omaha, especially after my dad’s death, but visits and events were more dutiful than pleasurable. Like an interrogation, albeit one with refreshments, everyone eyeing me warily.
I was about to call out a hello to my aunts through the closed door when Aunt Sally spoke.
“I see she hasn’t arrived yet.”
They were talking about me. I looked down at my travel bag, there in the bathroom with me. My coat and purse had been stowed away, out of view, to keep the hospital room neat.
“She was performing when I called,” Aunt Irma replied. “It was late. She probably took the morning flight out.”
“It’s approaching noon, and still no sight of her.”
“Maybe she took a later flight so she could sleep in,” Aunt Irma suggested.
Silence. I could almost see them eyeing each other in mutual disapproval. They were Nebraska women, farm-raised, hard-working, plain-spoken. They thought what I did for a profession was all glamour and frivolity.
“Priorities.” Aunt Sally allowed a note of scorn to creep into the lone word.
A snort from Aunt Irma seemed to echo the sentiment.
A wave of new weariness and sorrow came over me. My aunts were good people; they would be mortified once they realized I was in the room, overhearing them. But what they’d revealed couldn’t be unheard.
I sucked in a slow breath, reached over, and flushed the toilet.
The conversation stopped.
I ran the water faucet, a pantomime of washing, pulling a paper towel as if to dry my hands. And now the conversation outside the bathroom took on a fake brightness, so that when I stepped out, we greeted each other with exclamations, awkward hugs and pecks on the cheek. We all marveled aloud at how good the other looked, and other polite falsehoods that you did to maintain pleasant family relations, but through it all, I felt the aching truth behind my mother’s concern.
You’ll have no family once I’m gone.
The three of us grew silent as we studied my mother. She looked worse; her cheeks had taken on a greyish pallor, casting doubt on any illusion of a positive end result. Terror flared up in me again, a breath-stealing child’s fear at the prospect of losing my last parent.
Aunt Irma turned to me, her expression kinder. “You’ve been here a while?”
“Since eight o’clock.”
“Poor dear,” Aunt Sally said, her sympathy genuine. “That’s early.
You must be exhausted.”
“I’m fine,” I lied.
“Why don’t you go get yourself something to eat?” Aunt Irma said. “There’s that Denny’s, less than a block away. It’s much better than the cafeteria downstairs. We’ll be here with your mom.”
“Thanks, that’s a good idea. I won’t be long.”
“Take your time. Your mom isn’t going anywhere.”
The brisk Omaha air made me wrap my coat more tightly around myself, but the walk to the restaurant served to ground me. All physical motion did. It always had, since my earliest memory of dancing in the living room, any time my dad put on one of his classical recordings, which was almost every evening. Leaping around in the backyard by day whenever my mom ordered me outside to
“burn off that incessant energy of yours.” One time I’d politely announced to the extended family that “my incessant energy exhausts my mother.” I’d been three and a half at the time, and, according to my mom, everyone had stared at me as if the doll I’d been clutching had done the speaking.
“Those are some big words from such a little girl,” Aunt Irma had managed, and my librarian mother had nodded with pride.
I was hungry; I’d had no time for dinner the previous night in my haste to catch my flight. I ordered a plate crowded with two kinds of breakfast meat, two kinds of carbs, a mass of eggs. It was dense, greasy and satisfying. Once I’d finished, I spied a payphone and glanced at my watch. Good time to call the ABT, to update them. I called and spoke with Ron, the associate artistic director, relayed the situation, and afterward asked about Vincent’s whereabouts. Ron had someone pull him from his rehearsal and put him on the line.
“Sweetie, how are you?” Vincent exclaimed. “I’ve been thinking about you all day.”
“I’m okay. My mom’s hanging in there. Critical, but stable. My aunts are with her right now.”
“How soon are you coming back?”
“I honestly don’t know. If her condition deteriorates, that’s a different scenario from if she stabilizes and improves. I told Ron I’d touch base as soon as I knew more.”
“Good. Good. Stay as long as you need to.”
Was it my imagination or did he sound relieved? Something about it rang false. Even when my father was dying, Vincent had cautioned me to “watch how much time you take off,” because it came around to affect your reputation with the artistic director, the choreographers, the répétiteurs.
Vincent hesitated. He nervously cleared his throat before speaking again.
“There’s something you should know. It’s about Natalia.”
My body grew still. Please don’t let this be that he’s leaving me for her. The possibility, indeed, the probability overwhelmed me, choked me of a reply. “What?” I managed.
“She got promoted to principal after last night’s performance.”
An instant of relief was eclipsed by a great roar of disappointment, even though I’d seen it coming. I knew the odds had favored Natalia.
That they would always favor the Russian defector who dazzled audiences and made them clamor for more. The Bolshoi dancers were impossible to compete with. In spite of Natalia’s youth—she’d just turned twenty—from the day of her arrival at the ABT the previous season, the writing had been on the proverbial wall.
It would always be this way at the ABT. I would forever remain soloist rank there, a prospect that would have filled me with happiness and comfort four years earlier, as a corps de ballet dancer starved for something bigger.
“Wow.” I didn’t know what else to say, how to best sum up this feeling of terrible news atop catastrophic news.
But this still didn’t explain Vincent. He loved sharing thrilling, titillating news, even if it was painful for the listener to hear.
“Is that why you’re relieved I’m not there?” I blurted out, surprising even myself.
“What are you talking about?” he stammered.
My suspicion built. “I can tell. I know you.”
“That’s a terrible thing to say! I’m worried about you. I’m worried about how you’re coping, there in the hospital, with your dying mother.”
“She’s not dying.” My voice shook.
Vincent fell silent, and in his silence came the painful truth.
Yes, she is. Your mother is dying.
I brushed away the terrifying thought. “Did you and Natalia go right out and celebrate her good news?”
“April! What is going on with you?”
How stupid of me, to have opened this Pandora’s box, during this most vulnerable time. Had I kept my mouth shut, my suspicions unvoiced, I could have glossed right over this uncomfortable supposition and left it there, throbbing in the outer recesses of my mind. Instead, now, there it was. The chill of the hallway where the payphones were located made me start to shiver, spasms that increased in intensity until I wasn’t sure how long I could remain there, holding onto the phone, staring at the tightly spiraled chrome cord that connected Vincent’s voice to my ear.
“I am so worried about you,” Vincent was saying. “You’re not sounding like yourself. Should I come out? I’ll tell them this is an emergency. Vasilio can take the final performance. You need me there.”
I remained mute. To conjure up further dialogue, with its tricky twists and invisible side avenues seemed beyond my abilities.
“I don’t need you.”
“Well, gee, thanks.” He sounded hurt.
“I’m sorry. I mean, I don’t need you to come here. But thank you for offering.”
“You’re welcome. I care.”
“By the way,” he said, his usual buoyant tone instantly replacing the hurt one. “Anders came backstage last night after the show. He was looking for you.”
Could anything worse happen on this terrible day? “I hope he’s not planning to pull me from his ballet.”
“Of course not, silly! Don’t give that a second thought.”
This time, at least, his words sounded truthful, unrehearsed.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t about trying to poach you,”
Vincent mused. “He already hit me with a request to join him in San Francisco.” Here, he chuckled. “Don’t go doing that, April. Sid Hauser was artistic director there for way too long, way past his prime. And since he left, the West Coast Ballet Theatre has been this sinking ship. They may have some strong dancers, but they’ve got issues far beyond what our young Anders Gunst can handle. They literally ran Sid’s replacement out of town. The guy resigned, in the middle of last year’s Nutcracker run, and the dancers themselves took over. So messed up. You can bet Anders wants dancers he knows and can trust. But if he fails, any dancer he brought over will go right down with him.”
The thought made me wince. “I thought you liked Anders.”
“I love the guy! He’s amazing. His choreography is fresh and superlative. He and Sabine are doing great things with their Brussels company. He’s young; if I were him, I’d stay put, right there, for another three to five years, and only then consider something like the West Coast Ballet Theatre. That is, if it hasn’t gone under.”
“Did you tell Anders where I was?”
“I did. He was very kind about it. Asked me to extend his condolences. Said not to worry, that he’d get in touch with you once you were back in New York.”
The mention of New York, of Anders and his support, calmed me. I still had this—a soloist position with one of the best dance companies in the world. A choreographer and artistic director of rising power who believed in my talents. My art. My cloistered world in NYC.
Why did it all have to come with the price tag of losing my family?
“Look, I’ve got to run,” Vincent said. “Rehearsal.”
“Sure. I’m glad I caught you.”
“Me too. Love you, sweetie. Talk soon.”
“Love you, too. Bye.”
I paid my bill and returned to the hospital. In the ICU, I trudged down the hushed, ghostly corridor to my mother’s room. Aunt Sally was alone there with my mother, who, in her sleep, looked more dead than alive. Fear clutched at my heart and didn’t let go.
Aunt Sally looked up as I approached. Her smile was less determinedly optimistic. It dawned on me that I’d never seen my aunt look discouraged before.
“Where’s Aunt Irma?” I asked.
“She went for a coffee downstairs,” Aunt Sally said.
We stood there, watching the slight rise and fall of my mother’s chest as the machines nearby hissed and sucked. Atop the beige blanket, one frail hand rested, which I covered with my own. My mother didn’t stir.
“Everything all right, back there in New York?” Aunt Sally asked finally.
I paused to consider the question. “Things will turn out as they should,” I said, and was rewarded by an approving nod from my aunt.
“There you go. That’s the attitude.”
“What’s going to happen next?”
It was a rhetorical question, one I didn’t realize I’d vocalized until Aunt Sally nodded and pointed to me, as if my words had taken form and affixed themselves to my chest.
“Things will turn out as they should.”
The author will be raffling off multiple prizes during the book tour!
1 winner will win a tote bag of Ballet Theatre Chronicles, a finished copy of BALLET ORPHANS, a $25 gift card to Bookshop Santa Cruz. (US Only)
1 winner will win a tote bag of Ballet Theatre Chronicles, a finished copy of BALLET ORPHANS. (US Only)
2 winners will receive a $5 Amazon Gift Card and an eBook of BALLET ORPHANS (International)
About the Author
Terez Mertes Rose is a writer and former ballet dancer whose work has appeared in the Crab Orchard Review, Literary Mama, Women Who Eat (Seal Press), A Woman’s Europe (Travelers’ Tales), the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News. She reviews dance performances for Bachtrack.com and blogs about ballet and classical music at The Classical Girl.
The author of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles and A Dancer’s Guide to Africa, she makes her home with family in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She loves good food, good wine, great books, and a good (but not too hard) adult ballet class. She’s proud to announce that Outside the Limelight, Book 2 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles, was named a Best Book of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews.
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