A dancer’s life is a series of small routines. The same exercises in the same order: pliés, tendus, battement jetés. Bandages wrapped around the same toes, the ones that, despite dime-sized calluses, always rub and blister by afternoon rehearsals. The same faces in company class, the same bodies with their minute variations. The same schedule: company class, rehearsal, performance. Repeat. The programs may change, the casts may change, the audiences may change, but the routines endure.
That morning, however, was different. That morning the dancers of Ballet Theater of New York walked into the studio fresh and alive. They danced the first exercise, pliés, with the grace of Swan Lake. Legs sliced crisply through during tendus and jetés. By rond de jambes, sweat beads trickled down foreheads and fell in droplets to the floor. A man sat at the front of the studio, arms folded across his chest, blankly looking out at the company of dancers. Every so often, he glanced down, scribbled in a notebook with a thin black and gold pen, and then looked up, expressionless.
He was William Darcy, the Ballet Theater legend, the one in the company’s old promotional poster hanging in the lobby downstairs. William Darcy, back at the company in a new capacity: to create dance.
He was casting for his new work, and class was his audition. All of the dancers knew it. All of them wanted a part in his next piece, the one that had the critics already buzzing, the one that had yet to be choreographed.
The music ended, and the dancers brought their arms down to the finishing pose, holding their heads still as the piano quieted. Then, they relaxed. The ballet mistress nodded and began demonstrating the next exercise, frappés.
From the back of the room on the barre against the wall, Elizabeth Bennet slowly mirrored the teacher’s movements, committing the exercise to memory. She’d only been dancing with the company for six months, and her stomach had only just stopped fluttering throughout class. She’d just grown accustomed to her idols, Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hirsch, dancing a few barres down.
The exercise began, and the ballet mistress paced around the room, correcting the dancers. She walked next to Elizabeth, stared blankly, and then paused. The old woman tapped Elizabeth’s right hip twice.
Elizabeth pulled her torso up to correct the misalignment of her hip. With just a raised eyebrow, the old teacher nodded and continued on. Elizabeth’s heart pounded. It was her first personal correction from the ballet mistress, who recognized no one except for her dozen pet dancers. With a concealed smile, Elizabeth took this correction as proof that she might be on her way to belonging there.
Class proceeded uneventfully. William Darcy remained stoic at his seat in the front, scribbling notes to himself. Many of the dancers tried to catch his eye during reverance, but he refused to acknowledge them. When class ended, he stood and nodded curtly to the ballet mistress and the dancers, and then he strode out of the studio.
Many of the dancers grabbed water bottles and the discarded remains of their warm-up clothes. Some stayed in the studio to stretch, Elizabeth Bennet among them. She splayed out in a small group of some of other corps de ballet dancers which included her sister, Jane.
Jane exhaled as she stretched out her calf. “So what did you think of Darcy?”
“Scary,” replied Elizabeth. “Did you see his face during class? He could be one of those human statues that perform for the tourists in Times Square. He didn’t blink once throughout adagio. I watched him the whole time.”
“He was hot,” said Charlotte Louis, jumping in place to break in a new pair of pointe shoes. A tall, lithe dancer with ebony skin and sharp cheekbones, Charlotte had entered Ballet Theater that year like Elizabeth, although she had danced for three years previously at Atlanta Ballet.
“What rehearsals do you have this afternoon, Lizzy?” Jane asked.
“Just Act II of Swan Lake.” Being a new member of the company, Elizabeth was rarely cast in ballets. She performed at least every other night.
“Cheer up,” Jane said, patting her sister’s leg. “It takes a while.”
“Easy for you to say.”
Jane furrowed her eyebrows but didn’t reply. Long-limbed, blonde, and graceful, Jane seemed poised to rise up the company ranks. She’d been in Ballet Theater for a little over five years since graduating high school, and she’d become a casting favorite of Charles Bingley, the company’s Assistant Artistic Director. In the last few months, she’d also become his girlfriend. Lately, Jane had begun dancing soloist roles, although many wondered whether this was due to the burgeoning romance between the two.
Sighing, Elizabeth plopped to the floor. “I desperately want to be in Darcy’s piece.”
Just then, another dancer, Lydia Lopez, leaned over to their group and interjected, “I’ve heard he’s an asshole but a brilliant asshole. Did you see his last piece at San Francisco? It was beautiful. If he doesn’t cast me, I’ll die.”
“I just want to stare at him for a few hours every few days,” Charlotte joked. “Asshole or not, the man is hot.”
“I’m having déjà vu,” Elizabeth joked.
“Shut up,” replied Charlotte, poking her friend. “He’s hot. It’s a fact.”
Elizabeth winked. “Worth repeating over and over and over again.”
A few other corps dancers giggled.
“Do you want to eat lunch or what?” Jane asked as she stood. She extended her hand to her sister and hauled her up.
“Lead the way,” Elizabeth replied. “Charlotte?”
Grabbing the remainder of their things, they hurried down into the locker room to grab protein bars, yogurts, and baby carrot sticks before afternoon rehearsals.
After observing class, William Darcy headed upstairs to Bingley’s office.
“Hey, Will,” Charles said, smiling and leaning back in his chair when William strode into his office. “How was class? What’d you think?”
William sat down in one of the old leather chairs on the opposite end of the desk. “Fine. It was company class. Not too different than how I’d remembered it.”
Charles laughed. Only William Darcy would think company class at Ballet Theater of New York was just “fine.” Not only was it one of the best ballet companies in the city, Ballet Theater of New York was also one of the oldest and most highly regarded in the country. Founded at the turn of the century by a choreographer from Russia, Ballet Theater had quickly become known for its uncompromising productions of classical ballet standards: Swan Lake, Giselle, Cinderella. Technically precise and relentlessly talented, some of the best dancers in the ballet world belonged to its ranks, and William knew it. Hell, he’d been one of them for years.
He laughed with Charles, some of his nerves dissipating. It was good to be working with his friend again. William and Charles went way back. They’d known each other since they’d entered the company together as teenagers. Unlikely friends, Charles was sunny and gregarious, friends with corps de ballet and principal dancers alike. William, on the other hand, had been a cocky know-it-all, a privately schooled Manhattan blue blood who only deigned to interact with those worth his notice. Still, they’d bonded. Call it their similar ages, their similar sexual preference—they were among the few straight guys in the company—or their similar upper-crust upbringing. Whatever the case, somehow the friendship had lasted.
Seventeen years later, now both retired from Ballet Theater with Charles at the helm of America’s best dance company and William Darcy a rising choreography star, it seemed only right that they were reunited. Same place, different roles.
For William, it was the career opportunity he’d been waiting for. Only legit choreographers created dance for Ballet Theater. For Charles, it was a chance to breathe new life into a company that had seen its ticket sales dwindling season after season and its fundraising pool drying up as its donors continued to die off.
“So”—William smiled at his friend—“when can I start?”
Nodding, William opened up the manila folder on his lap. “I suppose you’ll insist that Caroline dance the lead.”
Caroline Bingley, Charles’s younger sister, was the star principal dancer in the company equally famous for her crisp double fouetté turns as she was for her hissy fits.
“I won’t insist, but I’m sure she won’t leave you or me alone unless she does.”
“She’s a fabulous dancer, but I don’t know about her for this piece.”
“I know what you like, Will. She’s got the technique. Perhaps with coaching, she can give you what you want.”
William stared absently out of the window behind his friend. “She’s not expressive.”
It was an excuse, of course. He knew Caroline would throw a signature tantrum if she weren’t cast in the piece. She would run to the artistic director, Sir Webster Lucas, and threaten to quit and join New York City Ballet as she always did. And Lucas would appease her as he always did. It was no use fighting them. Charles had tried it several times already and lost.
“I’ll beg if I need to,” Charles half-joked, his desperation palpable.
William smiled in sympathy. He knew how these things went. He also knew enough about Caroline to know that he didn’t want his best friend to suffer her wrath. When a person had equal degrees of wealth, beauty, and talent, as Caroline did, perhaps she couldn’t help becoming a spoiled brat.
“So Caroline for the A cast and Louisa for the B cast. And them,” he said, throwing the roster of headshots on the table. A few faces were circled in red.
Charles sighed and smiled warmly at his friend. He plucked the headshots up off the desk and flipped through them, nodding in approval.
“I’ll send these up to Lucas and post something on the boards today.”
“Thanks, Charles,” William said, standing and stretching out a hand. Charles shook it and grinned.
“It’s great to be working together again, isn’t it? Does being back here inspire any nostalgic feelings?”
“A few.” William looked around. Being at Ballet Theater brought back too many nostalgic feelings, in fact. Every corner, every hall, every studio teemed with memories of his too-short dancing career.
Charles slapped his friend on the back. “If you thought it was bad when you were a dancer, you should see what it’s like on the administrative side of things. Good luck, Will. You’re going to need it.”
Snapped back into reality, William smiled and shook his head. It was kind of Charles to say, but William Darcy didn’t need luck. He had talent.
Leaving the office, he headed to the studio to work out some of the choreography before the next day’s rehearsal. Downstairs, a few stray corps members were stretching and gabbing in the hallways, warmers and T-shirts pulled on over their leotards and tights. Their chatter faded as he breezed past them into Studio B, the one without windows, before he closed the door with a thud.
Elizabeth feared cast lists. The unfeeling white computer paper, the staid Times New Roman font, and the columns, only two words per line, a first name and a last name, always let her down. Mania followed in the wake of their posting, and disappointment in the wake of seeing her name towards the bottom of the paper, or not at all.
The fear began when she was twelve years old, Jane thirteen. It had been Nutcracker. Jane’s name had been at the top as Clara, Elizabeth’s further down as Child #3. Her sister and mother had hugged each other and squealed. Elizabeth tried to squeal, too. It was hard, though, to feel delight when her heart had fallen with a dull thud into her stomach. She remembered turning back and running her index finger up the paper again, cursing each letter on the page.
Such scenes would become commonplace through the years, playing out in summer dance recitals, Nutcrackers, and Swan Lakes. Slowly, Elizabeth’s name had risen up on those lists, but it had never surpassed her sister’s.
So, no dancer was more surprised than Elizabeth to see her name on the cast sheet for William Darcy’s piece. After the list went up, she stared at it in shock for several seconds. Perhaps there had been some mistake. There was a soloist in the company: Elisabeth Sweeney. Perhaps they had meant her instead.
Jane, Lydia, and Charlotte, all cast in the piece, told her to shut up and snap out of it. They celebrated that evening with drinks, but Elizabeth still couldn’t be sure. Was this really happening? Would she really get a chance to work with superstar William Darcy? It didn’t feel real.
Ten minutes before the start of his first rehearsal, it started to feel real. The twenty other dancers in his piece waited for the choreographer to show up in Studio B. Several did relevés at the barre to warm up their feet. Others clustered together chatting. But all eyes remained fixed on the doorway. Anticipation crackled throughout the room.
At two-thirty sharp, Darcy walked in. The chatter ceased, and a few dancers applauded. He barely acknowledged the greeting, preferring to head wordlessly over to the stereo to plug in his iPod.
Lydia leaned over to whisper to Elizabeth. “Nice introduction, huh? Guess he doesn’t like formalities.”
“Close the door, please,” Darcy barked to whichever dancer was nearest to it.
“At least he said ‘please,’” Elizabeth said back to Lydia.
Several dancers cast looks at the others around the room. Elizabeth raised her eyebrow to Charlotte, who stood a few feet away. They held their collective breaths, waiting for a smile, an acknowledgment, any sign of interest from the famed dancer-turned-choreographer.
Ignoring them, Darcy shook hands with Ben, the male lead in his piece, and made a few words of indecipherable small talk with him. He cracked a wry smile, shook his head, and glanced around the room. Elizabeth heard Darcy ask something about Caroline, and hearing Ben’s reply, the choreographer’s face went black. Ben laughed nervously, and their conversation finished.
“Let’s begin,” Darcy said. “You,” he snapped to Charlotte who jumped when he acknowledged her so suddenly. “You’ll come out from stage left.”
Charlotte scurried to the other side of the room.
“You’ll also come out stage left.” Darcy pointed to another corps member standing at the back of the room, who followed Charlotte.
Just then, the door creaked open, and they heard the titter of Caroline Bingley’s laughter before she stepped in.
“I’ll call you,” she chirped to someone in the hall. Flashing a wide smile, she set her bag down in the corner and strolled to the middle of the room.
“You’re late,” Darcy said, glancing at the clock in the back.
Caroline smiled. “Sorry about that.”
“Rehearsal starts at two-thirty sharp, not when you decide you’d like to show up. I expect you to be on time from now on,” he said. The smile melted off her face.
Caroline was infamous for her temper tantrums. Had any other ballet mistress or choreographer made that remark, Caroline would have cursed him out and left the stunned room to their own devices. Once she’d cursed out a rehearsal director because she’d mistakenly called her “Catherine” instead of “Caroline.” She got away with it because she sold tickets. The prima was a whirlwind and virtuoso. Her hyperextensions made audiences gasp, and her leaps and turns defied physical laws. These tricks had catapulted her from corps de ballet to prima ballerina in three years and had kept her at the top of the Ballet Theater food chain in the six years since.
Of course, her family’s wealth helped, too. Caroline and Charles came from old New York money. Their parents and grandparents had concert halls and museum wings named after them. Besides being a famous principal dancer, she was a darling of the New York social scene, dated Hollywood actors and Italian models, and often appeared in the tabloid gossip pages.
She’d grown up spoiled and now lived a charmed life. No one, not even Sir Webster Lucas, dared chastise her in front of the other dancers as Darcy had just done. Tension crackled through the air.
Then she broke into a plastic giggle. “Yes, sir,” she said, saluting. She even winked.
A few of the dancers tittered. Darcy glowered until Caroline shirked back, allowing him to finish placing the rest of the dancers. Elizabeth found herself in the back row, all the way stage right.
He began to show the first steps, offering corrections and suggestions.
Caroline, whose entrance came later than the corps de ballet, stood off to the side, leaning with both elbows on the barre and sending a text message on her phone.
Midway through a pas de bourrée, Darcy looked up at her reflection in the mirror and stopped.
“Ms. Bingley, put the phone away.”
Stunned, everyone including Caroline could only stare at Darcy.
“I’m sorry?” she replied.
“Professionals don’t text during rehearsal. Put your phone away.”
Straightening herself, Caroline raised her chin and replied, “Mr. Darcy, I believe texting during rehearsal is not specifically forbidden in my contract. Perhaps you should discuss it with Charles.”
Darcy reddened. Elizabeth watched the scene unfold, and her heart began to pound. She admired both dancers, although Caroline could often be a tad spoiled, she thought, but watching them fight was beginning to topple her image of the ballet idols.
“Ms. Bingley,” Darcy said, his voice lowered to a chilling monotone, “your contract is the administration’s concern, not mine. In my rehearsals, I have my own rules. If you don’t like them, I welcome you to discuss them with Lucas.”
Elizabeth knew Darcy would win that one. If there was one thing everyone including Caroline knew, it was that Sir Webster Lucas would choose Darcy over her. Caroline might be great, but Darcy was golden. The two stared at each other in a momentary standoff. The second hand of the wall clock ticked loudly, and stray voices echoed from the hall. The dancers’ eyes darted from the choreographer, his face frozen in indifferent calm, to Caroline, whose eyes flashed with insubordination. Finally, Caroline, with a melodramatic huff, shoved the phone into her dance bag and glared at Darcy.
Elizabeth marveled at the choreographer’s contained power. Even Sir Webster could not force such obedience out of the prima. None of them had ever seen Caroline Bingley silenced so thoroughly with just a slicing glance of those dark eyes. Although she had done nothing wrong, Elizabeth shrunk into herself, vowing never to do anything that might warrant those eyes to look at her that way.
“The opening sequence. Again,” Darcy said. He paced back and forth, slowly inspecting the dancers.
“You, elbows up.”
“Glissade, not pas de bourrée.”
He had marked the steps twice already and was clearly exasperated that the dancers hadn’t yet picked them up. He ordered them to go through the sequence again, threatening that he would keep them as long as it took to get it right, union rules or no.
Stopping at Elizabeth, he stared at her feet.
“Heels down.” The steps, however, were too fast for Elizabeth, and she had to sacrifice a succinct landing after the jump series in order to move on to the subsequent pas de bourrée. “If you value your Achilles tendon, you’ll get those heels on the floor after you jump,” he said.
Furiously trying to keep up, Elizabeth missed a step, pausing to see where the others dancers were so she could catch up.
“Don’t stop!” he growled.
Elizabeth caught up just as the sequence ended. She saw Darcy look heavenward before he yelled to all the dancers, “Once more, until everyone gets it right.”
Too afraid to sigh in exasperation, the dancers walked back to their initial spaces, panting and tired.
Despite it all, rehearsal ended promptly. The sweaty, exhausted dancers flung off their pointe shoes and trudged back to the locker rooms. Charles greeted them as they left, then entered the studio and looked expectantly at William.
“Well, how’d it go?”
“Fine, except for your sister.” William scribbled notes while he spoke.
“What’d she do this time?”
“Came in late, texted during rehearsal, openly challenged me.”
Charles shrugged. “Sounds tame for her. She challenges everyone.”
William narrowed his eyes. “Her behavior isn’t professional, Charles. She acts like a child. Do me a favor, and tell her to cut the crap.”
“I’m not telling my sister that! She’ll rip out my insides and feed them to the vultures,” Charles joked.
William shook his head and removed his iPod. “Who’s the one you’re seeing?”
“Jane Bennet. Tall. Blonde. Gorgeous. She’s good, isn’t she?”
William nodded. “A very respectable dancer. But are you sure you should get involved with her?”
“Why not?” Charles protested. “It never stopped you when you were in the company.”
“It’s one thing when you’re a dancer and another when you’re their boss.”
Charles frowned in response.
“Take it from experience. If she hasn’t asked you for a better part yet, wait. It’s coming.”
“She’s not like that, Will. I’ve dated women like that. Jane isn’t one of them.”
William was doubtful. “Just be careful. Dancers in corps de ballet will do anything not to be in the corps de ballet.”
Charles stared at his toes. The two remained silent for a time before Charles smiled and spoke. “But, hey, I’ve been dying to know what you think about the corps. They’re pretty good, aren’t they?”
As associate artistic director, Charles oversaw auditions and chose new members for Ballet Theater. He felt responsible for the corps de ballet dancers he hired, as they’d be the future stars of the company.
William returned Charles’s smile and nodded slowly. “Yes, they’re good. Strong technical dancers, most of them. But it’s obvious you were the one who chose them.”
Charles laughed. “And why is that?”
“They all reek of that Balanchine standoffishness that I hate,” William explained, knowing his friend trained at School of American Ballet, founded by George Balanchine. “Their faces are dead. Bent elbows and wrists. They have no expression, Charles.”
“And here I thought you were ‘following in Balanchine’s footsteps,’” Charles teased, quoting a recent article in Dance Magazine.
“The man was a brilliant choreographer, and I respect him artistically, but he had a horrible sense of casting. All limp and dull dancers.”
Charles laughed again, more amused than offended by his friend’s characteristic grouchiness. “Okay, but what about…what about Lydia Lopez? She’s fabulous. Fiery and quick feet. A real Firebird.”
“Yeah, and a frozen face that’s painful to watch, even if she is fast.”
“She’s young, Will! You have to grow into that kind of expression.” Charles shook his head. “Okay, okay. There’s Jane’s sister, Elizabeth Bennet. She’s quite good…the kind of dancer with the expressiveness you like.”
“She’s Jane’s sister?” William asked.
“Yeah, Jane said she’d be great for the company and so I—”
“Charles, are you listening to yourself? You’re already whipped.”
“But, Will, she’s good! If she was a terrible dancer and I still hired her, it would be one thing—”
William snorted. “Right.”
Elizabeth got halfway down the stairs before she realized she’d left her water bottle behind in the studio. Face drenched with sweat, mouth pasty and vile-smelling, she needed it desperately. She huffed in annoyance, told her friends she’d see them in the locker room, and then walked back to the studio. She heard voices as she approached.
“Charles, are you listening to yourself? You’re already whipped,” came a baritone she recognized as William Darcy’s.
Elizabeth froze when she heard her sister’s name.
“But, Will, she’s good!” Charles replied. “If she was a terrible dancer and I still hired her, it would be one thing—”
Darcy snorted. “Right.”
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes. Charles didn’t hire Jane. He wasn’t the AAD then. So then who were they talking about?
“Which one is she, anyway?” asked Darcy.
“Little bit darker hair than Jane and shorter.”
Her heart clenching, Elizabeth realized they were talking about her.
“There are four dancers who fit that description.”
Charles sighed. “She’s the one with the…” He said no more.
“Oh. Uh-huh,” came the reply from the choreographer. “She doesn’t put her heels down in the jumps. She’ll get Achilles tendonitis in a couple of years, and you’ll be out a dancer.”
Elizabeth started. She clutched the wall for support and felt her heart rate spike.
“I can talk to her about that. That’s a habit easily fixed.”
“And this…” Darcy paused. “You don’t find that a problem?”
Elizabeth’s heart thundered in her chest, terrified and desperate to know what “this” meant.
“She’s curvier than the other dancers, yes,” Charles said. Elizabeth’s jaw fell open. She glanced down at her chest.
“Not a typical ballerina body, but she’s thin enough,” Charles continued. “What’s the problem? You cast her.”
Darcy was silent for a long moment. “That’s not the point, Charles. Would you ever have hired the other Bennet if not for your affair with her—”
“It’s not an affair.”
“Okay, fine. Your relationship with her sister. She’s short, she’s got tits, and she’ll have full-blown tendonitis in a few years if she doesn’t already.”
“Oh, Will, come on. You cast her.”
Elizabeth’s mind went white, and her heartbeat stopped up her ears as if she were under water. She felt her throat constrict with humiliation and rage. She didn’t want to hear any more.
Abandoning her water bottle, Elizabeth spun on the balls of her feet and stormed back to the locker room, her heart pounding through every vein of her body. She stomped past her friends in the changing room and threw her locker open with a clang. In her wild rage, she had to stare into her locker to remember what she needed.
Jane cast her a quizzical glance, which she ignored. Stripping off her leotard and tights and yanking her hair out of the bun, Elizabeth strode over to the showers and turned the water on cold. She stepped in, feeling the freezing water fall over her shoulders and neck. She shivered and replayed the conversation.
You never would have considered this girl if it hadn’t been for your little affair… She’s short, she’s got tits, and she’ll have full-blown tendonitis in a few years if she doesn’t already.
That was all it ever came down to, wasn’t it? Her body. What it looked like. Never about how she moved. Never about anything else but her breasts and her height. Elizabeth knew she was a good dancer. She didn’t have Jane’s extensions, Lydia’s quickness of feet, or Charlotte’s height, but she was a damn good dancer, and no one ever saw it because they couldn’t look past her body.
She’s short, she’s got tits, and she’ll have full-blown tendonitis in a few years.
How many times had she heard some version of that? Always from men! The artistic directors. The choreographers. How many times had she been excluded from cast sheets because her body didn’t conform to their picture of perfection?
Elizabeth was done sobbing in showers over that one. She stared blankly at the tiled wall in front of her, paralyzed by fury. Finally, when her skin began to pucker into goose bumps, she turned off the shower and toweled off. The freezing water had done nothing to cool her anger.
Charlotte lounged on the bench by the lockers, winding a bandage around a bleeding blister. “What’s up, Liz? You look like you’re ready to kill.”
“I probably could.”
“Ooh, who’s Lizzy going to kill?” Lydia asked.
Jane stared nervously across the locker room at her sister.
“That bastard, William Darcy.”
A few chortles went up across the locker room.
“Get in line,” called out another dancer from across the room.
“Give us the gossip!” Lydia cried, squeezing Elizabeth’s shoulders. “What happened? Did you talk to him when you went up there?”
Elizabeth looked at Lydia and then around the room. Nearly a dozen pairs of corps de ballet ears had perked up, ready to hear whatever gossip fell out of Elizabeth’s lips.
Did she really want the entire dance company to know that Darcy thought she was a lousy dancer? That she had only gotten in the company because her sister was sleeping with the AAD? Elizabeth sobered. Hooking her bra, she sighed into the depths of her locker.
“Just a long, exhausting rehearsal,” she muttered. “He’s rude.”
Charlotte frowned and wrapped her arm around her friend’s shoulders. “Yeah, he’s a jerk. But don’t let it get you down, Lizzy. You’re better than he is.”
It wasn’t true, but she thanked her friend for the support anyway.
“Yeah, and I’m sure he’s not that bad,” Jane offered. “It was his first day. Maybe he was nervous.”
Elizabeth shot daggers at her sister and then threw on her sweatshirt. Holding up her hands in defense, Jane added, “And he’s Charles’s friend. I’m sure Charles wouldn’t be friends with someone who was genuinely a horrible person.”
“Right, Jane. Okay, let’s just forget about it.”
“I’m going to grab a sandwich before the show tonight,” said Lydia. “Anyone want to come?”
“I’ll go,” replied Elizabeth. “Just give me a sec? I really do need to get my water bottle.”
Lydia nodded. Elizabeth jumped into her jeans and sneakers and dashed upstairs to the studio.
The lights were still on, but she heard no voices from within. Emboldened by anger, she entered and spotted Darcy by the stereo, scribbling into his notebook. Her sneakers squeaked on the wood floor, and he peered up at her.
Elizabeth met his gaze, but her expression remained hard. She cursed him inwardly as she retrieved her water bottle. He said nothing to her, and it made her even angrier. Water bottle in hand, Elizabeth raised her eyes to him, glittering and cold.
“See you tomorrow,” she said flatly. As she spun around, her sneakers shrieked against the floor.
With the dancers now acclimated to his demands for punctuality, William strode into rehearsals at exactly two-thirty, knowing that they would be there waiting for him—even Caroline.
He modeled his rehearsals after his favorite dance teacher, an old-school Russian, hard as granite. Mr. V they’d called him. He never smiled and often yelled, ruling over the studio with cutting stares. Praise came rarely, particularly for his favorites. It was said that the crueler he treated a student, the more promise Mr. V saw in him. Mr. V yelled at William often, told the young dancer he had no future, and made William repeat steps until he got them right while the other students in class watched. In turn, William had become a technically flawless dancer.
William emulated that: The dance was the important thing; everything else was secondary. His unwillingness to compromise, he believed, made him a great dancer and choreographer. Yes, he was talented. But ballet teemed with talented artists. The difference was that William had both talent and drive, and that made him an outstanding choreographer. A lot of dancers didn’t understand that. They wanted a bouquet of roses for simply putting on their pointe shoes.
William knew that he wasn’t the nicest guy in the studio. He felt dancers shirk away when he gave them a certain look. He had been called draconian, but that didn’t bother him. He saw no need to become best friends with the dancers as Charles did. They were just dancers, and they would come and go. His choreography, however, would be remembered, and he wanted it to be remembered well. As such, William didn’t doubt himself, and he didn’t feel guilty for some of the things he said and did in the studio.
But something from the other day was on his mind: that conversation with Charles about the corps girl, Elizabeth or whatever her name was—Jane’s sister. Charles swore that she was a lovely dancer, that she had a certain something that would make her a star. When William had cast his piece, he’d chosen dancers he liked, although none of them seemed particularly star-worthy except for Caroline. Everyone in the corps de ballet was good. This was Ballet Theater after all.
Then he had a chance to study Elizabeth in his second rehearsal. She still fumbled through the jump sequence, but William looked further up, ignoring her legs and focusing solely on Elizabeth’s torso.
From the movements of her upper body, he never would have been able to tell how much she struggled. Her arms floated through the port de bras. Her head turned this way, craned slightly that way. Her eyes focused on the tips of her fingers and then far away to the imagined audience. They didn’t stare nearsightedly into the mirror like the other dancers’.
From the waist up, it was exactly as he envisioned the movement. Exactly. But from the waist down, things fell apart. That was okay, he thought. He could work on that.
“You, in the back,” he called out, pointing to Elizabeth, “switch with her.”
Any dancer should love being promoted from the back row to the front. But Elizabeth walked to the front, expressionless. It was unexpected, and he wondered why.
“From the beginning,” William said, walking over to the stereo to restart the music. He crossed his arms over his chest to watch. Four corps members bounded on stage in a series of fast-paced jumps, merging and rebounding to create the last diagonal formation.
“You need to close your glissades more definitively. Attack the descent,” he barked at Elizabeth.
She tried it, but she ended up looking like a wobbly fawn.
“Now you’re short-changing the jump. Try again.”
She looked blankly in the mirror and jumped.
“No,” William said, waving his hand. “Okay, everyone from the beginning.”
He turned back to cue the music, when he heard her say, “Excuse me, Mr. Darcy, can you show me the exact rhythm you want for that phrase, please?”
He turned back and stared. Did she realize whose time she was wasting? He had three movements to choreograph and only two months of rehearsals, three days a week and two hours each day in which to accomplish that, and this corps dancer wanted private lessons? He blinked, amazed at her lack of decorum.
“No,” he said, “go back there and figure it out for yourself. That’s what professionals do.”
Straightening her spine, she retreated from the center of the studio to stand at the back.
Rehearsal finished with Darcy proclaiming, “This choreography is about artistic expression, so I need to start seeing some from you!”
Not a positive end to two hours of grueling drills. A few dancers trudged out. Elizabeth stayed behind.
She had no clue what Darcy had meant. Attack the descent but don’t short-change the jump. Was she supposed to defy gravity? In the back of the room, Elizabeth studied her glissade in the mirror. A few other dancers honed steps around her as well, but the choreographer’s eyes settled on her. She noticed him pacing towards her—studied, cat-like.
“Your rhythm is off,” he said, when he was no more than a few feet away. “Duh-duh, duh-duh,” mimicking the music with his voice and the rhythm of the jumps with his hands.
She tried again, and he shook his head. Elizabeth placed her arms akimbo and looked down in frustration. Head still down, she cut her eyes up to the choreographer. “I must be having an off day all around.”
He looked annoyed. Rather than frightening Elizabeth, it made her feel triumphant.
“Don’t go for height. Go for movement. Imagine that someone’s carrying you across in the air. Both legs out.”
Unlike Caroline or even Lydia, Elizabeth did not have the quickness of feet to be a virtuoso jumper. She tried once more, and Darcy looked as if he was ready to give up and leave. Her temper flared. She suspected he was giving her BS corrections and nit-picking just to be a jerk. Well, she could be a persistent jerk right back. Elizabeth cocked her chin and looked him square in the face in a wordless challenge to show her the right way.
Sighing, Darcy suddenly walked behind her and grabbed her waist. Elizabeth sucked in a quick breath.
“Glissade,” he ordered.
Heart thudding, she obeyed. His hands were strong but light on her back, gliding her over the floor. Then, she felt the pressure of his hands on her sides, guiding her down again. He had barely moved her off the floor, and yet the dynamics of the jump felt completely different.
“That,” he said, “is what I want.”
She tried it a few times herself. It pained her that the sequence now took on a different and vibrant musicality. Darcy looked at her smugly and then turned away. Success had never felt so defeating.
“Partnering a woman is like making love to her,” Mr. V had once told William’s pas de deux class in his heavily-accented English. They had been teenagers at the time, and most had chuckled with feigned knowing.
“You need to touch woman gently, but not too gently. You need to be strong but not too strong. Then the woman feels uncomfortable. You have to hold her just right. Good partner is good lover,” his teacher had said. William had never forgotten that advice.
Was it the chicken or the egg, he wondered? Had he bedded so many dancers because he had been a good dance partner? Or had he become a good dance partner by sleeping with so many women? In any case, he thought of that advice often before he touched a woman on stage or in the bedroom. The thought had been in his mind, too, as he placed his hands around Elizabeth Bennet’s waist and lifted her.
In his experience, the same truth held for women: The ones who let themselves be partnered were usually the ones who melted, molded, and danced under the sheets; the ones who blushed, flinched, or stiffened when a dancer touched her on the floor usually shriveled up in bed.
Although she had tensed initially, Elizabeth Bennet, he noted, had eased into him when he grabbed her. She had been light and pliant. A small detail, but one that was on his mind as he stood in the center of Studio B, staring at his feet, thinking of what came next.
In the choreography, he had reached a dead-end. He didn’t know how to get his dancers off stage and get the principal dancer on. Well, it wasn’t really a matter of not knowing how; it was more that he suddenly didn’t care. Did it really matter? He could have his dancers clip their toenails on stage, and the critics would call it a brilliant feat of post-modern dance.
He knew he shouldn’t complain. As a young choreographer creating dances for barely four years, William should have been grateful for the rebirth of his dance career. Life after his career-ending knee injury had been bleak, and choreography had resurrected him. For several years, he’d traveled to new dance companies, working with new dancers, pumping out new ballets, receiving ovations, and tasting glory again, even if it was from behind the wings. But over a year ago, choreography stopped being the panacea it had been. William began to feel empty again.
The door creaked open, interrupting his thoughts, and Caroline Bingley entered the studio. He inhaled, bracing himself.
“Hello, William,” she said, dropping her voice.
He turned his head to acknowledge her. “Caroline.”
She wore her street clothes, a beige turtleneck with tight jeans, and sashayed over to where he stood. His stomach lurched with desire. After all, Caroline was a beautiful woman, sleek and well manicured. He couldn’t fail to notice that.
“We didn’t start this off on the right foot,” she said. “Which is a shame, really. Because I was looking forward to seeing you again.”
He stared down at her with no intention of saying anything. Caroline’s blonde hair hung down around her shoulders, and her cheeks were flushed with the remains of that day’s exertions. She looked like sex.
“I was wondering if I could make it up to you. If you wanted to come over tonight. To catch up.”
He swallowed and turned away, disgusted with himself and with her. “I can’t.”
“I don’t think so.”
Caroline smiled. “It would be fun, Will.”
At one time in his life, it had been fun. They’d had a prolonged and satisfying physical relationship. He ended it when her late night phone calls had become a little too insistent, when she started staring at him with that look in her eyes, when her feelings spilled over from the bedroom into the dance studio. Although the affair ended years ago, Caroline had obviously not forgotten. William had. There were too many Carolines in his past to count, affairs that had ended badly. William finally realized the sex wasn’t worth the fallout, particularly not sex with your best friend’s kid sister.
“I’m trying to choreograph here,” he said, encouraging her to leave.
“Can I be of any assistance?” she inquired, snaking a hand up his bicep.
“No. I choreograph alone.”
“You’re too uptight for your own good.”
William glowered at her. “I’ll see you on Friday in rehearsals.”
Caroline chuckled. She raised the corner of her lip. “Call me if you change your mind.” Then, she leaned up and planted a soft kiss on his lips, one that lingered a little too long. She squeezed his arm and then walked out of the studio, leaving William annoyed and more disoriented than when he began.
He stood in the center of the studio for a long time, his heart pounding. He hated himself for letting Caroline affect him like that.
He approached the mirror and studied his face. Lines had emerged at the corners of his eyes. Twice in the past month he had yanked out a stray gray hair from the mass of dark brown waves on top of his head. William frowned. He was growing old. Once he could no longer dance, he began to feel the heaviness of time dragging down the skin on his face. The wrinkles didn’t show much now, but give them a few years. He sighed and sank into the chair at the front of the room.
After several minutes, William saw visions of his younger self bolting down the diagonal in a rapid series of leaps, turns, and beats of the leg. As a dancer, he had been a completely different person, cocky and brash. He had smiled more, charmed more. There had been nothing more ego-inflating than catapulting himself three feet off the floor in a grand jeté, whirling around in a quadruple pirouette. Nothing more gratifying than the explosion of applause after a perfectly executed variation. And now it was gone.
In envisioning his younger days, William suddenly thought of Elizabeth Bennet. He thought of her dancing. She was still clumsy in some of her movements, but she danced with an energy that he recognized: fierce and delicate at the same time. In her eyes, he recognized a passion for expression that he, too, had once felt. Elizabeth Bennet, he could tell, loved to dance.
William rose again and paced towards the center of the room. She definitely had a strength for balancés, those rocking steps done in a waltz rhythm. Perhaps less vertical movement and more horizontal would work better in this section. He attempted an impromptu phrase of balancés and piqués, and ending with a series of chaînés. It fit the music. It would work. Suddenly, William had direction. He got out his notebook and scribbled down the steps, imagining their execution by a petite corps de ballet girl with a penchant for haughty lifts of the chin and a pair of cold, glittering eyes.
Jane and Elizabeth Bennet waited for the last taxi to whiz past them before they jaywalked onto Columbus Avenue. They were on their way to the deli to grab a post-rehearsal snack before that night’s performance.
“Darcy’s an ass,” Elizabeth declared. “Did you see his face after rehearsal? Ugh! God, I hate him.”
“‘Hate’ is a strong word. You don’t even know him, Lizzy.”
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes at her sister. “Why are you defending him? He’s not exactly nice to you, either. Just because he’s Charles’s friend.” Elizabeth’s voice rose an octave when she said that, and she fluttered her eyelashes.
Jane blushed. “Don’t say it like that.”
“Well, that’s how you get whenever anyone mentions Charles.”
“I like him.”
“You like him?”
“I care for him.”
“You’re gone on him!”
Jane giggled and sighed. “Yeah.”
“And you can tell he’s head-over-heels for you.”
Elizabeth gave Jane a look that said, “Duh, are you crazy?”
Jane’s face melted into a smile. “He said he loved me the other night.”
“What!” Elizabeth squealed. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Jane shrugged. “I felt a little guilty. It was the night you were upset…because of Mr. Darcy.”
Elizabeth’s face darkened again. She felt a sinking feeling in her stomach, the same feeling she always had when she remembered what she’d overheard a few days ago.
“Lizzy, I know something happened when you went back up there. C’mon, spill it.”
Pushing open the door to the deli, Elizabeth spied a few other dancers picking up yogurts and bananas. She grabbed her snack—a bag of cashews and a fruit salad—and made small talk with the dancers while she waited in line.
Once she and Jane were back onto the noisy privacy of Columbus Avenue, Elizabeth said, “I overheard Darcy and Charles talking. Darcy said something really rude about me.” Elizabeth omitted the fact that he’d said something rude about Jane, too.
“Let’s see. I believe it was that I’m short, I have big boobs, I’m going to get tendonitis, and that essentially I’d be a crappy ballerina, and Charles should never have hired me.”
Jane’s eyes widened. “He didn’t!”
Jane shook her head. “That was wrong of him.”
They walked back in silence to the double doors of the building. Then, Jane said, “He couldn’t have meant it, Lizzy.”
Elizabeth snorted. “He meant it. He hates me.”
“I don’t think he hates you. He gave you a lot of feedback today. And he moved you to the front in the opening.”
“He’s picking on me.”
“Why would he be picking on you?”
“I don’t know! I just get the sense he’s taunting me.”
Jane snorted. “Let him taunt you then if it means you’re going to keep getting better parts in his piece.”
“Listen, Jane. Let’s not talk about this now,” whispered Elizabeth, glancing around. “I don’t want the whole company to know how little Darcy thinks of me. It’s embarrassing.”
“Suit yourself.” Jane twisted open the cap to her bottle of seltzer water. It hissed, and she took a timid sip. “I just don’t think it’s as bad as you’re making it out to be.”
Elizabeth waved her sister off. Leave it to Jane, ever the annoying optimist, to try to see the good in everyone, even arrogant jerk-offs who didn’t deserve it.
Later that night, Elizabeth stood in the wings, rising up and down on the tips of her pointe shoes. Tom Hurst, as a grief-stricken Duke Albrecht, was sobbing at the grave of his dead lover, Giselle. Next to Elizabeth in the wings, also dressed as the spirits of dead women, Lydia and Charlotte were discussing the dresses they would be wearing to the after-party that evening. She tried to ignore them. The audience applauded as Louisa Hirsch, cast as Myrna, Queen of the Wilis, darted on stage. Elizabeth waited for the wind notes signaling her cue. She inhaled deeply and adjusted the tulle shroud over her head.
It never failed to hit her: that buzz of excitement and fear before stepping on stage. The veteran dancers said it would pass. The steps, the music, the sequence of the dance would eventually bore into her muscles until they became rote. Her head would empty of doubt—empty of everything, really. The dance would turn into the ultimate nothingness, and eventually, the doldrums would set in.
Her cue arrived, and she walked on stage, wrists crossed over her heart. Soon, the tempo picked up, and bodies began to whiz around on stage. Elizabeth heard the musicians in the orchestra turning pages of sheet music. On stage, a dancer whispered through her teeth, “Slow down, Maestro.” A bead of sweat tickled Elizabeth’s temple as it rolled down her skin. For a frightening second, a tree of lights in the wings blinded her and she nearly forgot a step.
The opening continued, formations made, poses struck, until it was finally time to run back into the wings and throw off the tulle shroud.
Costume mistresses waited with outstretched arms. Elizabeth tore off her veil and threw it to one of them. Then she sprinted around the backstage to stage right for her next entrance in the grueling second act of Giselle, in which she and the rest of the corps de ballet, as vengeful spirits, would command the duplicitous Duke to dance until his death.
Despite the blinded vision, the exhausting series of sauté arabesques, the twenty minutes of holding a frozen pose on stage, the turns, the lifts, the jumps, and the fact that the maestro and his orchestra seemed to be playing a hair too fast that evening, it went as it always did: flawlessly. And with the audience’s applause, the golden curtain of the theater closed, and the winter season ended.