The Bridge of Aspiration

"I’m an addict.
Ballet is my morphine."

Six months after the death of her father, Erin Weir's mother commits suicide. Orphaned, she is taken to London in a bid to escape the guilt-ridden village of her childhood.
There seems to be no way out of the cycle of depression she's plunged into but then she discovers ballet, a gift that may be powerful beyond anything...


12. 12

I worm another twenty minute laptop session from Natasha and it doesn’t take me very long to bring up the home page of London Burroughs Young People’s Ballet and I realise as I click on the ‘auditions’ tab that I’m holding my breath.
We are looking for a company of forty boys and girls aged 11 to 15 to dance in this season’s production of Peter Pan. We are working with young choreographer Joseph Byrn to produce an original ballet for our talented young cast.
First round auditions for this season are on Saturday and Sunday the 3rd and 4th of May. Girls aged 11 to 14 will be auditioned on the 3rd and senior girls and boys will be auditioned the following day. Applications will close on the 13th April.
There is no audition fee and auditions are open to anyone who enters within the time given.
For more information and map click here.
To download an application form click here.
We look forward to seeing you.

“Natasha?” I call, opening the tab. “What are we doing on the 3rd of May?”

 We battle our way through the tube system in order to reach the audition venue. One hand clings to Natasha, the other is fastened around my bag. Amongst the churning tumult of bodies these are the only things that instil a small portion of security.
The bag contains the costume of my heart and soul: a pair of ballet shoes.
The hand is like an anchor.
The Fletcher family have grown up on the roaring hustle of the underground map – its stringy tails knot through their past experiences – and its voice which seems like screaming to me is familiar enough to pass as a violent lullaby to them. That is why I let Natasha lead me through London’s stuffy digestive system; its workings are ingrained in her the way the laws of the mountains were in me. I suppose if you cut the coloured ribbons that lace the dots together she’d come loose somehow and float aimlessly like a battered helium balloon.
 We squeeze onto one blaring train, then off and onto another. I don’t try to follow our twisting pattern across London; I’m running the sensation of failure through my head over and over so that I am prepared for today’s outcome. I try to gather the taste of disappointment on my tongue but it evades me in this absurd bursting of misplaced excitement because, really, I’m headed to my doom today at the hands of an army of high training. I can’t wait to dance but there will be a congregation of Marzena s and Elodies ready to slaughter me. They will smile a sugar-plum smile and then hew me down with an easy beating of feet and a few whipping fouette legs.
But heartbreak in the ballet world can’t be as great as heartbreak in the real world, can it? I know it brings me to tears but that only proves how broken dreams leave a far shallower bitterness than the offerings of broken humans.
Mum and dad are beyond the pettiness of tears. If inadequacy in a studio makes me a weeping willow, then car crashes and suicides are the axes implanted deep beneath my skin.
We emerge from the second train and I increase the pressure on Natasha’s fingers to show her how much I need her, trapped in the feverish bowels of a morning city. I am bounced between backpacks and briefcases as she drags me haphazardly towards the air. I get and elbow in my face, a skateboard in my back, a pull-along trunk winding between my legs until, stumbling and breathless, we emerge from the escalators.
I apply myself to her side like a limpet, strewn among the tides of hurrying suits, we remain to gather our breath and our courage like a lonely island…
Me and Dad. We sit, comforted by each other’s warmth and humanity as we watch the shattered loch. It’s awash with the storm that’s hammering us and it is gulping wildly up the shingle beach. It engulfs the little rocky islands that are good for swimming in summer. One is fighting against the water’s rage and insists on re-emerging each time it is pulled under, cloaked in white spit and green weeds, it’s strangely beautiful.
I nestle to Dad’s damp shoulder and feel small in the wrappings of his arms. The storm is big but he is bigger. Somehow…

I step away from her suddenly as I remember. I cannot draw myself so close to someone so distant. I cannot treat the warm solidity of the body the way I treated dad’s.
 “Come on Baby,” she gives my hand a tug but I let myself fall from it this time. She doesn’t question this withdrawal and I follow her, untied.

 The building is old, scrappy and with a cool feel of dereliction to it. It smells gloriously of old wood, sweat and dance. I hug my knees on the changing room bench. Natasha plays with the hem of her skirt uncomfortably.
 “I thought this was a prestigious company?”
 “It is,” I breathe. I inhale its prestige like I’m being given oxygen for the first time. It’s a tired building but it is overwhelmingly alive with ballet; magic is spilling from its unpicked seams.
 “It’s a little bit of a tacky venue,” She voices nervously as we observe the splattering of water that decorates the floor of burnt-orange tiles. Run-offs from the toilet.
 She doesn’t understand; if the Royal Ballet trained on a rubbish dump, I would still be caught short by its beauty. Similarly this place resounds with fear, exhilaration and wild-fire passion and I love it for these attributes.
The woman opposite coats her daughter’s hair with crackling, throat-burning spray and checks that her pink underwear is tucked in. Natasha, reminded suddenly of her duty as a ballet mother, copies fervently despite knowing full well that I have no nickers on beneath my leotard. It is just like another layer of my skin. I flap her off me and them we go upstairs; my dreams mount up with each stair until I’m balanced unsteadily on a stack of crazy hopes.
Natasha signs me in and I find myself shaking in my scrumpled, roomy attire. Natasha shrunk it a little in the wash but it still sags between my rib cage and hip bones. I busy my trembling fingers with the drawstrings of my shoes. Perhaps it’s the clammy coolness of the building or maybe it’s just the overpowering intensity of the looming audition. The shrivelled woman with the register hauls herself to her feet and pins a number to me; a label right across my stomach. Her hands are startlingly cold against my beating body.
463. Me.
That series of digits is my name for the next couple of hours and I recite it over and over in my head until I can step into it comfortably. Until there will be no mistaking who I am if 463 is called.
I wave a goodbye in Natasha’s direction and she says “See you soon,” although we both know that the further away “soon” is the better.
I scuttle to a queue of fear- plastered girls; most are hugging themselves, some have sunk back into the wall as though wishing to be swallowed by the brickwork before entry.
Smattering of whispers circle the group, like applause for a bad performance. “How old are you?” someone further up asks and the question is copied several times over through our little band. The answers fall raggedly in return and it gradually transpires that we are all 11 although, on appearance, we seem to display a great variation in age.
 “Have you auditioned before?” I am asked and reply with a shake of my head. “First time,” I say almost inaudibly. The girl is echoed all around by similar questions.
 “This is my second,” she says. “I got a recall last time. That was it.”
She halts and twists her sweaty hands. I’m unsure whether to feel intimidated by her or not.
Girls start to do rises and tendues as though they feel it is necessary to display their readiness for this event. None of us are ready though, not really. We are all just children wavering on the boarders of our future. One starts doing développés along the wall and I have to train my eyes away from her to stop my hopes from hanging around my ankles.
 I do not make any attempts at an experienced façade. I glue my feet into their comfortable fifth and play with the safety-pins of my number plate.
The door at the end of the narrow passage swings open and whatever vague noise there was hisses itself out like the endings of a sparkler. An inappropriately cheery woman invites us in; “OK,” she smiles so widely she might be about to take a bight out of something. “Welcome to your warm-up session. How are you?” No response. “You’re not too scared are you?”
A collection of lying head-shakers.
 “Good. I’m going to be helping you to warm up but I’m also here to help you relax so that you can dance your best in there.” She directs a graceful finger at the door we face. Yes, fingers can be graceful when they’re pointed by dancers.
 The following warm up is a collective blur of gallops, skipping, tendues and sautés all jumbled together with a lot of activities designed to induce grins and some excitable arm whirling punctuated by talk of Britain’s Got Talent. The anonymous, beaming dancer leading us certainly deserves credit for it because somehow I have become so absorbed in the series of things she’s blasted through our brains that the 15-minute-time-bomb-door has been blocked right out. It comes almost as a shock when she waves us through with good luck, because with the power of dance and hiccupping music coursing through me, the sensation of ominous waiting has been eradicated.
The next room that we are pulsed through into is far larger and only has mirrors along the back wall so that we cannot judge our reflections while the music plays. The floor is springy, scuffed and boundless, interrupted only by the hulking mass of an old piano and by the long desk at which three people sit.
 “Ok girls,” a delicate, greying dancer greets us. She’s wearing a black wrap-around skirt and healed ballet shoes. Her arms are endless and her neck is like a vase. She is a world away from Miss Corinne’s familiar fitted T-shirts and socks and tracksuit trousers and yet they are very alike in the structure of their bodies and the way they hold themselves.
 “Welcome to your audition. I am Paula and I’m going to be leading you today. You will be watched by the choreographer, artistic director and casting director.” She extends a hand to direct our gaze to each of the three members of our audience in turn. My eyes fumble nervously over them; they are so powerful sat there, holding my heart in their fingers.
 “I’m going to teach you a series of short enchaînments, yes? A series of short sequences and then you’ll perform them in fours and fives, yes?” She scans us for some sort of display of understanding but we’re blank dolls waiting to be wound up and made to dance. “We’ll mark them twice each and then you’ll show them. Don’t worry if you go wrong; just remember to keep going, yes?”
We nod our consent; yes, the rules are clear: it is a girl on girl affair, every girl for herself. Those tentative gestures of friendship back in the corridor were meaningless; we are really wishing bad luck and pulled muscles and the plague on every other auditionee. This isn’t quite the right environment for cultivating compassion, it is ruthless and so are we in our determined ardency.
“Porte de bras,” she says crisply and the focus of the room snaps in on her as she arranges herself meticulously into a preparatory stance.
“Croise and 1 and 2 and breathe with your arms,” I copy her demonstration hurriedly. “Chassez arms to second arabesque, two classical walks, close to fifth. Ronds de jambe arms moving to fourth and then bend supporting leg, arms open. Pas de bourree, detourné 5th, yes? And then on the other side, yes?”
The unfamiliar words trawl through my head sluggishly; I can barely follow her. I crane my neck for the best view but even after the two run-throughs I feel I have only really got my head around the beginnings.
 “This is Henry,” She says pointing to the man behind the piano. “Sorry, I didn’t introduce him earlier; he will be playing for you today.”
I haven’t noticed him until now; he is the almost as grey as the bricks behind him and seems to be made up of very little. He is vaguely middle-aged and hunched over the keyboard, his neck shrunk into his spine. His eyes are alarmingly bloodshot and unfocused, sunk deep in his grey stubble skin. I try to avoid staring at him but it seems to be that, with repulsive fascination, the unpleasantness attracts my eyes with cruel ease. The elbows of his shapeless tent-of-a-jacket flutter when his fingers chase each other along the yellowed keys and he makes me think of an ungainly, sad sort of bird. When he begins to play for the first group of four, however, music pours out from his caressing touch like molten gold. His uncomfortable ugliness is gone and his beauty swells on the flourishes of his lonely cadenza. His hands are light and fast, gnarled and eaten around the edges but playing across the instrument’s teeth like children. Hands are to him what feet are to us and so they breathe the same language.
The group of us range from numbers 440 to 479 and, by virtue of coming later in this series, I am granted a little longer to work through the short routine by myself. I need each gathered second.
When I am called to step forward to the centre I instruct myself to become immersed and to let the music hold me rather than my shaky understanding of the steps. All the same, I am not too intent on relaxation that I fail to tighten my body into place the way Miss Corinne has drilled me to. When the piano starts to sing I feel the glow of each note seeping into the set routine and I realise that my face is pulling into a smile without the aid of all the bizarre tips in the warm-up. I am safe and I am home.
We are then dragged through Adage and Pirouettes until I am swimming in terms that mean very little. I simply force my body to record each highlight of the practise runs so that I can recreate something that resembles the instruction. The adage finishes on an arabesque which we are instructed to hold for as long as possible and I can’t help feeling elated by the way Henry has to start a new phrase of music for my arabesque. Arabesques and posé ton lévés are my speciality these days thanks to each gruelling and humiliating attempt Miss Corinne made me endure.
“Thank you girls,” Paula checks the clock on the wall, I stare at it too but the minutes are meaningless to my eyes. I can’t remember when we began or when we finish or whether Natasha will be biting her nails by now; I am too involved in this performance.
 “I think we have time for a quick allegro before we do our last thing.”
We do. It is quick and relentless and my pulse dances high up in my throat as my feet peel of the ground, propelling me towards the ceiling. I watch the other girls and their legs seems to haze before my eyes as Henry’s hands flicker back and forth – dragonfly wings over water.
 “OK, to finish, in your fours you are going to go from this corner to the door. I don’t think we need to run this through twice – it is very simple. Posé ton lévé, step, hop in pirouette position, arms to third. You do this four times across the room and then hold your own position. Then you will go out of the door and wait in the next room.” I wonder, in some detached part of my brain, how many inter-joining rooms there are in this place. “Yes?”
We nod and run to the corner to begin.
Section after section of our hoard spill out of the room in one last fit of desperate performance; the choreographer smiles back. Is it to apologise or congratulate? His eyes sit on me for a while but it is impossible to distinguish an answer. Maybe he’s just returning my expression of happiness and thanking me for my time. The rickety piano is airy and buoyant in its last song and it carries my feet like they are feathers. I am remembering; turn out, hips square, straight knee… and sweat trickles sickeningly down my back with the effort. My leotard darkens but it is good sweat. I’m damp and panting but the overall sensation is of exhilaration. How could it not be when I’ve just danced with all my soul?
I catch myself in the mirror as I move rooms and I register, with surprise, that I look like a pink-flushed me. In my head I was a ballerina.
There are 10 other girls collected in a corner projecting an aura of smugness. They look at us in interest as we enter.
I am pointed towards the cluster of other seated dancers and I settle among them. The same petite raisin of a woman who signed me in is conversing with the choreographer in the doorway. He passes her list. I clamp my gaze on my crossed legs and hear my three numbers rampaging around my skull. It won’t be you, I tell myself firmly to try to ease the blow but all the same I’m clinging to the stringy hopes that are suspending my ribcage – swollen by anticipation.
She walks over slowly, she seems to inch on her ancient, turned-out feet. “Firstly I want to say well done to all of you,” she begins and I marvel at her congratulation when she did not even watch the audition. It could have been a fiasco. “I will call out the numbers of those who have been recalled and those of you who have will remain here to wait. Everyone else will leave with me to meet you parents. OK?”
I want the talking to be over and yet to last forever; while she talks I’m sick with not-knowing but I don’t want her to bring my dizzying excitement to shards. If she could talk forever I’d be floating here, never having to experience the fall.
 “If you haven’t been recalled this does not mean you are a bad dancer, you are simply not quite right for what our choreographer has envisaged.”
I wish she’d stop softening the blow; no words can cushion this let-down.
 “Four hundred and forty three, four hundred and forty seven, four hundred and forty eight, four hundred and fifty, four hundred and fifty five, four hundred and sixty two, four hundred and sixty three…”
Was she calling the successfuls or the rejects? I can’t remember for a heartbeat.
Four hundred and sixty three. 463. Me. It bubbles through me. I want it to be read over and over again so that I can feel that leaping in my chest and the security of repetition. I want to savour the words on her lips for eternity. I am 463, aren’t I? There hasn’t been a mistake, has there? I suddenly panic and I have to stare down at the printing on my stomach for several seconds just to get my brain to read the label. My brain processes flashes and it takes a while for the past minute to assemble itself into a fully formed realisation. I’ve been recalled.
 “To repeat,” I tune back in to her voice; “That is four hundred and forty three, four hundred and forty seven, four hundred and forty eight, four hundred and fifty, four hundred and fifty five, four hundred and sixty two, four hundred and sixty three, four hundred and sixty six, four hundred and sixty nine and four hundred and seventy one. Thank you girls, if you haven’t been recalled, follow me.”
Their departure is loud, clumsy and brave-faced but there’s an underlying stench of dejection and jealousy in the air. I’m briefly guilty as I remain, stunned into statue form; I almost feel bad.
The room is silent with astonished pride. I decipher the joy on our pink faces, jumbled with all the streaming torrents of our hyperactive brains. We revel in our touch of glory. Beyond this room we are not victorious; we are beaten by bullies, spelling tests, money, depression… but for this moment we have our coronation.
It’s just a recall, I have to remind myself. It’s just the first stage of three. But we have beaten it under the balls of our feet and it seems we are allowed this elation. We are rivals united by a brief interlude of joy and refuge and we are sheltered here from whatever far bigger rivals our lives plunge on us.
The wait becomes long but contented while the room steadily fills. The group for the recall will apparently be a combination of eleven and twelve year olds of which there are several initial audition groups. It seems impossible that there really are this many versions of me in the whole country, let alone London and the South East. My love of dance seems so unique and it sets me apart from almost the entire population of my life so it feels odd to see it woven into so many other girls’ lives.
The room shrinks with bodies but the number who leave broken is staggering and, by the time there are 60 of us, packed in like sardines, I am sick of my victory and other peoples’ empty-handed despair. As a group our talk is empty and the friction between us grates on every surface, drowning out any forced chattering. The tension sparks.
It’s funny how I have to spend my whole school life trying to find people who are like me to be my friends and here I have to fight not to become too attached. I have more in common with these girls that any others I’ve met with the exception of Marzena and Elodie.
I am hardly surprised that Elodie is an easy addition to our ranks when she enters with the last sweaty, dishevelled group of twelve-year-olds. We talk hesitantly, unable to really express the audition in words. If we could let our feet do the talking it would be easy but there is barely room to tendue.
“How was it?” she asks unnecessarily.
“OK,” my answer hugely diminishes the experience.
“Obviously,” she says and there is an awkward pause as we drink our success like it’s in the sweat running from our foreheads.
“What about you?”
“OK,” she answers.

“I’m through to the final audition on the 20th!” I bounce from foot to foot in the changing room, my throat tight with ecstasy. She smiles broadly and then shrugs as if she knew it all along.
“Of course you did,” Natasha says, nodding her head towards the pile of jeans and scrambled hoody on the bench. It’s a not-too-subtle hint that I’m too high to take. “They’d be insane not to take you – you’ve been driving us nuts with all your prancing around the flat. You’re well-practised now.”
I shrug; I’m not so sure if being well-practised is what makes someone good seeing as most of the other hopefuls have had years of practise compared with my few months but it would sound somewhat conceited to say so.
 “We had to do so many detournés. She was obsessed with them. And we had to do these seesown things.” I demonstrate, springing from side to side until she puts a restraining hand on my shoulder.
 “When I was a kid, we called them star jumps,” she says quietly and I feel a little crushed because no one else in the recall made them look like star jumps – I couldn’t see myself. Perhaps Natasha senses that her comment struck me hard because she attempts to makes amends. “You must be starving then?” she asks but I shake my head. I’m full up with the sustenance of the place, having gorged myself on ballet.
 “Not really, no.”
She passes me a tissue-wrapped doughnut from her handbag. It’s a little mushed and a little sweaty and paper clings to the icing.
 “Get that down you,” she says firmly, “and, for God’s sake, stop monkeying around and put some clothes on.”

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