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...


15. 15

I arrive there and queue up to sign in with more than a little discomfort. The other girls in the line are talking with hesitancy in front of me. Their fingers pick at their pink tights like they’re trying to make holes.
I look up and smile at Natasha; I think she is surprised to see me so happy when she knows I feel imposed. But how could I not ne happy when I’m here – actually here? I’m back where I auditioned but this time it is to learn not to be judged. This time I am here to become a dancer, to become part of a touring company. This time I am living in what has been my imagination for the last two months and I am bringing that future alive.
 I’ve waded through a whole summer term, I’ve read the newspaper reviews of the Peter Pan stage show and tried to imagine what it would be like to dance it, I’ve swum in my losses until I was almost drowned but, for now, I bask in the temporary relief of a life belt that’s made of ballet.
 “Name?” The angular brunette woman at the desk asks me when I reach the front.
 “Erin Weir.”
 “OK, thank you,” she ticks something off on her paper and gestures for me to join the other kids. “You’ll need to stick a name badge on your leotard – the girls are passing around sticky labels and pens.”
I nod and wave goodbye to Natasha. She still hasn’t got comfortable with the place and its procedures. I think this side of ballet confuses her; for her ballet means the showy layer that is presented in pretty dresses on stage and that makes sense to her in a way that the training aspect never will. To her ballet is something pretty and that is why she struggles with the roughness of the reality.
I take a seat on a square of free floor beneath the barre with some others as we wait for the tour group to assemble.
On boy passes me a marker and a smile.
 “Hey,” he says, “You can have the labels once Gina’s finished.”
 “Thanks,” I respond. His label is almost illegible but it seems rude to ask what he’s called so I just take the roll I’m offered and try not to say much.
“I live in America, mostly,” one girl is saying very loudly. “My dad is in Canada right now although he’s actually from Hong Kong but anyways… we live in California. He’s a doctor.”
 “I’ve been to California too;” another says, “we had a two week school lacrosse tour out there.”
The boy who welcomed me rolls his eyes at them and I can’t help but agree. It’s not as if they have said anything particularly spiteful or controversial, it’s more the fact that they have decided to publish their lives for us. I exchange a glance with Gina.
The girl from California continues; “I was doing a summer intensive in Vancouver two weeks ago and I damaged my Achilles. It’s still not good. Maybe I should call my dad to ask if I should dance. Should I call him? He’s a doctor. Wait, what time is it out there? Should I call him or not – it’s probably the middle of the night? I bet he’s operating on someone. But he’d know what to do.”
What have I got myself into? I wonder as she continues to give her running commentary of all the thoughts that pass through her head.
I press the sticker into the fabric of my leotard.
 “Hey; my twin sister’s called Erin too!” The boy says in surprise. “I think my parents thought it would be funny to give us such similar names – Eric and Erin – people always ask if we somehow got mixed up because she plays the drums and goes skateboarding and I got along to ballet class instead.” He has this half-way grin like it’s funny but not at the same time.
When everyone has arrived and been ticked on the woman’s list she approaches us and calls over the tall, muscular man who has been observing from a corner. They introduce themselves as Sarah and Joseph.
 “Basically, he’s the choreographer and I’m in charge,” she explains and no one seems sure whether or not she is trying to make a joke. “We’re going to be casting this morning but each of these rehearsals will begin with a ballet class to warm up. So… girls to the barre and Joseph will take you boys next door.”
I find myself a space near Gina and watch as Eric and his half-way grin leave the room.
I count eighteen other girls as we work through demanding exercise that feels far beyond everything I have ever done with Miss Corrine.
Sarah paces along the wall barres, making corrections along the way:
 “Heads girls, I don’t want to watch you if you’re going to make this boring. Project; I’m your audience.”
 “What’s that Erin?” she says when she gets to me. “Haven’t you done a grand ronde de jambe before?”
The honest answer is ‘no’ but I just blush crimson and Gina flashes me a sympathetic smile over her shoulder.
 “Why are you lifting your hip? Your hip does not move; you lift from beneath your leg.”
I nod and attempt to correct myself but she has already moved on without telling me whether there is any improvement.
I realise now how lenient Miss Corrine is; accepting mild chatter and making jokes out of mistakes. Sarah is as severe as the edges of her chin and cheekbones and the most communication we get away with is an exchange of smiles mostly with Gina who otherwise has a permanently nervous expression.
One benefit of her control is that the American girl cannot bestow us with more useless information about her medically-trained father who is actually from Hong Kong.
When we are introduced to an enchaînment full of terms I don’t recognise, Gina catches my expression and pairs-up with me. “Let’s go to the back, shall we?” She says.

The casting is done differently to the audition and it is halting as we are arranged in various height patterns and people are picked out. It is also bizarrely specific. For one part, although they won’t tell us which, we are asked to do back bends and people are gradually chiselled away from the clump of potentials as we hold the position. I try to work out what they can be casting now, having already given away the main parts that I can remember and I almost jump when I hear my name.
 “Karla, Erin and May, stay where you are. The rest of you can come and sit back down – sorry about all the waiting but we have to get this right.” This becomes his mantra as he apologizes to those who are still waiting to be chosen. “I’m going to teach you three a very short section and then we’ll cast one of you from that,” he tells us.
I like his choreography. The section he teaches us is indeed very short – only twelve counts – but it is flavourful with hints of playfulness and mystery. I find myself finally enjoying the experience; his style of teaching inspires pleasure in a way that Sarah’s cannot.
“Ok, thank you girls. Erin; you’re Tiger Lily,” he decides although I had not particularly noticed being evaluated. “Go and sit over with them,” he points to the group of people who’ve already been cast and I go to join them, smiling.
I grab my drink and pull on a T-shirt as I go to stop my muscles cooling down too fast. They whisper congratulations at me as sweat steams off my arms.
 “You’ll get a solo, definitely,” the Tinkerbell girl enthuses.
I wonder why these people are so keen to tell me so when they have been cast for greater things than me. I relax among them and the morning becomes fun now that Michael is its guiding force and, although there are several endless waits as he ponders over assigning kids their places. It gives me immense satisfaction to see that both the American girl and the lacrosse girl only make the corpse de ballet and even more when Gina clinches the role of Wendy. The shortage of boys means that Eric is the only one who does not get assigned a particular role and, although he pretends not to mind, his twisted smile and distance during the lunch break give him away. I can’t help wondering whether Joseph left him alone throughout the casting because he didn’t know a name by which to call him forward.
I am not needed in the opening nursery section and so am not used all afternoon. Instead I watch as Joseph spins magic from their feet.

“Good day?” James asks when he collects me later.
 “Awesome,” I say and collapse into the front seat. I lean back in the seat and think about the way he drives. It’s lulling me somehow and my eyes are weirdly heavy…
“Sorry Erin, I’ve never been a smooth driver,” Dad says as we lurch over a pot hole and I fling forward in my seat.
 “I like it,” I insist.
“You’re a very sweet liar but absolutely terrible at it,” he tells me as he checks the rear-view mirror happily.
 “It’s true.” I say and it is. Driving with him is painful and bumpy but it seems comfortable somehow. The surging and stalling is all familiar and there’s something playful about it. I know I probably shouldn’t enjoy all the jolting but I like the carelessness. Mum worries when she drives and she drives in this rigidly tense way that makes it all seem stressful.
 He hits another rut in the road and we bobble in our seats and laugh.
 “What would you mum say if I blasted you right into the roof?” He asks and swerves around a cyclist with my laughter rolling out behind us in peals…

Perhaps dad’s accident was inevitable. His driving was nothing like James’ safe and easy style but I loved it at the time. Cars were not dangerous back then, nothing was dangerous. I think I thought we were all immortal. He worried about blasting me through the roof and now I cry about the roof blasting through him. Scotland was my Neverland for nearly ten years but there was no fear of Captain Hook; my only enemy was reality. A delivery lorry made me grow out of my fantasy and I had my tenth birthday party with tears wrecking the last of my childhood.
“Bet you’re hungry,” James says and I jerk my eyes open and my head up.
 “We’ll pick up a takeaway,” he says but, as we drive to Pizza Hut, all I can imagine is pancakes with Annabel: sickly and warm and filling. I remember the kitchen and all four of us gathered around the table until we could not remember what being hungry felt like. I think we were all laughing and the room was warm – the clock ticked above us and counted off dad’s last days.

For something that promised me twenty hours of intensity, it passes with too much ease. The hours are slippery as they drift past in the world outside. My week becomes those four studio walls, the smell of damp and exhausted bodies and muscles that shake from overwork.
The intensity was no lie but it cannot last long enough for me. For some reason I thrive on the harsh drive in the battle against time and fatigue. Each correction is an elevation – Sarah chants it but I know it – and each step is a gift. Joseph gives me more than Christmas ever could; he has an inexhaustible supply of presents stored in his muscle memory.
I get my predicted solo; its short but it has to be. Tiger Lily is a tiger not a flower and she dances like one: feisty, tireless and beautiful. I don’t pretend to do it justice but Joseph seems pleased.
 “Good,” he says, “I can see you feeling the music. Do you take music lessons? No? Perhaps you should.”
I nod but know I could never dare to suggest them to Natasha and James. I know that my dancing eats away their money like the ever-hungry floor eats up the satin of my ballet shoes but I can’t help that because I can’t stop dancing. Music is different; I like it and the way it teaches you to dance but I’m not consumed by desire for it. I would never ask for more money to be showered on the ‘unwanted’ child for its sake.
 “Make sure you lift your little toe to the ceiling on the arabesque – no, keep the extension in the foot – that’s it, just lift a little because it gives a nicer line.”
“Don’t drop your thigh on the attitude turn; you have to hold the turn-out.”
“Good. Nice – turn out – good girl.”
As I finish I notice that he is giving me a calculating smile and he merges before my eyes from an imposingly beautiful artist into a helpful friend.
Then he looks away, claps his hands and announces that he wants to see the pirates. As he watches his ballet take shape his eyes shine; he sees something we don’t among the mistakes and the faults in the alignment. He sees beauty; beauty and potential.
 “It’s so refreshing working with them,” he tells Sarah as we gather up our belongings. “They are still exploring what their bodies can do: they think ‘of course I cannot lift my leg any higher’ but they have his curiosity and the curiosity is greater than their reason. They find they can.”
 “You are so patient,” she says as I pack various things into the bag that is not big enough for them. “You never snap at them.”
“They work better when they explore for themselves rather than when we tell them they must. Of course, we must provide instructions but the less we shout the more they can listen.”
“Perhaps,” she concedes. “You finished it today, tomorrow is where the magic begins.” For a moment she sounds enraptured and I turn and glance over my shoulder at her. Her face has lit momentarily and the features do not seem so sharp; she is a child once more. Like a child she is captured by a fairy tale love for ballet and chiffon.
“Yes,” he agrees, “They stop doing the ballet and become the ballet – they take it on and make it their own.”
“Doesn’t that worry you?” She asks, sounding herself again. “Don’t you fear that it will not be how it was in your hopes?”
 “Certainly there is apprehension,” he says in a measured voice, “But there is far less of it that there is excitement.”
He pauses and stares deeply through the sprung floor. I don’t think either of them realise that I am watching as I wriggle into my jeans; they are too caught up in themselves and each other and the prospects of dance that they spin.
 “Once upon a time I had snatches of ideas – they were seeds, each step – I scattered them across the stage of my mind and some took root and blossomed. They grew until my garden was full and the public paid to feast their senses. Then I had to prune them. I had to take it from a stage to wherever it was needed and it had to be smaller. At first I wanted to prune equally so that I was left with a reduction of the original but then I realised that it worked best when I pruned selectively – a little less here, a little more there. Some things were kept in abundance, others almost lost completely and the formula for my garden changed. It is nothing like what came before. It all came from what existed but it has been made new. Part of that is the kids; my work needs them like flowers need water.”
“Now we watch it grow.” Sarah says and by now I am lacing my shoes.

She is right; we watch it come together to form a whole. Yesterday it was crumbs, now it is dough. He kneads it and shapes each one of us. Every little detail is important; “It matters less when you dance alone,” he tells us as we fail again and again in our ‘stars’ dance. We make up the night sky – the backdrop for flight – and it is the only time I get to be something other than Tiger Lily.
 “A soloist owns his or her performance but when you are part of the corpse you must share it. If you each stamp your own mark on it, piss, mark your territory, it becomes a mess. You are a constellation and we must see you as such not as individual stars. If one of you break the alignment we cease to recognise you as a whole. Who could know Orion if a star was missing from his belt?”
He has this way of speaking that makes it feel like he’s talking directly to me even though he is speaking to eight of us. I like the way he talks of ballet; he has learnt to describe his passion eloquently. I cannot yet.
 “Why does it even matter that much?” The American girl asks to my astonishment. Perhaps she sees all the outraged stares because she continues in an attempt to explain herself. “I mean, it’s just for a bunch of old people so why does it need to be perfect?”
Sarah makes an angry tutting noise in her throat but Joseph smiles wanly.
“It matters greatly for many reasons: Firstly, as I’m sure you understand, our audiences are far more than ‘just old people’ and I dislike those who belittle the elderly. Secondly the fact that the space and run-time are diminished in no way means that the quality should also be compromised. When people flock to stage shows they are paying to be entertained. They are expecting to be satisfied by what they see. They have put aside their lives for this brief interlude and want to be carried away into another world. The sick and elderly don’t have this: they are unhappy, scared and probably in pain. They are uncomfortable in their surroundings and you must elevate them beyond that to the same other world that theatre-goers reach. In this way you have a harder job to do; you have to transport them further. Finally, it matters for you. It matters because do you really think you could be pleased with your performance if you knew you could better it?”
For a moment the room is silent. He has a strange kind of pride on his face; daring her to counter him. I gasp when she does. Not a loud pantomimic gasp but a small intake of breath so sharp and so sudden that I almost choke on it. I don’t see how his explanation could have failed to satisfy her.
 “Why not have the best people on tour and the second best in the stage show, then? Why do only the second best make the tour?”
I can’t understand her.
 “Sadly,” Joseph begins after an uncomfortable silence, “this world is ruled by money – we live in a dictatorship of materialism – and those who pay are given the best. Take it up with our chairman if it really bothers you.”
The air in the studio sours a little from then on. It is our last day of training and each rough edge must be sanded before we can take it elsewhere. He is right; I am compelled to do it right but less for my audience than for myself. I keep on correcting, adjusting and chiselling away at my faults until I am aching and barely able to walk. We eat like the starving and walk like the dying but when we dance we become new again. It refreshes us as we perfect it. Perhaps, like he said, his ballet needs us but what I notice is that we need it. We thirst for it and, even though there are complaints and moans when we are waiting at the side, I know that nobody would swap their place in the tour for the comforts of a normal summer holiday. Like no one would swap a tank of petrol for a father or London for a mother.
But I swapped my parents for ballet – what does that make me?

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