Renée K. Nicholson
The Don imagines Kitri as his beloved Dulcinea; in real life, no one mistakes Cassie for anyone but herself. In variations class, Cassie fiddles with the back of a pearl stud earring as she watches Lucinda Gates marking the counts to the second act solo. Ms. Gates has her hair pinned under a bright persimmon scarf wound around her head like a turban. Her thin lips are lacquered red. Cassie touches her own, absentmindedly. She wears only Chapstick.
“And glissade, up and soft, piqué arabesque,” says Ms. Gates, her voice firm but monotone. She cues the pianist in the corner behind the upright. “The timing, ladies.” She marks the steps to the light jingle of the upright’s keys. “Soft with the arms, like this, roll through pointe to demi-pointe to lower.”
Cassie and twenty other girls in the variations class at The Conservatory of Southern Ballet Theatre mark the steps behind Lucinda Gates, careful to mind their arms, which they do full out, because Ms. Gates believes marking the arms creates bad habits. “If all teachers demanded full arms every time I would not have to re-teach each of you port de bras when you stumble into my class,” she once said.
The girl next to Cassie has soft arms, but has bitten every fingernail down to the quick. The girl in front of her would make a good Kitri because her hair is ebony-dark and she can leap. The dream variation will be more difficult for her, but if the class were learning the third act fan variation, she would sparkle. Cassie swallows down her envy. Piqué, passé. plié coupe, rélevé arabesque—breath—step, pas de cheval. It has to look airy, weightless, effortless.
One by one the girls would offer their attempts of the first section of the variation for Lucinda Gates to eviscerate. “The arms look like a scarecrow. Dear, do you dream of scarecrows?” Next. “You just thud down like you’re a heap of wet cement. Glop!” Next. “You remember fifth position dear? Please use it.” Last season, Lucinda Gates had personally coached Miranda Adams, who had just been promoted to principal dancer at SBT, in the role of Kitri. The conservatory girls, including Cassie, admire Miranda Adams the way other teenagers admire movie stars; they fix their hair like hers, study the cut of her leotards. Miranda was as famous for her temper as her firecracker leaps. The two fought bitterly all through rehearsals—it was the source of most gossip among the conservatory girls. But not Cassie. Part of the reason Cassie was here was because of Miranda Adams, because of her picture on the cover of Pointe magazine in a silvery white tutu from Raymonda, one hand on hip, the other cocked behind her head, chin up, defiant.
“Cassie, dear, your glissades are clunky. So clunky. You could be such a pretty dancer if your feet weren’t so clunky.”
The variation didn’t feel dreamlike to Cassie. Some ballets did. When she was in the summer showcase of “The Kingdom of the Shades” from La Bayadère, Cassie had felt spectral. Perhaps it was because she was forced to work on her arabesque penché, and now could nearly hit a 180 degree line from supporting heel to extended toe. Perhaps it was only in her memory that she had felt otherworldly; the hours upon hours of step-step-penché, gather the arms, tendu combre back, repeat, had been a summer of agony. But when she watched the film of the Conservatory’s performance, Cassie was proud of how she and the other girls had pulled it off—the spectral snaking of white-clad women, rows and rows of them filling the stage with a ghostly but beautiful lightness.
Kitri as an imagined beloved evades Cassie entirely. “Your face says nothing,” Lucinda Gates says on her second try. “Blank.”
In the shower after class, Cassie’s ears ring. “Blank. Blank.”
Cassie lives in the guest room of her grandparents’ apartment in Lake Worth. She drives herself to the studios in Palm Beach every day in an ancient Honda hatchback, a stick with a tricky clutch. Her grandfather, Frank, wants her to trade it in, but she doesn’t have the money. “It’s a deathtrap,” he says. “A damn Jap-made deathtrap.”
“You can’t say that word anymore,” Estelle, Cassie’s grandmother, says. “Good people don’t say things like that.”
“Good people don’t say deathtrap?” Frank says, scratching is head in mock confusion.
Estelle shrugs her shoulders. “What to do about your grandfather, Cassie, but he’s a bastard,” she says, and then walks off towards the apartment’s tiny kitchen.
In her room, Cassie sews elastics and ribbons on her pointe shoes. She is waiting for a call from Stephen, her boyfriend, at least, her boyfriend maybe. Stephen is in his first year of the corps de ballet at SBT, a compact sandy-haired boy trained at the Royal Ballet School. He has a British accent that Cassie and the other girls around the SBT studios think is cute. He can jump, but has trouble with his turnout. He complains to Cassie that Randy Moretti, SBT’s artistic director, chastises him in company class about it. “He’s unrelenting, the bloody git,” Stephen had said to her on one of their dates. They had gone out for coffee, sat on stiff ironwork chairs for an hour and a half, talked mostly about SBT, mostly about Stephen’s prospects there and then he dropped her back at Frank and Estelle’s door. But before parting he kissed her—a deep, slow kiss with strong lips and just the right amount of tongue, and Cassie, unprepared, was smitten.
There’s a knock at Cassie’s door. “Come in,” she says, not looking up from her sewing. She is sitting on a Berber carpet, back against a trundle bed with a quilt used as a comforter. The door opens and Estelle appears, decked in a fuzzy pink track suit, with an arm full of tights she’s washed for Cassie.
“Thanks Grandma,” Cassie says as she looks up and sees the armful of tights.
“Oh now,” Estelle says, but smiles broadly, a fuchsia-lipsticked smile not as tight at the corners as they were in her youth. Cassie has seen the pictures; Estelle was somewhat of a beauty, her wide smile fuller and her eyes less crinkled at the corners, skin smooth as a kidskin glove. “You never take any time for yourself,” Estelle says, draping the tights over the edge of Cassie’s bed, then looks around as if she’s seeing the place for the first time. The room around them is painted baby blue, with nautical themed borders: jaunty anchors, outlines of sailboats, thick rope in tidy knots. “I would have done up the room different if I’d known you’d be in it.”
Cassie stops her sewing a moment. “I’m sorry Grandma. I’d get my own place if I could afford it.”
“Nonsense,” Estelle says. “Who else but your grandparents make good roommates?” She winks at Cassie, a full-lidded World War Two pin up wink. “I just worry. You know you’re so young. You should have a little fun. You should have a fella.”
Cassie has not told her grandparents about Stephen. She hasn’t told anyone for fears of jinxing it. But, because he hasn’t called, she’s not sure exactly what “it” is, other than a rather luscious kiss.
Cassie pats her grandmother’s leg, not unlike her mother used to pat her own leg. “It’s okay, Grandma. I don’t mind giving things up to be a ballerina.”
There’s quiet a moment, and then Cassie takes up the sewing, thread through the satin ribbon, the satin outer lining of the shoe. “Oh you’re a good girl,” Estelle says, getting up and shuffling out the door.
Down the hall, Frank yells, “It’s too quiet back there; what are you girls up to?”
“No good,” says Estelle, who meets him halfway down the hall and gives him a kiss on the cheek, a real smacker.
A vacant studio. No music, just the whisk of her foot against the marley flooring brushing out to battement tendu. She will spend twenty, thirty minutes just on tendus, a kind of relentless devotion. Cassie will watch from a window in the studio door, walking away after a few moments but always coming back to watch again. She hopes she won’t be spotted by Miranda Adams, distracting her from her work in the studio. She’s so concentrated that it hardly seems likely. Cassie worries about passing others in the hall too. She doesn’t want to look like she’s stalking the company’s star. Everyone, though, likes to sneak peeks at her in the studio, if they can. Cassie, like other trainees, just doesn’t want to get caught. It feels a little like stealing.
Cassie misses the crisp entrance of autumn, the dry smell of fallen and raked leaves. In West Palm Beach, seasons are a matter of subtleties she doesn’t recognize. To Cassie, it’s either hot or hotter, sometimes wet. Always humid. She wonders if her dancing would be better if outside the trees blazed with the colors of the season: golden yellows and pumpkin orange and red the shade of her father’s favorite merlot. Why that would affect her in the studio, where one space is pretty much like another, regardless of anything going on outside, alludes her. It’s just a hunch. She misses the belted khaki trench coat that used to be her mother’s in college. Fitted and trim and smart, it makes her feel effortless and stylish. She longs to wear the cashmere scarf her father bought her from a boutique in Boston while away on a business trip. She misses him; it’s been nearly five years since he was diagnosed with liver cancer, and almost as many since they buried him.
I wonder if I need to dance someplace where I’d need to wear a scarf to go outside, Cassie wonders. She should be paying attention to Lucinda Gates and her exacting corrections. Instead, she imagines the scarf around her neck in a place where the seasons appreciably change with frost and snow and slush.
It’s her turn again at Dream Scene. They’ll be at it for weeks, until Ms. Gates says she can tolerate to watch them. Glissade, piqué attitude. Arms open like offering a platter of hors d’oeuvers. The music lighter than other parts of Don Q. Can she be light enough? Piqué attitude.
Cassie considers new shoes. Freeds die too quickly, but all the School of American Ballet girls now at SBT always wear them, swear by them, and so Cassie thinks she should too. But Blochs are her old war-horse brand, and right now they’d come in handy. The Freeds are dead; her technique feels wobbly and wooden.
“Cassie, let me clarify,” Lucinda Gates says. “It’s a dream scene, not a scene of you dreaming.” Her thin lips are painted red as blood, gleaming as she enunciates each word. “Pay attention, girl, or take your dreaming elsewhere.”
Balonnés diagonally from upstage right to downstage left. The mirror makes for poor audience. The balonnés have to be smooth, connected like cursive e’s. Once, Cassie watched a performance of National Ballet, on tour, where Gloria Grady made balonnés look as natural and easy as walking. Now, Ms. Grady is retired from performing, lives in Cassie’s hometown working as ballet mistress for the small company there. How is it that the ballet world is so small? Cassie tries to make her own balonnés not look choppy, not look up-down, up-down.
“One and two, and soft, and soft.” Lucinda Gates’ voice keeps a strong beat like a metronome. Tick, Tock, Tick.
When Cassie returns to her grandparents’ condo, she finds a package of shorts and tees her mom has purchased and sent to her, picked from the LL Bean sale catalog, and a note from Frank and Estelle letting her know they’re out to dinner. Cassie knows she should pick up the phone and thank her mother, but instead she takes an apple from the fridge and pads to the thermostat, which she turns down to 68 degrees. She curls up on the couch wrapped in an afghan, flipping through channels until she settles on Nova on the local PBS affiliate. She munches her apple, a Granny Smith, tart and juicy. Periodically she wipes her lips with the back of her hand.
Her grandparents find her asleep on the couch, the apple’s core wrapped in a paper towel on the coffee table.
Cassie’s friend Fiona is also in the trainee program at Southern Ballet Theatre. Fiona has button nose and skin nearly the color of milk. She’s from Milwaukee and her accent is a stronger, more northern version of the same flat speech Cassie’s used to hearing back home in Indianapolis. It makes Cassie feel less far away to hear the cadences of the Midwest. Fiona is also a good dancer; her turns have the quality of pin tucks.
Cassie and Fiona literally arrived in West Palm at the same time, the same connecting flight from Atlanta. Fiona lives with a host family, a big Cuban family, with three daughters who train at SBT. She has learned to eat rice and beans at every meal. “In Wisconsin you’d never eat rice and beans except at a Mexican restaurant,” Fiona once confided in Cassie.
“I’d just keep that to yourself,” Cassie had said, feeling nervous that somehow not eating rice and beans in Wisconsin, or the reference to Mexican food, would be interpreted as offensive to Cubans. Cassie is always afraid of offending someone. She won’t say she likes Italian food because the company’s Artistic Director, Randy Moretti, is Italian American. It might be seen as sucking up. She pretends not to understand the two trainees from Montreal, even though her French is pretty strong, because she doesn’t want to be accused of eavesdropping. She’s flat-out afraid of the dancers from New York. “Their accents are loud and brassy,” she’d said to her mom.
Fiona loves performing Dream Scene in variations class. Although she doesn’t have the stamina for the ballonnés on the diagonal, nor the piqué turns at the variation’s end, there is a soft, almost pink quality to the way she begins the piece. Dainty.
“Sometimes, girl, you must go fast,” Lucinda Gates says to Fiona after her last attempt at the Dream Scene. “Your piqué turns are dreadful. Too sluggish.”
Fiona smiles and tries again. Even when corrected, Fiona smiles, something that Cassie notices, admires, and also hates about her. It’s the sweet smile of a dairy farmer’s daughter, even though Fiona’s dad is a claims adjuster for a big insurance agency in downtown Milwaukee.
Another dancer in the class takes her turn. This dancer’s ballonnés across the floor are fluid, like waves gently lapping the sandy shores of Palm Beach on a calm, lazy day. Cassie gazes down, spies the dancer in the studio’s mirrored wall, but Fiona just smiles, her cheeks as rosy as when she was dancing it herself. Cassie has the urge to smack Fiona right across the apple of one of her impossible, smiling cheeks. She doesn’t. She pretends to adjust the ribbons of her pointe shoes, retucking them.
After class, Fiona confesses a dislike for Dream Scene. “I wish we could learn something from Raymonda,” she says.
“I’ve learned the second act variation,” Cassie says. “The ones with the hops sur la pointe.” She and Fiona make their way from the studio to the student changing room.
“You always get second act variations,” says Fiona.
“What?” says Cassie, not understanding.
“That Raymonda is second act, and Dream Scene is second act,” Fiona says, pushing a stray lock of hair behind her ear. Cassie simply nods. Fiona stops for a moment, considers her friend who turns when she notices she’s no longer next to her.
“I’ll bet you looked good in Raymonda,” Fiona says, voice tangled up like a bird trying to coo.
Cassie blushes, ashamed.
At her grandparent’s condo, Cassie makes a salad to go with some chicken breasts that Frank is grilling on a small hibachi on the balcony. The balcony is small. “We’re not supposed to grill out here,” he had told Cassie. “Association rules. But what the hell. Where else we going to do it?”
Cassie works the long length of a cucumber with a peeler before cutting the vegetable into thin slices. She then dumps them into a large wooden bowl, already full of iceberg lettuce and baby spinach.
Estelle is setting the table with bright aqua linens and dulled silverware. She chooses long water glasses and fills them each with oblong ice cubes. As she works, Estelle hums “What a Wonderful World” off key, hopelessly flat. When she breaks from this song, Cassie has moved from chopping cucumber onto carrots.
“I know I can’t sing,” Estelle says, “But I sing anyway. Drives your grandpa crazy.” She laughs and starts in on an old Billie Holiday song, too nasal to be mistaken for Lady Day. Cassie wonders if her grandparents are ever hindered by the feeling that they can’t do what they are doing. She decides not, scraping carrots from the cutting board into the salad.
Cassie keeps the cashmere scarf her father bought her in Boston in her ballet bag. She protects it by keeping it in a Ziploc bag, so it won’t get dirty and won’t smell like overused pointe shoes. She likes the idea of the scarf being near her, but also realizes that she’s like a little girl with a protective blanket. The only other person who knows about the scarf is Stephen; Cassie dropped her bag one evening as they were walking out of the studios together.
“What’s this?” he said, picking up the bag like a specimen.
Cassie blushed the deep red scarlet of a girl found out. “Nothing. Just something I don’t know what to do with,” she said.
He’d been amused; he opened the Ziploc and unfolded the scarf. “Cashmere, Love. Swanky,” he said.
She’d tried to grab it but Stephen pulled it away from her. “Give it here,” she said, but he wrapped it around his own neck.
“Is it from a secret admirer?” he said. “Someone I should know about?”
“It’s from my dad,” said Cassie, frustrated and out of breath.
Stephen slipped the scarf from around his neck in a long flourish. “Oh, a daddy’s girl. What a pity.”
Cassie began picking up the other contents from her bag, placing them carefully inside. “He’s dead,” she said, voice small and flat.
It was quiet. Stephen’s arm went limp. He carefully arranged the scarf around Cassie’s shoulders, and helped her collect her stuff—ribbons that needed to be sewn on shoes, another Ziploc full of bobby pins. Neither said anything. Before she zipped up her dance duffel, Stephen kissed Cassie’s cheek.
Cassie hasn’t talked to Stephen, has barely even seen him around the studios, since that evening. But it doesn’t deter her from keeping the scarf in her bag. Maybe I can’t wear it, she reasons, but I can have it with me. She can’t stop fantasizing about cold weather, about seeing her breath, about the first frost and snow, the taste of hot soup after walking thought a brisk winter’s night where the ground was so hard and cold it was as if it were nothing but ice.
It had not been that long since SBT had performed the full-length Don Quixote. Cassie remembered getting dressed to go to the opening night with her grandparents, carefully ironing the pleats of her dressy black skirt, smoothing her blouse with her hands when she put it on, and fastening the short strand of pearls that had been her grandmother’s first real piece of jewelry around her own neck. It always felt nice to dress for the ballet, even if Cassie wished she were performing in it rather than being a spectator. When Lucinda Gates began teaching excerpts from Don Q, Cassie had been excited. She wanted to learn Miranda Adams way of performing Kitri: bold, full of fire grand jétés and precise yet swirling turns. She thought she might really like the third act variation, the one with the black lace fan.
Dream Scene had also proved a challenge to the company’s principal; though her reviews were glowing, the critics did find flaw with Miranda’s depiction of Dulcinea. “She is too real, too much flesh and blood to be the Don’s dream,” wrote Kenneth Clover for the New York Times. The paper of record sent him down to Palm Beach to review the production, as Dimitri Kozlov, a transplanted former Kirov Dancer who worked as Ballet Master for American Ballet Theatre and whom Clover usually reviewed, was brought in to oversee the SBT production, a lavish expenditure paid for by several Palm Beach socialites looking to make the society pages. There had been a lot of hoopla about the whole thing. That’s what Cassie remembered in general. What stuck out in her mind were the reviews of Dream Scene. “Too real,” and “too flesh and blood.” As if either were a truly bad thing for a ballerina.
Cassie knew that no one would accuse her Dream Scene variation of being too real, or, for that matter, not real enough. She was still simply mastering the steps, like the ending cyclone of piqué turns that left her legs feeling tongue tied and numb. Lucinda Gates kept her hawkish gaze on her. “No, no, no, Cassie, there can’t be anything bouncy about it,” she said in one variations class. Then, she lit a Virginia Slim, sighed, and cued the accompanist to play again.
Fiona and Cassie walk out of their technique class, sweaty, tired, ready for lunches of half peanut butter sandwiches and tangerines. Some company members mill about in the hallway, perhaps waiting for the studio to empty, watching the trainees file out in twos and threes, the occasional straggler. Stephen walks by, and Cassie looks down, but it is Fiona who blushes. Her cheeks don’t flame up, but, against her creamy light complexion the mauvish-pink stain spreads in the unmistakable way of delight and embarrassment.
“What was that all about?” Cassie says, hushed but insistent.
“Oh, nothing,” Fiona says, linking arms with Cassie and walking faster. “Just a cute company boy. You know.”
They walk the length of the hallway towards the dressing rooms. Fiona doesn’t even seem to be taking steps, but floating, delicate whisper-like steps. The indelicacy comes only as they change, peeling the leotards back from damp skin. “Stephen and I have been out a few times,” Fiona confesses in the low, conspiratorial voice that would have once been reserved for secrets shared at sleepover parties. “No one is supposed to know about it. In fact, he’d kill me if he knew I told you.” Fiona’s giggle is thin and squeaky.
Cassie is sure that Fiona doesn’t know about her own date with Stephen. “Your secret is safe with me,” she says, voice as flat as the Midwestern landscape she calls home.
“Oh, I know,” says Fiona. “You’re that kind of friend.” Fiona pulls a pink t-shirt over her head. Cassie feels either faint or like she needs to throw up, but Fiona doesn’t seem to notice. “Want to eat outside?” she says.
A prim and slightly plump secretary enters the dressing room. “Cassie Reynolds?” Cassie raises her hand. “Lucinda Gates wants to see you in her office when you are changed.” With her message delivered, the school’s secretary leaves the dressing room, the scrape-tap of her low-heeled pumps fresh in Cassie’s ear.
Oh God, thinks Cassie. What have I done now?
The walls of Lucinda Gates office are covered with pictures, but, surprisingly, not of herself but of the many dancers she has taught and coached. They are artfully composed along the walls, all in polished silver frames. The office smells of cigarettes, but the ashtray has been meticulously emptied and cleaned. Lucinda Gates sips tea from a handless cup decorated with a cloisonné peacock, brilliantly colored against a cobalt blue ceramic. There is also the imprint of red from her signature lipstick.
“I was told you wanted to see me,” Cassie says, voice like the scratch on an old LP.
nbsp; “Sit down,” Lucinda Gates says, though her voice isn’t the commanding bark commonly heard in studio corrections. Cassie obeys, sitting on the edge of a wingback chair. Lucinda Gates passes a sheaf of stapled papers to Cassie.
Afraid to look at the papers, Cassie takes them in hand, but stares into the arabesque of a dancer on the wall behind Lucinda Gates’ head. She figures that this way it looks like she’s looking right at Miss Gates without meeting her eyes. Lucinda Gates clears her throat. “You know the school will have an open house production this year,” she says. “Only a few students have been chosen to perform. After serious and deliberate consideration, Mr. Randy Moretti and I feel it is appropriate for you to perform a variation from our class.”
Cassie feels her heart pump, but says nothing. She tries to nod, but it is as if her neck has frozen in place. Prior to this moment, she didn’t even know that Randy Moretti even knew who she was. Why would he?
“That,” says Lucinda Gates motioning to the packet of papers in Cassie’s hands, “is you rehearsal schedule. It’s a robust commitment, but not unlike what you will encounter when you join a company.”
Cassie makes note of “when” not “if.”
“I am strongly considering the Dream Scene from Don Quixote,” says Lucida Gates, over-enunciating the name of the ballet. Cassie nods, the only thing she can do.
“That will be all,” Lucinda Gates says. But when Cassie gets up, she adds, “Oh, and Miss Reynolds, will you please try to hold your turnout better in connecting steps? I expect to see some improvement in this area out of your technique classes.”
Outside, Fiona is waiting, fiddling with the edges of her lunch sack. “So?” she says as Cassie approaches.
“It was nothing,” Cassie says. “You know, same old turnout stuff.” She doesn’t want to share her news, even though all will be revealed soon enough.
Fiona’s face relaxes into a half smile. “Oh, well, she’s batty about turnout,” she says.
The sun is high and the glare hurts Cassie’s eyes. She can smell the faint stink of a garbage dumpster from behind the building that houses the studios. Her sandwich has been smashed by her tangerine, which she peels, fingers working the rind. She feels little droplets of the tangerine’s juice on her skin, and wonders if she will ever enjoy a fall afternoon again. If the Don dreams of Kitri, it is summer, hot and sultry, but the Don’s dream of Cassie will be the falling of leaves, the crispness of cooling air, the sense that something else will come, if only the Don is patient and waits long enough.
Renée K. Nicholson lives in Morgantown, WV. A former professional dancer whose career was cut short by the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, Renee earned teaching certification from American Ballet Theatre and an MFA in Creative Writing at West Virginia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Chelsea, Mid-American Review, Perigee: A Journal of the Arts, Paste, Moon City Review, Cleaver Magazine, Poets & Writers, Dossier, Linden Avenue, Blue Lyra Review, Switchback, The Superstition Review, The Gettysburg Review and elsewhere. She serves as Assistant to the Director of the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, and was the 2011 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State-Altoona. She is a member of the book review staff at Los Angeles Review, is co-host of the literary podcast SummerBooks and co-founder of Souvenir: A Journal. Her website is www.reneenicholson.com.