Grieving the loss of hopes and dreams
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Grieving the loss of hopes and dreams: Brisé
Brisé is the story of a young ballerina, her body failing, her dreams of being a dancer shattered. She is grieving the loss of hopes and dreams.
It’s the night of the show. Claudia hefts her duffel bag onto one shoulder, exactly like she’s been told not to do. Goosebumps rise on her exposed calves as she hurries into the auditorium to escape the December chill. She finds a space amid the bags and bodies in the practice room and drops down on the vinyl floor next to her fellow dancers to begin warming up. She stretches out each muscle carefully, in a routine perfected by years of practice. Legs spread wide, then together, then one at a time. The other women are laughing, but today Claudia is silent. Today, she knows, is her last performance. Today she begins her grieving the loss of hopes and dreams.
Zippers squeal as the dancers rifle through their bags to pull out their shoes. Claudia places a gel spacer between her big and middle toes and wraps tape around the third. Then she pulls out a tube of Icy Hot pain relief gel and squeezes some onto the backs of her ankles, where her Achilles tendon lies. The minty smell fills the room. She rolls her pale tights down her calves and over her toes. She slips her right foot into the tight cavity of her pointe shoe.
It’s been many years since she was fitted with her first pair, but she never tires of feeling the tips of her toes connect with the stiff box of the shoe. The hardened compress of satin is protective; the squeeze of her toes feels like home. Claudia slips the back of the shoe up over her heel where it clings, always in danger of slipping off but never doing so. She wraps one elastic ribbon across her ankle and up her shin, then the other. She connects them in a knot, which she tucks inside the loop. She stands and grips the barre bolted to two of the four walls of the room.
Mirroring the other dancers, Claudia begins a series of pliés and relevés to loosen her joints. Her knees scream as she bends them, and when she straightens, she can feel the joint grinding. Rising up to demi-pointe on the balls of her feet, she presses onto the tips of her toes. Her Achilles burn as she flexes and straightens them by rising en pointe and sinking into pliés. She begins a series of tendus, pointing her leg out in front of her. As she progresses through the standard warm-up exercises, the tension she didn’t even realize she was carrying fades away. She belongs here, on her toes above the world.
It’s not long before Claudia is slipping on her white tutu and bodice in the dressing room, careful not to let the tulle catch on her tights. Leaning between the bare bulbs that surround the mirror and rummaging through the piles of bobby pins to find the correct products, she applies layers of makeup. She doesn’t even notice the added weight of the mascara or glittery shadow anymore. Her hair is knotted in a high bun circled by sprigs of white lace. She pulls a ring of tulle cinched by an elastic band over each arm until they sit above her elbows.
Claudia turns to look in the full-length mirror as the other dancers bustle around her. It’s an angelic sight. The costume is simple, lacking the detailed embroidery of the principal dancers’ outfits. The tutu is long and soft and floats around her calves as she moves. Trying to hold back tears, she smiles at her reflection. This is exactly where she wanted to be. As a child, Claudia dreamed of tutus and pointe shoes and making ballet her job. She was never interested in the solos or pas de deux. Instead, she imagined moving her body in time with the corps de ballet, being one in a perfectly coordinated sea of pale legs. To perform with the corps in the Waltz of the Snowflakes in The Nutcracker had been her childhood dream, and after working her way up and up, she had finally arrived.
The stage manager gives the fifteen-minute warning and calls the dancers to the pre-show huddle. The artistic director addresses the mass of dancers to wish them luck and give last-minute notes. Back in the dressing room, Claudia pulls knit leg warmers up to her knees to keep her muscles from growing cold. Snow is the last dance before intermission, so she settles down with her fellow corps members to wait.
They speak in hushed voices, sharing their plans for after the show. Claudia smiles when called upon, but a leaden sense of melancholy sits in her stomach. She’s worked so hard to get here, by giving up everything else in her life to focus on ballet. Yet over the last few months, she’s been hit with a string of injuries, none of them serious, just sprains and strains. She’s only become well enough to perform with the aid of painkillers, luck, and slight deception about her state of health. She feels no guilt. She would have done anything to perform this role.
Claudia hears the tolling of the clock that signifies the beginning of the battle scene. The Snow dancers remove their leg warmers and shuffle backstage, careful not to let their pointe shoes knock against the wooden floor. They wish one another good luck with gentle touches and superstitious phrases. From the dark wings, Claudia can see the dancers dressed as rats running around the stage. They freeze as the Christmas tree begins to grow. The toy soldiers arrive to rid the home of rats.
She hums along silently, for she has danced both of these parts as well and knows each of Tchaikovsky’s notes. The company performs the Nutcracker every December without fail. She smiles as Marie meets the Nutcracker for the first time, but rolls her eyes as they begin their pas de deux, one of the more boring parts of the show in her opinion. The tittering of the flute signifies the beginning of Snow. Claudia’s breath catches in her throat as she starts counting for the final time. She is suddenly awash with anxiety, but her mind clears as she leaps onto the stage.
Claudia does a series of small jumps and turns, her slim form flying across the stage with arms overhead. Her shoes thump on the floor made slick by the falling of fake snow. The dimmed lights give the stage a greenish glow. She and the fifteen other dancers flit across the stage, coming and going as quickly as the snowflakes themselves. Claudia is transcendent for six short minutes, unaware of the pain in her knees and ankles as they strain to keep up with her movements. Nothing exists but the orchestra and her body, in sync as if connected by marionette strings. She glides from corner to corner, her moves constructing complicated formations with the other snowflakes. They leap and freeze, vibrating their arms. They pirouette in intersecting diagonals. They skitter across the stage like sparrows. Claudia is lost to the sensation of flight, of weightlessness.
The music climbs to a fitful crescendo and then releases into its gentle melody. Operatic voices join the flutes as Marie and the Nutcracker return to the stage to be escorted to Candyland. Flanking them in a diagonal line, Claudia and the snowflakes bourré in place. With each successive beat in the music, they change positions. Arms down as they strike their toes against the stage. Fall to a lunge, arms vibrating in first arabesque. One knee down. Collapse to the stage, body folded over bent legs, arms touching the stage in fifth position. Just when they look to be finished, the snowflakes spring up to pointe, arms in a V overhead as the gong sounds. Their legs move tirelessly to keep them elevated in place as the music fades, and the curtain falls on the scene of pure midnight snowstorm magic.
Claudia comes down from pointe slowly as the clapping fades into the din of happy chatter. She is out of breath and slick with sweat. Suddenly aware of her aching joints, she stumbles off the stage. She hears herself exchanging congratulations with her fellow dancers, but her heart isn’t in it. The tears come as she walks through the darkness of backstage. She hopes they’re indistinguishable from the sweat on her face. That was it. There’s the curtain call, of course, but that’s only a brief moment of standing and bowing. Her performance was impeccable, each movement hit with precision and passion. But it’s over now.
A decade and a half devoted to the art has come to an end at the hands of a body unwilling to continue. Claudia’s shoulders slump as she returns to the dressing room. Unable to contain it any longer, she covers her face with her hands and begins to sob. Her fellow corps members surround her, their tutus brushing, their arms wrapping around her waist and shoulders. They know without her having to tell them. As the dancers’ heads bow in mourning of a career ended too soon, Claudia wonders if she’ll ever find anything half as meaningful to live for.
Katarina Schultz is an LA-based writer. She lives and writes at the intersection of media, mental health, spoonie life, and hope.