Rehearsal week can make and break a dancer. We’ve been in rehearsals at home but now that we’re here, we need to learn the new space, test lighting, check our costumes. The nitty-gritty details. We get three days before we open for an audience.
By the second day, everyone needs some downtime. Some dancers find focus and balance in being active. Others just need to be still. Unsurprisingly, though maybe just to me, I’m the one who needs to walk and Aly needs to lie down in some dark room and listen to meditative music on her iPod. She almost never stops moving, but when she does, her stillness is admirable.
While she and Johan are still discussing a particular pas de bourée, I slip into the women’s dressing room. Sakura’s doing her makeup at the mirror and she watches me, but says nothing when I tuck two tea bags, one orange and one vanilla, into the edges of Aly’s mirror.
“Have a pen?” I ask her and she hands me an eyebrow pencil. I shrug and flip over a receipt on the table, quickly scribbling a note.
Taking a walk. You danced perfectly. Trust me to catch your hand. —Z
I toss Sakura the pencil, which she doesn’t catch. “See you in an hour.”
“Don’t be late to dinner,” Sakura says through a few bobby pins trapped between her lips. “I’m not playing babysitter to Alyona tonight.”
Aly doesn’t need a babysitter the way they think she does. They mistake her rising energy before a performance for nerves. She’s the least nervous and anxious when she’s about to dance, especially in front of an audience. But instead of holding herself back, like she does in the rest of her life, she opens the floodgates. Her intensity comes out most clearly just before a performance. It’s only going to get worse over the next few weeks as we tour.
That’s why she’s the prodigy and the rest of us aren’t. She takes things apart just to discover their secret choreography, including herself.
I step out of the room and run straight into Aly, catching her by the shoulders. “Hey. I just left you a note. I’m going out.”
“You need to bring your dancing up,” she says, a little loudly, her eyes shining in the dim light. She’s a rushing river and right now, I’m the dam she’s pressing against. I kiss her damp forehead and her fingers curl against my chest. Her voice drops suddenly, spilling over me. “I’m sorry. I just—”
“You have an hour before we’re all doing dinner. Take it easy,” I say. “I’ll see you then?”
“Yes,” she says and then leans back, letting me hold her up. She shows me more trust here in the dark wings of the building than she did when we were out there on stage. She runs her fingers down my cheek. “You’re good?”
“I’m good,” I reassure her. “Taking a walk. I’ll see you soon.”
“Don’t be late,” she says, like Sakura.
“Late once,” I tease her as I let go and head down the hallway. “Never forgiven.”
“Forgiveness is earned!” she calls back down and then smiles and waves as she pushes open the door into the dressing room.
* * *
The Dutch National Opera & Ballet is in this stunning building set right on the water. It has a ton of natural light and houses all of the Netherlands’s major musical entities. There are bridges and canals everywhere in this city—it’s actually hard to figure out how they even find the land for new construction, but I guess I don’t see much of it—and theoretically the public transportation system works just fine. But still, I want to walk. I ask one of the ticket ladies at the front of the building for directions, and she sends me to the Waterlooplein flea market.
“Tourists love it,” she tells me with a wink.
I’m not exactly looking for anything to bring home. I’m not even sure if my family knows I’m out of the country. They don’t approve of ballet as a career. It offends their deeply rooted rural Pennsylvanian sensibilities. They’ve never come to see me dance. Part of me definitely thought I’d be like Billy Elliot. Once my dad saw how good I was and how much I wanted this, he’d show up at my performances. So far, I’ve had less luck than the son of a British coal miner.
Aly’s not much luckier and I think when we were kids, that’s what brought us together. She was the halfhearted attempt at repairing a childless, loveless marriage. Her absurdly wealthy parents adopted a toddler from Russia and found that she didn’t fix their relationship and they couldn’t handle her. She grew up mostly with her dad, who moved to New York City while she was at the Lyon School. She barely sees her mother, who’s some sort of hotshot lawyer in Washington, D.C.
The flea market’s just like flea markets at home, but with an excessive amount of orange. Even pumpkin festivals can’t compete with the amount of orange here. A young woman with hair as fair as Aly’s grins at me, waves me over and then shoves a huge orange hat down on my head. She holds up a mirror and I laugh at my reflection. There is only one shade of orange in the Netherlands, and it’s just not attractive. She then hands me an orange and blue hat, complete with a pom-pom on the top, the Dutch flag stitched onto the front and tassels.
Relenting, I say, “Two. I need two, please.”
Aly’s going to kill me. I’ve never seen her wear orange outside of a costume requirement. Maybe I can tell her it was the least offensive option. It has blue in it, after all. The vendor helps me sort through euros that still make no sense to me, hands me my change and then kindly points me back toward the street I need.
“You are American?” she asks. “Is this your first time in Amsterdam?”
“In Europe,” I admit. “We’re dancing this weekend at the National Opera and Ballet.”
“You are a ballet dancer!” she exclaims. “My daughter dances. Perhaps we will come see you!”
“You should!” I shake her hand and thank her for the hats. I pull one of them down over my head. The absurd color combination is mitigated by how warm the hat keeps me on my walk back to the hotel. People skate along the canals, hand in hand, and against all logic, my mind wanders back to our own little rehearsal two days ago and then the stage today.
She asked me to stay with her.
And she wasn’t talking about dance. I know she wasn’t. Anxiety and desire pirouetted across her face when she looked up at me, the same as they did when she told me to bring my dancing up this week. She’s never had a problem bringing her dancing to the next level. Aly’s always looked at the stage, heard a challenge and stepped into the light to meet it. She’s never been afraid of anything.
She’s afraid of us being us.
“You have to stay with me,” she whispers in my memory.
But I can’t. If this is a risk she’s not sure she can take alone, I’ll have to lead. I’ll have to be a little ahead of her.
I’m going to break a promise to Aly for the first time ever.
I hope I’m not wrong.