Gilly Kincade stood en pointe to see over the dancers hovering around Meredith Bernard, crumpled in a heap of white tulle in the backstage shadows. Gilly caught a glimpse of stage manager Paul Arther, kneeling with the principal dancer’s purpling ankle in his hands.
“Shut up, Meredith, you’re not going back on stage.” Paul looked over his shoulder. “Gilly, change your costume. I’ll hold the curtain five minutes, but you’ve got to hurry.”
Meredith moaned. “No! My ankle’s fine. Look!” She struggled to her feet, whimpering as her left heel came in contact with the floor. Her narrow, strong-boned face was ashen, and she blinked away tears.
Gilly wanted to cry with her. Forced off the stage in the middle of a ballet --- and in Saratoga Springs... “Paul, are you sure?” Paul’s eyes frosted. “If you don’t want the role, I’ll put Victoria in.”
“No, I --- Of course I want it.” She’d understudied Odette’s variations and knew them cold.
Please, God, help me not to faint.
“Good.” Paul slid a pair of scissors under the satin ribbons wrapped around Meredith’s ankle and snipped through them, grounding the swan maiden for the foreseeable future. “You’ll need to put ice on that ankle, Mer. We’ll have somebody drive you to the ER to get it X-rayed.”
Meredith began to sob that it was Dmitri’s fault that she came down wrong, and he should be fired. Or shot.
Gilly couldn’t look at her. Didn’t have time anyway. Somebody would have to take her own place in the corps de ballet --- probably an apprentice waiting in the wings. But that wasn’t her problem. She tore into the dressing room. “Frankie! I need the other Odette costume!”
Frankie Silverman looked up from tacking Jarrica Black’s leotard onto her tights. “Now? ”
“Yes! Curtain goes up in five minutes!”
“Gadzooks!” The costume manager leapt to her feet, leaving needle and thread dangling against the back of Jarrica’s thigh. “Stay put,” she ordered the young corps dancer.
Jarrica put her hands on her hips but obeyed.
Gilly stripped off her corps costume and let Frankie help her with the Odette tutu and headpiece, then charged out of the dressing room to stumble through dark backstage territory. With fifteen seconds to spare she made it to her mark. The curtain opened...
She became Odette, transformed by the evil von Rothbart into a swan, doomed to eternally float on Swan Lake. She lost herself in the movement, the longing for humanity, the longing for her prince’s love... All dance was either elation or longing, rarely anything in between. She knew there had to be some spiritual implication, but for now she was simply a storyteller. Beautiful that she and Tchaikovsky, long dead, could communicate the love story of a doomed princess.
She danced Act Two in a blur, high on the pure adrenaline of the spotlight. Beyond it breathed the audience, a black wall of energy.
The corps surrounded her, white tutus forming beautiful lines of motion like lily pads floating on the lake of the stage.
Dmitri Lanskov danced toward her, smiling. “Up you go,” he murmured.
She leapt as Dmitri lifted her high, throwing both arms above her head, exploding with joy. He spun with her over his shoulder, carried her across the stage, carefully set her on her toes. She bourréed, floating away from Dmitri, drifting into a series of ecstatic arabesques. Then she bourréed toward him again. With her arm lightly curled around his head, they melted into a simple, elegant bow.
The audience came to its feet, roaring applause. Gilly could hardly breathe. She felt God’s smile.
Jacob Ferrar rose with the audience under the soaring canopy of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center amphitheater, smashing his hands together until they hurt. He had just been privileged to watch a star burst into place. If he’d had a flower, he would have thrown it onto the stage, but who expected to be confronted with genius in a substitute corps dancer? It was like finding an orchid in a field of clover.
Suddenly he was glad he’d made the long, frustrating trip to attend Ballet New York’s final performance in their summer home. He almost forgot to worry about Graham, left with his indulgent grandparents. He almost forgot the effects of insomnia that had dogged him for the last two months. He almost forgot the last time he’d danced on this blazing stage.
After all, Saratoga Springs on a mild summer night was a magical place, even from the audience. Above the canopy of the stage the open sky shimmered with moonlight and far-flung stars, and from his orchestra-level seat he was close enough to see the redhaired dancer’s face flushed with triumph, the false lashes and heavy makeup turning her into a porcelain doll. He could almost feel the throb of her pulse with the deep rise and fall of her bosom. He could see the sweat dripping off her dainty, pointed chin.
That made him smile. He glanced at Wendy Kersey, his company’s ballet mistress, who had traveled with him from Birmingham to choose guest dancers for their Nutcracker. Even as she enthusiastically applauded, Wendy was watching Jacob rather than the pair onstage folded into a graceful double bow.
“What?” He returned his attention to the dancers.
“You’ve changed your mind, haven’t you?” There was humor in Wendy’s voice.
He didn’t answer for a moment, continued to applaud and cheer until the curtain closed for a final time. Finally he looked at Wendy. “Maybe. What do you think?”
“I think this is your company and you should do what you want.”
Jacob laughed. “You’ve been ballet mistress for three years and never held back your opinion. Why start now?”
Wendy gathered her black lace shawl around her bony shoulders and edged into the aisle. “Because you came here intending to offer a contract to Meredith Bernard, and now you’re considering this ingénue who hasn’t even made soloist yet.”
Jacob picked up his program and followed Wendy toward the theater exit. She was perhaps fifteen years his senior --- though her age was a closely guarded state secret and no one knew for sure --- but she liked to play a game of deferring to him.
Amused, he caught up to her. “Clearly you don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Wendy stopped in the grassy park outside the covered seating. Subdued laughter and conversation floated around them as the departing audience eddied past. She sighed. “Jacob, your instincts are as good as any director I’ve worked with to date. Perhaps better. If you think this girl is ready to handle the Sugar Plum role, then by all means, bring her down. But do take note that she has yet to dance it in New York.”
“That’s true.” Jacob shrugged. “Which I don’t understand. Poiroux is generally quick to move young dancers into responsible roles almost before they’re ready.” He shook his head. “But you saw her. Thirty-two fouettés perfectly nailed! I couldn’t take my eyes off --- And she’s from Alabama. If we play that up, she’ll be a real draw.”
“It would be a gamble.” Wendy made a wry face. “But at least she’ll cost less than the Bernard girl.” She lifted her shoulders. “Go for it, then.”
“There are reviewers here. The dance bloggers will be talking about her tomorrow.”
“Yes, which will drive up the price. Do you have a favor you could call in?”
“Not exactly. But I do know Maurice Poiroux.” Jacob could swallow his pride for this. He folded his arms. “I’ll talk to him at the cast party tonight.”
Wendy studied him. “It’s been five years, Jacob.”
“But he won’t have forgotten.” He looked away. “I wouldn’t have forgotten.”
Her propriety was such that she rarely touched him unless they were demonstrating a dance, but she gently laid her fingers on his wrist. “It’s time to forgive yourself, my friend.”
“I know. Yes, I know.” He smiled, though some of the joy had gone out of the evening, and pulled her hand through the crook of his elbow. They began to thread their way through the crowd. “Let’s see if we can find the car in this madhouse. What do you think about
Gilly dropped her dance bag on the floor inside the bedroom she had called home for the last three weeks and walked over to the antique dresser. For forty-two weeks out of the year, it and all the rest of the furnishings in this Victorian behemoth belonged to some rich upstate New Yorker involved with the horseracing industry, but she and four other dancers had been renting it during the month of July for the ballet season.
She flattened her hands on top of the white crocheted runner and leaned in to stare at her face in the mirror. Before leaving the theater she’d removed the mask of heavy makeup. Now, clearly visible were the sprinkle of freckles she’d covered up since she was twelve years old, the tiny diamond stud in her nose that nobody could talk her out of, the quirky red eyebrows that bent slightly upward at the tips.
But she was different now.
“Soloist,” she whispered. “You. Gillian Frances Kincade. Soloist for Ballet New York.”
She grinned and ran to grab her phone. Flinging herself backward on the bed, she pressed the first speed-dial number. It was hard to choose which of her sisters to call first, but Laurel was eldest and the more forceful of the two personalities. It was midnight here, but only eleven o’clock in Montgomery, Alabama. The McGaughans were night owls. They’d have put the girls to bed and stayed up to watch a late-night talk show or a movie.
Laurel answered on the first ring, her drawl distinct and sleepy. “Gilly! Honey, are you all right?”
Gilly laughed. “I’m very all right.”
“Oh, good.” There was a relieved sigh. “So how did the ballet go tonight? It was the last one, right?”
“Yes.” Gilly paused. “Laurel, are you sitting down?”
“I’m... well, Cole and I were --- ”
Gilly laughed. “No details, please. I just had to tell you --- drum roll --- ” She took a giddy breath. “Maurice moved me up to soloist tonight. He announced it during the cast party.”
Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Laurel McGaughan actually squealed. “Oh, Gilly, that’s wonderful! Cole --- Gilly made soloist.”
Gilly could hear her brother-in-law lean in to share the phone. “Congratulations, squirt. You deserve it.”
“Thanks.” She could feel her smile taking over her face again. “This is almost as cool as the day they invited me to join the company.”
“I can imagine.” Laurel had the phone back. “So give me the details. How did it happen? What did everybody say?”
“Um, well, everybody was excited for me except Meredith Bernard. She’s kind of in the hospital with her ankle in pins --- which is why I got a shot at Odette tonight.”
“Wow. Poor girl.” Laurel understood the critical nature of a dancer’s body. She’d seen Gilly alternately pamper, discipline, and abuse hers for the last sixteen years. “But good for you. You must’ve brought down the house.”
“It was great --- Oh, Laurel, I’ve always wanted to dance Odette in Swan Lake. Almost as much as Sugar Plum Fairy in Nutcracker.”
“Well, maybe that’ll be next.”
“Maybe. Maurice is kind of... unpredictable about casting.”
“That’s what I hear. Now that you’re a soloist, will he have any objection to you dancing in our arts festival in October? The entertainment committee is so excited about you coming.”
“No, there won’t be a problem. We did a formal contract, after all. I talked to Tucker and he’s all set to do the music. I got my plane ticket rerouted yesterday. The rest of the company will leave Athens and go straight back to New York. I’m flying into Birmingham instead of Montgomery, though. Can you or Cole come pick me up?”
“Of course.” Laurel laughed softly. “Mom’s a little miffed that you’re planning to stay here during your break and not go on to Mobile, but she’ll get over it. She and Daddy and Mary Layne’s bunch are all coming up for the festival.”
“Yay! My whole million-member family all in one place! I can’t wait.” Gilly stood up to unzip the dress she’d worn to the cast party and shrugged it off. It fell to the floor, and she kicked it aside. “Well, I need a shower before I hit the sack. Don’t tell Mary Layne until I can call her tomorrow, okay?”
“All right, baby, have a good rest. I bet you’re worn out.”
“Pretty much.” Gilly padded barefoot to the tiny bathroom off the bedroom. Her energy, fueled by adrenaline, seemed to seep away with each step. “Tell Cole good night for me.”
“Okay. Good night, little sister. I’m proud of you.”
Gilly laid the phone on the counter and rooted in the cabinet for toothbrush and toothpaste, face cleanser, and moisturizer. Tomorrow she’d have to pack it all up and take the train back to the City with the rest of the company. Her little Tribeca apartment had stood empty for three weeks, and it would take a bit of effort to put her things back in order.
By the time she got that done, it would be time to pack again for the company’s Mediterranean tour. Maybe she should make a list before she went to bed.
As she squirted Ultra-Brite on her purple Elmo toothbrush, she caught a glimpse of her feet. Several blisters had popped and looked kind of red and weepy. She grimaced. Feet took precedence over lists, and she wasn’t going to be awake much longer.
Being the baby of the family, she wasn’t a natural organizer, but she’d had to learn to do more for herself since her mother moved back to Mobile three years ago and left her on her own. Amazing the sacrifices her parents had made to give her this chance at chasing a dream.
And now, finally, it was paying off. Soloist.
Scrubbing her back teeth, mouth full of foam, she yawned. She spit and laughed at herself in the mirror. Even swan princesses had to sleep sometime.
Excerpted from TOUR DE FORCE: A Love Story © Copyright 2011 by Elizabeth White. Reprinted with permission by Zondervan. All rights reserved.