Paris Opera Ballet, 1841
You’re enjoying your reprieve here at the opéra, m’sieur, are you not? All the wealthiest gentlemen do.
Here in the exclusive foyer de la danse, wives are forbidden and young girls lightly clad. Champagne obtained, you complain of your tiresome wife—how she will never replicate a young girl’s bloom, no matter how much rouge she rubs on her cheeks! It is almost curtain, which means it is time for us ballet girls to stretch. Your eyes trace the lines of the white silk bodices we could never afford on our own, then flick to the private dressing rooms in the back. Yes, you leer, how much more pleasant to be surrounded by fresh-faced girls!
For us, les petits rats, one performance is always followed by another.
You and the rest of the hungry-eyed men—our patrons, who deign to supplement our starvation wages for . . . services . . . beyond the ballet—have taken your place, lingering, behind us. You are already waving for more drink. Your words will be slurred by intermission, but no matter. It’s your money that speaks.
We cannot help but lean over the barre, ankles raised, backs exposed. Our ghost-white skirts so bouffant.
All of you patrons tell yourselves you are here tonight for the grand opening of Giselle, the tragic ballet about a frail young beauty, the man who betrays her, and the jilted girls-turned-wraiths—my wraiths—who take their revenge.
But you know you are here to survey this season’s wares, to pick which peach of a girl you will sink your teeth into. Whispering loudly, the directeur assures you he has chosen only the prettiest girls to play the wraiths. Never mind the dance.
Ahh, but your eyes slide right over me, now. Have I gotten too old, m’sieur? Too experienced for your taste? Your eyes hook onto our young Giselle, scarcely fifteen. You join her at the far wall, her right leg scissored up high in front of her to stretch, her snub nose tucked in shyly against her inner thigh.
But she cannot hide from you! You steal a glance side to side, then run one finger down the curve of her spine.
Look at how she blushes. How she hides her burning cheeks. It is genuine, that innocence.
This is why you all come. To pick a flower from the gutter for a season or two. To fill her aching belly with the meat she needs to grow strong, to purchase the tulle skirts the opéra requires of her but will not pay for, to exact what you will in return.
You appease the opéra by purchasing a private box and attending once a week. We pay the price.
• • • •
I may no longer be in the first bloom of youth, but I still know what to do. I move to the back of the room for my pirouettes, biting my lip, savouring the blood. For the first time all night—ever—I smile for myself, for me. Not for you.
I pick you out. Pirouette. Find you again. Pirouette.
There is so much pleasure in the anticipation, is there not?
A damp chill has settled over the foyer, and I see you give a violent shudder. You twist, away from Giselle, looking for something amiss. But you find nothing except the Opéra House itself: gold-leafed carvings along every post; wall paintings twice your size; the multi-tiered chandelier, a triumph of glass overhead.
And me. I spin again. Seize your gaze. Grin. Spin.
Your candied words dribble to a stop as you catch me watching you watching Giselle. The veins stand at attention as you clench your jaw, and so the veneer rubs thin.
Enough, you snap at me across the room. What are you smiling like that for?
A small hush. A few of you turn. My ballet girls stand to attention at once, and I finally come to rest. It is so cold our breath dances before us, but it doesn’t bother us. The men’s hands are chapped red.
It is only that I have waited for this night for so long, I reply, and show you all my teeth.
• • • •
We bid adieu to you all, as expected; patrons must eventually rejoin their wives, who call us whores when they know we’re listening.
On your way out, sweet Giselle brushes behind you, and you trip. Faites attention, m’sieur! She catches your elbow; smiles.
But she is the only one. The rest of the ballet girls collectively break their gaze from their patrons, and look to me.
You, however, cannot meet my eye. You choke a little, and hurry out to find your seat.
There. Up on the second balcony. I spot you from the wings, your wife beside you and fresh cognac in hand. But as the swell of the orchestra begins, I can see you breathing shallowly, as if your heart were racing. You must be telling yourself it is only the emotion of the music, the drama of the ballet. Try instead to focus on the ideal of womanly beauty in front of you, floating across the stage.
Yes, Giselle, twirl. Good, Giselle, leap. Sauté yourself across the stage for them, a simple peasant girl in love.
My sisters and I, hushed, wait in the darkness of the wings.
But then, as the story goes, young love sours. Prince Albrecht proves untrue, and the simple peasant girl now dies of a broken heart.
I rise up on the balls of my feet, and my shrouding veil floats gently around me.
Will you join us, Giselle? Will you sleep no more?
My toes begin to tremble, then go numb, as I wait. The sweet young girl, the star of the ballet, lies on stage for a moment too long. Then two.
My pulse beats, too loud in my ear.
Come, Giselle. It is time to rise up.
At last—at last—she stirs. And whispers her sisters in.
• • • •
We are reborn. Not as poor girls driven mad from abuse, but as Wilis, wraiths stirred from our earthy graves. Veiled in bridal white, décolleté, with a mockery of a smile on our polished faces and lilies in our hair.
We are beautiful, by requirement. We are young as a matter of fact. We are dressed in netting and muslin that mimics the lightest of organza and chiffon. But here and there are splatters of mud, and our hems are always damp.
Our weightlessness is our strength; our fury matched only by the quickness of our steps, and then—
A whip-like crack snaps out through the opéra as lines spiderweb through the golden pillars around you. Gasps spread through the house; for a stomach-dropping moment, it all seems to hold, until the pillars burst—five of them, six, seven, eight—and great clouds of plaster threaten to swallow you whole.
The floor before you ripples and tips, your head spins, and you gape. I promise you it’s not just the drink! Your teeth gleam so white in the dark—did you know? Your balcony holds on a moment longer, while those to either side of you—left, right—crumple inwards. Velvet chairs are swallowed from sight, silks and hats and clutching hands tumbling, collapsing faster now in a rain of red. Screams tear the air.
We dance on, untouched. But now we dance for ourselves.
Just as the crumbling floor drops out below you, and fear doubtless burns your throat, the great chandelier crashes to the ground. All light snuffs out. You’re still falling, but darkness sticks stubbornly to your eyes—then flashes of pearly white—then your feet hit the stage.
Or should I say, a dirt path veined with roots.
You hit the ground too hard, and your knees buckle. Despite this, you look wildly relieved, perhaps thinking, for a moment, you’ve escaped.
But no one leaves the Opéra House tonight.
Stop trying to find logic in it. Logic has fled. The stage is a stage no more, the ballet no longer a mere ballet. The paper forest comes to life. A thick fog settles in. Cool night mist coats your throat while birch trees push down roots through cracked floorboards into the forgotten earth below.
Girls with budding chests and willowy arms appear—to save you? Ha!
My Wilis found you, our most generous patron, easily; I spotted you well. They push you close, hems bloody, fingers icy and wills unshackled, your cheeks ribboned red where their nails gave you a caress. They pull you further in, further, and you pull against them, harder, straining in vain to hear the pounding of rescuing feet.
Why me? You cry. Why me?
And that, messieurs, is my cue.
I step forward. Their Queen, Myrtha, with rosemary in my hair.
My petits rats bring you to me—yes, to me. You fancied yourself our protector, but who stands between you and the uncertain now?
Do you dare believe the cliff behind me is mere paint and artful shadows?
No. You beg, first to me, then to Giselle. S’il vous plaît! Have mercy!
I never said you weren’t clever.
She is the newest of us, and still looks uncertain.
So I ask her: Should he dance now, or later?
The mist disperses the moonlight, making it even harder to see. The Opéra House has faded away entirely; your gasping breath is the only sound.
Giselle reaches out to touch your feverish cheek, to trace your jaw line, still strong. She leans in closer to look directly into your wide, desperate eyes, as you try so hard not to blink.
Maintenant, she says to me, almost a question, and I smile wide. She already looks more composed as her uncertainty fades. The rosy bloom in her cheeks has fled, but hard angles remain.
Yes, she repeats, and grips your blubbering chin. Right now.
Alas, your feet are not so graceful as ours. Even the clumsiest ballet girl would know not to dance so close to the edge.
• • • •
As we look over the cliff, we catch a glimpse of red splattered on the rocks below. How sweet. You wrote us one last love letter, in scarlet.
Birch leaves rustle softly in a midnight wind. The drop of a far-off curtain thumps in our ears—our final signature of divorce from that drab world. The pungent smell of lilies wafts through the air.
Without a glance behind us, wraith-like, we dance away into the pale woods.