“You must promise not to forget us when you are there. When you are dancing.” She hugs her friend for the last time, hands her something small wrapped in gift paper and whispers in her ear, “I will miss you. I will miss you more than anything.”
“Of course I will not forget you,” her friend, Emilia, replies. “I could never forget me. You have been simply beautiful to me, supporting me ... I could not have got this far without you.”
Karen smiles sadly. She will never be a dancer, though the two went to classes together, but she understands why her friend must pursue this dream. “I fear that you will become so absorbed with the dancing that you will not remember us, no matter how much you say that that is not so.”
“Of course I won’t.” Her flight is announced and Emilia picks up her bags. “I will see you soon, anyway. It is only for a couple of months and then I’ll be home again.” As she walks towards the big double doors to board her plane, she does not look back. She knows, of course, that this is the end of one life and the beginning of another, but the does not know that it will be everything to her within the space of a day or two.
As the aeroplane takes off, Karen is left on the ground. She stares at her friend leaving her. She has been expecting this to happen for several years now. But we could have had longer, she thinks. We could have had just a month or two more. They are closer than the closest of sisters; they tell each other everything, without exception.
The flight lands at its destination. Paris. She has arrived. Stepping down onto foreign tarmac, Emilia starts to walk towards the luggage claim to fetch the bag which carries her life. Her shoes. Her clothes. Everything that she is and will become – the source of her only power. They are all there, and she cannot lose them.
When she arrives at the hotel there is nobody there, although she was told they would be waiting. A little puzzled, but hardly surprised (it is the middle of a tour season, after all), Emilia goes to the room she has been allocated and changes into her dance clothes. A practice tutu. A leotard. Tights. Pointe shoes. Her hair scraped back into a bun. There – she is ready.
The receptionist does not blink to see her run down the stairs looking like somebody from the stage. She is used to it, of course.
When Emilia enters the studio, there is a silence as she finds her place at the barre. This is her company: she was a little late, as her plane was delayed. But the trainer does not stop, and they continue with their exercises. She wishes she had put on legwarmers for her muscles are cold and it is difficult to make her body work in the way that she wants it to. “Emilia, to the centre.”
This is her solo. This is the dance for which she was picked out, back in England, when the scout saw her at her examination. Of course, she did not know then why he wanted her. He has said since that she had the talent he was looking for, that she could do things that others could not. She had never known that before – it seemed to Emilia that she was ordinary, just the same as the other students at her dance school. What was so special about this dancer? Like them, she had been dancing since she was five, and seriously since she was eleven. Like them, she struggled over the steps and forced herself to learn them when it was most difficult. Like them, she stumbled and fell from tiredness at class. And now she is told that she was different, because she has the talent that they lacked.
She reaches forward and the other dancers spin away, their dance fast and furious. They do not want to be near this doomed principal; she turns again, and looks for somebody to help her, but nobody comes – her arabesque, so gentle, so careful, unsupported and lonely, is everything that it must be. By the look on her face one can tell that Emilia knows exactly how her character feels, for she has an agonised expression and she is reaching as a madman would.
“Emilia.” The rehearsal is over, but she cannot stop herself from dancing. She cannot sit down and take off her shoes as the other girls do, for the dance is incomplete. “Emilia, it is time to stop now.” The music, too, has faded. How can she explain that she incomplete unless she finishes this now?
The trainer shakes his head and leaves her. Soon she will become exhausted and she will stop and leave the room. For now he will leave her, for he is used to dancers that do not want to stop. There are many of them; those that have just been given the chance to join a company under strict conditions and are desperate to prove their worth, those that are struggling to learn steps ... but none of them have danced in this way, it is true. None of them have had the look on their face that Emilia has, that if they stop it will be their death, if they pause it will kill them.
When he returns half an hour later she is gone. She has finished her dance and now she is complete. She will have gone to her room, he thinks, or to the dining hall with the corps. Perhaps he will see her there later. If not, there is always tomorrow, and the day after. The show begins next week, and she should have been here two weeks ago if it were not for the fact that she was a last-minute choice after their principal was injured.
The next morning Emilia is not there, nor the next, but on the third morning she is back and she is better than before. There is something in her dance that suggests desperation; he cannot pinpoint exactly what it is, but it seems to be something in her eyes as she turns, looks at him, turns once more ...
And at last the show season begins, and it is her name on the programme, for they have had the time to change it. Poor Elanor, but she will be devastated to lose her role. If Emilia keeps up the standard of dancing, she will become the principal for good. That is, if she accepts – and he does not doubt that she will. Already he sees the determination in her eyes and the jealousy when others have solos, and already he knows that he will not easily let her go.
The audience is on their feet before the end of the performance with Emilia, but as she walks off the stage after her dance there is nothing of a principal’s cheer of a good performance. She says nothing. She does not seem to be glad that it went well. Indeed, when she is pressed she replies simply that it could have been better. And the next night, it is.
But on the third night things begin to go wrong, for that is the night that Karen comes to watch her. She has flown out especially to see her friend, her tickets cheap and allowing her to remain only for the single day. There is no time to see Emilia before the performance, but she does not mind. She will see her afterwards.
And she does, for when Emilia has taken her curtain calls – and the audience calls for more, but she refuses to come, saying that she does not need the praise – the young woman runs backstage and finds the principal. “Emilia! Are you all right?”
She stares at her. “Who – who are you?”
“But it’s me. Karen. Don’t be so silly, of course you know who I am.” Karen knows that it is just a joke and that her friend could not possibly have forgotten her; they have played this joke on each other before, and it means nothing, but she cannot help feeling that there is something wrong. There is nothing of the warmth of Emilia’s eyes that is normally there. Indeed, she seems positively frigid, though nothing she says suggests anger.
“I do not know who you are.” She looks away, and Karen knows she is dismissed. Heartbroken, she tries to make her way towards the exit, and when she looks back, her friend is dancing once more.
It is the next day, back in England, that she hears the news. It is in the newspaper. They had found Emilia in her room, crying and refusing to go on for the next performance, but she refused to say why. It is turning into the most successful tour that the company had had in a long time, and so they are loathe for her to stop. When they manage to make her speak, she tells them one thing.
“I cannot dance any longer. The dance – the character...” She looks up at the reporters who are staring with eager eyes. Like hunters. She is their prey. “The dance ...”
“Yes? What about the dance?”
“I can dance no longer. It is making me forget.”