Chris widened his eyes. “Oh, really?” A bubble of giddiness rose in his chest, but he quashed it down. Having his anxiety mistaken for diva behavior had haunted him in the past; it was an assumption that often hurt him the most. “I mean, I’d like for you to think I did it on purpose, but I’m not like that. It was an honest mistake.”
Erik gave a one-shoulder shrug. “Mistakes can be beautiful, too, if we choose to make it so.” He then looked away and began pacing, seemingly bothered again.
Chris tried not to think about it as he continued his grand battement, kicking his working leg up slowly.
“I do pas de deux practices a little differently from the traditional,” Erik said. “For the morning training, I like to spend one-on-one time with my partner, and that means no others are present, not even a pianist. I find my partner and I can better focus that way.”
“I see,” Chris said. The giddiness grew as the words partner and one-on-one soaked in.
Once his warm-up was over, Erik asked him to go attitude, raising his working leg as high as possible.
“Can you lift higher?” Erik asked.
He attempted to rotate his leg farther, feeling the tightness in his hip joint.
Erik stepped closer and stabilized him with his left hand on Chris’s hip. Chris tried to suppress his urge to move away, as he had the previous day. Erik’s other hand went to his thigh. Sparks ran through his nerves—a second of bliss—before pain. Erik pushed his leg farther up. Chris grimaced.
“We will have to increase your hip flexibility,” Erik said. “Ledo’s working leg needs to go this high.” He applied pressure again, and Chris groaned.
“I think my hips are just tight from the long plane ride.”
“It is not bad.”
“Not bad,” Chris repeated. “That’s…comforting.”
“No, there will be no comfort,” Erik said, missing the sarcasm.
Next, Erik showed him the steps to go through as Ledo and Chris followed. Erik inspected his positioning for the arabesque and tapped on his raised leg. “Higher here.” He touched his mid-back. “Here. Good.”
The praise encouraged him, enforcing his focus to hold his muscles correctly to suit Ledo’s style.
He did the pirouette next, one of Erik’s many specialties. While the move had the tendency to look similar from dancer to dancer, Erik could make it ethereal, as if he was from another dimension and free of gravity. His spins were gorgeously organic.
Erik blurred away as Chris spun.
“That is not bad,” Erik said when he stopped. “For Ledo, we will want the spin less aggressive. Gentle. Smooth. Like a leaf falling. You know what I mean? What I am thinking?”
“Oh, like the maple seed, maybe? You know that leaf looking thing that falls like a propeller?” He knew the language barrier wouldn’t quite compute, so Chris whirled his finger to show what he meant. At that moment, he knew exactly what Erik’s trademark spin reminded him of.
Erik’s eyes lit up for a second. “Yes, yes. Like that. Let us do the next steps.”
Chris continued, stepping as lightly as possible.
“Turn now. Do not let the audience admire you too long. Ledo is a heartbreaker. It hurts the heart because the heart knows it cannot capture Ledo.”
Chris took a breath as he moved into a grand jeté, leaping through the air.
“You are doing well,” Erik said, his words simple and devoid of emotion, but Chris was elated. So far, he wasn’t seeing any evidence for Erik’s unfortunate nickname.
As Erik warned, he occasionally slipped back into French, and he was so focused and intense that Chris found it hard to interrupt. It’d take multiple mess-ups on Chris’s part before Erik realized it and started speaking in English again.
“Do the tour en l’air,” Erik said.
The tour en l’air was one of the more challenging ballet moves that involved spinning midair. Some insisted the tour en l’air defined a danseur. Chris was obsessed and practiced the triple spin version nonstop, ensuring an impressive double. He went into fifth position and then launched into the air, settling for a perfect double, rather than a botched triple.
When he landed, a strange expression marred Erik’s face. “It is not all about the hard moves. Do you practice as much for the basics?”
Chris tried not to let pride creep in, but his tone deepened defensively. “I practice everything.” He paused, wrestling with confusion. “My tour en l’air was properly done, right?”
“Yes, but it made me realize you…you really want the stars, and it makes your dance very strong. But first, you must like the ground you stand on. I do not know how to explain, but the day you can captivate me by merely raising an arm is the day you are a top danseur.”
Chris realized Erik had stage presence before he even moved. Even outside of the studio, he walked with grace. There was something deeper to mastering ballet, and he was close to learning more about that secret.
“I’ll do my best,” he said with sincerity.
“I know,” Erik said. “That is also the problem.”
He blinked. “What?” How could his best be a problem?
“You wish too hard and wanting something so badly is not good, it makes you lose…” Erik trailed off. “It makes you lose sight.”
“Yes. It is normal for a dancer to love ballet, but some detachment helps for seeing clearly. Because you are driven, you focus too much on success, like with your tour en l’air. This kind of… proud feeling also makes you lose sight.”
The revelation swept through him. To be scorned for his pride, an emotion he did not often indulge in, hurt more than he wanted to admit. His insecurity caused him to cling to moments of pride like precious jewels, holding them tightly against his chest so no one would take them away.
“It is hard to let go of what you desire most,” Erik continued. “But with some surrender, you can control the dance to suit what is true for you, and the expectation others have for the dance will not be controlling you anymore.”
When their two hours were up, they shook hands and exchanged pleasantries as Chris nearly floated away with joy. He could see Erik’s face up close. His swept aside bangs flecked with a lighter blond that glimmered, high cheekbones and a well-chiseled nose. Since he wasn’t currently critiquing or watching a dance, his eyes weren’t narrowed like usual—they were serene. Erik’s irises were the flattest shade of the palest silver-gray with no other color or tonal variation to them. Two frozen lakes under an overcast sky.
“Merci beaucoup, Erik,” Chris said shyly. “For everything.”
He had a feeling Erik would never know exactly what he meant by that.
“You do not have to thank me,” Erik said with a dismissive tone, his still-lake eyes unblinking. “I am not going to lie. It is going to be hard. There is a long way to go and you will have to use your time wisely to get to where you need to be. There will be bad days. In the end, you will not thank me. Most likely, you will dislike me very much.”
“I see.” Chris smiled a little. For some reason, he found Erik’s coldness amusing. “Thank you anyway.”
When he left Studio B, Chris walked with light steps, his head still spinning.
In the locker room, he shivered, his sweat turning cold in the chill air. For a second, he thought he heard a stamp of shoes against the linoleum floor, and he drew his shoulders up as if expecting to be grabbed. When he turned, he saw nobody there.
Back in his hotel room, the space heater rattled on. Chris ignored it as he did his best to move gracefully, remembering how it felt to have Erik’s eyes on him. Though it wasn’t his part, he also danced Odetto’s move, mimicking his partner’s bold sequences. He then practiced his pirouette until he fell onto the bed, exhausted, his legs aching. In his spinning mind, he still saw Erik and his beautiful back and the whirling leaf and the shade of his eyes.
The tiny, old TV in the corner played, the screen a poor resolution. A commercial featuring Erik began. The screen zoomed in on his eyes, his hair, and then his triple tour en l’air.
It was unreal. He, Chris Harper, was in London, partnered with a virtuoso. He couldn’t wait for tomorrow to arrive.