After training for a week, it occurred to Chris that he should start using his Instagram a little more professionally and tell the world more about his values as a dancer. That morning, he posted an old memo from his grandfather, now deceased.
Grandpa Harper had died on this day a year ago. A former tap dancer, Chris had looked up to him, even wishing to follow in his footsteps during his youth. One of the last things he’d said to Chris—“there is nothing more important than kindness”—was a value Chris carried in his heart. He reminded himself to be kind to others, and to be kind to himself. In his post, Chris wrote that kindness was important in ballet, because one had to be gentle to flow and be graceful. If a dancer were always unkind to their body, it would show in the dance.
In the studio, however, Chris found it very hard to be kind to himself, especially with Erik’s blunt critiques hailing down on him every minute of his pirouette. Erik banned him from doing the tour en l’air for the first week, so he’d focus on basics. As he withstood the bruising assault of criticism, he eased out of a pirouette, his chest heaving. Erik came into view, looking deeply into his eyes with furrowed brows. Chris’s heart sped up. He couldn’t maintain eye contact, afraid to give away his attraction.
“Hmm,” Erik said.
Chris dragged his gaze up from the man’s perfect collarbones. “I-I’ll get the hang of it.”
“You are too tense,” Erik said.
For their following pas de deux practice, the director Johan attended, circling them like a vulture, ready to pick apart any flaw. Whenever Johan was present, Erik’s brow became furrowed and he often swore in French under his breath.
Chris did a grand jeté, flying through the air, and then transitioned into a pirouette.
“No,” Erik snapped.
He then demonstrated the leap and spin combo, making them appear both seamless and effortless.
Chris mimicked him.
He tried again.
Erik shook his head. “Non. S’il vous plaît.”
French meant he was getting angry. Chris paused, trying not to let frustration show. Sometimes, Erik would disapprove for as many as ten tries. He hated that added please, as if he was purposely not putting in his best effort.
Erik showed him again. “Keep… the speed of the jump… into the spin—but it is a bit… snappy here. See?” He paused where he outstretched the arms prior to the pirouette. “Efficient moves, please, you see?” He was struggling with the English words, forcing them out like steam from a boiling, lidded pot about to burst.
Chris nodded as he wrestled with pressure. The more flustered he got, the harder it was to focus on the subtle nuances Erik put into every move.
“Do it again.”
Johan stepped forward. “Erik, maybe we should take a short break?” he suggested.
Erik agreed, looking like he needed a break himself.
Chris wiped the sweat from his forehead and walked away, relieved to be out of the heat of critiques for a few minutes. Behind him, he heard the two arguing in hushed voices, Erik’s English dissolving to French again. Nervously, he glanced at them, wondering if he was a problem.
After his break, Chris succeeded in the combo. Erik and Chris then resumed the pas de deux. However, Erik seemed to be simplifying his own moves. Instead of a triple tour en l’air, he did a mere single, which went against Chris’s image of the dancer. He tried not to focus too much on what Erik was doing and paid attention to his steps. They whirled around each other, dancing Odetto and Ledo’s Finale as the live piano music cascaded. Chris grasped Erik’s hand and then pirouetted. When Erik stepped to the side as choreographed, he winced, nearly losing his footing for a second.
“Are you okay?” Chris asked, worry spiking.
“I am fine,” Erik said sharply.
Chris blinked, surprised at his sudden cold anger.
Johan grimaced, eying them both. “This is just no good. This is the finale, boys, not a warm-up. We’ve only a month to perfect this, and we’re a million miles away.”
Erik took a breath and rotated his left ankle. “We will get it.”
Johan shook his head, sighing with agitation. “Another thing we want to add to the pas de deux is a fish dive. At this rate, it seems impossible.”
Erik turned to him with a raised brow. “What? I have not heard of this.”
“There aren’t enough lifts in the pas de deux.”
Erik suddenly grew even tenser. “It does not need a fish dive.”
Johan waved a dismissive hand. “You are well known for your lifts. People expect it from you.”
Erik crossed his arms. “It is my choreography.”
Johan’s face grew ruddier. “It’s not your final call to make. That was the agreement to get the show funded, wasn’t it? Are you going to continue behaving like a prima donna, or will you cooperate for once?”
Erik narrowed his eyes. “Very well,” he said.
He rotated his left ankle as if anticipating the challenge. Chris also mirrored his tension. Though the fish dive was one of the simpler lifts, Chris weighed more than the average ballerina. Not to mention, it seemed Erik was having problems with his left leg.
The music began and Chris went into the arabesque. Erik’s hand gripped his waist, the other below his thigh. Chris tightened his core and back, ready to be suspended. Having played traditional gender roles, he’d never been hoisted up by another before.
Erik lifted him slowly and Chris felt instinctive vulnerability as the ground parted with him. He respected ballerinas all the more for their courage to trust the supporting partner.
Unfortunately, he didn’t yet trust Erik.
There was a slight staggering—a warning sign he knew too well from having dropped ballerinas before. Panic crept in. He should speak up, request a redo. He always urged his dance partner to do just that if they weren’t completely comfortable. But requesting a redo of Erik Magnusson was blasphemy and he’d burn in ballet hell for it.
Chris lifted his working leg as he was rotated until he faced the floor. For a split second, Erik took a sharp breath and then, in the next moment, Chris slammed rib-first into the floor. He cringed as the wind was knocked out of his lungs. He immediately sat up and saw that Erik had also fallen and was propping himself back up with his arms.
“Sorry,” Chris said worriedly, although he’d technically done nothing wrong. “Are you all right?”
Erik’s face was as pale as ice and just as sharp. Chris drew back, having never seen him so furious. He should’ve requested the redo. Destroying trust and confidence in a pair dance was hard to recover from, and he should’ve thought about that for Erik’s sake, if not for his own.
“What was that?” Johan demanded. “It should have been an easy lift!”
“He did not get into the proper position,” Erik snapped, still on the floor, and shooting a glare at Chris.
Chris glanced at Erik and then at the director as dread whipped through him. His chest throbbed with pain, as if a rope was tightening around his heart. He couldn’t believe it. Erik had thrown him under the bus without hesitation. Chris—the one who had everything to lose. The anger triggered his defensive instinct.
“That’s not true,” he blurted out. “You messed up even before the lift, and you should have started over.” As soon as the words left his mouth, he grew queasy with shock. Had he really just talked back to the choreographer in front of the director? Though Chris rarely got angry, when he did, his voice was forceful, and he knew he could be intimidating if he was pushed. He restrained himself from unleashing the other complaints on his tongue. Holding his breath, he waited for Erik to shout, to fire him, to banish him from the ballet world.
Erik went even whiter with rage before he reddened, turning away so Chris could only see his flaming ears.