"She looks like she's made of porcelain," they say. I am, I don't say.
The spotlight exposes my soft sheen, my permanent blush, and blue glass eyes. "She looks just like a doll," they say. I am, I don't say.
We twirl and twirl across the stage. Endlessly spinning tops, wobbling for effect. I am tossed and caught, so close to shattering. "She looks so fragile, like she's about to break," they say. I am, I don't say.
Ballerina incarnate. What else is there for a doll to do? Where else will they not question my unchanging body, my perfect scarlet lips, and my eyelashes as thick as their hairbrushes?
Sometimes, at home, in my house for a doll, I try to slouch. My arms stretch out reaching along the spine of the lavender couch, too graceful, and I try to shift my hips at ugly angles. I push my pelvis to protrude, trying to look as broken as I feel. But I just look like I've been tossed, like these movements are still not my own.
The mirrors that line my wall show me nothing beyond a doll flung onto a plastic couch, waiting for someone to play with her. Hours pass.
In the dressing room, the other girls who are not dolls talk of their rituals. They compare bloodied and bruised toes, share fuel consumption tips, and bond over their imperfect ways to perfection. I used to try to join in, but I had nothing to offer. I have no recipes for avocado mud masks, no low carb alternatives for pasta, no discount dealer for drugs that numb the pain or ebb the appetite. I once asked if there was a drug that created an appetite, they laughed, and then they laughed harder when it took me too long to join in. Their hands brush their stomachs where their abs are clenching in a flutter of pain.
In the studio I fret over appearing flawed. I practice blinking, force jagged breaths when I should be tired, stretch and flex my muscles as if they feel stiff, as if they exist. We have a view of the city, windows line one wall and mirrors on the other. I'm surrounded by my reflection. Surrounded by walls as fragile as I am. I place my hands on the glass. I wonder, if I pushed, which of us would fracture first.
My body never tires and I never break a sweat. But my mind grows weary, foggy and full from pretending. Pretending that I put my makeup on before I arrive, that I take my lunch outside for the fresh air, that I like to keep a private personal life, or that I actually have one. The hardest though, is to pretend I don't hear them whispering. They buzz like bees whose hive has been threatened. They hate me and my unfeeling perfection. They detest that I get the lead roles, the best reviews, the most attention from the producer. They hate that I don't even have to try to earn their jealousy.
"How are you still wearing your slippers? Aren't your feet screaming at you?" Another prima plops down at the vanity next to me.
"Yes. I'm afraid if I do take them off, my toes might fall off," I say.
Her soft huffs are nervous. She isn't sure if I'm serious.
I think they'd like it though, if my toes did fall off.
I am stretching on the barre, but I do this just for show. I can almost imagine what the pull of tendon and muscle would feel like as I lower my head to my knee. I wish for the pain.
Ivan, often cast as lead with me, approaches the barre.
"Will you stretch me out?" he asks.
I drop my leg from the barre and sit on the floor, stretching my legs out into a wide V, like a flock of geese migrating. He does the same, his flock connecting to mine. His toes align with my slippers and he reaches out. My hard, cold hands slide into his. He grips them without saying anything. He grips them like he's holding chalk in his hand and too much pressure will crumble it. I slowly lean back, pulling him forward; I'm tugging him closer but the distance between us is unchanging.
I can't wait for our ensemble to tour. We'll only have one day off each week, only 24 hours to lay unmoving, only 1440 minutes without purpose.
Our production this season takes a lot of risks in the choreography with an entire aerial section. This is exciting. If I'm honest, I like when they almost drop me. When my face falls for the floor I feel real fear. Almost. My mind measures the possibility that I could crumble against the ground. That maybe this porcelain skin would splinter into blemishes and scars.
Ivan murmurs as we rehearse. "I've got ya," he says as I leap without hesitation into his arms. He thinks that it's because I trust him, which I guess I do, but really it's because I want to feel that fear. He spins me round the waist as I hold a pirouette. Winding me up like a music box ballerina. His warm hands leave shadows of sweat on my leotard.
After rehearsal, he follows me out into the city. Ivan wraps a scarf around his long neck. Every part of him is long. He looks curiously at me and I realize I should be cold too. I zip up my windbreaker and shudder my shoulders a bit.
"Are you busy this weekend?" he asks me. We have two days off before we leave for nine months.
"Yes," I say. I'm not, but I want him to think that I've made plans for my last weekend off before the grueling exhibition we're about to embark on.
"Of course you are. Save me a Monday won't you?" He hails a taxi.
"Wait," I say.
Ivan opens the cab door for me and I get in.
His apartment is cluttered, comfortable, lived in. There's proof of life in the stacks of dishes, the open comic book, and the browning succulents.
"Do you want anything to drink?" he offers.
"No," I say.
I sit on his couch, sinking so far into it that I decide to stand instead. I'm reminded of my recruitment to this troupe. The way the director had invited me to his studio apartment for an audition, claiming the ballet studio to be fully booked that day. I had sunk into that couch too. His hands had been rougher than mine, not with matte brushed paint, but with the callused paws of a predator.
I look to Ivan's hands, hands that catch me, whose calluses caress and invite.
My silence, or maybe my stillness, prompts Ivan to fill the space with words, to invite me with those too.
"I think you're really strong," he says, not referring to my physicality. "And, I'm really thankful that we're paired together."
I smile at him. I unzip my coat.
He pulls off his scarf. "You don't get caught up in all the drama. You just do the work."
Drama? I want to laugh. I long to share my secrets.
His hands are at my shirt's hem. My ceramic hands reach around the back of his long neck. Like nails on a chalk board, touching him sends shivers down my spine.
"You're just, not complicated," his breath slides down my nose. I actually laugh at that and Ivan's drooped eyelids widen. He's shocked by my outburst of emotion.
"You have no idea," I say, pushing him away. I feel exhilarated by his attention and affection. I become confident in his acceptance. I dim his lights to hide the inhuman frailty, the lack of veins beneath this skin, and the chalk in my creases. I avoid the sofa and guide him to his own bed. Ivan is the silent one as I transform in this moment. I'm taking on a new role, one I've always wanted to play.
He's hesitant to respond to my sudden aggression. I'm pushing him, pushing me, to feel this moment. I want to sweat, to be uncomfortable, to feel something new. As I glide over him on his bed, his hands tighten on my hips, and he flips me under him. He's pressing into me and kissing my neck. Then, I feel tickles of a mustache he doesn't have and I remember it's not new.
"Stop," I say.
He slows, and leans off of me. He's unsurprised, I'd gotten his hopes up though, he didn't expect to get this far. I can feel his hope graze my leg as he crawls off the bed
I don't say the apology that he's expecting. I grab my things and leave. I hear him slam against his door as it closes behind me. He clicks the lock and bangs his hands again. I've never heard such aggression from him. The part of me that likes the fear of falling flickers. The part of me that wants to shatter goes back into the bedroom and tempers the aggression until it's consuming.
Our tour debut is a sold out show. The crowd murmurs in anticipation. The doll-faced ballerina is whispered to be of legendary perfection. We're on in five. Primas line up, tutu's bouncing, and heads held high. They don't look at me as they pass, fluttering on stage to await the curtain rise. I fear that they know about the other night, but then again they never look at me. It doesn't matter.
We are not ourselves tonight. We are all pretending and I don't feel so alone. We all are playing our parts, moving to another's whim, built to entertain and be unfeeling beyond our roles. And yet this is where I feel most myself, where I feel normal and thriving. I can be strange and stiff. I can be perfect and balanced. I can be inhuman. I don't have to pretend to be weary or sore or fidgety.
I'm dressed as a bird, orange and exotic. There are feathers in my skirt and hair. My face is streaked in black and teal. I feel vibrant and unpredictable. I soar onto stage. We're twirling tops again: toys, and animals, and forces of nature. We bend and stretch. The music builds, my big toss is nearing. I fling my arms and flick my wrists, bend and swirl.
And then Ivan is sweeping onto the stage. It's time for our pas de deux. He doesn't look at me. He doesn't whisper reassurances. He's winding my pirouette, faster than we rehearse, his fingers dig and his wrists twist, a quick spin, and then they pull away. His hands don't linger and they don't leave warm imprints. His face flashes again and again in front of mine, I see it for a second, spin to the audience, and then his face is there and gone again. He's angry; I've caressed some ego that remains unsatisfied.
I slow my spinning and he dips me. I leap from his grasp and cross the stage. I'm distracted, pulled out of my reprieve by our severed thread. The other birds circle me, flocking until they catch the sandalwood scent of him. I've tangled in the unknown and my pack rejects my contamination. They flee the stage and it's just Ivan and I, our first aerial move will have the whole of our audience's attention.
Ivan is waiting with outstretched arms as I leap at him, turn and bow, leaning down into a fish dive. My porcelain skin slides right through his sweaty hands, they clench, nails scraping along my exposed legs, no skin to dig into. His grip is too late; he'll catch me by the ankles instead of my waist. The black painted floor is looming, I'm plunging for it and I feel thin and frail and crave the plummet. The floor rushes at my face and we collide
But I don't shatter. My head is still attached, all its pieces still intact. The world looks different though. I realize I'm still lying face down, only my face is tilted up, looking at the rest of the ballerinas gawking behind me. My hands push up from the ground and I realize my head has snapped backwards. I look out towards the audience, my head facing them, my body standing scraped and prostate, facing the back of the stage. Some have fled the building, some are dialing emergency lines, most are screaming. There are a few who are confused, as if they think this is still a part of the show. I look at them and laugh. For a moment I think I feel the pain in my stomach.