I could feel my stomach turn when I ascended the big, marble stairs of the Opera house. For years it had been my dream to dance here. L'Opéra Populaire. As a little girl I'd fantasized countless of times about belonging to the famous ballet and dancing in the monumental auditorium. All these years of practice, of sore feet and painful limbs, it was all for this.
I perfectly remembered the moment my dad showed me the newspaper. 'Opera house completely burned down because of falling chandelier'. My world had brutally collapsed down upon me. Everything I'd worked for had been for nothing. The great Garnier Opera no longer existed. No more dreams, no more future. But then that wonderful, lifesaving news had reached my ears; they were going to rebuild it.
And here I was, in the great city of Paris, far away from my father and mother and all that I used to call my world. In my left hand was only one suitcase, containing the few personal belongings I had. My parents hadn't been poor, but we never had the money for luxury and decorations. My father was a tailor, earning his money by making clothes for the rich people in my home town. I could recall how beautiful, elegant women would come to his shop and order the most exquisite dresses of satin and silk. How jealous I would be when father finished the dresses and they would be picked up by servants. Until one day, my birthday, he had made one for me. Blue, with small ribbons of velvet and bows in a lighter shade. It had been just breathtaking.
My nerves had gotten the best of me when I finally reached the great, double doors that held my personal heaven. A part of me wished to turn around and go home, but I knew this was what I wanted. I just had to stop being such a coward, I told myself strictly. I took a deep breath and pushed open one of the wooden doors.
The lobby was even more astonishing – though I hardly thought that was possible after seeing the marvelous outside of the building. There were colossal, marble stairs in the middle of the room, the handrail decorated with white roses. On the floor was a large, red carpet and a couple of statues lined the large walls.
'Excuse me, mademoiselle,' I said politely to a young woman in tights and a simple dress. 'Could you perhaps tell me where I can audition for the ballet group?'
She curiously looked me up and down – as if to see if I held any threat for her – and then nodded. 'It's right that way, third door on your left.' The arm she had pointed with was slim and delicate, yet showed well-trained muscles. I had no doubt she was one of the dancers and it excited me to have met my first colleague to-be.
'Merci,' I smiled, hoping to make some sort of good first impression. After that I picked up my suitcase again and went in the given direction. I was glad I'd asked someone, because the Opera seemed to be even more gigantic from the inside out. There were so many doors, corridors and little passages that I could get lost hopelessly within minutes. 'Third door,' I murmured as I went through it and found myself behind the stage of what would be one of the most renowned auditoriums in Europe – even before the notorious fire.
Slowly, controlled by my fears, I walked up to the stage where I found a small group of dancers. They wore the same costumes as the young woman I'd met before, only differing from each other in color. I nervously fidgeted with one of the loose locks of my hair and bit my lip. I stood uncomfortably at the edge of the stage, knowing my big moment was coming fast. There was a stern looking lady in front of the group and I took it that she was the famous madame Giry, the dance instructor. Silently, I cleared my throat and walked up to her. 'Madame,' I whispered, making sure not to disturb any of the ballet dancers nor the orchestra in the pit. 'My name is Angèlique Fournier, I came to audition for the ballet.'
She nodded 'Change into something comfortable, I assume you know The Swan Lake?'
'Pas de deux,' she said, then turned back to her own little swans.
I quickly made my way back between the large curtains and dropped my suitcase on the ground. As I opened the lit, I was glad I'd put my dance uniform on top of my other things. After I had concluded that there was no one there, I hastily changed into my tights and ballet costume and did my hair in a bun. I let out a sigh; it would be now or never. This was all I had dreamed about since I was little. To dance for thousands of people, to do what I loved the most.
I did a small warming up and danced the part in my head. It was a good thing that The Swan Lake was my favorite piece, because the nerves made it unable for me to think about anything at the moment. But I had seen it so many times already, danced it so many times before, that I could probably even memorize the steps sleeping.
With my eyes closed I made a final prayer, asking Him for the courage and strength I needed at the moment. I heard my heart beating loudly against my chest, as if it was desperately trying to get out. Unknowingly I started humming one of the songs my mother had always sung to me when I was scared. For some reason it always helped me calm down. But before it had even time to affect me, a strange feeling crept up on me. A presence. I grew silent and looked around me, but there was no one to be seen. I shook my head, I was getting paranoid. It was only a matter of seconds before I would go completely lunatic, I laughed at myself. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling off. Shaking my head, I tried to collect myself: 'Time to shine'. Walking gracefully, I came back to the stage, a strange and new self-assurance burning within me. I could do this, I knew I could. 'I'm ready,' I told madame Giry.
'Do you want musical guidance?'
'No, merci. Let them dance,' I said, I didn't want them to see me fail.
'Alright then, whenever you're ready.'
I nodded, raising my arms into the starting position. It wasn't hard to imagine the music and before I knew I was back into my room back home. My feet seemed to need no instructions and floated over the wooden floor. The tips of my toes barely touched the floor and I was as weightless as a feather when I turned and jumped, feeling as though I really was one of the swans, ready to fly away from the harsh surface of the earth. And as I drew nearer to the end, I came closer to that flight, my body preparing itself for a final liberation. I swirled around the stage and, after what seemed like a lifetime of simply dancing, put my right leg in the front and leaned over. The music in my head went quiet and I finally let my breath go. Applause burst out behind me and I didn't dare glancing over my shoulder to all the people that were now without a doubt watching me. My mind was strangely numb and it took me some effort to move.
All the dancers stood behind madame Giry and they were strangely enough still applauding. It was more credit than I could possibly handle. And I hadn't noticed it before, but even the orchestra had come out of the pit to watch me.
'Alright, mademoiselle Fournier, you may now call yourself a dancer at the Opera Populaire.' Madame Giry smiled at me warmly. 'My daughter Meg will bring you to your room now, practice starts tomorrow.'
A young girl departed from the group of dancers and gestured for me to follow her. She was small, fragile and had light blonde hair. Everything in the way she moved suggested that she'd been dancing before she could even walk. There was no doubt she was more gracious than the real swans from the Swan Lake and she moved as though every step she took had been part of some great ballet show. 'What you showed back there was really good,' she said to me when we'd left the auditorium.
'Thank you,' I said somewhat uncomfortable. I wasn't used to getting compliments, certainly not from a girl who was this graceful.
'Maman was obviously very impressed by you, we rarely see girls as good as you here.'
'I'm sure there are dozens of girls here that are at least twice as good as I am,' I said, diminishing the huge compliment. It was impossible to believe I was actually that good.
Meg shrugged her shoulders. 'If you say so.. Well, here we are. This is the dormitory, we all sleep here together. It might take a little getting used to, but it really is cozy. We are all family here.' She smiled and now I could easily see that she and madame Giry were related. We made our way through the beds and she led me to a vacant one in one of the corners. 'This will be your bed and your closet. You don't have a lot of space, but I hope it will do.'
'It's great, thank you.' I was used to sharing my room with my little sister, so this wasn't new to me. I just hoped all the girls would like me. Otherwise this whole thing could become a whole lot less fun.
'My bed is just two places behind you, so if you ever need something, just ask. I'll leave you to your unpacking now.'
I nodded and then laid my suitcase on the bed. It probably wouldn't take a lot of time for me to unpack, but I still had an entire Opera house to discover.
'Dinner is at six, it's in the same hallway as the door to the auditorium, I'm sure you can find it.' She turned and left, leaving me alone in the dormitory. I guess it really wasn't much more than a giant basement, filled with enough beds to give all homeless people in Paris a place to sleep. That perhaps was a little exaggerated, but I was sure there were at least fifty beds, which still was quite a lot.
I started humming again as I unpacked my stuff. It wasn't much. Just some clothes, a portrait of my family and some personal belongings. A letter from my mum and the little music box my brother had once made for me. It was a dark wooden box and when the music started, it would open and a tiny ballerina puppet would start to whirl in a pirouette. It was one of my most precious possessions. When I was a little girl, I used to have these terrible nightmares every night. At a point it had gotten so bad that I didn't even dare to go to bed alone anymore. That's when Émile made me the music box. I turned the handle a couple of times and watched the music box open slowly. The famous melody filled the room and for a moment I imagined myself back home with my parents, brother and sister. Then I heard the door open behind me and I shut the lit with a snap. I quickly threw the last few things in my closet, hid the music box behind some dresses and headed for the door. For now I wasn't ready yet to meet the other girls.
I slipped through the hallways, hoping to encounter no one as I searched for a place to think about all that had happened so far. It was more than I could have imagined. But here I was, in the maze of hallways and passages of the Garnier. It seemed infinitely big and I doubted I would be able to find my way back to the main lobby. Those were worries for later though, as I saw that one of the doors was ajar and threw a beam of light in the hallway. I slowly approached, not sure whether I was doing something wrong and prohibited but still on guard. When I peeked my head behind the door, I found a beautiful practice room. All the walls were covered with full-length mirrors and a barre made it possible to do some exercises as well. After a quick scan for any hidden occupants I entered the room and closed the door behind me. I had left my pointe shoes in my room, not thinking I'd have to use them so soon again. Too bad, because I really felt like dancing away my thoughts at that moment. It was my way of coping with things. Instead of talking I danced and for some reason I had always felt a lot better afterwards. That was the thing I had done my entire life.
I lowered myself on the floor and gazed into one of the mirrors. The bun on my head was saggy and my brown hair seemed to try its best to escape out of its prison. It looked a little careless, but I didn't really mind. I brushed a lock of hair out of my face and sighed. This was going to be my home. It was a strange thought, but the more I thought about it, the more I got used to it. Now, it was getting time to make my way back to the dormitory, or I would definitely be late for dinner. I rose to my feet and, after a last glimpse in the mirrors, walked to the door. In the middle of my steps, however, I froze. There it was again. The presence I had felt earlier, back in the auditorium. As if someone was watching me. It was absurd though, there was no one there. Not in the auditorium and absolutely not here. I shrugged my shoulders and left the room.
For anyone who is re-reading the story; I am busy taking out all the French parts and checking for spelling/grammatical mistakes.