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The Piece: A Contemporary Ballet Novel

The Piece: A Contemporary Ballet Novel

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The Piece: A Contemporary Ballet Novel

310 pages
4 heures
Aug 18, 2020


The Piece deals with difficult, sensitive subjects in potentially disturbing ways. It contains instances of profanity, sexual violence, and physical violence. It is not recommended for individuals under the age of eighteen or for those who may find the above offensive and/or objectionable. The Pas de Deux: A Classical Ballet Romance and The Winner: A Ballroom Dance Novel by author Erin Bomboy are suggested for those who prefer clean reads (little to no profanity, sexual situations, and/or physical violence).


Their eyes met through the heat and glare as their hearts crisscrossed from stage to pit.


Only good things could happen.




Against the pitched backdrop of pointe shoes and bloody blisters, Elinor Roth confronts her decaying dream. She is unlikely to become a leading ballerina.

Longing for affection, she leaps into the arms of Jon Hansen, a seemingly nice music conductor. When the fling ends, Elinor abandons her stalling ballet career and moves to New York.


The city's contemporary dance scene stirs her imagination, and she enters into a showcase that will launch her as a visionary choreographer.

Unable to forget Elinor, Jon joins her and struggles to become a composer. Soon, he grows dependent on Elinor for inspiration and alarmed by her dwindling affection.


Determined to keep Elinor as his muse, Jon devises a plan to take her away from dance. When she uncovers his deceit, Elinor must decide how far she will blur the line between life and art.

Aug 18, 2020

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The Piece - Erin Bomboy


Chapter 1

The Banality of Beauty

I measured time by the color of my leotards. In ballet, the days were interchangeable: class before rehearsal with only performances to liven up the monotony. To create beauty, I committed to boredom, finding pleasure in doing the same thing over and over until it matched an ideal that didn’t exist.

Today, same as all the yesterdays, I shivered in the chilly air of the dressing room and tugged on a red halter-neck leotard, my hat tip to the holiday season. It made my skin look pale and interesting, and the duet of it and my bright hair might catch the attention of Alastair, the tart-tongued ballet master, in a way my dancing couldn’t. Perhaps this would be the class in which he would notice my hard work, reward me with a compliment or smile, indicate that my dreams were not in vain.

My roommate Danica brushed past me as I stabbed bobby pins into my bun.

You were up early, Elinor, she said.

Same time as always. I tried to smooth my hair, which was like dragon’s fire—profuse, curling, and orangey-red.

But it’s show week. You could live a little. Sleep in for an hour. Skip your warm-up.

I frowned. That’s how people get injured.

Danica slumped against a locker. Yesterday’s mascara streaked her cheeks, and a forgotten barrette clung to her knotted black hair. I never warm up, and I never get injured.

Lucky you. I strove to keep my tone light.

Danica and I were friends, and we did all the things that roommates did. We shared clothes, watched trashy reality television together, and pooled our meager paychecks from dancing and side gigs (teaching Pilates for me and babysitting for her) to splurge on a set of plush bathroom towels.

But she bothered me. Danica was loud and messy, but her unforgivable sin, the one that never left my mind, was that dancing came easily to her. Her talent, so carelessly acquired, so indifferently managed, made me bristle.

We both danced with our hometown company, sweating and commiserating and gossiping about the minor scandals that ruffled our humdrum days. This season, though, Danica was on an upswing while I was stagnating. Alastair was paying her attention in class, and it wouldn’t be long before she snagged a plum part.

See you at the barre, I said over my shoulder and then closed the door on my jealousy.

At twenty-two, I’d been performing with the company for four-and-a-half years, but not much had changed since my first season. Our company, middling by national standards, still had fierce competition among us dancers for lead roles.

The locals, who knew nothing about dance, took pride in the cultural patina that a professional ballet company afforded their once grand, now decaying city. We were beloved enough to put on a splashy production of The Nutcracker each December, with a live orchestra and a guest conductor. Those who’d secured principal roles would find their paychecks padded with a bonus, reporters would hound them for interviews, and old-money socialites would invite them to perk up their wine-and-cheese soirées.

Tonight was our first rehearsal with the orchestra, a group of amateurs who enthusiastically bleated and blared their way through Tchaikovsky’s confection of a score.

I sighed at the endless night ahead. There’d be a fight to find appropriate tempos, and the children, blinking under the constellation of lights, would be in tears because the live music—so big, so off-key—sounded nothing like the recording they were used to. Parents would complain about the late hours, dancers would bitch at the incompetence of the children, and I just hoped to get through what would be a slog for me.

Our company was small, and each dancer performed multiple roles. I would be a mother in the opening party scene, a snowflake, a flower, and a shepherdess playing a reed flute in Marzipan, one of the Act II divertissements.

It was the same as last year, and the year before that, except this year I was one year older and one year further away from my goal of leading roles, the carrot at the end of a long, demanding stick of classes, rehearsals, and extreme dieting.

I wrinkled my nose at the foul perfume of the studio. The top note of cleaning supplies couldn’t mask the bottom one of sweat and desperation.

I headed to my spot, second from the front on the left-hand side. I always stood here; I had always stood here; I would always stand here. I’d stood here as a seven-year-old girl, my childish belly pushing against my cheap polyester leotard, and just as instructed by my whisper-thin teacher, I pressed my heels together in my first first position. I knew every mark on the marley that coated the floor, and the damp ambition from my palms had polished the wooden barre until it gleamed under the fluorescent lights. It was home in a way that my real home was not.

My mom had pushed me into dance. She hoped that I—a shy, intense child who seemed uninterested in everything—would find a voice through movement. My personality hadn’t budged, but I did find purpose in ballet. When I walked the ten blocks from my apartment to the studio, I felt superior to the bankers yakking on cell phones and the office workers clutching cups of caffeinated courage to brave their day. As boring as my life was, at least it was unique in its boringness.

The studio, a vanilla box empty of any beauty or personality other than what we produced ourselves, was vacant except for several other dedicated dancers. Company class was optional during tech rehearsals, but I had never missed one.

Alastair was unsympathetic to the long week ahead. He taught a punishing medley of picky, tricky combinations that favored quick tempos and exacting balances. Sweat dribbled down my face, and my hair rebelled against its jail of bobby pins and hairspray.

I pushed, challenging myself to lift my leg higher, balance longer, turn faster. But my stubborn body resisted my efforts, and I performed the same as I had for the last four-and-a-half years—an average talent with ambitions far outstripping her capabilities.

Alastair’s eyes slid past me. Danica’s lavish leg extensions and airy jumps had captivated his attention.

As the opening notes of grand allegro sounded, I placed myself to the rear of Danica and Ming, the new girl. The company had imported her from China in an attempt to raise its international profile. She couldn’t speak a lick of English, but her bones poked through her parchment skin and she attacked every step with dogged energy. Although she’d only been with the company for a few months, Alastair had selected her to be Snow Queen.

It was the role I wanted.

In the weeks before casting, I’d lived on a cloud of hope and positive thinking, my fingers crossed that this would be my Nutcracker. I longed to see my name down for Snow Queen. I pretended not to care when Ming had been chosen, but at night, locked in the sanctuary of my room, I flickered and whirled through the choreography. As the music swelled in my heart, I imagined a full house rapt at my performance and little girls inspired to follow in my satiny footsteps.

Dreadful, Alastair said after we landed our last grand jeté, a flashy jump in which the legs cleaved into a full split. His lips sneered. "Find your plié," he told Ming.

Ming’s face creased in concentration as he demonstrated the combination with an exaggerated bend of his knees during every plié. Satisfied that she understood, Alastair hobbled to his chair at the front of the room, rubbing his back. Early in his career, he’d injured his lumbar spine when his partner overshot a lift during a performance. He’d struggled to keep her aloft but couldn’t. She walked away. He hadn’t. Now he treated us as the outlet for his youthful aspirations.

Slower, Alastair said to the accompanist. Much slower.

The tempo dragged like a funeral march, which meant it would be impossible to stay on time. Even if I used all my plié.

I took a deep breath and bounded into the combination, testing and then yielding to the laws of physics. As I executed a tour jeté, switching my legs like scissors in the air, a scream pealed through the air.

I skidded to a halt. Ming lay crumpled on the floor. She was clasping her foot as tears oozed down her cheeks. I rubbed my arms although I wasn’t cold. We all were a moment away from having our dreams smashed into rubble.

Dance was cruel like that.

One of the men scooped her up and ran out of the studio to get medical help. We called out well wishes to her, ones she couldn’t understand even if she could hear them over her sobs.

Alastair waved a hand. Dismissed.

Elinor. Danica patted the patch of worn floor beside her. Come sit.

I plopped down and pulled out a threaded needle to sew ribbons onto a new pair of pointe shoes.

Poor Ming, she said.

I nodded.

She lowered her voice. Who’ll be Snow Queen?

I shrugged, trying to conceal my billowing hope. I wanted it to be me. I’d spent almost five seasons toiling away enthusiastically. That had to count for something.

You. Alastair loomed above us. It’s your lucky day.

A smile cracked across my face.

But he wasn’t talking to me.

Danica sprang up, her face wreathed in smiles. Without a backward glance, she followed Alastair into the studio. I curled in a ball, holding the unsewn pointe shoes to my heart, as hot tears spilled down my cheeks.

Danica? She was two years younger than me. She treated ballet like something fun to do until she got married and had a bunch of children. She blew off classes all the time, preferring to sleep in and watch talk shows.

I loved dancing, my body using time and space to create beauty. It made me feel alive in a way that nothing else could.

But dancing did not love me back. No matter how often I worshiped at her altar with my offerings of perspiration and determination, she judged me unworthy. Every once in a while, she’d grant me a flawless day in which, using motion tinted with emotion, I transformed from ordinary to extraordinary. But it was always given one day, only to be taken the next.

The afternoon rehearsals were devoted to the snow scene, so Danica could get up to speed. An older student, a talented and skinny one, was drafted to learn Danica’s part in the corps de ballet. Alastair assigned me the job of teaching her the choreography, which normally would have been a chore, but I was grateful to escape from Danica’s joy.

As I walked to the theater, I pictured my life in a few years. I’d still be chasing after a brass ring that would glitter tantalizingly close while my fingers, hot and sticky with longing, remained frustratingly empty. Younger dancers would snag the roles I wanted, the praise I needed.

I couldn’t imagine what I would do when I was too old to dance. Get married? Have kids? Teach ballet to shiny-eyed little girls who reminded me of my once-hopeful, now sad self? None of these excited me, but the former ballerinas who’d become teachers seemed to have the worst fate. Still slender like baby birds, they pretended that teaching children how to plié was a worthy calling while their longing for yesterday followed them in a silent but bitter wake.

My first teacher, Miss Dorothy, still haunted the studio, her thinning hair scraped into a bun and her cheeks shaded pink to suggest a youth that had long since fled. Even at close to seventy, she gave herself barre every day before teaching gaggles of giggling children the fundamentals of ballet. I’d stumbled upon her a few times, dancing the choreography to whatever piece the company was rehearsing at the time. Her technique had eroded, but her mouth was set with the determination that if she just tried hard enough, the steps would come.

My chin trembled. The path I was on suggested that I, too, would become a version of Miss Dorothy.

My future spiraled through me, whirling from my head to my heart to the pit of my stomach where it rested like an anchor. It seemed impossible that my dreams wouldn’t come true. I wanted them to so much, and fate couldn’t be cruel enough to deny me what I so urgently desired.

Or would it?

Chapter 2

Through the Heat and Glare

Alastair was scowling when we started the evening rehearsal with the orchestra. We were running twenty minutes late because our Clara, the heroine whose adventures motored The Nutcracker, couldn’t be found.

After a frantic search, one of the teachers located her—a pretty but vapid preteen—in an unused dressing room, gossiping on her cell phone. With the cast for party scene finally assembled, Alastair called the rehearsal to order. His bald head was beaded with sweat.

Try not to fuck it up too much, he said, his version of a rallying cry.

As I listened to the overture backstage and tried to keep my two pretend children from squabbling, I counted backward. This was my fifteenth Nutcracker with the company. I’d started as a page when I was seven-years-old, and then rose through the ranks from mouse, clown, party child, soldier, to the roles I danced now. The only parts I hadn’t performed were the leads: Clara, Snow Queen, and the Sugar Plum Fairy. It was too late for Clara, but I yearned for the other two. How many Nutcrackers lay in my future before I would land one of them?

I wrung my hands. What if I never danced them?

Banishing my dark thoughts, I stapled a smile to my face and hustled my brood to the downstage wing in preparation for our entrance.

Party scene was structured around the antics of the children. They darted around the stage, unwrapped presents, and skipped through parlor games. The little girls rocked their baby dolls, their sausage ringlets bouncing, while the little boys played a game of leapfrog, their shirttails pulling loose from their knickers.

As a parent, we didn’t do much beyond dress the stage. We smiled (fondly) and reclined (gingerly) on the rickety furniture that looked like a plush Victorian parlor from the audience. To pass the time, the men in the company tried to get the women to break character by telling dirty jokes. They lowered their voices and kept their expressions neutral to keep from arousing Alastair’s anger.

Thus far, while perched on a threadbare love seat, I’d suffered:

What did the hurricane say to the coconut tree? Hold on to your nuts. This is no ordinary blow job.

What’s long, hard, and has the word ‘come’ in it? A cucumber.

What do you call two guys fighting over a slut? Tug-of-whore.

I’d also been subjected to an offensive story about two Polacks and a piglet, and the old, lecherous actor playing Clara’s godfather, Drosselmeyer, had fondled my butt, twice. I wanted to say something, but instead, I kept my smile in place and my eyes fixed on the action.

It started out promisingly. The kids were well rehearsed, and the tempos swung easily enough for them to get through their dances. They remembered to smile, and we party parents whispered encouragement to keep their spirits high.

Then, we got to the moment when Fritz, Clara’s bratty brother, snaps her beloved nutcracker doll in half. But Fritz couldn’t break the nutcracker doll in time with the music. So we tried it again. And again. And again.

Out of respect for the children, but more likely the children’s parents, Alastair kept his rage to a simmer, but he—red, dripping, and muttering under his breath—was about to detonate.

We ran the scene over and over. The little boy playing Fritz, his cheeks pink with effort, became more and more flustered as Clara rolled her eyes.

Stop, shouted Alastair. You little idiot.

Fritz dissolved into tears, and his mother, an obese hausfrau, lumbered toward the stage.

I wanted to give Fritz a hug. Being yelled at didn’t produce good results for me either, especially when the yelling was done by Alastair, who loved turning a mistake into a moral failure, throwing you under trial where he was judge and jury.

I exhaled as my pity for Fritz turned into relief that I, at least, was safe from Alastair’s flaring temper. My nerves, often frayed, were threatening to shred completely. I only wanted to survive this horrible day.

I’m taking him home, Fritz’s mother announced as Fritz blubbered.

You can’t do that, Alastair said. We’re not done.

Fritz’s mother, who outweighed Alastair by at least eighty pounds, leaned in. How’re you gonna stop me? Alastair glared at her as if nothing would make him happier.

Behind me, someone said, My money’s on the mom.

Twenty bucks on Alastair.

The company lived for moments like this, drama directed at other people, hilarious as long as you weren’t the target. This showdown, which would balloon with each retelling, would be grist for the gossip mill for weeks.

The mother seized Fritz’s hand and yanked him to the exit while he whimpered. His nostrils flaring, Alastair let them get halfway to the door before sprinting to make amends. He’d probably rather let them leave, win the trivial battle, but there was no way to get another Fritz two days before the show. I didn’t hear what he said to the mother, but they returned, and we picked up after the nutcracker doll had been broken.

Party scene ended with no further issues, but the mood had changed. Gone was the good-natured joking. Alastair was fuming, a loose cannon ready to launch a barrage of hostility at the next person who goofed. Crossing my fingers that it wouldn’t be me, I changed into my snowflake costume as the battle scene raged. Toy soldiers, now life-sized, aimed guns at a swarm of mice and rats until Clara, with a (sometimes well-targeted) toss of her slipper, killed the king rat that threatened her nutcracker doll.

When I reached backstage, the music was swelling as the nutcracker doll, now transformed into a gallant prince, escorted Clara through a snowy forest. I dipped the tips of my pointe shoes in rosin and then rubbed my sweaty palms on my tutu. I primed my ears for the musical cue that signaled my dramatic grand jeté entrance.

My blood ran green.

Danica was dancing Snow Queen, her face aglow with the contentment of little-girl dreams coming true. Unfortunately for her, the Snow King was awful. Talented boys, even at the good companies, were scarce. When Danica balanced with her leg streaming behind her like a banner, he, all skinny legs and floppy feet, tripped as he extended his hand. Her smile didn’t falter as she accepted his grip, but she rolled her eyes as he turned her toward the painted set of a snow-swept forest, her annoyance hidden from Alastair’s sharp eyes by half a rotation.

As Danica nailed a triple pirouette, I resolved to spend the Christmas break losing weight. I already paid fervent attention to my diet of tiny scoops of cottage cheese and paper-thin crescents of apples. I chewed each bite into a thin paste until it dissolved without needing to be swallowed. I drank cup after cup of black coffee to fuel the endless hours of class and rehearsal. This wasn’t unusual for a ballet dancer, but I hadn’t yet crossed over from sometimes eating to never eating.

There came a place with ballet where you bumped up against your genetics. Being skinny—and there was no such thing as too skinny in ballet—was one way to show that you’d do anything and everything for your ambitions.

I had tight hips, and I couldn’t do much about that. Ligaments didn’t stretch no matter how hard you tried. But I could be really, really thin. Maybe that would be me next year, dancing Snow Queen. My clavicle would be a prominent handlebar atop the gauzy, sparkly tutu I’d be wearing as the snowflakes glowered at me from the wings.

Where are you, Roth? Alastair yelled.

I cursed under my breath. Lost in my thoughts about the cleanse I’d start the minute The Nutcracker ended, I’d missed my cue. The symphony ground to a halt as I rocketed out of the wings. Alastair stomped on stage looking homicidal. It was close to ten o’clock, and we still had all of Act II to get through.

Sorry. I gazed at my feet. Dirt streaked the blush-colored satin of my right pointe shoe.

Alastair scowled. Again.

This time, I entered correctly and we continued. The choreography of leaps and scampers required little effort or concentration. The goal was to hit the correct stage marks, so that we could evoke a symmetrical blizzard of cavorting snowflakes. All was fine, not good, but in a state of forward progression, until the student who I’d taught Danica’s snowflake track to fluttered to my downstage mark instead of her own. Unable to stop my momentum, I smacked into her. My pointe shoe slid on sweat and confetti snowflakes, and I fell.

Stop, stop, Alastair screeched. You look like a bunch of drunks playing hopscotch. Roth, what’s wrong with you? I was under the impression that this was your fifth fucking year dancing this track.

The rest of the snowflakes melted away from Alastair’s wrath, leaving me center stage, trembling, tears threatening to leak. He kept bellowing, but I was having a hard time following his thread. The more outraged Alastair became, the more his accent degenerated from posh aristocrat to Cockney butcher.

I stared at my feet, wilting under his searing gaze and the volley of fucks. I tried to find the words to explain that, no, this actually wasn’t my fault, but I failed to speak up. Finally, Alastair, like a windup toy, skidded to a stop, having run out of ways to insult me.

We returned to our wings to start again. Through my tears, I cornered the student and, as nicely as I could, pointed out her correct mark. She stared at me with empty eyes as her costume gaped around her nonexistent bosom. I shook my head, wanting nothing more than the curtain to come crashing down on this run of The Nutcracker.

Alastair said, Could you do me a favor and get through this without any more problems? I don’t need you to dance pretty. I just need you to hit your marks. He clomped off stage as he rubbed the small of his back.

The symphony started again. Stinking of sweat and humiliation, I made it through the whole wretched thing without any further issues.

He’s such an asshole, Danica whispered to me as I walked into the dressing room. She was still in her Snow Queen costume. That kid should have stepped up and admitted her mistake.

I flicked away her sympathy and threw on my candy-pink Waltz of the Flowers tutu. Act II was starting soon, and I wanted to be alone. I’d caught Alastair’s eye. In the worst way possible.

I trudged up the stairs to the stage, which had been transformed into our set designer’s version of the Kingdom of Sweets. He’d conflated the Kingdom of Sweets with Valentine’s Day. Mauve hearts and mauve flowers and mauve cupids festooned the backdrop. A throne stenciled with mauve curlicues for Clara rested upstage. Little pages attired in mauve suits practiced carrying garlands of mauve flowers under the vigilant eye of a teacher.

I peeked from the wing, trying to figure out where Alastair was. He was in the pit, chatting with the conductor. We had

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