Therese sat at the front of the studio, ostensibly to shut the camera on and off and reposition it if necessary. But really she did not want her image captured by the filming, and in this way she ensured that she would always be outside the frame. She had lost thirteen more pounds since the diagnosis. Already her skin stretched thinly over her bones; she looked worse than she had even during the teenage years of laxatives and purging. Outside the studio, Munich shone in maddening grey sterility, the towers of Paulskirche chimed three times, and the startled pigeons blew past, toward the city center. On the footage, they would be just a momentary blur across the windows, Therese thought. She wondered if Thom would notice them.
Work was going forward; that was how Therese had told Thom she wanted it, her voice rising to a shrillness that surprised them both. The company was making an evening-length piece with improvisational instructions that were even more elaborate than usual. The camera focused on the new girl in the east corner with Boris and Guillermo. They were combining the movement phrases they’d created, per Thom’s directions. “Colliding,” Thom called the process.
The new girl — Darlene, Thom would have corrected Therese — was short, and decidedly not classically proportioned: her head was large and her legs were stubby. The opposite of a Balanchine ballerina, thought Therese, and then caught the note of petty comparison that followed, resolved to banish it: the opposite of me. She watched the new girl take the phrase the dancers had labeled “chicken” — left arm flapping down like a broken wing, right leg rising in a high arc of ronde de jambe, spine following in a chin-jutting whiplash — watched her perform it at full velocity with Boris’s arms ringed around her waist. He looked like a man trying to hang on to a tornado. Thom had been right. The moment his eye locked on this stubby woman — don’t be jealous, you’ve got no time for jealousy, Therese thought — the minute he saw her in the audition he had known. The new girl was very good.
And now as part of the trio in the corner the new girl was trying all kinds of configurations. But no matter how Guillermo and Boris positioned themselves — clutching Darlene’s shoulders, or keeping a hand clasped around her right ankle — the new girl launched the movement phrase from deep below the base of her spine, and the whole chain followed like a current coursing unstoppably along her skeleton. She knew how to stay loose, yet responsive. She knew instinctively what so many of the company members took years to fully understand, what sounded so bafflingly clinical to outsiders: she knew how to drop her pelvis.
She had a large head, but her intelligence was in her pelvis.
The video camera kept silent surveillance as Thom approached the group and said, “OK, so let’s see.” The trio ran through their phrases. The way Thom unconsciously pinched the lobe of his left ear as his stare fixed on the new girl — Therese weakened. She knew that gesture well.
But Thom was playing cool. “You took out the ports de bras here,” he said, unfurling his arm in that way that had always been his own outpouring of kinetic brilliance, that way the rest of them had to work so hard to learn. It was as though his limbs were set in motion by an outside force that had possessed him. He had initiated the movement, of course, but it wasn’t easy to see from where.
The new girl could see it. Reflexively, she mimicked him, the current running along her arm from a jolt of electricity that sparked at the floor of her hips.
She finished, pushed her limp blonde hair out of her face, caught Thom’s eye. “We decided to take out the lame parts,” she said. She had an American voice, but lower, more matter-of-fact than Therese’s.
The video footage captured Thom again pinching his left ear. “OK, ja, fair enough,” he said. The camera captured his eyebrows rising in a difficult-to-read expression that Therese, a little nauseated — was that just the side-effects of the medication? — feared she recognized.
Therese would never have said such an irreverent thing to Thom, not at first, when they met in San Francisco. That was eight years ago. Therese had been twenty-six. Not yet old, in dancer’s years — she could have two decades more of performing, if she took scrupulous care. But not young, either. She had been promoted from corps to soloist four years earlier, but there she had stalled. Everyone knew that if you did not rise to principal by twenty-eight at the very latest, you never would. Too many new talents with more momentum coming up behind you in that tremendous machine of a company.
Those were the early days of Thom’s career — he had left his native Chicago at age eighteen to dance in Europe, and eight years later when he arrived in San Francisco to create the commission, he had only just been named artistic director of his small troupe in Munich. He had already picked up the German way of saying “ja” for “yes,” but his accent sounded awkward, back then — an American transplant’s unconscious tick. He was a risky choice for a choreographic commission in the States, still unknown to audiences in his home country, though already a minor god to dancers who knew anything of art outside the ballet studio, to dancers who had spent their free days in the Guggenheim or who liked John Cage. Thom Forlaine was rumored to be polite, and friendly, but to have idiosyncratic taste. He gave the impression of being gangly, but that impression fled as soon as he began to dance. He had not yet taken to shaving his head, so he appeared less severe in those days, more ordinary. But he had eyes of bird-like intensity, and Therese could feel them upon her the morning that Thom observed company class in order to make his casting choices.
The commission would be a trio: Therese and two men.
On their first day of rehearsal, Thom had played the music they would dance to. The electronic sounds were loud, crashing, wailing, repetitive. He played the score at high volume. The week before, the company had been rehearsing Swan Lake. Now Therese would spend the next month helping to create this new dance with this assaulting music. Listening with Thom and the others, she reminded herself to appear attentive, and not to make a face.
Next, Thom asked them to improvise. Therese had never been asked to do that before. She said so. Beyond “hello” and “thank you” and “yes,” her first words to Thom were, “I’ve never done that before.”
“Fine, good, we will be curious to see what happens,” Thom said.
He played the music. Therese tried a few steps and discovered she could not move to this music the same way she would to Tchaikovsky — she attempted this but as the crashing sounds kept coming, her body would not do it. She might try a sequence involving a sauté and a balance, but from there her spine would twist and ripple. Like a puppet jerked at its joints, her limbs would break into angles and fold. Then she would try a pirouette, a glissade into tour jete — and a crash would hit her eardrum and her body would move with an unknown inner volition.
Thom’s bird eyes watched. In those days, he had not always videotaped.
The two men were moving in new ways, too — it was a though they were speaking in tongues. “Now with each other,” Thom shouted over the music. “Ja, that’s it — good — ja, lift her, pull — very good, very interesting.”
Then Thom moved away from the mirrors and stepped in. He took Therese’s waist as she reached upward. She unfolded her leg into a high developpe and he grabbed beneath her thigh to lift her. She had both feet on the floor again without quite knowing what had happened, and driven by the wailing she unfolded her left leg high to the side. Then Thom did something that changed everything. He put a hand to her right hip, and he pushed her pelvis off its axis.
That was when it happened. A current passed between them — but it did not come only from Therese’s body. It had started in her pelvis, but what Thom wanted Therese understood in her mind. She understood it in her mind, and she put it back into her body, letting the current travel its path. And then she did something that still shocked her years later. Without ever stopping the current, Therese swung around to face Thom, and following the impulse that had begun when he pushed her hip she let the current rush up her spine and she lowered her head to touch — to rest upon — Thom’s chest.
This was not the kind of communion Therese had imagined, had blushed about, as a girl raised by the School of American Ballet to venerate the guiding genius, George Balanchine. She’d ripped out pictures of “Mr. B” working with Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil LeClerq, Diana Adams, all taped to the walls of her dorm room. All his muses, five of whom he’d married. You could see how it happened, in the photos — pale, slick-haired Mr. B, swooningly holding Maria’s hand as she balanced in arabesque, or adjusting Tanny’s thigh so that her leggy lines made him helpless to her perfected femininity. He fell in love with them when they were sixteen, seventeen; he bought them each a different perfume so that he could stalk them through the halls.
When Therese was still sixteen she had wanted that, too, but Balanchine was dead. And after the teenage romanticism faded, after she joined the company and understood how hard she would have to work to be even an average dancer, Therese had become more interested in the photographs of Balanchine with his celebrated composer-collaborator, Stravinsky. In the photos, Balanchine would be holding a score, Stravinsky would be making a point with his tremendous claw-like hands, and even behind Stravinsky’s big glasses you could see how intensely he and Balanchine were thinking a problem through together, and you could see that the connection between them was intimate, pleasurable. By that point, Therese had slept with a few boys in the company, as all the girls had, but she found their bodies boring — the boys’ perfect bodies, and her own. Sex felt like a ballet rehearsal — a rehearsal of bad choreography. It had no inner logic; it left you with nothing to think about. She would trade a lifetime of sex for the kind of experience she imagined between Balanchine and Stravinsky.
But was the connection between Balanchine and his ballerinas that much different? They had all been leggy and beautiful, true, but Balanchine had had his pick among more perfect specimens. His muses had all possessed a particular way of moving, something that ran deeper than clean technique or flexibility. And then when Therese finally met Thom, when he shoved her hip and she felt that spark from the place of her sex, she wondered: was it possible that Balanchine connected with his ballerinas the way he did with Stravinsky, first — and then the sexual connection followed?
It was during that first American commission in San Francisco that Thom began working out his technique of “residual movement.” He and Therese danced together in the studio every day, even on breaks and after company work hours. They danced alone after the other dancers had gone home.
They walked down the streets of San Francisco to the nearest bar, watching the pigeons rise in a gust from the gray steps of City Hall, hearing the plaintive calls of panhandlers. “The opening of the second movement still feels a little obvious, ja?” Thom said. “That place in your solo where —” And he began to do the twisting movements with his shoulders and his torso, even as they continued to walk along the busy streets toward the bar. Outside of the studio, he did not look so god-like — he looked slightly nerdy and ridiculous.
Which perhaps was why Therese, quivering and reckless, had the nerve to say, “That whole transition there is kind of lifeless. Let’s cut it and work on that weird part when Michael enters—” And Therese raised her arms to perform her partner Michael’s awkward phrase, the lower part of her body following. The pupils of Thom’s bird eyes widening as he smiled.
He said, “This is what is best about you, Therese. You look for what is being born.”
Thom had pushed her pelvis. That had consequences in the body. And wasn’t the brain the body, too?
The new evening-length piece had a title now. Therese, too thin to be in public really — a grotesque distraction — sat next to the video camera as Munich’s winter light paled.
Thom did not dance much anymore; he had never liked to be in his own pieces, anyway. What was interesting to him was not his own body, but how bodies could speak to each other.
But he was dancing a lot with the new girl.
Unabashed about her stubby stature, she took the movement phrase for “wren” — a waving overhead, followed by a collapse of the arms to the floor — and performed it on her knees beneath Thom’s legs, as he performed the same movements above. Then he pulled her up along his body and maneuvered her until they were back-to-back, arms entwined. Boris stepped in. This was now a three-way conversation. Boris lifted the new girl, swung her about, and delivered her full velocity back into Thom’s arms, so that the new girl and Thom spun and then, as though one body, caught their equilibrium and stopped. The new girl had come to rest with her forehead leaning against Thom’s abdomen. If she were taller, she would have reached his chest.
The silent video camera captured Thom stepping back awkwardly. The camera caught their nervous laughter.
Therese felt a cold blow to her cheek, as though a draft had hit her. She knew she had just witnessed something private.
Later, when they were walking home along the pristine paved street — were the pigeons roosting? how was it that there was bird shit everywhere in San Francisco, and not in Munich? — Thom said to his wife, “The pas de deux in the second half, there’s something interesting there, something new, ja?”
Therese said, “She works very well with you.” Where had that thin edge in her voice come from? It was anger; Thom heard it.
He wiped his hand down his nose, an unconscious gesture Therese also knew. “She’ll come along,” he said airlessly.
The boys understood only that their mother was sick. Lars was technically Thom’s from his previous marriage. The younger, Kyle, Therese had given birth to in Munich, a year and a half after Thom first chose Therese for his American commission. The “little schnuffels,” as Therese liked to call them, were six and ten.
Thom put them to bed as Therese finished the dishes, the nausea throbbing.
Were she and Thom still communicating if they weren’t dancing together? She would trade two months of life for another day of work with him. Aside from a short leave after Kyle’s birth, they had never had a time of not dancing together. Now their verbal conversations were terse and stilted, though that might be simply because in the face of Therese’s condition there seemed nothing to say.
She regretted the tone of accusation that had entered her voice when they were talking about the new girl. No, more precisely, she regretted the hidden source of that voice within herself. Thom had to be constantly aware of it. It was Therese’s fault that he was holding back, in the studio. And actually this made dying — she said the word in her mind constantly, I’m dying I’m dying I’m dying I’m dying — this made dying worse.
That night when Thom got into bed, he wrapped his body around Therese’s carefully, as though she were a jewelry box ballerina whose limbs might snap. The tumor was swelling; they both felt it, its pulsing, insidious curvature. Did she want him to hurt her? She was thinking, angrily, You can’t think about the pain. Thom’s pelvis nestled against hers, but he did not push.
The new dance was coming quickly. The scheduled premiere was three months away. But — in hindsight, they all knew this — Therese would never see it costumed and lit, presented to the public upon the stage.
The company was doing a full run-through, which they would watch played back on screens later. “Sparrow,” “blackbird,” “wren,” “blue jay,” “egret” — most of the audience would never know the names for these combinations of steps, which the dancers now collided and entwined across the grey marley floor. Words were not the real language in dance — movements were, and the sentences now spinning out across the room were full of intricate phrases and clauses and dense in vocabularies of flicking legs, slicing arms, roiling spines. The new girl was speaking them with oratory force. She seemed to shout every sentence right from her hips. Wherever she moved among Boris and Guillermo and Anika and Sofia, you could not help but focus on her.
Therese was tired, and her attention was drifting.
She longed to see the pigeons gust past the windows — that startled but purposeful flapping. As though an invisible hand had set them in motion just as it directed the wind. But the camera would not capture them today.
She had, for the eighth or ninth time that day, the sudden feeling that she might as well die.
Therese reflected that she had been happy married to Thom — not just dancing with him, which was something different. She did not know what was harder — to imagine Thom married to someone else, or to see him dancing with the new girl now. He had created a part for himself in this dance, an extended duet. He and the new girl were pushing and pulling each other across the studio, speaking to each other in silent outbursts of energy.
No, Therese did know what was harder. Dancing with Thom was a bigger loss than the marriage. She cared more about that than the children, even.
Was that callousness? Vanity?
But it wasn’t the performing she cared about — the deepest charge was never on the stage. The real moments — the surreal moments of heightened awareness, when she could feel every molecule of air on her skin — those came in the studio, when she and Thom discovered something together. And that was about pure self-awareness, so much so that she actually felt like she existed outside of her own body; she felt that she had sunk so deeply into her own body that she had become pure spirit. Thom had shown her she was intelligent — never during her years at the School of American Ballet or in the corps of that huge San Francisco company had she suspected this. And she had never since forgotten it, yet it was always a rush, when they created a new way of moving, to confirm it. So many dances. And over the years, so many other dancers too, of course. But he had always experimented most with Therese, dancing together after-hours even years into their marriage.
The red light indicated that the camera was still recording.
They had reached nearly the end of the new piece now, the duet between Thom and the new girl was over, the new girl had a solo. She could throw herself flat to the floor and spring up again with alarming speed. Down, up — it was mesmerizing. The music for this dance was not crashing and loud; it had its own kind of menace, a low burble of atonal sounds.
The new girl’s squat body had a different center of gravity ... that would be good for Thom. Therese leaned forward to watch closely. Already, she could see a new technique developing.
When the music stopped, the studio filled with the sound of the dancers’ panting.
“Ja, ja, ja, that was gut, sehr gut,” Thom said. At the edges of the studio, the dancers were doubled over with their hands braced to their knees, fighting to regain breath. Therese could see the new girl’s rib cage expanding and collapsing like a sparrow’s. Thom said, “You will see later.” For the time being, it was lunch.
They went to the corner for sandwiches and coffee, a handful among them enjoying cigarettes even though Thom disapproved. They ate in the studio, loud, laughing, mercifully not noticing that Therese did not have the power to eat. The new girl sat on the far side of the circle, talking with her mouth full. They were making fun of themselves for the places where the dance had gotten out of their control — they were laughing with relief at the moments when they had nearly dropped each other, stepped on each other; they were exhaling adrenaline and nerves.
“Were we a mess, Therese?” Boris said.
She wanted to say that on the contrary, they were brilliant, but she did not have the strength to project enthusiasm, though she did manage a half-smile, an unconvincing, Don’t be silly. But the problem was not that the dance was too messy. The problem was that it was too neat.
“Mess, schmess,” the new girl shouted, her stubby legs splayed and her pile of sandwich between. She really did sound Texan, thought Therese, with flickering irritation.
“I think it needs to be messier,” the new girl continued. “Or by the time we get it on the stage, you know, we won’t have to think. What if we used the video more? You know, Thom, like you did in ‘Nine Re/Actions’? Let us take our cues from the video during the performance? Except what if we ran the phrases in reverse?”
And that was the moment Therese could fully see it: Thom and the new girl in the studio after Munich’s grey light was gone, working out their language.
Thom pinched his left ear.
“It’s worth trying,” Therese finally said, and her voice sounded warm, as she’d hoped. The whole company looked at her reverently, as though even talking might kill her.
But as Thom’s hand moved to the back of his neck, he looked more weary than Therese felt. And then Therese knew — knew with an inner pulse of gratitude — that Thom had just realized he could not test this idea with Therese. The Texan accent had its charms, Therese thought. Suddenly she wanted Thom to think this, too.
But apparently at that moment he did not. His neck had sunk into his shoulders. His sharp eyes focused accusingly on the new girl. “If you feel it is too simple, you may not be thinking deeply enough,” he said.
He called an end to company rehearsal a half hour early that evening. Therese turned off the camera as the new girl was still experimenting in the west corner. The tumor pulsed. Therese froze; if she stayed absolutely still she would not need to cry out, she could let the pain pass through her, ripple through her body and then beyond. And when the spasm passed, when her fists unclenched and her breath returned, she knew what she had to do. She turned the camera back on, and pointed it to focus on the new girl.
“You look pale today,” Thom said, bringing Therese her sweater, and that night he did the dishes, and interrupted Therese as she read bedtime stories to the boys, insisting she rest.
But when Therese lay in bed, she was tense. She was angry — at whom or what she did not know — angry that she would not always be with her sons, yes that was one outrage. But no, this had something to do with Tom. His rebuke to the new girl. Had he done that to protect Therese? How infuriating that Thom would soon come and wrap his limbs so carefully around her.
Thom could be self-absorbed; the week Therese gave birth to Kyle, Thom had continued his usual schedule at the studio, telling Therese unapologetically — hadn’t they agreed to this? — that his work could not be paused. In that way, Thom had never been a conventionally “good man.” He was not a “bad man,” either, or an “honest man,” or anything moral like that. He just couldn’t stand to simplify life. That wasn’t interesting enough for him. He never wanted to remove the difficult. He had — before this — always been too interested in it.
He turned back the covers and nestled his wiry naked body delicately around Therese, just as she had dreaded. She did not have strength to turn over and look at him. She said, “You can’t make the pain worse, it’s already unbearable.”
Her voice was coming from that other, hard-to-locate place.
When Thom did not move, she said, “I was thinking about something you used to tell me. About how to recognize a thing being born, you have to let go of what is dying.”
“I remember that, ja.”
“It’s funny, I only just realized. You said dying, Thom, not dead. Isn’t that interesting? I wonder why.”
Again, Thom did not move.
“Maybe because if you hold on until after it’s dead,” Therese said, feeling the charge within herself, letting it travel a path to her lips, “you’re too late.”
When Thom finally pulled her to him, the swelling of the nausea and the hot flash of sensation in her abdomen obliviated everything. And Therese winced, and fell gratefully to sleep.
Thom did not take the new girl up on her idea to use video footage in the dance. He was done with that piece.
Therese did not go into the studio anymore. She weighed seventy-five pounds. And her presence was not good for the company.
They did not talk much now, because Therese was drugged or sleeping. Then one night, Thom came to Therese after he had put the boys to bed, and done the dishes, and as Therese lay in a half-conscious state, he played her a piece of music. It was a famous piece of music, he said, but he had never seen it choreographed. Therese listened, struggling to concentrate, the sound cresting around her awareness of her pain. This music was not at all like the music Thom had played the day they began work on his American commission. There were no crashing sounds, and no burbling noises. Instead, there were lush strings playing rich chords, surging, receding. And above that was a weak male voice, singing a simple hymn on a repeated loop. The voice came from a homeless man, Thom explained, a homeless man whom the composer, Gavin Bryars, had recorded in front of a subway station. The composition was named after the hymn the man sang: “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.”
“It will be a quintet,” Thom said. “But with a long solo for Boris. A duet. And then at the end, a solo.”
“For Darlene?” Therese asked, and she felt that she could finally fall to sleep when Thom answered yes.
Therese would never see the finished dance, the first new work to follow her death. It would become one of his most acclaimed pieces. On the stage’s shadowy edge, there would be a screen, upon which flickered video footage running in a loop, but this footage was not of dancing. It was a short clip of the dance studio windows, with a blur of gray — Were those pigeons?, the critics asked — gusting past.
On stage right was a rectangle of light, the size of a grave.
Dancing above was Darlene Miller, who five years after that ballet’s premiere became Thom’s third wife.about the author