“Surely you would like to be immortalised in art, fixed forever in perfection?”
I would kill to dance like her.
Disciplined and dedicated, Olivia is the perfect ballerina. But no matter how hard she works, she can never match identical twin Clara’s charm.
I would kill to be with her.
As rehearsals intensify for the ballet Coppélia, the girls feel increasingly like they are being watched. And, as infatuation turns to obsession, everything begins to unravel.
We’re in Black Swan territory here with the company at Sadler’s Wells as they rehearse Coppélia, which couldn’t be more apt for the story of Clara and Olivia. Clara and Olivia are identical twins, shaped by their ballet mad mother to become the perfect ballerinas. The girls are so identical that in order to assert her own identity Olivia wears her hair in a higher bun than her sister, with a rose attached. There are ballerinas who must be the epitome of perfection and blend in with the chorus so the audience sees perfectly synchronised ballet; the company as one rather than individuals. Olivia has taken her mother’s lessons to heart and is that perfect ballerina, she blends perfectly into the company, but she’ll never be the prima ballerina. Clara has that something extra.
Coppelia is about a man who creates a dancing doll, the image of a perfect ballerina. It’s so beautiful that Franz, a young man from the village, falls in love with it and sets aside his real sweetheart Swanhilda. To teach him a lesson Swanhilda dresses as the doll and pretends it has come to life. While the ballet is a comic one there is a more disturbing similarity, between the doll and the ballerina when each dancer stands at the barre every morning, identical in uniform and in movement. These are the parts the audience doesn’t see, that daily dedication to the same movements over and over until they are second nature. We are also blind to the years before this, where each dancer has persevered through pain and injury or given up sleep overs with friends, teenage boyfriends and even school work to become as light as air on the stage. To move like butterflies, while their worn out and broken shoes are the equivalent of Dorian Gray’s picture in the attic. When watching a ballet it’s not hard to imagine a giant puppet master behind the scenery controlling this whole row of ballerinas so they move as one. With the echoes of Black Swan in my head I was feeling a creeping sense of unease and psychological drama, both around the sisters and whoever it is who watches them.
There are two men in the book, employed or contracted by the ballet company and they too are caught up in this theme of appearances being deceptive. Samuel is a giant. A large, ungainly man whose looks mark him out as different. People would struggle to imagine that it is he who makes their pointe shoes; something that looks so delicate should not be made by people who look like him. When he finds out that the shoes he’s making are for Olivia Marionetta he knows he must find some way to mark them out as different from all the others, just as he noticed her among the other dancers in the company. He always writes the dancer’s name across the sole in pen, but her shoes should have something more. He takes his inspiration from the white rose he has seen pinned just about her bun and engraves it into the sole then, as he leaves the shoes in her pigeon hole, he places a white rose on top. Samuel is lucky that despite his size he can travel around the theatres and dance studios largely unnoticed. His contribution is unseen and therefore, he is invisible. So he has no doubt that Olivia won’t guess who has paid her this tribute, even if he has been hanging around the rehearsal room. He noticed that despite looking identical, the girls are not the same. Olivia is obedient and keeps her eyes cast down during rehearsals, not daring to challenge the dance mistress. Whereas Clara scares him, she knows she is an excellent dancer and there’s a challenge in her moves and the way she looks directly at the dance mistress. When given direction, she turns away and rolls her eyes at the other dancers. Clara knows she outshines the others, but he hopes his shoes will make Olivia feel adored too.
Nathan is even closer to the dancers during rehearsal because he is their practice pianist. He and Clara go out with the company at night while Olivia stays home, soaks her feet and mends her shoes for the following day. Her legs will be refreshed and her bag carefully packed, whereas Clara knows her feet will ache from practice, followed by dancing through the clubs till the early hours. She also knows that when she opens her bag, her tights will be full of hair grips. Usually the girls share clothes, but Clara has been wearing a dazzling green coat that Nathan bought her. Of late she has started to find the coat a little claustrophobic, the belt too restrictive and the shoulders too heavy. Nathan too seems to get a little closer each time, his hand always at her waist and his knee pressed tightly against hers under the table. She was also a little unnerved at the line of verse he scribbled when they were playing a game – ‘A lovely apparition, sent to be a moment’s ornament’ – while she isn’t sure what it means, something about it bothers her and I thought back to the puppet ballerina Coppelia. Nathan appears to be the perfect companion for a beautiful young dancer, but the closer he gets the more she wants to pull away. She imagines his houseboat, the ideal home for a young bohemian musician, but despite it being a few moments away from her flat he never takes her there. Is the look and idea of her more alluring than the reality? In their own private rehearsal he pushes her, far beyond tiredness and hunger. In the dressing room after he apologises, she notices how he looks at the dancer’s jumble of make up, jewellery and bits of costume that haven’t been returned to wardrobe. The one thing he becomes fixed on is a tiny figurine of a ballerina, like the ones you might find in a girl’s jewellery box, permanently on point and turning endlessly without exhaustion or hunger to mar her beauty. No real woman could be so perfect.
Although I found the novel a little slow at first, but I soon realised that the inner thoughts and feelings are slowly building towards action. Once strange things start happening around the theatre the pace picks up and I became intrigued. In the well under the theatre, where the dancers like to go for pre-performance rituals, a single shoe is found floating in the water like an evil portent. Then life changes start to come tick and fast. Clara receives an offer she has never imagined, but it will mean moving away from Nathan and choosing independence from her sister. Their mother, the woman who inspired their career choice, is deteriorating in a nursing home. Her imminent passing is another sign – do they still need to be in each other’s pockets? Usually they need their combined strength but without their mothers rigid ideals to live up to could they go it alone? The author hints at these changes of identity, with one sister choosing to borrow the other one’s clothes, perhaps hoping for a little of their attitude too. She often feels like a mere echo of her sister, but I worried that this ‘doubling’ would land one or both of them in further danger. This tension is offset by Samuel’s story, of being led away from an obsession towards something more real. Living instead of watching. If the ballerinas represent perfect objects of desire, he is being offered a real relationship. But is it Samuel who watches the twins and can he see that someone to love and support you is more important than appearance? As the hidden desires and obsessions of these characters come to the surface and explode into action more than one of them will be in danger. This thriller has real atmosphere and characters with fascinating psychological issues that drive the plot.
Published 2nd Feb by Magpie Publishing.
Meet the Author
LUCY ASHE trained at the Royal Ballet School for eight years, first as a Junior Associate and then at White Lodge. She has a diploma in dance teaching with the British Ballet Organisation. She decided to go to university to read English Literature at St Hugh’s College, Oxford (MA Oxon), while continuing to dance and perform. She then took a PGCE teaching qualification and became a teacher. She currently teaches English at Harrow School, an all-boys boarding school in North London. Her poetry and short stories have been published in a number of literary journals and she was shortlisted for the 2020 Impress Prize for New Writers. She also reviews theatre, in particular ballet, writing for the website Playstosee.com.