Every year the Opera Garnier in Paris invites the two most talented, six grade dance students in France to participate in an exceptional event, and of course all the girls in Taïga’s class are dreaming of getting a part. Louise sticks her nose up, but Jeanne not so kindly reminds her of her past years’ failure to gain access to the coveted title of a “little opera rat”.
‘It is not the same thing at all!’ Louise defends herself. ‘The try outs for the school are so much more difficult!’
Mademoiselle Béjart is not being spared by the frenzy the looming contest has started. The training for THE event of the year is getting more intense.
‘Retiré. Un – deux – trois…. Open more – hold…’
Ouch, it burns… Taïga can feel how her leg starts to shiver with strain.
‘Bien Taïga. Louise. Now it’s your turn, Agnès.’
‘Relevé… Relevé! Eveline – Relevé! Look at Taïga and follow her movements. Nonono. Don’t look at her feet. Like this.’
Mademoiselle Béjart takes place behind Taïga at the barre and follows her movemants fixing a point in the distance. ‘You have to keep tall. Graceful…’
Taïga has a natural grace and fluidity in her movements, like a cat. Mademoiselle Béjart would love to see one of her students dance at the Opera Garnier, it would be almost as satisfying as dancing there herself again.
‘Les filles! Ecoutez! Monsieur Lambert will assist our lesson today, together with Monsieur Le Riche from the Opera Garnier.’ She nods towards two empty chairs next to the piano. ‘I count on you to do your best to make a good impression-’ The door swings open on their expected guests and she smiles encouragingly at the little group.
‘Allons-y. Première groupe en place. Florence!’ She signals with her hand, mouthing “now”, to their housekeeper and pianist as Charlotte and Marie-France cross the floor and take place at the barre.
The two girls go through the basic movements, Marie-France standing out against the heavyset Charlotte.
Monsieur Le Riche confers with Monsieur Lambert and when Mademoiselle Florence strikes the last accord, they signal their dance teacher over to confer.
Mademoiselle Béjart nods. ‘Bien sûr. Évidemment. Pas de problème.’
She motions for Clotilde to join Jeanne and Eveline who are ready at the barre.
Agnès whispers to Taïga that she heard Monsieur Le Riche say that he is “pressé”, in a hurry. Taïga looks over at Louise who seems even paler than usual. She has missed out on the trials to the Opera Garnier twice already, and now is her last chance to show off her worth as a dancer.
Taïga’s stomach flutters with nerves, and she doesn’t dare look over at the two gentlemen seated next to the piano. Mademoiselle Florence is also nervous, striking the wrong note twice before getting it right.
Mademoiselle Béjart checks the perfect alignment of her little group of three students – Taïga, Louise and Agnès.
‘Rond de jambe. Circle! Circle! … Très bien Taïga… Adagio, Louise. Adagio!’
‘Plié – Grand battement! Temps liés! Un – deux – trois -quatre… Now let go of the barre and hold the position. Higher… Higher. Parfait!’
‘Now, Louise. Straighten the leg… Sustain… Good. Let me see how you are doing Agnès.’
‘Mademoiselle, je n’y arrive pas – I can’t raise my leg, I fell off my pony last Saturday…’
‘Just try, Agnès. Just try.’
But it is impossible for Agnès to continue.
‘OK. Let’s take five!’ Mademoiselle Béjart claps her hands and sweeps out behind Monsieur Lambert and Monsieur Le Riche to join them outside to discuss who should do a solo performance.
‘Already? But I haven’t finished yet?’ Louise stares at the departing gentlemen in disbelief.
‘At least it’s over for me.’ Agnès doesn’t seem disappointed. ‘I think the show is taking place at the same time as the regional finals, and I will start Mistral in the showjumping competition that weekend. I wonder who they will chose.’
‘It sure won’t be me,’ Jeanne says, rolling over onto her stomach. ‘Why can’t they just let us go and shower?’
‘I’m sure they will pick Louise,’ Eveline says dreamily.
‘I’m betting my money on Taïga,’ Jeanne says.
‘Yeah. Me too,’ Agnès adds.
‘What about me? I did so well they must have noticed!’ Everybody glares at Marie-France who is doing pirouette after pirouette with an eye on the door.
Louise stares at her, then she turns on her heels and runs off, her hand in front of her mouth.
‘Attends!’ Marie-France follows her before Clotilde even has the time to react.
They all straighten up when they hear the double doors open again. But it is only Mademoiselle Béjart, gracefully crossing the room with her distinct duck walk.
‘Bon. Monsieur Le Riche has singled out three finalists…’ her gaze roams the girls’ eager faces.
‘Louise, Taïga and Marie-France.’ Mademoiselle Béjart beams at them.
‘Me?’ Taïga scrambles to her feet. ‘Are you sure?’
Mademoiselle Béjart looks bewildered at her. ‘Of course I’m sure. And you totally deserves it.’
‘Congratulations!’ Agnès kisses her cheek.
Jeanne hugs her, and turns to their dance teacher. ‘Can we go and shower now?’
‘Oui. And you have the rest of the day off. Mais oú est Louise? Et Marie-France?’
‘Louise didn’t feel well, Mademoiselle. And Marie-France ran after her.’
‘Hurry up to get them. And you must prepare for your solo performance. Allez, allez!’
Eveline sets off to fetch Louise who is probably retching in the bathroom.
Monsieur Le Riche wants to see Taïga and Louise one last time. Louise starts and while everyone’s attention is on the pretty blonde girl, Taïga warms up in the opposite corner. She is taken by surprise at the sight of Clotilde sneaking back in.
‘So… You’re practicing… For what?’ Clotilde whispers.
Taïga stops. ‘What do you want, Clotilde?’
‘Me? Nothing… But if you don’t let Louise get the part, I’ll tell everybody that your Grandmother is paying your tuition in nature – with Monsieur Lambert!’
‘You can’t do that!?!’
‘But it’s not true!’
‘See for yourself…’ Clotilde fishes in her pocket and holds out her cell. Taïga stares unbelievingly at the photo. She recognizes one of the fountains in town, but most of all she recognizes her grandmother. She is languidly leaning in towards a gray-haired gentleman who must be Monsieur Lambert.
‘It’s all up to you now!’ Clotilde snatches the cell back and leaves as silently as she had arrived, smiling to herself.
Taïga starts after Clotilde. She has to get to the locker room and pass some cold water on her face. Her whole being tells her it can’t be true, but now she has seen the romantic picture it is forever etched on her retina.
Monsieur Lambert waves her over on her way out.
‘You must stay, it is soon your turn.’
With a heavy heart, she stares unseeingly at Marie-France who enthusiastically goes through the demanded exercises.
‘Es-tu prête, Taïga?’
‘Oui, Mademoiselle Béjart.’ She takes place at the barre with her dance teacher right behind her.
‘Un – deux… Grand battement!’
‘Tendu… Good Taïga. Now hold the position… Prepare for a pirouette.’
Taïga is nervous, but Mademoiselle Béjart is so reassuring she almost forgets that Monsieur Le Riche is watching… And that she somehow has to fail her performance…
‘Mademoiselle Grey?’ Monsieur le Riche interrupts. ‘Can you do some “entrechats” s’il vous plait? Entrechat-quatre starting from fifth position, right foot front…’
Taïga swallows. It’s now or never…
‘Wait!’ Mademoiselle Béjart hands her a flimsy white skirt and helps her to tie it around her waist. She smiles apologetically at Monsieur Le Riche. ‘Merde,’ she whispers, the French equivalent of “break a leg”, squeezing Taïga’s hand.
Louis comes barging in right when Taïga gets started. He thought the selection was over as he had seen the other girls chatting and laughing head towards the canteen. Monsieur Lambert stops him even before he has the time to step over the threshold.
‘Would you please get out, Monsieur Saint Clair! Maintenant!’
‘Désolé. I just wanted to use the piano…’ Louis backs out and closes the door silently behind him. Luckily Taïga didn’t notice…
That evening, after clumsily falling doing a series of impeccable “entrechats”, Taïga calls her grandmother to tell her she didn’t get the part. It is so difficult to lie to her grandmother, particularly as Louise is holding court within hearing distance, gracefully accepting everyone’s congratulations.
Marie-France has been crying since she learned that she had not been selected and is sitting alone on the stairs, gently rocking back and forth with her hands over her ears. Taïga first tried to be kind, telling the devastated girl she thought she did really well but Marie-France just looked at her as if she was speaking gibberish and then returned to staring at her feet. Taïga thinks Louise should console her friend, but the self-centered girl is too busy playing her role as Queen Bee to care about anyone else but herself.
Ignoring them all, Taïga hunches over the phone and waits for her grandmother to pick up.
‘No… I don’t know what happened. I just fell… Uh-huh… One moment I was doing entrechats and then my foot just folded and-… Yes… No… It’s a little swollen, is all-… But-… I’m sure they’ll take me to a doctor if it is still swollen tomorrow, Granny… I know I-…’
After the difficult phone call, she withdraws to the room where they receive their parents if ever they come visit during the term. It is usually empty and she’s grateful for the peace and quiet the dark room provides. Suddenly she can’t hold back her tears anymore and she slumps down on one of the plum sofas and buries her head in her hands.
‘I’ve been looking for you everywhere! Why are you crying? Is it because of your ankle? I heard you fell.’
Taïga can’t tell Louis… Or can she? No. She doesn’t know him well enough to confide in him. Agnès will listen, and Jeanne. But what will they really think? What if they believe Clotilde? There is a picture after all… No. She won’t tell anyone. She mustn’t hurt Granny.
She dries her tears and nods. Better let him think she is sad about her failure.
She has trouble falling asleep, especially after having listened to Eveline and Charlotte singing Louise’s prayer, going on about how talented the blonde aristocrat is, how beautiful and how incredibly gifted. Yada, yada…
Taïga finally ends up in the nook, looking out over the frostbitten landscape. Wringing her hands, she fights an uneven match with her conscience. Why did Granny have to date Monsieur Lambert? She’s definitely too old to date anyone. And kissing? Gah! It’s not like her grandmother at all. She is even uncomfortable hugging her, Taïga. But then again, she seems so happy when she comes here, and who is she, Taïga, to judge? But what if Clotilde is right about the other thing? They don’t have much money and she knows this school is incredibly expensive…
She closes her eyes and tries to chase the unwelcome thoughts. Her grandmother would never to that. She would rather homeschool Taïga. She is sure about that…
Part I – End of Chapter 52