Painting Stories: The Understudy

Painting stories is a series where I share my current works. Sometimes it is how they came about. Sometimes it’s more of a story I associate with them.

*

They say the ghosts of failed dancers haunted the backstage, whispering poison into people’s ears and causing random parts of the set to tumble at all the inopportune times. Ballerinas, especially those in the back row, always said they felt cold fingers on the back of their necks during the performance, and more than once, sprained ankles and pulled muscles got attributed to the malicious spirits.

Angelina scoffed at all of this. But then, Angelina was always the star of the show. She worried about getting blinded by the overhead lights – not things that lurked in the dark.

Maria, on the other hand, was one of those dancers whose face the audience rarely saw, and she feared the ghosts. However much she wanted to shrug it off, however much she made light of it outside the theatre, she and her friends knew better than to tempt fate.

When your income rests on your two feet, you take no chances.

So however much she hated ridicule, Maria started to take precautions.

She left sprigs of rosemary and lavender at some choice locations around the stage – not so far out of sight so that the ghosts would not see them, but enough so that it didn’t get into anybody’s way. She muttered prayers right before and after general rehearsal, dress rehearsal, and during shows. Once, when a piece of decor swayed dangerously, threatening to fall down on someone, she even made a sign of the evil eye and then pretended it was part of the choreography.

None of it was lost on her fellow dancers, and especially on Angelina.

“You are making a fool of yourself,” she said to Maria as the two of them walked home one night. “And you’re making a fool of me, too. Alphonse actually asked me if I’m going to be bringing incense sticks and prayer cards next.”

“Alphonse has a reputation to maintain,” Maria replied. “And do you really want to be the one who has to be taken to the hospital with a chandelier injury?”

“And you say I’m dramatic.” And she leaned in for a kiss.

Maria pulled back as if she’d been burned. “Are you crazy? We’re still outside!”

Angelina gave her a long, hard look – the kind that usually preceded an epic fight. But then she turned and said, “Suit yourself,” before walking briskly on. Maria waited for a beat or two before following.

*

It was their usual dynamic – Angelina moving to her own rhythm, laser-focused on her goals, Maria shadowing from a safe distance. At school, it was no surprise who got the best parts and who always stayed at the back. It was also no surprise who got scouted first, and carried the other one across. You don’t get anywhere in life by being passive, her mother used to say, and Maria got as good as she gave.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

She paused, halfway to the rehearsal room, and looked around. The corridor was empty. The overhead lights were not flickering ominously, but that rarely meant anything. The ghosts manifested in all sorts of ways.

Just as she convinced herself that it was all okay, she heard the voice again.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

“What way?” she muttered. Her voice seemed really loud.

You don’t have to ride her coattails forever. 

Maria turned.

The ghost stood at just five feet tall, beautiful and dismal at the same time. She wore a costume from Giselle – similar, in fact, to the one Maria herself had to don for a performance last season.

The ghost was not smiling.

“I…” Maria swallowed. “I don’t understand, I’m afraid.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to be in the spotlight for once? The ghost cocked her head to the side. Wouldn’t you like to lead instead of follow?

“No.”

Not even off the stage?

Maria paused then. She didn’t know ghosts could travel outside of the theatre, let alone follow individuals around. Had she and Angelina been living in a haunted house, too? Or was it all just a freakishly accurate guess?

The ghost smiled.

We can help. 

“No,” she said. “No… I appreciate the offer but… no thanks.”

“Maria?”

She whirled around to find Alphonse looking at her. She swallowed hard. “Sorry. I… had to fix a stitch on my shoe.”

He raised an eyebrow, then he looked over her shoulder to where the ghost had stood. Had he seen her too? Had he overheard? Usually, their choreographer was the embodiment of “moody artiste”, yelling at them to embrace their characters and pushing them to their limit. But now… he looked suspiciously quiet.

“I’ll just go to the practice room….” She started to edge away from him.

“Maria…” he said, just as she was passing him. “Be very careful. They don’t always care about people’s wellbeing.”

She kept on walking.

To pause would be to acknowledge that something would happen soon… and she didn’t fare too well with change.

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