Yusuf has the sadistically cheerful demeanour of every physiotherapist Arthur has ever worked with.
‘When was your last injection?’ he asks, manipulating Arthur’s ankle round and round.
‘Two months ago. Isn’t that all in my records?’ He hadn’t spent the last six months out of training only to have his rehab stall out once he’d made the move.
‘Wanted to see if you’d lie about it,’ says Yusuf. ‘You think I don’t know dancers? You’re a bunch of crazy bastards.’
Arthur doesn’t disagree. The ankle twinges, which is as good as there being no pain at all. He’s been dancing since he was nine years old; at this point his entire body is one giant twinge.
‘I want to see you do some stretches,’ Yusuf instructs, noting something on Arthur’s file.
Arthur obeys, using the side of the bench as a barre.
‘Looks good,’ says Yusuf, patting him on the back to signal he’s satisfied. ‘OK, I know rehearsals start in four days, but only one class per day until then, right? And try to stay off demi-pointe as much as possible.’
Arthur stares in disbelief. The entire point of the last six months of boring rest and painful rehab have been to make certain his feet and ankles are in full working order. Which certainly includes demi-pointe.
Yusuf sighs. ‘I said try, didn’t I?’
* * *
Arthur eases into things with a contemporary warm-up class, populated mainly by the keener members of the corps de ballet, either the youngest or oldest who are eager to get back in shape before rehearsals begin again. It’s better than he dared hope but he still finds himself sweating like a pig, and his goddamn ankle is predictably stiff by the end. In the afternoon he makes a start on unpacking all the crap in his new apartment, shipped last week from Boston to London in carefully padded storage cases. He’s so tired by evening that he leaves the new flat-pack furniture for another time.
The next day he’s scheduled for pas de deux, and he spends the entire subway journey hoping like hell that he can partner with someone small. He’s lost seven pounds of muscle since his injury, and the combination of physiotherapy and his habitual protein shakes are not enough to make him fully confident about the prospect of lifting strange women over his head all morning.
More people show up today, chatting and laughing, and Arthur does his stretches in the corner of the practise room by himself, cowardly. He’s starting to suspect that Royal is one of those companies where there’s a reverse-snobbery divide between the corps and the principals.
He’s dumping his sweater in the corner by his water bottle when he’s approached by a tiny brunette. She looks about thirteen years old -- in other words, the perfect physique for a female ballet dancer.
‘Hi?’ she says. ‘I’m Ariadne.’
‘Arthur,’ he says, shaking her hand.
‘Oh, I know,’ she says, then looks embarrassed for saying it. Arthur really hopes she doesn’t have a crush on him -- in Boston there had been this really fresh 17-year-old kid who’d followed him around like a puppy, asking for “career advice”. Flattering, but Arthur had had no idea how to deal with it. He'd just told the kid to lift more weights and not act like an asshole to prospective employers, which wasn't exactly rocket science advice to give. Arthur knows he's good, but that's 50% genetics anyway; he can't help being born with the perfect hips for turn-out.
‘Do you need a partner?' she asks. 'Pretty much everyone else already... has one.’
Arthur looks around at the rest of the room, already coupled up. It feels disquietingly like middle-school gym class, something he thankfully only experienced for one semester before he went to the Conservatory. ‘Sure,’ he says. ‘Do you want me to hold your feet?’
‘Thanks.’ She drops down next to him.
‘You’re American,’ Arthur remarks, putting his weight onto her feet while she twists on the floor. ‘How long have you been with the company?’
‘Oh, I’m not. With the company, that is. I’m still in the Upper School. They bring some of us in for alternate work in the final year. I’ve actually got an offer in Paris once I’ve graduated.’
The way she tacks that last part onto the end makes Arthur suspect that she’s been telling this to everyone she meets since she heard the news. He could certainly remember how he’d felt when he’d got his first contract.
‘Congratulations,’ says Arthur, and pulls her to her feet when Miles the choreographer comes into the room. Miles is very much of the old school, staying on at Royal for the first few seasons of Dom’s tenure to make sure he doesn’t do anything dangerously subversive and cause donors to panic and withdraw their funding from the company. He’s here to reign Dom in, which Arthur can kind of agree with -- sometimes Dom’s ideas can get ahead of reality.
Miles is a nice guy, as far as Arthur knows, but Arthur has a suspicion that he’s going to be a total hardass in rehearsal. Which is fine by Arthur. He’s not here to slack off.
‘Morning all,’ says Miles, his accent 100% old-school London, and they’re off.
For the second day in a row, Arthur is drenched in sweat by noon. He’s also pretty certain that there’s a lactic acid buildup developing in his left shoulder. In summary, he feels amazing -- a few months ago they hadn’t even been sure if he’d be able to go back to dancing.
You have to be a bit of a masochist to get by in Arthur’s chosen line of work. More than a bit.
Ariadne, with the energy of youth on her side, seems fine. ‘Thanks!’ she says, retying her hair. ‘Seriously, that was awesome. I think that was the first time I ever did pas de deux with someone over the age of nineteen. I can see why they pay you the big bucks.’
‘Well, it’s the first time I’ve danced with anyone in six months, so I’m just glad I didn’t drop you on your head,’ says Arthur, deciding to go for honesty. In fact he wants to thank her for weighing what felt like about 100lbs, but he knows from long experience that mentioning body weight may not be a clever way to break the ice.
‘Hey, do you have lunch plans?’
Arthur evaluates the situation. The only person in London he knows well enough to eat lunch with is Dom Cobb, and it’s probably a bad idea to be seen hanging out with the artistic director before they’ve even started rehearsals.
‘OK, I’m gonna show you the Thames, then. Wait, have you seen the Thames yet? You haven’t been here long, right?’
‘I’ve been under the Thames. On the subway.’
Ariadne laughs. ‘The tube, not the subway,’ she corrects. ‘The river’s like ten minutes from here. Oh, and my roommate wants your autograph, she couldn’t come to class today and she wants to get in on the rush.’
Something must show on Arthur’s face -- panic, possibly -- because Ariadne winks at him. ‘Kidding,’ she adds. ‘You’re not that famous.’
Only too correct. Unfortunately, Arthur’s main claim to fame is the youtube video of himself landing wrong halfway through the third act of Onegin and having to be carried offstage on a stretcher, halting the performance entirely. The other two principals at Royal this season are Charles Eames and Cobb’s girlfriend Mallorie Simoneau, both of whom are far bigger names than Arthur. He’s probably going to fade into the woodwork by comparison, but he can live with that as long as the finished production is good.
‘Everyone loves a comeback,’ says Arthur dryly. He’s probably stolen his role away from some poor bastard who’s been slogging away in the corps for the last five years.Well, tough. Arthur has no intention of ending his career at twenty-six with only one principal role under his belt.
Ariadne leads him through the tourist trap that is Covent Garden, picking up lunch on the way. She doesn’t even raise an eyebrow at the two prepackaged chicken salads and the Snickers bar he buys. Most of the male dancers her age are probably trying to put on muscle mass in time for pre-grad audition season. Arthur had practically had to forcefeed himself from the ages of seventeen to nineteen -- it’s pretty fucking difficult to healthily consume three thousand calories a day when you are five foot nine and naturally narrow, especially when you’re dancing all day and can’t eat between classes.
‘What do you think?’ asks Ariadne, waving a hand at the Thames as it comes into view.
‘Grey,’ he says.
‘Uh huh. Well, it’s the land of Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare so you’d better work up a better sense of awe when a proper Londoner tries to show you round.’ She takes a bite of her apple. ‘So, what’ve you seen so far?’
‘Not much. I only arrived on Sunday.’
‘Okay, what are you going to see, then? ’
Arthur tosses away the packaging on the first chicken salad. ‘I probably won’t have time for tourism once rehearsals start. I want to see Eames dance before we start working together though, if possible.’ He likes to be prepared.
He shrugs. ‘I already worked with her once, a couple of years back. Why, you know her?’
‘Are you kidding? She’s like, royalty. She’s like the Angelina Jolie of ballet. Eames isn’t so bad though, he talks to the lowly mortals.’ Ariadne’s eyes go wide. ‘Not that Mal’s mean or anything! I mean like, Eames seems to be a friendly guy.’
Arthur’s glad to hear it. One prima donna is enough; he already has semi-serious concerns that Cobb is going to let Mal off with shit because they’re sleeping together.
‘Hey, they’ll be in practise this afternoon, if you want to watch. There’s always a few people there.’
He’s not surprised. When he was Ariadne’s age he’d spent the final semester of school watching Carlos Acosta rehearse at least once a week. He’s never seen Mal and Eames together but he suspects the combination is explosive. He’d seen Eames’ once before, as the Swan in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Eames’ first principal role. It was the kind of thing that got you popular acclaim, even it was only in a touring production.
Arthur hadn’t just seen it, though. He’d seen it four times. It had been breathtaking.
Back at the Opera House Ariadne takes him back to the rehearsal rooms. There’s an upstairs corridor running the length of the backstage rehearsal space, with a wall of balcony windows overlooking each of the public practise rooms. Arthur had noticed people walking by when they’d been doing their pas de deux class this morning, but it had mainly been young men and women in Royal Ballet Upper School colour-coded leotards and t-shirts, paying no attention to the classes going on inside. This time, there are people sitting cross-legged in the corridor, noses pressed to the glass like little kids outside a toy store.
Ariadne and Arthur find a space and sit down as well.
Mal and Eames don’t have a pianist, just a boom box balanced on top of one of the folding chairs. Arthur can half-hear the strains of something Romantic-period through the glass as Mal dances. Eames is leaning against the mirrors, arms crossed across his chest as Mal glissades across the floor. Arthur is certain that she can’t be improvising. This must be something they’ve done together before.
Even with no makeup and wearing a faded grey practise leotard with a hole in the underarm, Mal is stunning. Her wrists are delicate and immaculately turned; the line of her neck flows seamlessly down along her spine whichever way she moves.
He half expects her to go the whole hog and finish with a grand jeté, but she mis-steps just before the end of the movement and cracks up giggling. Eames pushes himself off the wall to catch her as she pretends to fall into a dead faint. They’ve not even danced together yet and Arthur can feel their connection, the way they fit together like hand and glove. It’s an excellent partnership. He admires it, but from a personal perspective it’s making him worry how the hell they’re going to work this out without him being hopelessly third-wheeled. He’ll just have to trust that Cobb's thought this one through already.
Eames goes over to the CD player to switch tracks. Arthur hears the low hum of strings and leans forward for a better view as Eames and Mal begin on opposite sides of the practise room, flowing together in unison like reflections in the mirror, perfectly timed. It looks like it's the easiest thing Eames has ever done, his teeth flashing white in a grin as he speeds up, circling Mal as she circles him. He's big, bigger than Arthur at any rate, and broad enough to be playing older roles rather than leads at this point. Arthur would be interested to see how flexible he is, considering his above-average muscle mass. Eames is only twenty-nine; not past it yet.
Then the two of them are together, faces inches apart. From his vantage point above, he can just about see Mal’s eyelashes flutter as they stay still for a moment, eyes locked, until she flings herself out and back in into an arabesque, and Eames lifts her like she weighs nothing at all. The thud of her feet is meeting the floor is inaudible through the glass, leaving the move smooth and unmarred by human imperfection.
From the way the two of them are just now, even here in the bare white practise room, he can barely believe that they aren’t a couple in real life. Arthur is almost envious. He’s fully aware of his own personal skill, but he’s never had chemistry like that with a partner, not once.
This isn’t practise. It’s a performance.
He finds his gaze fixating on a dark smudge on Eames’ bicep, just below the end of his sleeve. Is that a tattoo? Eames couldn’t have had it when Arthur had seen him in Swan Lake three years ago; he would’ve noticed. For the first time since he sat down to watch, Arthur is a little disapproving. Eames might be frighteningly talented, but getting a tattoo is just idiotic and unprofessional, especially somewhere as obvious as the upper arm.
When Eames finally lowers Mal to the ground, chest heaving from exertion, the spell breaks and the sounds around Arthur fade back in. The kids sitting next to him are dispersing, some of them analysing what they’ve just watched but most just bickering over where to have lunch. Mal glances up and waves at him, pointing Arthur out to Eames. She beckons him down, and Arthur feels a little embarrassed at having been caught watching.
‘Um, I’ll see you later,’ says Ariadne. She shrugs. ‘I’m pretty sure she doesn’t mean me.’
Mal swoops down on him the instant he pushes open the practise room door. She hugs him, warm bony arms digging into his ribs. She smells of fresh sweat and expensive hairspray; familiar. ‘How are you?’ she asks.
‘My ankle’s fine,’ says Arthur as she relinquishes her grip.
'I meant how are you,' she chides, and waves him forwards into the room. ‘Arthur, this is Eames.'
Eames is gulping down water, generous lips wrapped around the neck of the bottle. Jesus Christ, thinks Arthur, because he might be a consummate professional but he's not dead.
Then Eames puts down the water and holds out his hand. ‘Well hello, darling,’ he drawls. ‘I’ve been dying to make your acquaintance.’ And Arthur’s heart sinks at once. Eames is just another one of those over-confidant, stagey assholes who hits on everything that moves. What a disappointment. And on top of that he's almost painfully English, talking like he thinks he's the rakish lord in some made-for-TV costume drama.
Arthur's hopes for a beautiful artistic partnership go down in flames. From the way Eames is looking at him right now, he can tell that unless one or both of them goes through some kind of drastic personality overhaul, the next two months are going to be hell.
* * *
Arthur knows Dom from back when he was still a dancer. They’d kept in touch, but this is the first time Arthur’s worked with him in his new role as director. On the introductory day of rehearsals, Miles works with the corps while Cobb gives Arthur, Eames and Mal a run-through of the bare-bones choreography.
He hadn’t expected Dom to be a bad director, but he’s pleasantly surprised to find that Dom treats the three of them individually during the run-through, rather then lumping them together before they’ve got a feel for one another as a team. When outlining the job they have in front of them, he speaks to Mal in terms of abstract concepts like hope and desire and betrayal, to Eames in terms of motivation and characterisation, and to Arthur about the logistics and visual technicalities. Arthur may only know Mal a little and he and Eames are still virtually strangers, but Dom clearly knows all three of them very, very well.
It’s obvious from the get-go that Eames is going to be an annoyance. While Arthur is attempting to make notes in his copy of the score, Eames is constantly making himself visible out of the corner of his eye, slouching languidly in his chair and running a finger along the stubble on his jaw. Whenever their eyes catch -- accidentally -- Eames smiles like the Cheshire Cat.
‘So, how are you finding London, Arthur?’ he asks, halfway through Cobb’s script read-through. ‘Seen any of the sites yet?’
‘I went to the Thames yesterday.’
‘Oh?’ asks Eames, like it’s the most interesting thing he’s ever heard. ‘And what did you think of it?’
‘It was grey.’
‘You know, I’m a Londoner myself,’ says Eames, unperturbed. ‘I could show you around. I know all sorts of fascinating little nooks and crannies.’
‘I can find my own way around, thanks. Dom?’ Arthur glares at Cobb, trying to communicate his desire for Cobb to exercise some authority and get them back on track.
‘Yes?’ asks Dom, looking amused.
‘Can we get back to work?’
Mal smiles sweetly at Arthur over the top of her script. ‘A little friendly chat will not hurt, Arthur,' she says. 'Dom wants us to form a cohesive unit. Don’t you, Dom?’
‘Naturally,’ says Dom. ‘Although perhaps tourism can wait until later , OK? Arthur, I’ll discuss the second-act solo with you once you’ve run it through with Miles...’
* * *
Arthur attempts to make himself scarce directly after the meeting, but Eames catches up with him in the lobby. He claps Arthur on the shoulder.
‘Just wanted to ask before you scoot off: how’re you going to play Oberon?’
Eames had been irritating before, yes, but was he actually questioning Arthur's competence to adequately perform his role? ‘I am fully recovered,’ he grits out.
Eames looks taken aback, if anything. ‘What? No, I meant character-wise. Are you going to play him all old and classic-Shakespeare, or ethereal, or more of a warrior king or what?’
Arthur relaxes. ‘I don’t know yet. I generally work on the mechanics first, then the character comes in later.’
‘Ah well, I’m sure the dynamic will figure itself out,’ says Eames, unworried.
‘Just as long as the costume department doesn’t put me in antlers,’ says Arthur drily.
This startles a laugh out of Eames, all white teeth and twinkling eyes. ‘Well, I’ll probably be landed with a green loincloth,’ he says. ‘I shouldn’t worry.’
It’s a fresh adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, bastardised in the sense that it entirely ignores the human plotline and focuses on Oberon, Titania and Puck. As Oberon, Arthur spends the first two days of rehearsal with Mal, going through their two main pas de deux with Dom while Eames works with the chorus of fairies and tree spirits. Splitting up the famous partnership -- Arthur still isn’t sure if this is a good idea or not -- Eames and Mal are never alone together onstage except for the scene in which he doses her with the potion to make her fall in love with Bottom. Arthur and Eames, on the other hand, are together several times, although only truly sharing the spotlight during the penultimate scene directly before the reunion between Oberon and Titania. Their rehearsals together begin tomorrow, at which point Mal will be practising with her chorus of fairies and ladies-in-waiting, a situation not far detached from her real life, Arthur suspects.
Dancing with Mal is... freeing. Their first-act pas de deux is an argument, Titania battling her husband to keep their adopted changeling child. Mal throws herself into it, and Arthur feels himself growing bigger, more powerful as he throws himself straight back. It's difficult, far harder work than he remembers, although that's probably his brain deluding itself into forgetting what pain feels like. He's been itching to get back into the saddle for what seems like years, so even the burning in his lungs and Dom's continuous stream of criticism are almost welcoming to him at this point.
He’s always felt most comfortable expressing himself through the strict rules of ballet, and he’s glad as hell that Dom’s gone with the classical route with this one rather than trying to sneak come contemporary dance in there as well.
During their breaks, Mal sucks on roll-up cigarettes and drinks black coffee out of paper cups. She is playfully aloof towards the adoring masses of students gathered in the balcony corridors, allowing Arthur to beat a retreat. Arthur thinks she and Dom must keep all their creative arguments private, because when they’re rehearsing together Mal offers no suggestions and Dom barely criticises her except in correction.
It’s easy to ignore the students; he and Mal are both used to working in front of an audience, and Mal's fans are far preferable to the hordes of medical professionals who have been staring at Arthur's body for the last six months.
At the end of the second day of rehearsals, Eames comes to watch. Arthur doesn’t know why, but he feels a prickling on the back of his neck and looks up to see him sitting among the five or six students and passers-by upstairs, looking perfectly comfortable sipping from a cup of something hot and wearing a pair of ugly old maroon sweatpants over his leotard.
Arthur falters a little on his entrechat and Dom stops the music, calling out, ‘Again, from allegretto!’
Mal glides over to Arthur, fixing the pins in her hair. ‘Look who’s watching,’ she says in his ear, playful and low-voiced. ‘You’d be lying if you say you don’t want to impress him.’
Arthur doesn’t want to impress him. But he wants Eames to know he’s good. But he doesn’t want to be performing for Eames. But... oh, fuck.
When Dom restarts the music, Arthur grabs the feeling of irritation boiling in his chest and tries to pull it out through his feet and fingertips, letting Titania dart towards him before flinging her back again.
Three seconds is his window for setting down any emotion he wants to put into a piece. After that most of his brain shuts down, operating on a purely physical level as he tries to concentrate on every muscle in his body at once. Pain vanishes, breathing becomes a mechanical force to be churned out at the correct times, Dom and his critical inspection become nothing more than an inconsequential blur in the corner of his eye.
By sheer luck, Arthur’s hands place themselves perfectly along Mal’s ribcage when it comes to their final embrace, and they manage the lift correctly for the first time, Mal soaring over him for a long stretched-out moment. Arthur’s arms and abdominals are aching by the end of it, but he can’t help grinning at her as they drop their mask-like stage-faces and allow themselves to pant like dogs.
‘You keep drifting to stage right,’ says Dom, but he doesn’t sound displeased. Arthur gulps down some water and towels off his face and neck.
‘Arthur is far better than you,’ says Mal cheerfully as Eames lets himself into the studio, uninvited. ‘Your feet are like a duck’s. Arthur has the feet of an angel.’
Eames looks at Arthur, eyebrow cocked. Arthur refuses to be embarrassed. ‘I do have the feet of an angel, it’s true,’ he agrees, deadpan.
‘I’ve been abandoned,’ says Eames mournfully. ‘Spurned. Thrown over. Although quite frankly, who can blame you, Mal?’ He turns his gaze back to Arthur, smirk dancing across his lips. ‘Who knew you could manage such... vehemence? At this rate Titania and Oberon will be tearing one another’s hair out in clumps by opening night.’
‘I told you he’d surprise you,’ says Mal, untying her practise shoes.
‘Oh, I never had any doubt about that, cheri,’ says Eames, and Arthur isn’t entirely certain which one of them he’s talking to. ‘I look forward to tomorrow.’
* * *
Arthur’s not too proud to go in early on the day of his first rehearsal with Eames. He’s not sure if he’s glad or disappointed that they’re not working together with the chorus for another week. Would the corps be a safety net, or would they just be an audience for Eames to play to? Eames seems like the type to find public pranks hilarious. Needless to say, Arthur is not one of those people.
On the subway to work he feels like warmed-up death. Barely a week back in the job and he’s already getting far too familiar with the two Ps: painkillers and protein shakes. He hangs his suit in his locker and combs his hair back savagely, wriggling into his practise leotard with goosepimpling skin from the early wakeup time and pulling a sweater on over the top. Eames, goddammit, is already in the studio in his horrible sweatpants, sitting cross-legged on the floor and flicking through this morning's Metro.
‘You’re looking sprightly,’ he says when Arthur comes in, and points at a paper cup sitting neatly in the exact centre of the studio. Gingerly, Arthur picks it up from the insulating stack of napkins on which it stands. ‘It’s not spiked,’ says Eames, and Arthur takes a defiant sip. Tea. The English kind, sweet. ‘What, no "thank you"? Manners, Arthur.’
‘Thank you for the tea,’ says Arthur solemnly, and Eames snaps his paper closed, looking perfectly overjoyed with Arthur’s reply as he gets up to do stretches at the barre.
* * *
Everyone has seen Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. It’s the popular culture ballet experience of their generation. Either that or they take their kids to the Nutcracker at Christmas. Good reviews and shock factor: a perfect combination for good publicity. To tell the truth, Arthur hadn’t expected to be as struck by it as he was when he got round to seeing it for the first time. It had been... cinematic. The dancer playing the Prince had been very well-cast, but that Swan had catapulted Eames right to the top of the list of dancers Arthur wanted to work with one day. Arthur had long-since disposed of the list, and he wasn't prone to being star-struck (thank god) but still, it rankled that Eames wasn't the vision of perfection Arthur had hoped him to be.
The second night Arthur had gone to Swan Lake he’d done nothing but watch Eames’ face whenever he was onstage. At the time he’d been awed by Eames’ control, the way he managed to put so much expression into the character and still maintain the strength of his performance throughout. It had been the first time in a long time that Arthur had been able to watch a a dancer's performance uncritically and just appreciate it for what it was. Now he suspects that there’s no sense of separation about it: Eames inhabits his roles rather than handling characterisation and choreography as two distinct tasks. Arthur doesn’t force his own roles, but he has to develop them over time, like chipping away at a block of marble to expose the statue inside. Arthur is never truly happy with any of his performances until three or four days before closing night, by which time his entire body is a quivering mass of muscle aches and internal bruising and he can barely appreciate it.
He’s never been so determined to out-dance someone in his entire career.
* * *
After the last few days of Eames’ sly comments and purposefully irritating habits like straightening Arthur’s ties and opening doors for him, Arthur is half expecting some kind of crude advance once they’re alone in rehearsal together. After all, yesterday morning Eames had bumped into him in the lobby and had slipped a candybar into Arthur’s back pocket. What did that even mean?
There's a distinct possibility that he's been waiting Eames to properly step out of line and give Arthur a valid reason to take him down using one of the judo throws he learnt during his year in Berlin, living with a martial arts instructor.
But the moment Cobb directs them to places, Eames is utterly professional. When Eames lays hands on him, Arthur feels a twist of hot irritation in his gut and twitches a little out of place, but Eames is as unmoved as any one of Arthur’s previous partners and doesn’t so much as blink at Dom’s continuous instructions to stop and repeat. He makes suggestions. He helpfully hands Arthur his water bottle when he looks thirsty. He contributes.
Arthur feels distinctly wrongfooted, but he adapts quickly. Confronted with Eames’ Puck, he makes every effort to be as authoritarian as possible during their not-quite-a-pas-de-deux duet. It’s more than a little satisfying every time Dom gets him to repeat the eight-bar segment when Oberon smacks Puck down into a sprawl on the floor.
He finds himself watching closely whenever Dom works with Eames one-on-one. The first thing Arthur picks up on during their first (botched) attempt at a full run-through of the scene is that Eames decides to do almost all his turns bent-leg. To Arthur’s classically-trained eye, it looks absolutely horrible. Could it just be laziness? But as soon as Arthur steps aside for Puck’s solo and gets a chance to watch what Eames is doing instead of concentrating on his own feet, he realises that the alteration is for effect. Eames-as-Puck seems to shrink and grow in size as he moves across the studio, now large and ungainly, now squat. Arthur can’t wait to see the finished product, although he is already certain that Eames is the type to keep changing his performance right up until the last moment. But that’s all right. Arthur can take anything he dishes out.
And Arthur’s feet are better than his.
There’s only one moment of uncertainty. During the penultimate sequence, Puck slides to his knees before Oberon to receive his rebuke. As Arthur stretches over to caress Puck’s head, Eames’ face turns up to look at him and there’s an unmistakable glitter of mockery in his eyes, making Arthur’s imperious pose slip, just a little. Eames or Puck? Arthur thinks wildly before Eames lowers his gaze once more and the moment is broken.
* * *
After fifteen years of leotards and dance jockstraps, of being pushed and pulled around by teachers and choreographers and directors and physiotherapists, Arthur is about as familiar with the workings of his own body as it’s possible to be, as well as with the bodies of his coworkers.
He’s always been vaguely confused by dancers who check each other out during rehearsal in anything other than a professional sense. It’s rehearsal. Your mind is meant to be on other things. He can understand why the audience might want to ogle them when they’re working up a sweat in tights and not much else (he’s not an idiot), but for a dancer these are work clothes. When he’s at the barre, he sees nothing sexy in the reflection of his slightly-too-skinny body repeatedly twisting itself into the unnatural shapes of classical ballet. When he’s at the barre with other people, all he can see is row upon row of mistakes.
But Eames is goddamn distracting. Arthur’s not delusional enough to deny that.
Arthur’s had no problem before now with working beside people he's attracted to. He’s dated a couple of dancers in the past, but on the occasions they were in class or rehearsal together a switch always seemed to flick at the back of Arthur’s mind, telling him that it was work time now. After that he always ended up looking at them with a critical eye rather than a lustful one, which tended to end awkwardly because, well, Arthur is a good dancer. He’s very good. It's almost inevitable that he’d be better than the people he was dating, and he’d end up feeling guilty for looking at them in the studio mirrors and thinking, “Holy shit, his turn-out’s awful,” or whatever. That sort of thing does tend to ruin the magic somewhat.
Eames does not fit this pattern. He’s making Arthur’s life hell, just a little. When they’re in rehearsal, Arthur can see the cracks and spaces between Eames and Puck, but only when Eames isn’t dancing. When he’s moving, he’s all Puck. Then he comes back to the ground, and he’s Eames again.
It’s the characterisation thing, the almost method-acting way of it, in fact, that throws Arthur at first. He finds himself watching the bunching muscles in Eames’ shoulders, the pauses during which he’s bent back, eyes closed, neck stretched out in a smooth curve. Arthur thinks during those few disjointed moments that possibly he’s attracted to Puck. That would almost be more acceptable than the idea that he’s fixating on one of his two primary partners of the season, the man he’s going to be working opposite right up until the end of the show’s run.
* * *
Eames may expend a considerable amount of effort on acting like a professional when they’re in the studio, but he more than makes up for it when they’re outside rehearsal.
He walks with Arthur to his locker, to cafes, to the tube station, spouting pointless facts about Greek sculpture and Cold War-era spies and his love of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and he won’t fucking leave Arthur alone. And, OK, Arthur never actually asks him to leave, but that’s only because whenever Eames properly starts to get on his nerves and Arthur is about to tell him to fuck off, Eames will do something disgustingly hot like lean around him so the stretch of his tattooed arm is an inch from Arthur’s face, or start talking about Rambert like he’s got a fucking degree in critical analysis.
It’s especially frustrating when Arthur’s spent the final five minutes of that day’s rehearsal time completely tuned out over the very appealing image of what Eames’ thighs would look like if they were working like that in an entirely different situation. This whole thing is already out of hand and he has no idea what to do about it apart from curse Eames for being the kind of self-important douchebag who thinks it’s totally hilarious to flirt with everyone for no good reason.
* * *
Arthur is perfectly comfortable eating lunch by himself, but all of Ariadne’s friends are running by the school’s schedule rather than coming out during rehearsal breaks, and somehow she and Arthur have gotten into a routine.
‘A guy broke his leg during class today!’ says Ariadne today instead of a greeting, her voice filled with the innocent, breathless horror of someone who has never had a serious injury themselves.
Arthur winces. ‘How bad?’
‘Don’t know yet. He landed wrong and... god, the sound was awful.’ She shudders.
‘If it’s a clean break he’ll be back, providing the muscle damage isn’t too bad,’ Arthur says, because it’s easier than dwelling on the idea of Ariadne’s nameless colleague having his career end at eighteen.
Ariadne leads the way to M&S for sandwiches and caffeine, Arthur keeping the conversation buoyed up by interjecting a few vague comments into her stream of semi-incomprehensible Royal Ballet gossip.
‘How’s rehearsal going?’ she asks, mouth full of cheese salad. ‘Ours are like, terrible right now. Every time everyone gets synced up, Miles changes the choreography. And my feet are dying.’ She doesn’t sound particularly unhappy about it.
He tries to think of a suitable description of how he feels about his own rehearsal time. ‘I guess you’ll see next week, when they put us all together,’ he says, neutral.
‘Oh, come on. What’s Mal like? Does she curse in French?’
Ariadne gives him a look.
Arthur shrugs. ‘What do you want me to say? She’s an excellent partner. She takes direction well. She and Dom aren’t exactly... torrid.’
‘How about Eames?’
He's infuriating. He's brilliant. He's got an ass like Arthur can't even describe, and Arthur has to work alongside it day after day and sometimes even touch it, and rehearsal is quickly becoming totally fucking torturous.
‘He’s good as well,’ Arthur allows.
‘Okay, now I know you’re not telling me something. “lovely” and “good” are not fitting descriptions of the two best ballet dancers in the country.’
‘What am I, chopped liver?’ asks Arthur, amused.
‘Oh gosh,’ says Ariadne. ‘Did I hurt your delicate self-esteem? Throw me a bone here, you’re my inside contact. I’m just a lowly chorus girl. What is it like working with Eames, really?’
Arthur is saved from answering that particular question by someone calling out to them across the street.
They both turn. ‘Speak of the devil,’ says Ariadne. It’s Eames, jogging towards them wearing a hideous Ed Hardy hoodie and the friendly, overenthusiastic expression of a labrador retriever.
‘Eames,’ says Arthur, without inflection.
‘All right?’ he says, and turns his grin on Ariadne. ‘And who are you, my little buttercup?’
And who talks like that? It’s horrifying. Being British is not an excuse.
‘Ariadne Bell,’ says Ariadne, unperturbed. ‘I’m one of Titania’s attendants.’
‘And never before have I seen anyone more suited to the role of elfin ladyship,’ says Eames. ‘They took one look at Arthur here, of course, and decided on the spot that he was made to be royalty.’
‘No cracks about me being the fairy king?’ inquires Arthur.
‘Far too easy, darling.’ He fingers Arthur’s lapel, running his hand quickly down Arthur’s chest to the top button but moving away before Arthur has a chance to object. ‘Have I mentioned yet how much I admire today’s suit?’
‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,’ says Arthur. ‘Perhaps you should try wearing a tie, one of these days.’
‘The question is, Arthur, do you dress up even more when you go out in the evenings? I merely ask because I’m curious as to what you’ll be wearing when you and Ariadne go out with me tonight.’
Ariadne laughs. ‘Smooth.’
‘I thought so,’ agrees Eames.
‘We have rehearsal tomorrow,’ says Arthur. Anyone who goes out late on a work night is an idiot, and Arthur can just imagine the kind of activities Eames will want to partake in. Bad dance music will almost certainly be involved. He’ll probably wear another one of his short-sleeved shirts, and they’ll be in some club where he'll have to lean in close and shout straight into Arthur's ear in order to be heard.
This is not a scenario Arthur is comfortable with.
‘It’s Saturday tomorrow, we won’t be needed till two. That’s plenty of time for a lie-in.'
'I live in Zone 3,' says Arthur, unmoved. 'It takes at least an hour for me to get home by night bus.'
'What on earth do you think we’re going to get up to?’ Eames asks innocently, and winks at Ariadne. ‘It’s just a drink, Arthur. Not Spearmint Rhino.’
‘No,’ says Arthur firmly.
* * *
Five hours later he’s propping himself up against the wall of a Soho nightclub, too drunk to quite recall how he’d lost his tie. Ariadne is nowhere to be seen.
* * *
Dancers are terrible dancers.
It’s a proven fact. There's something about ballet training that removes any traits that might be considered remotely attractive in an ordinary dance environment. This has led to countless embarrassing occasions when relatives have asked Arthur to dance with them at weddings and bar mitzvahs and he’s stepped on their toes or, on one memorable occasion, actually knocked two people to the ground. There’s a reason why there’s no such thing as the perfect ballet dancer: the human body just isn’t meant to bend that way.
So, Arthur is steering well clear of the dancefloor. He’d only come for one drink, and that was only because Ariadne seemed so excited about the prospect of going out with Eames and his friends rather than a bunch of kids who probably still need to use fake ID to get into bars. Eames had led them to Soho, to this club which seems to have no air conditioning and is underground, and where Arthur has somehow managed to lose his tie.
Arthur’s not entirely sure why he’s still here. Eames had shoved a pint of beer in his hand, breathed a horrifying maybe-sexual comment in his ear, then vanished to talk to some person he’d seen across the room. Eames knows a lot of people. He’s introduced Arthur to what seems like half of London at this point, although most of the time the music was too loud for Arthur to have a proper conversation with any of them. Mainly he’s just listened. He's good at that. One woman had told him all about her divorce plans, and he’d apparently been such a good listener that she’d bought him three different drinks. This is probably the reason why he's so comfortable leaning against this wall right now. Everything feels happily fuzzy, and whenever he looks over at the dancefloor he gets a perfect view of Eames' shoulders and trapezius muscles working pleasantly under his ugly artificial-fibre shirt as he waltzes some girl across the room.
The last time he saw Ariadne, she was with Mal, having a loud and enthusiastic conversation about -- possibly -- virginity. But Mal’s not with her now. She and Yusuf (and of course Eames is friends with Arthur’s physio. He’s friends with everyone) are currently attempting to swing-dance to the DJ’s bizarre mash-up of 1950s rockabilly, which is sort of mesmerising because Mal’s so incredibly, uncharacteristically ungainly.
Earlier on he’d seen Mal get the bartender’s attention by shouldering her leg over the bar. This kind of behaviour is why she and Eames make such a great partnership -- they are both hopeless attention whores.
And Eames can dance, even though by all the laws of God and man and classical ballet training, he should be flapping around like a wounded flamingo, just like Mal and the rest of them. It’s fucking ridiculous. Ridiculous and annoying, just like everything about Eames. His hips move like he's never even heard of first position, his ugly shirt is almost tolerable in the half-light of the club, and Arthur’s not even pretending not to watch him any more. Eames is laughing, arm around the shoulders of one of his stupid London hipster friends and Arthur is a bitter, bitter man. Bitter, and he’s lost his tie. It is definitely time to go home.
He makes his way over to Mal and Yusuf. ‘Have you seen Ariadne?’
Yusuf looks blank. ‘The American girl? Didn’t she go home?’
Mal is fanning herself with a cocktail menu, looking hopelessly stylish and languid now Yusuf has removed her from the dancefloor. ‘God, it’s hot in here,’ she says. ‘Ariadne went home, I think. Arthur, will you dance with me? Yusuf’s rejected me already.’
The room is swimming a little. Arthur is definitely too drunk to dance with Mal, who is currently wearing three-inch heels and would most likely impale him with one of them and render useless several months worth of intensive physiotherapy. ‘I should go home,’ he says, taking pains not to slur.
‘Arthur. That is very sad. But you should say goodbye first.' She cranes her neck to look over the crowd, and shouts out: 'EAMES!’
Across the dancefloor, Eames turns. He kisses the hand of the girl he’s dancing with, and passes her on to someone else before making his way over. ‘You rang?’ he says.
Mal hands him her drink and he takes a gulp, knocking it straight back like it's a shot. How the hell he can drink that quickly out of a martini glass, Arthur has no idea. Eames’ mouth is... it’s a pretty awesome mouth, is all.
‘Arthur is abandoning us,’ says Mal. ‘He wanted to say goodbye.’
Eames looks as comically appalled as a Warner Brothers cartoon that's just run over the edge of a cliff. ‘But Arthur! You’ve been ignoring me all night! You’re leaving already?’
‘I’ haven’t been ignoring you,’ says Arthur, with absolute truthfulness.
Eames returns the empty glass to Mal, and turns to look at him properly. ‘Arthur! I can see your neck!’ he exclaims, eyes wide.
For some reason, Mal seems to find this statement hilarious.
‘You see my neck every day of the week,’ says Arthur.
‘Yes, but only at work,’ says Eames. ‘That doesn't count. Usually you’re all buttoned up under those suits of yours. Whatever happened to your tie?’
‘Someone... took it?’ he hazards. ‘Probably Ariadne. She thought I looked hot.’
Eames leers. ‘And she couldn’t be more correct.’
‘Really? That’s what you come up with?’ In the whole goddamn bar full of people, many of whom Eames has already danced with or touched or whatever, why the hell does he have to come over here and make half-hearted innuendos at Arthur? Especially when Eames’ hair is just starting to stick up at the roots with sweat, the way it does at the end of a strenuous session in the studio.
‘Your technique is definitely off,’ Yusuf agrees.
‘Eames has technique?’ asks Mal, then starts laughing again.
‘Et tu, Mallorie? Arthur, you can’t leave me here alone when even my closest friends are turning on me like this.’
‘Actually,’ says Arthur. ‘I think you’ll find I can.’
Eames gazes at him, soulful and wide-eyed and pained. ‘But Arthur. You haven’t even danced with me yet.’
‘Wasn't this entire exercise an attempt to get me to take the night off and forget about work? I already spent six hours dancing with you today.’ He’s got the muscle aches and sexual frustration to prove it.
‘If this feels like work,’ Eames promises, holding out his hand. ‘Then I am definitely doing something wrong.’
* * *
Usually Arthur’s spine will ache and ache if he’s made to stand still for any significant length of time, but Eames’ hands on the small of his back are bleeding warmth through Arthur’s waistcoat, soothing.
The two of them are more or less of a height -- Arthur's posture is better, and he’s maybe an inch taller -- but Eames has the far larger build, his shoulders crowding into Arthur's personal space, boxing him in. It's... not terrible. Arthur had put up token protestations when Eames had first dragged him away from Mal and Yusuf, but mostly he just wants an excuse to get his hands on Eames without it being work, without the off-putting eyes of Cobb judging him (and probably understanding precisely what's going on). Here, he has the double excuse of hard liquor and poor lighting. He has no idea what Eames is getting out of this deal, because there a hell of a lot of other people in this club who'd be more willing dance properly or, oh, sleep with him, but Arthur's not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
In fact, he’s having to distract himself (and Eames, if he gets any closer) from his hard-on by making conversation as they move together amongst the crush of bodies.
‘Is it necessary for your hands to be under my jacket?’ he asks, not exactly complaining. Most of his objections to Eames have disappeared into the hot, sweaty air between them, several martinis swirling dizzily around Arthur’s insides.
‘Oh, certainly,’ Eames replies. ‘This particular dance practically requires it.’ The idea that this “dance” has any sort of guidelines is laughable: Eames is just swaying around and making a few surprisingly polite attempts at groping him. It’s very senior prom. Which isn’t to say Arthur isn’t enjoying the hell out of it, not that Eames will ever know. He's fairly sure he's managing to keep a straight face, anyway.
‘I thought it’d be something like that,’ says Arthur. ‘I hope you realise that I’m an even worse dancer than Mal. You’re going to regret this when I break one of your toes.’
‘Arthur, I highly doubt I could ever regret this,’ says Eames, and it occurs to Arthur that yes, he’s managed to get himself into precisely the situation he’d been trying to avoid: ie, one that will allow Eames to be even more smug than usual. Probably he should leave before one of them does something unprofessional.
'We're barely even dancing, anyway,' says Arthur.
'I think this has its merits,' says Eames, and winks. 'If you want to change the tempo, feel free.'
‘I can’t exactly do a fouette here,’ says Arthur, trying to think of anything remotely impressive he could do on the dancefloor without accidentally braining someone. He gets a mental image of himself and Eames attempting to do their main duet right here in the club wearing normal shoes, and has to stop himself from laughing out loud like a crazy person. ‘My pants are far too tight for that.’
‘Are they really?’ Eames drawls, and the music shifts from the bemusing Marilyn Monroe remixes to something with a heavy beat to match the weight of the warm, humid air. Some people from the booths around the DJ box catcall at everyone on the dancefloor.
‘Hell, no,’ says Arthur, pulling back and nearly tripping over his own feet till Eames grabs hold of his arm to steady him. ‘I am not dancing to stripper music.’
Eames’ hand slides along his arm to settle into its original place at the small of Arthur’s back, reeling him in again. ‘Goodness, your internal filter really does vanish once you’ve had a drink, doesn’t it, sweetheart?’
‘Sweetheart?’ says Arthur in disbelief, his voice drowned out by the music that’s now throbbing up through his feet and into his chest from the loudspeaker beside them. He leans in closer so Eames can hear him. ‘The pet names barely even make the list of things about you that annoy me, but I draw the line at sweetheart.’
The low lights are just about enough to illuminate the filthy look in Eames’ eye. ‘You have a list?’
Oh, hell. Arthur closes his mouth and deliberately steps on Eames’ foot.
Eames winces. ‘Careful! That’s my livelihood you’re trampling on.’
He’d made sure not to step too hard. Really, he’s kind of astonished he’s not trod on Eames by accident yet, but then the two of them aren’t moving a hell of a lot. Which is probably for the best, because Arthur’s sense of balance is totally screwed. He’s finding it hard enough to focus on Eames’ face. ‘Oh, fuck off.’
Eames grins, sly. ‘Say fuck again,’ he says, voice low enough that Arthur almost doesn’t catch it, almost a growl.
Around them are so many strangers, groups and pairs of kids in their twenties, kitted out in glitter and whatever passes for evening-wear in Soho, doing their best to move in some way that goes with the stupid bass-tone stripper music. By comparison, he and Eames are practically PG-rated.
‘Fuck,’ say Arthur clearly, because Eames asked. It's an easy word to say even when your tongue is tripping over itself with liquor. A fun word. ‘How’s that?’
‘Oh, excellent,’ says Eames, close enough now that their legs are brushing together as they move. ‘But perhaps a smidgen less harsh this time?’
‘Fuck you,’ says Arthur softly into Eames’ ear, Eames’ stubble scraping along his jaw as he does so. Something of what he’s thinking must show itself in his voice, because Eames shudders, a full-body shudder that ends with his fingers tightening in the back of Arthur’s waistcoat, a momentary pause where they fall out of step with the simple beat of the music.
They fall back into step almost instantly. Arthur may find Eames a pain in the ass half the time, but when dancing together they’ve never had any problem getting their bodies to move in sync.
Arthur closes his eyes until all he can pay attention to is the drag of Eames’ lips along his jaw. He insinuates his leg between Eames’ thighs, pushing back, and feels rather than hears the shudder of breath against his neck. Sweat pricks at his hands, his throat, the insides of his arms.
Eames keeps moving just a little -- involuntarily, Arthur thinks -- against him, and Arthur can’t help but imagine what it’d be like to have Eames ride him, just like this. He’s already far too familiar with the way Eames’ body moves, both from work and just from watching him, and it’s all too easy to picture. Eames would be able to hold himself over Arthur no problem at all, he’d be able to sink down slow...
He draws back to look at Eames’ face, and focuses on his dazed eyes, his red, wet lips.
‘Arthur,’ Eames says quietly, shifting forward to mutter it against Arthur’s skin, and that’s all Arthur needs to hear. He surges forward to bite at Eames’ full lower lip, to lick into his hot mouth, to taste him. It’s even better than he’d imagined.
So, Eames has this thing where he always seems very slightly out of control when he’s dancing. Like it comes easily, from inspiration or some bullshit like that, something that Arthur’s never quite managed to do himself. But Arthur knows that that kind of brilliance can’t stem from anything other than intense training, and he’s desperate to see Eames make a mistake, to see him falter even for just a moment. He wants to see Eames fall.
They’re tangled together now and Arthur’s lips are buzzing from liquor and friction, Eames’ pulse very slightly off-kilter from his own.
God, this is such a fucking terrible idea. After over a year with the company, Eames has probably slept with at least half the corps de ballet, and Arthur suspects some of them may even be watching right now. But it’s impossible to make himself care about shit like that when Eames’ body is this solid against his, when they are close enough that Arthur can feel the scrape of Eames’ fly through his trousers. They're close enough even that the buttons on Arthur's shirt are catching against Eames' as they brush together.
‘I had no idea you could be like this,’ breathes Eames, rubbing an incautious hand down Arthur’s spine and onto his ass. Arthur can’t help but arch forward, oversensitised and maybe a little desperate. He bites back a gasp, because fuck, he can't let himself go that far. ‘What’s that they say -- that it’s always the quiet ones?’
‘I’m not a quiet one,’ says Arthur defiantly, not really sure what he’s contradicting at this point.
‘Oh really?’ asks Eames, enthralled. ‘How loud are you, exactly? I bet you’re splendid at dirty talk. Did I mention that already, or was I just thinking it?’
Arthur starts to laugh, resting his head on Eames’ shoulder as his view of the dancefloor swims gently in front of him.
‘What’s so funny, darling?’ says Eames, and Arthur realises that yes, they’re still dancing -- although it’s hardly dancing as Arthur knows it -- and Arthur hadn't even noticed their feet moving.
‘Just thinking about how much I’m gonna regret this in the morning,’ says Arthur, because God, is he ever, and Eames pulls back sharply, leaving a sudden rush of cooling air between them.
‘Is that so?’
Arthur blinks at the sudden loss of contact.
So, it turns out that that wasn’t the smartest thing to say.
* * *
Arthur’s phone alarm goes off at 7.15am, unchanged from his weekday schedule. He rolls over in bed and immediately regrets it, stomach roiling. He goes to the bathroom and drinks five glasses of water, refusing to meet his own eyes in the mirror or even think right now, and goes straight back to bed until it’s really time to get up.
Saturday rehearsals are hell. By the time he’s forced himself to eat breakfast and brushed his teeth, he can remember everything from last night and is experiencing the full-body, full-brain version of a cringe. As gossip travels, chances are half the company will know by now that he'd spent last night rubbing himself up against Eames, and today is the day he dances with the full cast for the first time since rehearsals began. Fantastic.
Arthur doesn’t know which he’s looking forward to less: seeing the corps, or seeing Eames.
* * *
The events of last night, as far as Arthur recalls them, seem to have gone something like this:
1. Arthur had got inadvisedly wasted and allowed himself to cater to Eames’ whims.
2. Then he hadn’t even managed to get the full experience of screwing himself over via alcohol misuse, because he’d somehow managed to cockblock himself (he’s still not clear on how he’d managed that one), meaning that he hadn’t even got to fuck Eames. In the cold, harsh light of day, this seems like a distinctly raw deal. If he’s going to ruin his working relationship with one of his main partners, he might as well have done it properly.
Cobb is about fifty times stricter in full rehearsals than he is in private. On the bright side, Arthur has somehow managed to maintain his clear track record of never appearing in any humiliating gossip in the ballet community, which is quite an impressive feat considering last night. It appears that either he and Eames had been a lot less noticeable than he remembers, or else nobody had been watching apart from Mal and Yusuf.
Arthur sits in his hard-backed chair, hangover gently brewing in his temples despite the ibuprofen that he'd used to garnish his lunch, and tries to keep his eyes on the chorus as much as possible. Eames keeps looking at him over the three empty chairs between them but Arthur steadfastly ignores him, concentrating on memorising every one of Cobb and Miles’ new footwork alterations as the fairy chorus trip past them over and over again, stage-smiles turning gradually into fixed rictuses of pain.
The thing about working with two choreographers at once is that no matter how good they are and no matter how often they’ve worked together, their styles will never mesh together at first. Most of the problems are technical or aesthetic, issues with maintaining the correct balance of dancers onstage at any one time and so on. Arthur gets the full brunt of this when he and Eames perform their duet for the first time, the chorus fanning out behind them. Miles or Cobb stop them what seems like every ten seconds, and they don’t get to do a full run-through until right before break, by which point every one of Arthur’s core muscles is screaming in protest and all he wants to do is throw up and die, preferably taking Eames with him.
He can get himself into his performance headspace for the run-through, thankfully, but before that, what with all the stopping and starting, he can’t concentrate worth a damn. Eames’s body is never far away, and Arthur’s brain is continuously flashing back to having Eames pressed up against him in the club, all warm relaxed muscle and sharp, teasing teeth. At one point Cobb pauses the music at the moment when Oberon and Puck each break away from their partners from the corps and turn to confront one other. Arthur is faced with responding simultaneously to being yelled at by his director and experiencing an intense sense-memory of Eames tucking two of his fingers into Arthur’s belt-loop and murmuring unadulterated filth in his ear.
* * *
Because the universe hates Arthur, Eames is on top form and is dancing with as much ease as usual, while Arthur feels like he’s having to control each of his muscle groups separately to stop himself collapsing like a marionette with its strings cut. He doggedly notes down every one of Miles’ changes to their choreography and wills himself to obey it, trying to ignore every blatant example of Eames’ effortless artistry beside him. The corps are fucking up enough that Miles and Cobb probably aren’t noticing that Arthur’s dancing like someone’s holding him at gun-point, but after last night the worst thing he can imagine is this: failing to perform well in front of Eames.
The moment Miles calls for a break, Eames is out the door, barely stopping to grab his hoodie and water bottle on the way. Arthur briefly considers cowardice before chasing him down the hall.
Eames halts suddenly in the middle of the corridor, apparently unwilling to actually run away.
‘Yes?’ he says, and Arthur can’t tell what he’s thinking, not at all. The polluted red of London dusk is stealing in through the high windows, bringing out the copper tones in Eames’ hair, highlighting the blood that’s been brought to the surface of his cheeks and mouth in a rosy blush by the exercise of rehearsal.
‘I want,’ says Arthur, steeling himself. ‘To talk about last night.’
Eames pulls on the hoodie he's carrying, worn cuffs falling over his hands. ‘Doesn’t sound like you do, actually,’ he says, head on one side, considering.
‘Well then, maybe we can forego this discussion and cut to the chase,’ says Arthur, as briskly as he can. ‘Is this going to be awkward?’
‘Is what going to be awkward?’ says Eames. ‘Your unfortunate lack of appreciation for my excellent sartorial choices? The fact that Milla and Frank keep tripping over during the allegretto section like a couple of stunned water buffalo? Or are we talking about how you left me a bereft and broken man last night?’
‘A broken man?’ he repeats, disbelieving.
‘Dashing my hopes like that? Terribly cruel.’
Arthur grits his teeth. ‘Are you going to be an asshole about this, or are we going to deal with this like adults?’
‘What’s a little saliva between colleagues?’ asks Eames, sardonic.
The necessity of this conversation is doing nothing for the pounding headache developing behind Arthur’s eyes. ‘It shouldn’t have happened,' he says. 'Are you... are there going to be problems? I don’t want to fuck this job up,’ he adds, baring himself a little more than he'd intended. ‘In case you’ve forgotten, I’ve got a six-month contract here and physiotherapists breathing down my neck.’
Surprisingly, sincerity seems to do the trick. Eames says nothing for a moment. Then: ‘Is it going to happen again?’
Does he want Eames to become even more of a distraction than he is already? Does he want to turn into a bitter, jealous asshole the minute Eames sleeps with someone else, the way Arthur always does whenever he gets wrapped up in someone like this?
‘No,’ he says. ‘Definitely not.’
Eames’ mouth twists into a lopsided smile. ‘Then, no,’ he says. ‘I can’t imagine there will be any problems at all.’
* * *
Arthur kneads his calf muscle, wincing. It’s been a long three days since the ill-advised mishap with Eames, and now there’s the distinct possibility that he’s managed to re-fuck his ankle again by tripping on an escalator.
‘Stop that,’ says Yusuf, batting his hands away. ‘Extend.’
Arthur watches closely as the tendons in his leg bunch and stretch. It looks normal, at least.
‘No big jumps for a few days,’ says Yusuf. ‘Your ankle can’t take the shocks.’
‘You’re joking, right?’
Yusuf is unmoved. ‘No. I’ll talk to the directors for you, if you like. And no lifts either. I’ve already seen a few of your rehearsals, and a couple of days at half-speed won’t damage your performance. They can use a stand-in for your lifts with Mallorie if it’s going to mess with the overall choreography during rehearsals.’
Arthur tries to communicate the very obvious problem with this plan. ‘We open in eleven days.’
‘And when you do, would you prefer to be dancing normally, or in agonising pain?’ Yusuf enquires.
Arthur pulls on his socks, aware he’s being petulant. ‘Fine. Three days. But I’ll talk to Cobb.’
Yusuf shrugs. ‘Have it your way. Now, on a more personal note, have you decided to stop tantalising my friend Eames, or are you still crushing his manhood beneath your cruel heel?’
Arthur’s eyes narrow. ‘Were those his words?’ he asks, suspicious.
At lunchtime today he’d seen Eames with his arm stretched around the back of one of the chorus dancers’ chairs, laughing uproariously at something she’d just said. He hadn’t so much as glanced in Arthur’s direction.
‘He’s over it,’ says Arthur. He’s over it already, is what he really wants to say, but he knows how that would sound.
Yusuf, packing away the cooling pads, doesn’t look at him.
‘If you say so,’ he says.
* * *
The professional detachment that Eames had extended during rehearsal times has now spread to every moment they spend together. Arthur can’t help but wonder when the other shoe is going to drop. Eames is the same as ever with Mal, getting into play-fights and trying to mess up her hair, but with Arthur he is flawlessly and unflinchingly courteous, to the point that it’s almost mocking. True, he hasn’t known Eames for very long, but cold is not a word Arthur ever thought he’d be able to use when describing him.
Is it because Arthur had made it clear he didn't have a chance? If that's the case then it means that every word Eames had spoken to him before had been part of some kind of overcomplicated scheme to get Arthur to sleep with him, which is really pretty insulting. Unless Eames just isn't used to getting shot down. Not that Arthur had shot him down rather than just reinforce the professional boundaries that should have been there from the start. Fuck. Arthur, apparently reduced to the level of adolescent obsession, spends far too much time wondering feverishly if Eames had even thought about the two of them together once Arthur had told him it wasn't going to happen again. As for himself, Arthur has been forced to jerk off in the bathrooms after rehearsal in an attempt to get it out of his mind. On two separate occasions.
It hadn't worked.
The sudden absence of Eames’ warm chatter and over-the-top insincere come-ons leaves Arthur with empty moments in his day, making him realise just how few friends he’s made since moving to London. Dom and Mal he knew already, of course, but Ariadne still has classes several days a week and a whole crowd of friends that Arthur is unlikely to feel comfortable with. As for the rest of the company, there are only three other new members like Arthur, and they’ve all already been absorbed into the various cliques that already existed. Aside from making the basic point of memorising the names of all the other dancers, Arthur has barely interacted with them outside of the opera house rehearsal rooms.
When he tags along with Melissa and Frank, the flamboyantly camp dancer playing Bottom (to endless non-humorous humour, unfortunately), for dinner that evening, it’s awkward and dull and he regrets it almost immediately. They’re not bad people, but all they do is gossip about the company. There’s no other way to describe it: Eames had been entertaining him before, if nothing else. Last week Eames had managed to go from Russian Futurist Poetry to his burning desire to see Yo Gabba Gabba Live all in the space of one five-minute conversation. Melissa’s story about Edith Cho banging one of the receptionists at the Opera House just does not measure up.
* * *
‘The physio says I need to rest my ankle until Friday,’ he tells Dom the next morning, bracing himself for argument.
But Dom just nods. ‘Fine. It’s not you I’m worried about. Anouk’s got no stamina and Johann doesn’t even look like he’s trying once we get into the third act. What the hell happened to them all since last season?’
Dom is wild-eyed and unshaven. It’s rather cheering, in a schadenfreude kind of way.
‘I don’t know,’ says Arthur drily. ‘Perhaps the corps de ballet had a secret meeting and decided to band together and drive up your blood pressure out of sheer malice?’
There have been problems, sure, but nothing out of the ordinary for a production of this size. In the past Arthur has been involved in shows when the first principal was taken out by a latent eating disorder four days before dress rehearsal, shows when costumes ripped and peoples’ tits popped out during review night, shows when the French members of the corps organised a strike and halted the whole thing halfway through the performance schedule. And, of course, he’s had his own body fuck him over in front of two thousand audience members. The kind of things Dom is worrying about are child’s play by comparison.
‘It’s not just the corps,’ says Dom wretchedly. ‘Eames is getting out of hand.’
‘Was he ever in hand?’ asks Arthur, wondering what he’s talking about. Dom has worked with Eames for three consecutive productions; they should be used to each other by now.
‘He needs to stop making so many suggestions. It’s fine in the early stages but the choreography’s supposed to be solid by now! Ten days before opening night is not the time for artistic contribution.’
‘It’s not like he makes bad suggestions,’ says Arthur, surprised. He’s loathe to admit it, but every time Eames has pointed out a flaw or possible alteration to the choreography, it’s been right. Eames isn’t a born choreographer the way Dom is, but he has an excellent eye for when and where to tweak things to make the dancers move more fluidly, to give the piece emotion and depth rather than mere technical grace.
‘Yeah,’ says Dom. ‘But you think the sun shines out of Eames’ ass. Have some sympathy for me, OK?’
‘Dom, you’re the co-director of one of the premier ballet companies in the world and you have a beautiful French girlfriend. I’m currently sleeping on a mattress on my living-room floor because thanks to you, I’ve been too tired for the last three weeks to put my new bed together. I’ll have sympathy for you when you deserve it.’
‘Jesus fucking Christ, Arthur,’ says Dom, rubbing a hand over his stubbled chin. ‘I’d forgotten just how much of a bastard you are.’
‘Well,’ says Arthur. ‘I guess you can blame yourself for hiring me, can’t you?’
* * *
Standing on the sidelines has never suited Arthur. If he adheres to Yusuf’s new guidelines he can dance most of his first duet with Eames and the chorus of fairies, plus some of the pas de deux sequences with Mal, but most of the group scenes require him to do too many lifts and he’s forced to sit them out. Being reduced to the role of spectator is a gut-punch, a reminder of what might have happened if his surgery hadn’t gone well. What might still happen to him.
He can’t decide whether to be bitter or appreciative of Eames’ talent. No wonder Royal had overlooked the tattoos and signed him on for principal roles. Arthur had seen the first fledgling stages of Puck’s character in those early private rehearsals, but here with the fairy and wood-nymph coryphées around for Eames to play against, the transformation is almost complete. Mal is exquisite, delicate and practised from her neatly-spun finger turns to the toes of her pointe shoes, but Eames has character.
Arthur can't wait to be able to dance again just so he doesn’t have to keep looking at Eames.
* * *
No matter how well you know your performance space, you can never predict how the unfinished production is going to look when it’s up there on stage. Something is guaranteed to go catastrophically wrong at some point.
For this reason pre-dress rehearsal exists. Today the cast is scheduled try on their costumes costumes in the afternoon, then afterwards they do their first full onstage pre-dress runthrough, the full two hours without pause. That gives the costumiers the rest of the weekend to make any necessary alterations to the costumes before the real dress rehearsal with the orchestra on Monday night.
Arthur has always loved costume fittings. He enjoys clothes, and he never feels like he’s completely prepared for performance till he’s danced in his costume at least once. A lot of ballet dancers favour comfortable clothes in their day-to-day lives, hoodies and sweatpants and sneakers because they spend most of their lives cramming themselves into uncomfortable shoes or dance jockstraps, but Arthur tends to go in the opposite direction. If he’s going to be forced to wear tights every day of his working life, he may as well look good the rest of the time. As for ridiculous costumes (the worst one so far involved a powdered blue wig and a glue-on goatee that left a red patch of sore skin on his chin ever night), that’s just part of the job as well.
Costume fittings aren’t till three so Arthur schedules himself in for a massage beforehand. It's a bad idea to go without a massage for too long in case there's some kind of muscle problem hiding somewhere you can't spot it, and he's not had one since just after rehearsals began. His body is starting to complain.
The masseuse is a middle-aged woman named Sheila, who puts on BBC Radio 4 on the physio room radio so they can listen to English politicians bicker with one another while she pummels the crap out of him. Ballet masseuses don't bother with scented oils and whale-song CDs: they mean business.
At first it’s agony as she works all the knots out of his legs and arms, moving round along his shoulders. She doesn’t bother with all that, “My, how tense you are!” bullshit -- she works with dancers every day, and is presumably aware that they already know how stressed and fucked-up their bodies are. Arthur tries not to writhe around too much as she squeezes at what feels like bullets lodged under his shoulder blades, and eventually he stops bothering trying to stop himself from groaning out loud. She’s probably heard it all before, anyway.
By the time she’s done, Arthur feels like he’s regained the flexibility of an eleven-year-old.
‘All right, love,’ she says, patting him on the shoulder. ‘Anything else?’
‘Oh my god,’ he mumbles into the headrest. He feels like a cooked noodle. All he wants to do right now is find an enormous, fluffy white towel, swaddle himself in it like a baby, and go to sleep. Sometimes it’s very satisfying to be gay and therefore permitted by society to have these sorts of thoughts without dumbass worries about so-called masculine shame.
She laughs. ‘Yup, I get that a lot. Come on, up you get. Costume time, remember?’
Arthur rolls to his feet and somehow manages to pour himself into his pants and shirt, not bothering to do up all the buttons or put on his tie. He’s just going to be taking it all off again in a minute, anyway.
Mal and Eames are already in the dressing room when he arrives, spectating as Marianne the costumier barks orders at her harried assistants, who are rolling in racks of tutus and leotards.
As soon as she spots him, Mal bursts out laughing. ‘What happened to you?’ she asks.
Arthur flips a hand lethargically. He feels far too warm and at peace with the world to care about her teasing at the moment. ‘Massage,’ he says. ‘Poke me if I look like I’m going to fall asleep during the fitting, OK?’
She giggles. ‘Oh my goodness, you look like a sleepy little kitten. It’s so adorable.’
‘I’m pretty sure I should be offended by that,’ says Arthur, dumping his jacket on one of the dressing tables. ‘But right now I’m so loose you could probably bend me over and tie my legs behind my head like a pretzel, so I can’t really bring myself to care.’
Eames clears his throat, apparently willing to acknowledge Arthur's existence outside rehearsal for once. ‘Uh,’ he says in a strange tone. ‘We should... probably go get changed.’
Arthur shrugs. ‘Sure,’ he says, and blinks his eyes as they start to fall closed of their own volition. Even his hair feels relaxed -- he has to keep brushing it away from his eyes because it won't stay back. For this reason he always has to lacquer it to within an inch of its life for performances, like the girls do. ‘Hey, do you think the Oberon costumes include a crown? Will they mind that I’ve not got show-hair?’ He doesn’t know if he can deal with the arduous journey back to the locker room to retrieve his hair gel.
Mal covers her mouth with her hand. She’s still laughing at him.
* * *
Marianne is very hands-on. While the fairies and wood-nymphs are trying on their tights and tutus with polite help from the assistant costumiers, Marianne is poking and prodding at Arthur, Eames and Mal like she’s performing a medical examination. Arthur rather likes his costume, though. It looks a little like armour, made from overlapping slats of something that Marianne informs him is modeled to resemble tree bark, but is still perfectly flexible. He swivels around like an idiot, doing a few stretches and back-bends to make sure nothing tears or stretches weirdly, and Marianne makes a few notes before ordering him to take it off again.
Titania’s outfit involves about fifteen layers of fluttering skirts, and Mal curses her way in and out of all of them. She looks beautiful, of course.
‘Ah, nudity,’ says Eames cheerfully, inspecting himself in the dressing room mirrors. As Puck, all he has to wear are a pair of short, furred breaches that are intended to make him look faun-like and animalistic. Arthur doesn’t know about faun-like, but he does have to look down and concentrate very seriously on retying his shoes in order to avoid staring at the tempting trail of a hair running down between the ridges of Eames’ stomach.
‘Not so fast,’ says Marianne, who Arthur is beginning to suspect is mildly sadistic. ‘You might not have to be sewn into a shirt every night, but you’ll be in makeup for ninety minutes extra.’
She hands each of them some more character sketches, this time ones that include hair and makeup illustrations. Oberon’s isn’t too bad -- although apparently Arthur’s going to be given Spock eyebrows -- but while the actual fabric required for Puck’s costume is minimal, Eames is still going to be covered from head to toe. In body paint. Clearly the designers had decided to work with Eames’ tattoos rather than cover them up.
Arthur glances up over his sheaf of character sketches, trying to picture what Eames is going to look like with celtic knots and swirling abstract patterns painted over every inch of bare skin. Arthur’s mouth goes dry at the image.
‘I’m going to look like a Pict!’ says Eamed delightedly. ‘Wait, does this mean I have to shave my chest?’ He pulls a face.
Mal cackles at him.
‘No,’ says Marianne. ‘Not unless you piss me off.’
Eames' sleaziest smile emerges at once. ‘Marianne, you are a miracle worker. If only I could afford to have you dress me every day.’
‘If only,’ Arthur echoes under his breath, thinking of Eames’ penchant for mud-coloured relaxed-fit pants.
Eames levels a beady gaze on him. ‘Oh ho!’ he exclaims, like that’s a thing that normal people even say. ‘So you want me to dress like this more often?’ he asks, gesturing at his fur-covered crotch.
‘No,’ says Arthur, determined to keep his face expressionless. ‘I just want someone else to dress you more often.’
Mal nods. ‘It would save Arthur’s eyes, I think,’ she agrees. ‘He’s picky.’
‘As soon as Arthur volunteers for the job of being my personal dresser,’ says Eames, a little of the old flirtation momentarily back in his voice. ‘I’ll be happy to let him do whatever he wants.’ But as soon as it arrived, the teasing pout is gone and Eames looks away, helpfully paying attention to Marianne’s ministration at his hemlines instead.
* * *
Pre-dress rehearsal is also the first time they get to work alongside the orchestra. Everyone has to remain in their places in the wings for three and a half minutes while the orchestra pretend to seat themselves and tune up, during which time Arthur runs through all the many ways this could possibly go wrong. From here on in, everything is controlled by the conductor. If they slow the tempo during the third-act chorus scene where Arthur has to lift Marie Willis over his head, he is definitely going to lose momentum and drop her and kill them both in a highly undignified manner. To make matters worse, there are four cameramen stationed around the auditorium to film the rehearsal for a video trailer that's going to be put up on the Royal Ballet website. This means that any humiliation or injury Arthur achieves will be on archived youtube until the end of time.
‘Do those deep, calming breaths help at all?’ asks Eames with interest, leaning against a giant mushroom that’s waiting with them in the wings to be rolled out during the third act.
‘Not if there’s someone trying to distract me thirty seconds before we go onstage,’ he snaps.
‘Fair enough,’ says Eames lazily, looking across at him with that heavy-lidded gaze of his. Arthur is tense with stage fright, confined by the fact that there are five chorus members here with them in this section of the wings, listening in on whatever he chooses to say to Eames and vice versa. ‘So you get snippy before performances, I must make a note of that. Did the massage wear off so quickly? You looked so delightfully floppy and relaxed not ten minutes ago, it was wonderful.’
They’re interrupted -- as it were -- by the silence of the conductor lifting his baton, out of sight in the orchestra pit. There’s a moment of vacuum before the first dragging notes of the overture rush in to fill the hall, reaching out first to the empty seats in front of the stage before creeping into the wings and backstage where the dancers stand, poised and waiting. Sixteen bars and the corps de ballet flow onstage, single file and indivisibly identical from Arthur’s standpoint. Sixteen more bars and then Arthur’s entire body sinks into a trance and he’s on.
Sometime between repeating the movements that have been drilled into his body for the last month and a half, and going back offstage again, Arthur makes the incredibly obvious realisation that Oberon can do magic. It’s such a simple, stupid thing that he’s privately embarrassed at himself, but it’s the glue that finally holds together the many disparate pieces of Oberon’s character that he’s collected over the course of rehearsals.
When he goes back on, everything is perfect. The spotlights pinion him and he hits every spot without hesitation or thought. The only moment when his brain is even distracted enough to make a coherent thought is during the final scene after he and Titania have made amends. Oberon is greeting his subjects and his new adoptive son when Puck appears from behind the throne, falsely apologetic but still proud. Arthur spins round like he’s in Kill Bill, thinking I am your KING, you fucker, and at the closest point of the turn he can see the whites of Eames’ eyes.
Coming offstage, everyone collapses almost immediately, breath coming out in harsh gasps as they try to take the weight off their feet as soon as humanly possible. Most of them look like the only thing that’s keeping them from dying from heat exhaustion on the spot is the possibility that Cobb will call them back onstage for a mock curtain call. As for Arthur, he is like someone who’s been shot but doesn’t know it yet. Euphoria is still buzzing in his veins, filling every inch of his body with the delusion that he’s still got energy left over. On the floor beside him is Mal, cheeks flushed red, bright-eyed and and wearing the slack-jawed expression of someone who’s had to fake-smile for two hours with only a short break in the middle, all while standing on her toes and bending her hips in ways that nature never intended.
‘Well, that went better than I dared hope,’ says Eames.
Arthur grins so widely his face hurts. He usually makes the effort not to do that very often because his dimples make him look about twelve years old, but right now he can’t stop himself. ‘Fuck yeah,’ he says, and slumps back, legs still crossed so his spine stretches pleasantly, onto the floor so his head’s resting against Mal’s thigh. He can just about focus on Eames’ face above him, sweaty and dark-eyed.
‘Eloquently put,’ says Eames, but somehow it doesn’t sound like sarcasm. Arthur huffs out a laugh and closes his eyes.
'We were amazing and you know it,' he says, drunk with well-earned confidence.
'Yes,' says Eames softly. 'We were.'
* * *
Dress rehearsal, however, is an unmitigated disaster. When they come out for their curtain call afterwards, Dom looks like he might pass out. Arthur hopes that the audience of students, family members and backstage crew-members weren’t too horrified. He feels a little sick just thinking about it.
In the women’s dressing room, Mal is undoubtedly cursing a blue streak and throwing things at people. Arthur wishes he was there so that by comparison, he could look like the calm one. Unfortunately he’s stuck here with Eames, who seems utterly blase about the entire situation and keeps saying things like:
‘Don't worry, it’s terribly bad luck if Dress goes perfectly, anyway.’
‘There is no such thing,’ says Arthur tightly. ‘As luck.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ says Eames in a thoughtful tone that may well have been calculated with the express intention of annoying the shit out of Arthur. ‘At the Royal Ballet School there’s a statue of Margot Fonteyn that we always used to touch before performances; rather totemic I suppose. I’ve always felt rather lucky, myself.’
Arthur turns to glare at him, and is met with the sight of Eames smearing E45 lotion all over his face and tearing off a piece of paper towel from the roll on his dressing-table.
‘What,’ says Arthur with dawning horror. ‘Are you doing?’
Eames blinks. ‘Well, I can’t really go on the tube in stage makeup, now, can I?’ Presumably he's going to shower off the body paint that's currently hiding (mostly) under his t-shirt and sweatpants.
‘You’ve been dancing, what, fifteen years and no one bothered to show you how to remove your makeup correctly?’
‘Darling, does it really matter that much?’ he says, and there’s a moment when he looks like he regrets letting the endearment slip out. But by then Arthur’s already grabbing the paper towel out of his hand and dropping it into the bin.
‘Turn around,’ he says
‘Bossy,’ Eames remarks, but complies.
Arthur takes all the stuff from his own dressing table and dumps it on Eames’. Cleanser, toner, scent-free moisturiser, cotton balls, water bottle.
‘Oh, are you going to do it for me?’ asks Eames delightedly. He hops up onto the counter so he’s just below Arthur’s eye level, and tilts back his head. Lotion and eyeliner are making his eyelashes stick together, and his mouth is thankfully closed, calmly-set but still pink and lush.
Arthur immediately curses himself for starting this without thinking it through beforehand. Eames is going to be looking at him the whole time while Arthur stands less than a foot away from his face. But there's a solution to that one.
‘Close your eyes,’ he orders, spraying some cleanser into his palm and beginning to spread it over Eames’ face. He’s clean-shaven -- he will be for the whole season, Arthur supposes -- and his skin feels deliciously smooth beneath Arthur’s fingertips. He takes a little longer than is strictly necessary to take the cleanser off, dabbing away with the cotton balls until all they all come away clean and he’s left smoothing moisturiser around the corners of Eames’ eyes. His feelings toward Eames have never been what you'd call tender -- mostly they fall under the heading of "frustrated", sexually or otherwise -- but with the vulnerable edge of Eames' jaw cradled in his palm, Arthur feels unaccountably gentle.
‘Done,’ he says at last, and Eames’ eyes flicker open. Arthur is suddenly very aware of the fact that in their current position, he’s standing directly between Eames’ open legs. Over Eames’ shoulder Arthur can see his own reflection in the dressing-table mirror, a hint of a blush rising in his cheeks.
‘Are you going to do this for me every night?’ enquires Eames, lips curling up into a smile as he slides off the counter, forcing Arthur to take a swift step back.
‘No,’ says Arthur as decisively as he can, thinking of the moment when he’d accidentally allowed himself to swipe a thumb across Eames’ lips, tracing a stray bead of lotion. ‘You can do it yourself from now on.’
‘Oh, Arthur,’ he hums, pulling on his jacket. ‘But you do it so well.’
* * *
It’s raining and the tourist crowds are even more obnoxious than usual, perfectly mirroring Arthur’s mood. He’s fighting his way towards the ticket barrier at Covent Garden when Mal and Eames catch up with him. Mal has a newspaper held over her head in lieu of an umbrella, and somehow manages to make this look elegant.
‘Arthur! Do you have any plans for tonight? You should come with us!’
He tries to think of a polite way to turn her down. ‘I don’t usually go out the night before a performance,’ he says, because it's the truth. He'd far rather nurse his stress in solitude than go on another of Eames' ill-conceived nights out.
‘We’re only going to my apartment,’ says Mal. ‘We have a little pre-show ritual we like to do before First Nights.'
'Ritual?' says Arthur doubtfully.
'Of course! Don’t you have something you do before your performances, for luck?’
‘Arthur doesn’t believe in luck,’ says Eames.
Mal rounds on him. ‘Arthur! No! Anyway, you are part of our partnership now. You have to come.’
‘You’re the third wheel of our tricycle,’ says Eames with over-the-top sincerity. 'However will we do without you?'
‘Bicycles stand up on two wheels just fine,’ says Arthur, but is defeated by Mal’s pouting. ‘OK, fine. What’s this... ritual?’ he asks, wary. People can get a little crazy when it comes to opening night.
‘Well, first I must get my bikini area waxed,’ says Mal. ‘And then, we watch Die Hard!’
Arthur is still stuck on that first part. ‘I’m... sorry?’
‘It's a necessary part of preparing for the show,’ explains Mal, as if it’s perfectly obvious.
‘And... Eames joins in?’
Eames grins. ‘I pour her wine. To dull the pain.’
There are so many disturbing elements to this idea that Arthur doesn't know where to begin. ‘Has anyone ever told you two that your partnership is weirdly close?’ he wonders. ‘Doesn’t Dom mind?’
‘Dom is like an insane person before opening night,’ says Mal. ‘And besides, I suspect he thinks women are naturally smooth and hairless like beautiful, polished jewels. It’s charming.’
Arthur doesn’t think that sounds very charming, actually. Is he being punk’d right now? Is this conversation actually happening?
‘Don’t look so horrified,’ says Mal, patting him on the arm like he’s a small child that’s just said something unbearably sweet yet idiotic. ‘Nobody’s going to force you to look at a vagina, don’t worry. And even if they were, you’ve had my crotch shoved in your face almost every day for the past month. You should be acclimatised to it by now.’
Someone in the crowd beside them snorts out and involuntary giggle. This is when Arthur is horribly, horribly reminded of the fact that they’re having this conversation outside one of the busiest tube stations in London. ‘Yes, but that was for work,’ he says hastily, then realises how that must sound.
Eames laughs so hard at that, he has to lean against Mal a little. 'You make it sound so sordid,' he chuckles.
Somehow, Arthur ends up getting the tube with them back to Mal’s apartment.
* * *
Two hours later, Arthur is still unsure as to whether he’s being punk’d or not. For dinner Eames cooked them something as closely resembling a meal as possible from the scant food available in Mal’s kitchen, and now he’s heating up a container of wax in the microwave. They’ve laid out a towel on Mal's bed: it’s like something from a historical movie about wartime hospitals. Arthur is stationed outside the bedroom door, clutching a glass of wine and wondering how the hell he got himself into this.
‘Don’t worry, darling,’ Eames calls out from inside. ‘It’ll all be over soon.’
‘Shouldn’t you be saying that to me?’ asks Mal.
‘I’m being gentle with him, it’s his first time,' says Eames, and Mal laughs.
‘Why don’t you just get this done by a professional?’ asks Arthur despairingly.
‘Because it’s our ritual, Arthur,’ says Eames.
‘Because a professional wouldn’t let me drink,’ says Mal.
‘Yes,’ says Mal, and then after a moment of silence, ‘Merde.’
Arthur, trying as hard as he can not to imagine the scene behind that door, takes a healthy swig from his wineglass. It’s almost empty already.
Women really do get the short end of the stick. All Arthur has to do is trim his leg-hair with a beard trimmer to make sure it doesn’t ruin the line of his tights.
‘Turn over, sweetheart,’ says Eames, voice muffled a little.
‘You’re a son of a whore, Eames,’ says Mal, and there’s more mysterious quiet for a while, just long enough to lull Arthur into a false sens of security before Mal lets out an ungodly shriek. Arthur rushes in.
‘Are you all right?’ he asks, the words dying on his lips as he takes in the scene. Mal is lying spread-eagle on the bed in her t-shirt and thong underwear, with Eames wiping excess wax over her crotch. She’s sweating and snarling and the whole thing is generally reminiscent of childbirth, except for the fact that there’s a bottle of wine tucked under Mal's arm.
‘Putain de merde,’ she spits.
‘Not for the faint of heart, eh?’ says Eames cheerfully, and tears off the last waxing strip sharply, making Mal grab at his shoulder and squeeze, claw-like. ‘There we go, all better,’ says Eames comfortingly, and bends down to kiss her leg. Arthur doesn’t know whether to be jealous or weirded-out or what.
Arthur knocks the last of his wine. ‘And you do this every time?’ he says faintly.
* * *
Mal begins to fall asleep halfway through Die Hard. She ends up with her head pillowed in Eames' lap, Eames playing with her hair absently. Arthur can feel his eyes closing as well, heavy with wine and the exhaustion of a day’s intensive rehearsal. There’s nothing he wants to do more than follow Mal's example and lean into the appealing warmth of Eames’ body, but every time he feels himself start to drift off he manages to get himself to lean in the direction of the sofa’s armrest instead.
By the time the credits roll, Arthur is barely paying attention any more. He’s lost in a sleepy haze, necktie discarded on the coffee table and legs drawn up onto the sofa beneath him as he rests his head on a stack of cushions. It’s the most relaxed he’s ever felt on the eve of an opening night. Ordinarily he’d be lying in his bed at this point, curling his toes and imagining the million and one things he wants to change about his performance by tomorrow. He supposes this is why Eames’ and Mal’s partnership is so strong... they know when to distract each other, when to support. It’d be nice to have something like that for himself one day, Arthur thinks, but realistically speaking it seems unlikely to ever happen. Partnerships like this are rare; a few of the more enthusiastic (and less well-informed) critics have already begun to compare Eames and Mal to Nureyev and Fonteyn.
Mal mumbles vague protests as Eames dislodges her, saying, ‘Up you get, time for bed,’ sounding fond.
‘Why make me stay up so late?’ she says plaintively, shaking her hair out of her eyes. ‘Arthur, do you want to stay here tonight?’
‘I should probably get home,’ says Arthur, suddenly feeling awkward.
‘Just stay,’ says Eames. ‘You’ll end up falling asleep on the tube and drooling in front of strangers. Mal’s got a guest room you can use.’
Arthur glances out the window to where rain is still falling from the now-dark sky. Putting on his thin autumn jacket and leaving Mal’s apartment does not seem like a very tempting prospect right now.
‘Where are you going to sleep?’ Arthur asks, and then is immediately embarrassed for asking.
‘With me,’ says Mal. ‘We’ve shared before.’
Of course they have.
* * *
Fifteen minutes before curtain, Cobb gathers them all backstage for a pep talk. Arthur detests pep talks at the best of times, but it’s even worse when it’s your friend who’s giving them. Miles, standing just behind Cobb and rolling his eyes occasionally in that “I’m old and English and don’t give a crap,” way of his makes it a little more bearable, however.
‘I know our final rehearsal didn’t go as smoothly as predicted,’ Cobb is saying. ‘But we can do this. You’re one of the best companies in the world. Maybe the best. And besides, everyone knows that it’s bad luck for Dress to go perfectly.’
* * *
‘Arthur? Are you OK?’
It’s Ariadne, looking like a white china doll with her hair pulled back and high, arched eyebrows drawn onto her forehead. He hadn’t even texted her to ask if she’d been picked to do opening night. Jesus.
‘Hey,’ he says, trying to sound like an experienced adult and not like he’s about to shit himself.
Another shadow falls over him and Arthur flicks his gaze up a second to confirm the fact that it’s Eames, who has been hovering around him all evening like a bodyguard, looming and uncharacteristically silent.
‘Our Arthur is an unexpected sufferer of stage fright, Ariadne,’ he says. ‘Best leave him alone so he doesn’t snap.’
‘I’m not going to snap,’ says Arthur, and Eames beams at him.
‘Of course you’re not, dear. Because I’m here to ward off the massing hordes so you can meditate in peace and give us the performance of your life. Right?’
Arthur doesn’t answer. Ariadne pats him gingerly on the shoulder and leaves. Eames continues to stand guard.
* * *
Two minutes till they’re on. As if from a great distance, Arthur hears the double wave of applause as the conductor and lead violinist walk to their places. The orchestra have warmed up and tuned already, and Arthur’s heart is beating far, far too fast.
The last time he’d performed in front of a paying audience, he’d screwed up a jump he’d done a thousand times before, skidded ten feet cross the stage, and almost ended his career there and then.
Around him, the corps are straightening up, preening, and putting their stage faces on. It’s time.
* * *
During the interval, Arthur tries to think as little as possible. He wills his mind to go blank, otherwise he’ll get too caught up on over-analysing the first half of the show rather than concentrating on what’s still to come. Most of the dancers, Eames included, chatter loudly as they gulp down water and glucose tablets and have their makeup touched up backstage. Mal and Arthur, however, both like to keep their head in the game. They change quickly into their costumes for the second half, then meet up outside the changing rooms to sit in silence, waiting to be called back. It’s stifling thanks to all the radiators that have been set up to prevent the dancers’ muscles from cooling down, but after a moment Mal shifts closer and they are holding hands.
Then the bell rings to bring the audience back to their seats, and Arthur forces himself back into character, standing tall and helping Mal to her feet as her many-layered skirts bunch and tangle underfoot.
They run onstage and straight into the next scene, smooth as ice, and Arthur’s last thought as he launches into his duet with Puck is that he might actually get through this OK.
* * *
As soon as the curtain sinks down and they are plunged into momentary darkness, one of the members of the corps laughs out loud with relief. It’s unprofessional and quickly stifled, but Arthur couldn’t agree more. He awakens, reality rushing back in a burst of harsh breathing, sweat, pain and hot bright stage lights suddenly dazzling them from above, stripping the scenery of its magical glow and showing them all their way to their places for curtain calls.
The roar of applause hits him for real when the curtain rises again and he sees the audience properly for the first time this evening. Mechanically he walks forward for the first set of group bows, mesmerised by the sea of upturned faces below, above and all around him. The various sections go up for their bows separately, then finally Eames, Mal and himself. Mal, of course, receives the longest cheer of all, a couple of wolf-whistles emanating from the balcony seats.
After months of rehab followed by a punishing rehearsal schedule. After Miles ripping into him for misremembering choreography, the latest in a long line of tutors, directors and colleagues to criticise his work. After a lifetime of six-day weeks and dietary restrictions and aches and pains, this is what makes it all worth it. Arthur knows that he’s done well and by the sound of it, so do the audience.
When Cobb and Miles come onstage to take their bows, they bring with them a bouquet of flowers for Mal. She accepts it graciously, sweeping into a low curtsy, and kisses them both on the cheek. Then she plucks out two roses, giving one to Eames and one to Arthur. Eames holds his out towards Arthur like a champagne glass, and they clink. Arthur’s finding it a strain to maintain his polite stage smile and not just break out in a crazy-looking grin and try to high-five everyone.
Finally the curtain goes down for the last time and there’s a palpable feeling of satisfied exhaustion in the air. The buzz of the audience is still audible as the dancers troop offstage, sweaty and shaking, most of the girls already loosening their costumes and shaking their limbs loose.
Following the corps into the wings, Arthur feels a hand on the small of his back.
‘So, my king,’ says Eames. ‘Was that to your satisfaction?’
‘Yes,’ says Arthur. He wants nothing more than to dance with Eames and Mal for the rest of his career. Intellectually, he knows that this is a passing feeling. He’ll be over it once the euphoria wears off and his higher thought processes return, but until then he’ll be left feeling hollowed out and filled up with the energy of performance, of working in perfect sync with Eames, who he’s still a little in awe of even though he knows him now. ‘Yes,’ he says again, because he can’t think of anything else to say that won’t leave him utterly exposed.
Eames has stopped him, the tide of corps dancers already past them and on the way to their dressing rooms, and they’re alone among the ropes and pulleys of the lighting rig just outside stage left. In that split second, he looks very serious and Arthur doesn’t want to move, Eames’ hand still a light, almost unnoticeable pressure on his back.
‘Then we’ve lived up to a high standard indeed,’ says Eames at last, and leans in to kiss him swiftly on the cheek, his lips coming back with a little of the glitter from Arthur’s face. ‘I’ll see you at the meet-and-greet,’ he says, and then is gone.
* * *
Opening Night parties are not Arthur’s favourite part of the job. A large proportion of the audience tonight will be donors to the Royal Ballet, reviewers, and various dignitaries. The corps aren’t obliged to attend the post-performance party, but seeing as Arthur’s one of the principals he is more or less contractually obliged to spend the evening making nice with rich strangers. Still, it’s not exactly torture to be told how talented and awesome he is all evening, which is hopefully what will be happening.
He removes his makeup and showers as quickly as possible, changing into his tux. He leaves his hair as is; the Oberon hair isn’t too horrifying, and deconstructing it properly would take long enough to make him late for the party. There’s still far more glitter remaining on various parts of his body than he’s entirely comfortable with, but he has a suspicion that he’s going to be sparkly until the end of Dream’s run. Glitter is fucking impossible to get rid of.
The reception is held in the Crush Room, which is living up to its name with with what seems like hundreds of people in evening-wear laughing and talking and knocking back champagne. Dom quickly spots him and begins directing him around a circuit of donors and friends of the Opera House.
Luckily, Mal takes pity on him. Arthur’s being grilled about Miles’ direction by a man who looks at least ninety years old when Mal swoops up to them and wraps a hand around Arthur’s elbow.
‘My goodness, I am so sorry,’ she says, her accent far more pronounced than usual. ‘But I have to borrow my Oberon for a moment. There’s someone he must meet.’
‘Who do I have to meet?’ asks Arthur, once she’s swept him across the room. He’s holding both their champagne glasses while she fixes her hair.
‘Oh, everyone,’ she says, and from that point on Arthur is relegated to the role of arm-candy as she works her way through the crowd, dispensing air-kisses and accepting compliments. Arthur feels like a bit player in a 1950s Hollywood movie.
They are talking to Beatrice Wilcox, a little old lady in a seriously pimped-out tiara, when Eames appears at her elbow. ‘Beatrice!’ he exclaims with what sounds like perfectly genuine enthusiasm. ‘I’ve been dying to see you all night!’
Arthur can’t tell if he’s for real or if he’s just that good an actor. With Eames, it could be either.
‘I see someone’s managed to steal Mallorie away from you at last,’ says Beatrice, teasing, as Eames kisses her on the cheek.
‘Yes, I far prefer this new model,’ says Mal, patting Arthur’s arm. ‘All that time I was partnering with Eames, I was just waiting for something better to come along.’
Arthur thinks back to last night, and Eames kissing the top of Mal’s thigh, somehow managing to make the intimate seem innocent. He doesn’t believe her for a second. Eames and Mal will be dancing together till they die. They didn’t so much as touch one another in the entirety of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and yet they are still irresistible together.
‘What did you think of their final duet?’ asks Eames, egging Beatrice on.
‘The one with the blue lighting, when Titania accepts Oberon’s hand again? Divine.’
Eames looks absurdly proud of them. ‘Oberon and Titania,’ he says. ‘What a romance. As soon as I saw Arthur’s Onegin I knew he’d be the man for Mal.’
Mal laughs. ‘Nonsense,’ she says. ‘That was last year. You didn’t even know what we’d be doing this season.’
‘Maybe, but he was exquisite nonetheless.’ He says it lightly, not looking at Arthur at all, like he’s just dispensing another gossipy fact to Beatrice. But the word exquisite, it thrills through Arthur and he can’t help but let himself believe that Eames means it, he means every syllable.
Eames is saying something about Arthur’s precision and his rapport with Mal, expansive and flattering enough to make Beatrice roll her eyes, but Arthur is frozen. He’d had no idea Eames had seen his Onegin. Not once had he mentioned it throughout their entire run of rehearsals. That has to mean something.
But Eames is leading Beatrice away, still chatting as they join another group of champagne-swilling donors and retired Royal dancers.
‘He saw my Onegin?’ he says out loud.
‘Of course,’ says Mal, puzzled. ‘You know Dom and I went to see you when you were in town. We brought Eames along.’
‘He never said anything.’ All Arthur ever expects people to say to him about Onegin are commiserations. His first major role and he’d almost ended his career with it, not even able to finish the full tour. He assumes that everybody at Royal must have seen the youtube footage of him ruining his ankle, Eames included. If it had been someone else, Arthur probably would have watched as well. Schadenfreude and career speculation all in one thirty-second clip of Arthur falling on his ass: it was irresistible viewing.
But Eames had seen the entire performance.
‘He said you were a first-rate soloist in a second-rate company,’ says Mal. ‘What, did you think he thought you were a bad dancer?’ she adds, exasperated. She squeezes his arm as Miles leads another journalist towards them. ‘Come on, Arthur. Only a few more of these and then we can get out of here.’
Arthur nods and pulls himself together, but for the rest of the evening his gaze is searching out Eames across the room as Eames schmoozes his way through god only knows how many people. Eames is a social anima; every time Arthur spots him Eames looks like he’s talking to his oldest friend. Arthur has no doubt that he’ll have charmed a few four star reviews up to five stars by the end of tonight.
All of a sudden he realises that after tonight everything is going to be different. They’re not going to be in rehearsal every day, he’s not going to have Eames following him to lunch trying to lend him books, or making snide comments about footwork. During performance season there will be at least two warm-up classes every day, and there is no guarantee he and Eames will be at the same ones. And Arthur sure as hell isn’t fit for any kind of social interaction on performance nights. He has a sudden vision of himself moving away from London a few months from now, seeking out another contract, never having found out what the hell Eames is thinking.
* * *
The crowd is finally beginning to thin when Cobb gives them the OK to leave.
‘Have you seen Eames?’ Arthur asks, finishing his drink, aware that he really has no idea what he wants to say to Eames when he finds him but still knowing that it’s urgently important to do so.
‘He left, I think,’ he says. ‘You could try the stage door.’
Arthur glances between them and decides Cobb and Mal probably have better things to do tonight than wonder what Arthur’s doing. ‘Excuse me,’ he says, and gets out of the room as fast as possible, sense of direction turned around by the sparkling light fixtures and gilt, mirror-covered walls.
He runs down the stairs, the hard heels of his dress shoes catching in the plush Opera House carpet. The back road behind the Opera House is bright and filled with members of the corps, many still in costume, talking loudly with friends and well-wishers. A couple of people have brought boxed wine and are filling up plastic cups to hand around.
Looking frantically through the crowd, Arthur finally spots him talking to a gaggle of teenage girls. One of them is taller than Eames by a good three inches, even in flat shoes. Eames always seems so exciting, so expansive that Arthur tends to forget that he’s actually a little shorter than Arthur right up until they are standing next to each other.
‘Ah, and here’s my king,’ says Eames, spotting him as he comes closer. Arthur wonders if this “king” thing is going to become a regular nickname. He’s not sure if he likes it. Whenever Eames says it, he sounds oddly... sincere, and it makes Arthur uncomfortable in some indefinable way. ‘Arthur, these ladies are Frank Wilson’s sisters. Apparently he’s going to be hosting an afterparty later. Will you be attending?’
‘Possibly,’ says Arthur. The girls don’t look like they care either way as long as Eames goes.
Eames looks at him, head cocked. ‘Excuse us a minute,’ he says, and he and Arthur go back towards the stage entrance and the warmth of the staircase lobby.
‘I saw your Swan,’ Arthur blurts out.
‘You --?’ says Eames, momentarily puzzled. ‘Matthew Bourne. I would’ve thought he was a little contemporary for your tastes.’
‘It was when you were in Boston. The company was there for four days.’
‘Very possibly,’ Eames agrees.
‘I saw all of them,’ says Arthur, because now he’s started he doesn’t seem able to stop. ‘Every performance. It was -- amazing.’
‘Thank you,’ says Eames, expression open, surprised.
‘When you said you’d seen my Onegin --I just didn’t want you to leave without knowing that I -- admire -- fuck.’
Eames eyebrows are climbing up his forehead. ‘Yes?’ he says.
‘You know what I mean,’ says Arthur angrily.
Eames slides a hand along Arthur’s lapel, straightening an imaginary wrinkle. He looks sly, watching Arthur through half-closed lashes. ‘Do I really?’ he wonders.
Arthur bats his hand away, at this point despairing of getting out of this conversation in one piece. ‘Stop that,’ he bites out. ‘I can’t do this. I’m not getting involved with you when we’ve still got forty performances to go.’
Eames looks like he’s caught somewhere between laughing and throwing his hands in the air and walking straight out of here. ‘Arthur, you just ran down three flights of stairs to tell me that you liked my swan, and now you look like I’ve punched you in the gut. I hate to be the the bringer of obvious news, but we’re already involved. There’s a reason why you’ve got people throwing roses at us left right and centre tonight, and it’s not your rigorous classical training. Do you think Mal and I would be better off if we back to being colleagues?’
‘That’s different,’ says Arthur weakly.
‘Yes. But does that mean I’m wrong? Look, Arthur, we were spectacular tonight, and you know it. How is that going to change if you decide to go on a date with me? If anything, on average it should improve our onstage performance since if you finally stopped spurning me cruelly I wouldn't have to spend every night weeping into my whiskey any more.
‘I am not -- ‘ says Arthur, rolling his eyes, then pauses. ‘A date?’
‘Yes. Something along the lines of last night, except with less Mal and more nudity. I promise you I can cook properly when I’m in a kitchen that contains more than celery, chocolate and low-fat milk.’
’You want me to go on a date with you?’ Arthur repeats doubtfully. It sounds kind of daunting. In the half-dark of the lobby, Eames’ lips look almost the same colour as the deep-red of the Opera House wallpaper. They’ve somehow managed to have this conversation in the place with the most ridiculous-looking bordello-like mood-lighting Arthur has seen in his life.
He sighs. ‘Arthur, I want to go anywhere you’ll let me. Was this in some way unclear?’
‘I -- right,’ says Arthur, floored, because right now Eames looks... embarrassed. And that’s what clinches it, really. Arthur doesn’t move but Eames must see something in his expression because he’s stepping forward, a hand laid gingerly on Arthur’s arm, a soft pressure through the fabric of his shirt and tuxedo jacket.
‘We’re going to be so splendid,’ whispers Eames, just before he kisses him. ‘You’ll see.’
Is that a promise? Arthur wonders, just as Eames puts his hands on him properly, and then stops wondering about anything at all apart from the fact that he can feel escaping strands of Eames’ hair tickling his face, that right now Eames is palming his back over the jacket, pressing them together. It’s better than when they’d done this in the club, because now he thinks that maybe -- maybe -- Eames isn’t going to screw him over afterwards, and Arthur’s not going to be a moron and screw himself over. Tomorrow they’re going to get up, maybe in the afternoon, maybe together, and go to warm-up class, and then in the evening they’re going to kick ass again onstage, and then Arthur is going to persuade Eames that instead of going on some boring date-thing they should stay home and do some really, really filthy things on the mattress that Arthur is still sleeping on because after two months in the city he’s still not got round to putting his bedframe together.
Eames slips his hand under the hem of Arthur’s jacket, stroking a hand down over the swell of his ass, and Arthur shudders into it without meaning to. ‘Oh yes,’ says Eames, breath ghosting against his mouth, and he sounds nothing if not fascinated.
Arthur forces his eyes open to look at him, getting a close-up view of Eames’ pupils, large and dark and half-lidded with lust. ‘I’m not going to that afterparty tonight,’ he says, feeling himself flush as Eames’ hand curls around his ass and squeezes.
‘Oh?’ says Eames vaguely. Then Arthur can see his brain come back online and he smiles, wide and amused. ‘What a coincidence,’ he says, catching Arthur’s hand and weaving their fingers together. ‘Neither am I.’
More than just a fairytale: my afternoon with the three brightest stars of the Royal Ballet.
-- by Louis Swinton
(Further details including video footage of rehearsals and backstage interviews at the Royal Ballet company can be found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/oct/11/royal-ballet-midsummer-nights-dream-interview Plus our review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/oct/05/midsummer-nights-dream- royal-ballet-review )
I met Mallorie Simoneau briefly after her first performance as Titania in the Royal Ballet’s new adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Onstage and off, she is glamorous in a way that is beginning to make gossip columnists and ballet aficionados alike sit up and take notice, recalling the golden days of Margot Fonteyn. Her partnership with Charles Eames, which began in 2008 with Romeo and Juliet, has catapulted them both into the spotlight. Dream is their second Shakespeare-inspired ballet, for which they are joined by enigmatic newcomer Arthur Lake, who recently returned to the stage after a serious injury.
The moment I step into the Royal Opera House rehearsal studios it is very clear than I am out of my depth. Royal is home to some of the most talented, rigorously trained classical ballet dancers in the world, and although reviews have been patchy over the past few years, the company still retains a distinct sense of pride. Members of the corps de ballet (the backbone of the company) are here in force to warm up in preparation for tonight’s performance. Eames, Lake and Simoneau are waiting for me in one of the music rooms when I arrive, Eames sitting back in one of the chairs, eating a croissant and looking very different from the enfant terrible some critics have made him out to be in the past. Lake is smartly turned out in what I am later informed is Yves Saint Laurent, and Ms Simoneau sits cross legged on the table in front of him, presenting a picture more suitable for a photoshoot than a print interview. Fitting, considering the fact that these are people who are seldom known for their voices, the directors and choreographers of the Royal Ballet usually bearing the brunt of the media attention.
Interviewer: The Royal Ballet’s critical successes have been patchy in recent years, but you’ve opened to overwhelmingly positive reviews this season. Is there more pressure on you now than during previous productions, do you think?
Eames: Just “overwhelmingly positive”? Not 100%?
Arthur: There was the Evening Standard.
E: Ah, yes, the one that went on and on about Mal’s breasts. Not that one can entirely blame him -- they are marvellous breasts.
A: That’s inappropriate.
Mallorie: I think the reviews do reflect an improvement since last season. Dream was a challenging production, but we’re all people who enjoy a challenge so that worked out well for us.
I: When you say “challenging”, what do you mean? Were there setbacks?
M: Well, working with a new partner is always a little difficult at first. But in general this production seemed to go very quickly during the rehearsal period because the choreography was still in development right up until Dress [rehearsal].
I: Would you say Dream has a more contemporary feel to it, then? Dominic Cobb has produced contemporary pieces before, but I wasn’t sure how much of that element was included in Dream.
M: You’re talking about Inception? Dom is very versatile. Inception was more modern than classical, yes, but that doesn’t mean all of his work takes after the same style.
A: Dream was a very classical production. Mal and I are both very attuned to that 19th-century feel, I think. Of the three of us, I’d say Eames is the most comfortable with more modern styles of movement.
M: He certainly made the greatest contribution to the choreography.
E: I wouldn’t say Dream comes off as old-fashioned, though. Miles has a real skill for making the old things new again.
I: This has been an unusually collaborative effort, what with the co-directorship between Cobb and Miles, and Arthur joining the company. Was it difficult to accept him into your partnership at first?
E: You make it sound like we’re swingers.
M: Arthur was very easy to work with.
A: It was a little daunting at first. I knew Mal before I moved to London, but her partnership with Eames is pretty famous. I was concerned that there might be jealousy issues. In ballet, people get used to dancing with the same partner, even the principals. It’s uncomfortable for everyone when that gets disrupted.
E: But we had no idea at the time that he was shaking in his shoes. Arthur’s so wonderfully deadpan, don’t you think?
A: I was not shaking in anything.
E: I suspect Arthur would like to say that I’m the most challenging thing he's had to work with on this production.
I: Arthur, this is only your second lead role. Your last, Onegin, halted when you were injured during a performance. Was it difficult to go back onstage?
A: Difficult in the sense that I had to do a lot of rehab work to get back to full strength, but not psychologically difficult. You’re very lucky to get through a career in ballet without getting injured at some point.
M: Arthur was very dedicated to his rehab schedule.
E: “Dedicated” is a good description of Arthur in general, I’d say.
I: It certainly didn’t see to hinder you onstage. Critics have been describing your Oberon as powerful, regal, commanding. Impressive work for a dancer so early in his career.
A: Thank you.
I: Dream centres around Oberon’s relationship with Titania, rather a break from the original play. A lot of fans of the Royal Ballet were surprised when you were cast opposite Mallorie rather than having her partner with Eames as usual.
E: I love being Puck. I do miss dancing with Mal every night, but we’ll have other chances. Arthur being cast as Oberon was the right decision.
M: Arthur and I have very similar styles, so in some ways it was easier than working with Eames.
E: Yes, Mal is French and trained in Russia, so she delights in rehearsing till her feet bleed. And Arthur’s a horrible little workaholic. Really, I’ll be glad to be rid of them.
A: Eames is very well-suited to the role of Puck, anyway.
E: Ah, a backhanded compliment if ever I heard one.
I: Dream has been described as a very adult production. Although Titania and Oberon spend a large portion of the ballet apart, the sexual tension is very evocative. And this production also deals with some surprisingly dark themes. For example, Oberon’s willingness to drug his own wife, and the intense power-play between Puck and his king. Would you say that as down to chemistry, or direction?
E: Dom Cobb doesn’t have a an erotic bone in his body.
E: As a director, of course, my darling.
A: I’m never really clear what people mean when they talk about chemistry.
M: Yes. Arthur is gay and I have a boyfriend. But I suppose it can only be a good thing if people are convinced by us onstage.
I: So would you say that you and Arthur have more chemistry than you and Eames did, as partners?
M: That is a ridiculous question.
E: I‘d say Arthur and I have better chemistry.
A: Eames and I have a productive working relationship.
E: Coming from Arthur, that’s practically a declaration of undying love.
I: Well, clearly you’re doing something right. I heard today that the run has been extended for eight extra performances.
E: Yeah, I think there are still tickets. You should come. Mal’s disgustingly talented, plus you get to see Arthur in tights.
M: Don’t listen to him, it’s a far more complex, romantic story than Eames makes it sound. Dream may be all those things you said, dark and adult and so forth, but at its heart it’s all about what it’s about to be a lover.
On my way out of the labyrinthine depths of the Opera House I manage to get lost. Retracing my steps, I glance through the door of the room where we’d held our interview. To tell the truth, part of me is hoping to see something juicy. Simoneau throwing a diva tantrum, perhaps, or some proof that the three of them actually can't stand one another. But instead what I see is the previously thoughtful and serious-faced Arthur Lake grinning widely at something one of the others has just said.
During our short time together I had assumed that Simoneau was the linchpin of this trio, but I now come to realise that there may not be a linchpin at all. They seem utterly comfortable with one another, an easy blend of friendship and physicality. As I turn to leave, Eames pulls teasingly at Lake’s arm. By far the most formal and reticent of the three, I think Lake would have frowned and shaken him off had I still been in the room. But now they are alone he laughs, the playful irritation in his expression about as far from the fearsome Lord Oberon as I can imagine.
It may be a risk for the Royal Ballet to retain two male principals for another full season without relegating one of them to second-tier roles, but I think it would be worth it if only to keep this team together.