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Between Two Lungs

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When the letter arrived, it was like a dream. You have been accepted to the Royal Ballet School’s Summer Programme, with a partial scholarship. Her mother told her not to get a big head, it’s only a summer programme, but even she couldn’t scoff at the opportunity. The Royal Ballet was one of the premier classical ballet companies in the world after all, and a place in its school’s summer programme meant a step closer to an actual full-time place at the company.

Sakura had a plan in place. She would do extremely well in the summer programme, impress the instructors, and be offered a scholarship. Then she would speed past the school, continue to impress the ballet masters, and be a soloist at the company before she’s 24. And then maybe her mother would finally say “good job.”

Sakura’s reverie was interrupted by a ping from her smartphone. A message from Kanade.

SAKURA-CHAN I GOT ACCEPTED!!!!! Kanade wrote, followed by an incomprehensible string of emojis. She accompanied the message by a photo of a letter, identical to the one received by Sakura.

Sakura’s heart beat faster. Kanade applied for the Royal Ballet School? Sakura didn’t know that. Kanade didn’t mention anything about applying to the Royal Ballet. If anything, Sakura assumed she would go to the Royal Danish Ballet.

Last summer, Kanade had been offered a scholarship to their school, and she had been really impressed by their teaching. Well, to be fair Kanade was easily impressed by anything, but for the whole year, all she talked about was the Bournonville method. Bournonville had created a ballet technique which put an emphasis on male dancers and beautiful big steps, and Kanade took to it like a duck to a water.

When she was in Copenhagen, she sent Sakura many e-mails and videos of men leaping with the gracefulness normally reserved for female dancers, and ballerinas doing fast grande jetés as light as air. Sakura was in Joffrey at the time, training again under the Vaganova method. Its refined, deliberate steps; its pure lines; its royal carriage. Nothing like the big, airy ease of Bournonville.

At the end of her programme, Kanade sent a video of her performance of the pas de six in the third act of Napoli, Bournonville’s signature work. Kanade was originally partnered with a tall dark-haired male dancer, but throughout the piece she frequently changed partners, like one of those square dances Sakura saw in old American movies. Men and women danced pretty much the same steps, and the piece had a kind of egalitarian exuberance rarely found in other classical works. Moreover, Bournonville’s emphasis on large steps suited Kanade extremely well. Even amongst the larger European dancers, her jumps stood out.

Her mother sneered when Sakura told her of Kanade’s new school.

“Bournonville may create excellent male dancers, but they make for poor female dancers,” she said. “Their female dancers are too masculine, too wild. They have none of the elegance needed in a world-class dancer. Their method might suit that Ariya girl with her steps and wild stage mannerisms. But they are too vulgar to be beautiful. Look at it. There’s a reason why it never caught on with the rest of the world.”

Vaganova was the best technique to create an elegant ballerina, her mother insisted. And Sakura could only learn from the best.

Still, Sakura felt a strange pang every time she watched Kanade dance the pas de six, smiling and holding hands with her partners. Envy. Sakura was envious of Kanade’s freedom and her obvious joy in ballet, not of her partners who got to dance with her and held her hand. Or so she told herself.

In London, they were separated. Sakura roomed with an Italian named Alessandra, no doubt hoping to follow the footsteps of her namesake Alessandra Ferri, prima ballerina assoluta of La Scala who had studied and started her career at the Royal Ballet. This Alessandra, though, was not very talkative. She said hello and introduced herself to Sakura then didn’t say anything at all, too busy playing with her phone to pay attention to Sakura.

Kanade, meanwhile, apparently became fast friends with her roommate. When Sakura visited her room, she was conversing enthusiastically with her roommate.

“Sakura-chan!” Kanade said, waving at her. “This is my roommate, Ellen Macmillan. Ellen, this is my friend Sakura Kurisu.”

“Nice to meet you, I’m Ellen,” Ellen replied in a noticeable Australian accent.

“I’m Sakura.” Sakura shook her hand and immediately sized her up. Ellen was slightly taller than Sakura, and her shoulder was a little bit broader. Perhaps she had done some swimming before deciding to commit to ballet. Her face was small and pointed, and her neck was long; the perfect dancer’s face. Her blonde hair was cut shoulder-length and showed signs of the wear and tear of being subjected to a tight chignon every day. Sakura had to see her in action to see her true skill of course, but Ellen Macmillan had all the hallmarks of a great dancer.

Oh, good. Another rival to get rid of.

“Ellen’s been to London many times before,” Kanade said, oblivious as always. “Her dad’s British and she has grandparents here, right? This is actually her second time in the summer programme.”

“But Gran and Gramps are on a vacation to St Moritz right now,” said Ellen. “That’s why I have to lodge. I was nervous at first, but I’m glad Kanade’s my roommate.”

“How nice.” So she’s one of those people. It was an open secret in the ballet world that as long as you got money and a smidge of skill, you could enter the most prestigious programmes in the world with relative ease. It’s people like Kanade and her that has to constantly win scholarships.

 “Ellen said she’d take us to some places she knew around here, once we get our break,” Kanade said. “Do you want to come, Sakura-chan?”

It hadn’t even been a day and Kanade was already making friends. For some reason, that made Sakura’s blood boil.

No fair. No fair that Kanade could easily befriend everyone, when she had to struggle with it all the time. No fair that Ellen Macmillan could afford to easily pay for the cost of the summer intensive, when she had to work hard to earn scholarships. No fair that she had to room with a surly Italian, instead of Kanade.

“No thanks,” Sakura found herself saying with more venom than usual. “I need to practice more. Some of us actually take this summer intensive programme seriously, you know.” And to cap the scene off, Sakura stormed out of the room.

After that embarrassing outburst, Sakura mostly avoided Kanade and Ellen. They had no opportunity to talk during lessons and practice, and Sakura spent meal times with Erika Mitsui, another Japanese student in the summer programme. Erika was a vapid rich girl who only got in because her mother was a fairly famous ex-ballerina and her dad was a major donor, but she provided Sakura with an excuse to not sit together with Kanade. Her free time she spent holed up in her room, reading books or watching videos of past performances like the pathetic bunhead that she was.

Kanade, meanwhile, continued to collect friends like it was her job. Aside from Ellen (whom Sakura begrudgingly admitted was a very excellent dancer, one of the best in the programme), she befriended Choi Yi-seul, the sole Korean girl in the programme, and Fiona Taggart, a Royal Ballet student and one of the youngest finalists at the Prix de Lausanne. Seeing them together ignited a strange fiery feeling within Sakura. She told herself that it’s annoyance.

Kanade had attempted to include Sakura, asking her to sit with them during meal times or free time, but Sakura blew her off every time. She had more important things to do than make friends, she reasoned.

Sakura was about to spend her free time watching the Alessandra Ferri’s 1996 La Scala performance of Giselle when there was a knock at her door.

“It’s not locked,” Sakura called in English, figuring it was just Alessandra (her roommate, not Ferri).

“Sakura-chan?” Kanade’s head peeked from the doorway. “Are you busy?”

“What do you want?” said Sakura brusquely.

“My seniors from the Royal Danish Ballet are performing in London now and they’ve given me a couple of extra tickets.” Kanade stood in the doorway, her arms behind her, almost shy. “Do you want to come with me?”

Sakura’s heart beat faster and her cheeks felt warm. But she wasn’t about to show Kanade that. She lifted her chin. “Why don’t you ask Ellen, Yi-seul, or Fiona?”

“But you said you wanted to see the Royal Danish Ballet live, Sakura-chan,” Kanade-said, confusion colouring her voice. “That’s why I asked Hendrik-san to give me tickets if there are some left over.”

“W-well, since you already went to the trouble of getting the tickets in the first place, I’ll guess, I’ll go,” Sakura mumbled.

Kanada gave her a dazzling smile and took her hand. “Let’s go then.”

The Royal Danish Ballet performed in a small venue. The stage was simply decorated, and most of the performers were aging stars or promising youths looking to get some experience. They didn’t even have a live orchestra to play. It was, by any measure, a modest performance.

But the jumps were large and beautiful, and Kanade was sitting beside her, watching them with sparkling eyes. Sakura smiled. She was content.