Outside the Limelight
Ballet Theatre Chronicles, Book 2
By Terez Mertes Rose
Contemporary [Women's] Fiction
Rising ballet star Dena Lindgren's dream career is knocked off its axis when a puzzling onstage fall results in a crushing diagnosis: a brain tumor. Looming surgery and its long recovery period prompt the company’s artistic director, Anders Gunst, to shift his attention to an overshadowed company dancer: Dena's older sister, Rebecca, with whom Anders once shared a special relationship.
Under the heady glow of Anders’ attention, Rebecca thrives, even as her recuperating sister, hobbled and unnoticed, languishes on the sidelines of a world that demands beauty and perfection. Rebecca ultimately faces a painful choice: play by the artistic director’s rules and profit, or take shocking action to help her sister.
Exposing the glamorous onstage world of professional ballet, as well as its shadowed wings and dark underbelly, OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT examines loyalty, beauty, artistic passion, and asks what might be worth losing in order to help the ones you love.
When Anders Gunst, artistic director of the West Coast Ballet Theatre, told nineteen-year-old Dena Lindgren he was promoting her to soloist, all she could think was that she’d misheard him. They were standing backstage, post-performance, at San Francisco’s California Civic Theater. Partial lighting streamed from the overhead fixtures, casting the furthest wings in shadows. The stagehands, immersed in their nightly cleanup routine, swept the floor, inspected cables and called out to one another across the empty stage. Anders always spoke softly, and right then, it was hard to hear over their voices.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered, clutching and unclutching the towel she’d used to mop up her sweat from Arpeggio, the ballet she’d just finished. “I misunderstood what you said. Because you’re promoting my sister. Not me. Right?” She felt foolish even suggesting otherwise, like the newbie first-year corps dancer she was. At five-foot-two, she was a petite dancer, and right then she felt her smallness. Anders himself, while not particularly tall, was dressed tonight in a sleek charcoal Italian suit and tie that enhanced his refined looks and made him seem all the more intimidating, even as he smiled at her.
“No.” He shook his head. “It’s you I’m promoting to soloist.”
She began to shiver in her costume, a pale, glittery, silken tunic that clung damply to her skin. “That’s not possible. There’s just that one position open.”
“Yes.” Anders didn’t seem bothered by her aggrieved tone or the way everything about her had scrunched up in resistance.
“But… but,” she sputtered. “That wasn’t the plan.”
He chuckled. “I think, as the artistic director, I have a fairly good sense of what the plan should be.”
And still she stared at him, incredulous, unable to process it.
While he continued speaking, a part of her mind detached and hastily scrolled over the past two hours, this performance of Arpeggio, the unexpected triumph of it in the aftermath of the terrible news she and her older sister Rebecca had just received. Their parents were divorcing; their father already had plans to remarry. Dena hadn’t seen it coming, and this destruction of their family of four had devastated her. Rebecca, dancing Arpeggio too, had taken Dena by the shoulders in the dressing room, given her a shake, told her fiercely to take that pain and pour it into the performance. This crucial performance in which they both had soloist roles, even though they were both only corps dancers. The big, huge, this-could-be-career-changing opportunity for the two of them that they simply had to excel at.
They’d excelled, both of them. And now, by all rights, the career change belonged to Rebecca, three years Dena’s senior, in age and company status. The promotion was to be hers. Everyone in the company knew it.
“Anders,” she said, more vehement now. “What about my sister?”
Anders gave her a thoughtful nod. “Rebecca is a very strong dancer, graced with extraordinary beauty. You lack your sister’s looks—most of the girls do—but it’s that very omission that makes you a more interesting dancer to watch. You can embody a number of different moods and personas, all so decisive and convincing. You have a talent that draws eyes to you. Rebecca fits seamlessly into any ensemble she’s placed in. She blends in. You stand out. I see that now. To keep you in the corps would only hinder what’s flowing from you so naturally. Soloist rank is where I want you.”
He glanced over to the front of the backstage area where Ben, ballet master and assistant to the artistic director, was gesturing to his wristwatch. Anders looked at his own watch. “I’m expected over at L’Orange in ten minutes,” he told Dena. “I’ll leave you to your cleanup. Congratulations, again.”
The implications began to sink in. “Wait! How… how can I possibly tell her?”
A touch of impatience crossed Anders’ face. “Rebecca and I understand each other. I’ll have a word with her.”
He didn’t wait for her reply, but instead strode away to where Ben stood waiting, by the door with the green glowing “exit” sign above. The two of them disappeared from sight.
She remained there, rooted to the spot, still trying to process it all.
Q & A with Terez Mertes Rose
My writing has been informed by a very eclectic blend. Looking at my bookshelf right now, I see Jennifer Egan, Alice Hoffman, Bill Bryson, Elizabeth Strout, Meg Wolitzer, Ann Tyler, Jeffrey Eugenides, Maeve Binchy, Zoe Heller, Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Tropper (new discovery this past month!), Anita Diamant, I like books that are both lively and eloquent. I get bored if they become too lofty—the classics were never something I got into, a shameful admission a creative writer should never confess to, but, oh well, there it is. We won’t even get into the collection of romance novels I accrued in my late teens and early twenties.
Tell us something you hate doing. Why?
I hate cleaning. I see the clutter build up and I don’t feel good that it’s happening, but I’d rather focus on the interesting stuff in life and ignore the other. It’s fascinating to observe that this philosophy invades my writing, too. For this last novel, I felt like there were months spent doing the literary equivalent of cleaning up the room, cleaning out the attic, getting rid of stuff that wasn’t needed, and it was NOT fun work. My office here is cluttered. I love a clean office. You’d think I’d remedy that, wouldn’t you?
Share a funny incident in your life.
In one of those “not so funny at the time” experiences that I find hilarious now, a friend and I were traveling the English countryside in 1995—we both lived in London at the time and this was a weekend getaway—and we went into a house that we assumed was the B&B we’d booked for the night. In our defense, it looked just like the picture in my guidebook: a charming, thatched, seventeenth-century longhouse, several sets of boots out front next to the doormat. A “No Smoking” sign was posted over the open door. So, of course we went in. Hearing the host’s voice in one of the back rooms and the reply of another couple, we relaxed and dropped our bags in the paneled entryway. The warmth of the house, the rustic oak-beamed ceiling and reassuring tick-tick of the grandfather clock all perfectly fit the scene of a B&B. There was even a tray of freshly baked cookies on a nearby lace-covered table, which, of course, we availed ourselves to, before wandering into the living room and plopping down on the sofa that faced an crackling fire in the fireplace. Well, of course you know where this is going. No, indeed, it was not the B&B we were booked in. In fact, it wasn’t a B&B. It was someone’s private residence, and the voices we’d heard were the owners with their friends. The four of them were so unfailingly polite about it, it made it all the more embarrassing, particularly when I realized we’d tracked in mud. I think I still had half a cookie in my hand, too. I’m thinking they had a good laugh once my friend and I had slinked out of there, back to our car and the correct B&B, which was another 1500 feet down the road.
What's your pet peeve?
Bad grammar, bad spelling, in published or publicly posted writing. When people use “it’s” when they mean to use “its,” I go a little crazy. I have to restrain myself from marching over with a Sharpie and repairing the mistake.
When you are in writer mode, music or no music? If music do you have a playlist?
Mostly music when I’m in writer mode, mostly classical, particularly in the morning. Afternoons, I’ll shift directions, tunes that tend to be a blend of world music, or Celtic, sort of New Age, sort of theatrical. Cirque du Soleil music really works for me. For the classical, I enjoy violin and piano concertos and sonatas. Symphonies. Mostly 19th century stuff. I probably have fifty playlists, usually divided into what time of the year it is, so I can play the hell out of a few playlists for two months and then put them away for ten months.
Who was your favorite hero/heroine?
If we are talking about the characters I myself created, I would say that Dena from Outside the Limelight is the feistiest yet most loveable one. And when she and her sister Rebecca band together midway through the story, and start looking out for one another, well, they both become utterly heroic in my mind, and I adore them both. I also like the way Misha is Dena’s hero, and Ben ends up being Rebecca’s.
Have you ever had one character you wanted to go one way with but after the book was done the character was totally different?
Not totally different, but sometimes a character that I assume will be peripheral turns out to play a much bigger role in the story. And quite often, a character will take on a depth that makes the reader uncertain as to whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy. I like doing that with my characters, but I know sometimes that frustrates readers. A lot of people don’t want ambiguity. But to me, it enhances the richness of their personality and makes them more multi-dimensional and utterly human.
What’s you next project?
My first novel, fifteen years ago, was a very intense project, ballet dancer goes to Africa, thinking she can outrun her problems back home, only to encounter worse ones there. Toss in a cross-cultural romance with an African man that consumes and reshapes her world, and it made for a great story. Naively, I was certain that book would be The One that did it for me—got me the book contract, the praise, the sales. Well, it didn’t do any of those. But it did impress enough people for me to go back to it now, and rethink, rework. It’s a great story with lots of humor and emotional charge. I’d like to inject more depth into it, coax out the ballet angle a bit more, and experiment with having one or two of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles characters show up, through letters or flashback. The story is set in the late ‘80’s, so it would likely be one of the older, more peripheral characters, like April, a ballet master, and maybe Anders, the artistic director.
What's the one thing, you can't live without?
Pen and paper. Well, of course it would first need to be food, water, shelter. Following that, though (and my hot cup of tea first thing in the morning), I’d argue pen and paper. I am such a compulsive writer, and there’s no worse feeling than having a story or fabulous insight burst forth and no means to get it down. Writing is both an inspirational practice for me and a self-soothing one. I keep pen/paper in my car, my bedside table, my purse, the kitchen drawer, even the bathrooms (you can’t imagine how many good ideas crop up while one is in the shower).
What is your favorite movie (song)?Such a tough one to answer; there are so many! I’m thinking of two movies that I can watch over and over and over, both of which also have memorable music as well. One is Moonstruck with delicious opera music—I think it’s Puccini’s La Boheme—and the fun, clever, 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven, with Debussy’s luminous “Clair de Lune” there at the end. Just incredibly to watch and hear.
What's your favorite TV show of all time and why?
I am so not a prime-time TV watcher that I’m not sure how to answer this one. Our household has gone without a TV in the past, and without paid cable for the rest of the time, so it’s whatever we can get with an antenna or satellite dish. Well, and I can’t bear commercial interruptions. But I’m thinking of what I’ll watch on Netflix if my husband or son pulls something up. Saturday Night Live comes to mind as a big favorite. My husband likes BBC murder mysteries, so I’ll join him and watch. Now, if the question had been “What is the TV show that influenced you the most?” ironically it would be The Brady Bunch. All the sitcoms from that generation, like The Partridge Family and Leave it to Beaver, stuff that got replayed regularly in the late ‘70’s and ‘80’s. I just swallowed those whole, back in those years. Makes me shake my head now to consider how that influenced my mind, my expectations of adulthood, but there you have it, I was a product of that generation.
Clean shaven, Scruff, beard, or mustache. Ink yay or nay?
Clean shaven. Maybe a one-day scruff.
Your favorite book by you or another author
Unfair question! Too many to choose from, and it all depends on the reading mood I’m in. I’m looking at my overflowing bookshelf right now at what is the most page-worn. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon. Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There. Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings. And, well, I’m still in love with my own two ballet novels, Off Balance and the new baby, Outside the Limelight.
If you could write in another genre what would it be & why?
Romance. I just love a good romance. I always have to factor at least one good romance into the stories I myself write. That said, I like books I read to have a little more depth and texture than the average romance tends to provide. I’d like to see a subgenre grow that’s called “thinking women’s romance.”
About the Author
Terez Mertes Rose is a writer and former ballet dancer whose work has appeared in the Crab Orchard Review, Women Who Eat (Seal Press), A Woman’s Europe (Travelers’ Tales), the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News. She is the author of Off Balance, Book 1 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles (Classical Girl Press). She reviews dance performances for Bachtrack.com and blogs about ballet and classical music at The Classical Girl (). She makes her home in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband and son.
Twitter: https://twitter.com/ClassicalGrrl (@classicalgrrl)