Read an Excerpt from BRIGHT BURNING STARS by A.K. Small
As a young ballerina in Paris, young adult novelist A. K. Small studied at the famous Académie Chaptal and later danced with companies across the US. Inspired by the dancers from her childhood, Small weaves a vivid story of a fiercely competitive female friendship in her dazzling debut, Bright Burning Stars (Publication Date: May 21, 2019; $17.95). Following two teens fighting for center stage and a spot in the Opera’s prestigious corps de ballet, this page-turning novel explores the lengths it takes to turn talent into a career. A gifted new writer, Small brings the reader into the passionate world of ballet all while telling an engrossing story of female friendship.
We stood outside the circular studio in the apex of the dance annex. Some of us obsessively rose up and down in first position to break the soles of our shoes, while others, like the boys, tucked their t-shirts into their tights and cracked their necks for luck. I didn’t do anything but clutch Kate’s hand. Kate and I always held hands before the weekly générales. But before I could ask her what she thought the new ratings would be, who would outshine whom on The Boards after only a week and four days of ballet classes and rehearsals in our final year at Nanterre, my name was called first. A bad omen: in six years of dancing here, the faculty had never switched us out of alphabetical order before. Isabelle The Brooder always started. I danced third.
“Break a leg,” Kate said in English before I stepped into the studio, which made me smile because saying things in her mother tongue was Kate’s way of showing love.
Inside the vast round room, three judges—judging deities really—sat erect behind a long folding table. Valentine Louvet, the director, was on the left, her dark hair twisted into a loose knot and rings adorning her fingers. She would sometimes look up at the giant skylight and I would swear that her lips moved, that she discussed students with Nijinsky’s ghost through the thick glass. Francis Chevalier, the ballet master, an older man with sweat stains radiating from under his arms, was on the right. While you danced, he rhythmically jabbed the tip of his cane into the floor. In the middle sat The Witch, aka Madame Brunelle, in glasses and a tight bun. When she disliked a student’s movement, which was almost always, we all whispered that worm-like silver smoke seeped from her nostrils and her ears.
I didn’t look them in the eyes for fear of turning to salt. Instead, I hurried to the yellow X that demarked center, taking note of all the mirrors that wrapped around me like gauze. I tried not to criticize my reflection, how I was one kilogram fatter than when I’d last performed in May. I’d found out earlier this morning, courtesy of Mademoiselle Fabienne, the school nutritionist. Weigh-ins here were like random drug tests. You were called and asked to step onto the beastly scale whenever faculty felt like it. Now, all I could do was suck my stomach in and pray it didn’t affect my score. I placed my right foot on the tape, my left in tendu behind, then waited for the pianist’s introduction.
As I offered the judges my most heartfelt port de bras, I concentrated on the ivory of my leotard, an atrocious color on me, yet a coveted symbol of my new elite rank. Seven other sixteen year-old rat-girls and I had risen to First Division. The variation we were to perform today was obscure, from The Three Musketeers, but I didn’t mind. Actually, I preferred low profile dances. The pressure somehow felt less. I also liked the three-count waltz, the way the notes filled up inside me, the rush of the C major melody, all making me zigzag across the studio. Music was why I kept going, my ticking heart. As the piano filled the air, my arms felt fluid, my balances sharp, and my leaps explosive. Even my hunger diminished. I steered myself from left to right then from front to back. My spirits lifted and my nerves calmed. Vas-y. I can do this, I thought. And then I remembered to give the judges my stage smile. Maybe I’ll rise from Number 3 to Number 2. During a slow triple pirouette, I held my foot above my knee, balanced, and stuck my landing in perfect fourth position, the number 2 floating like an angel’s halo above my head.
But then I forgot to anticipate the piano’s shift in keys, the sudden acceleration. Realizing I was an eighth of a note off, I skipped a glissade to catch up to my saut de chat. Ne t’en fais pas, I told myself. Adjust. Yet, at once, The Witch stood up and snapped her fingers, silencing the music.
“I thought you were here because of your auditory gift, Duval,” Madame Brunelle said. “Don’t students call you The Pulse?”
I looked down at my feet. I hadn’t gone through three fourths of the variation.
“They must be wrong. Would you like to have someone else come in and demonstrate? Teach you whole notes from half notes?”
“No,” I whispered.
“Miss Sanders,” Madame Brunelle yelled.
Kate poked her head inside the studio. A joke, I thought. Kate was a dynamic ballet dancer but well known for her lack of rhythm.
“Mademoiselle Duval needs help with her waltz tempo. Would you run the variation through for her?”
Kate nodded. She tiptoed into the studio, setting herself on the X the way I had done earlier.
“Shadow her, Duval,” Madame Brunelle ordered.
She snapped her fingers and the pianist began again.
I danced behind Kate. We moved in unison, gliding into long pas de basques, arms extended. Kate seemed weightless, her heels barely touching the ground. A genuine smile fluttered on her lips. Her ivory leotard fitted her long narrow frame like skin. Blue crystal teardrops dangled from her ears as she spun. They glittered like fireflies. All of Kate glittered. The afternoon sun poured in from the skylight, lighting her up like a flame. The variation lasted a million years. At every step, my face grew hotter. The studio door had been left wide open, so I saw in the mirror’s reflection that other First Division dancers were peering inside and watching our odd duo. A wave of humiliation nearly toppled me. Madame Brunelle did not stop the music this time. She waited for Kate and me to finish with our révérence, then she dismissed us with a flick of the finger.
I ducked out of the studio into the stairwell and didn’t wait for Kate. I could have sought refuge in the First Division dressing rooms but that was too obvious a hiding place so I rushed down three flights of stairs and into the courtyard. A mild September breeze blew. I fought back tears. It would have been easier, I thought, if The Witch had picked someone else. Anyone else. But Kate? Pitting me against my best friend? I wished I could keep walking past the trees, alongside the fence, out of the gates, down L’Allée de La Danse, to the metro, all the way home to the center of Paris and my mother’s boulangerie. There, inside with the warmth and the sugary smells, I would find a tight hug, an, “It’s okay, Chérie. You don’t have to do this unless you want to.” But I knew I wouldn’t. I’d have to go back to the dorms to change into street clothes or at least take off my pointe shoes and then I’d see Oli’s battered demi pointes on my bed. Plus, I’d come this far. Hadn’t I? Only 274 days until the final Grand Défilé. Judgment Day: when everyone, except for two strikingly gifted students—one female, one male—got fired in the top division. I plopped down into the middle of the courtyard and found the sky. How could I have messed up on tempo? I closed my eyes and inhaled.
“Hey!” Kate yelled a minute later.
She stood at the entrance of the courtyard, breathing hard. “Do you think you could have gone a little faster?” she said, crossing her arms. She was still in her leotard, tights, and pointe shoes. Her neck flushed bright red from running. Wisps of blond hair framed her face. “You hurtled down the stairs like a bat out of hell, M. I thought you were going to tumble and fall.”
Bat out of hell? I nearly corrected her and said that here we used comme un bolide—like a rocket—but instead I replied, voice sharp, “Too bad I didn’t.”
“You don’t mean it,” she said. “Mistakes happen. You’re only human.”
Kate sat down beside me. She smelled woodsy, even after she danced. We watched as pigeons flittered around the bright white buildings. On our left were the dorms with their common rooms at the bottom. In front, the dance annex loomed. It was known for its grand staircase, bay windows, cafeteria, and Board Room where all big decisions were made. On the right was the academic wing with classrooms and faculty offices. Little pathways led from one building to the others with awnings in case of rain. If I turned around, I could peek at the high concrete wall hidden between oak trees. Sometimes I wondered if the barrier was there to keep rats from fleeing or strangers from trespassing.
Kate squeezed my ankle then flashed me her best smile. “The Witch is an asshole. Seriously. Don’t sweat it.”
At her touch, my eyes filled. The tempo mix up hadn’t been Kate’s fault. Only mine. I quickly wiped the tears with the back of my hand.
“Have I told you that I dig wearing ivory?” Kate said. “Last night, I called my dad and tried to explain it to him. How good it felt to parade around in this sublime color. I said it was like receiving the freaking Medal of Honor but he didn’t get it.”
“Of course not.” I shook my head.
And just like that, the weird moment between us, the resentment I’d felt at having to dance behind her, passed.
I was about to tell her that after what had happened in the circular studio I would probably never wear ivory again, when younger rats came out into the courtyard, disturbing our privacy. Everyone always whispered about everyone else while waiting for ratings. Within the hour, the Board Room would open. Rankings would be posted on the wall. Rats who were rated below fifth place might be sent home. Now and again, I’d see a parent waiting by the school entrance and the wretched sight would make me flinch. But Kate, who was always at my side, would loop an arm around me and say, “Face it, M. Not everyone is cut out for this.” Her thick skin soothed me today.
“God, I can’t stand the sitting around,” Kate said. “Let’s play Would You.”
“I thought you and I banned that game,” I replied.
Kate laughed. “Things don’t go away just because you want them to, Miss Goody Two-Shoes. Or because the stupid rules say so.”
I slapped her shoulder.
“Ouch. Loosen up. I go first,” she said. “Would you die for The Prize?”
The Prize. What every rat girl and boy was after: the large envelope with a red wax stamp on the back, a single invitation to become part of the Paris Opera’s corps de ballet. The thought of seeing that envelope made me dizzy with possibility. I almost said yes but she cut me off.
“If I close my eyes,” Kate said. “I feel the envelope’s weight in my hands, the warm wax beneath my thumbs. It’s damn near euphoric.”
I looked away. Kate’s hunger for success, for being the Chosen One was sometimes so acute that it frightened me. “Are you asking because of Yaëlle?”
The Number 3 rat from last year, a sweet girl from Brittany, once our roommate, had been found in her tiny single, lying atop her twin bed, in her ballet clothes, bones protruding at strange angles, eyes sunk deep in their sockets, dead a few days before Le Grand Défilé last May. She’d starved herself in the name of The Prize. Ever since, we’d all been on edge. Summer hadn’t changed the mood. If anything, getting back together after a few months away had heightened the sense of dread.
“You’re not answering my question.”
“No,” I decided. “I wouldn’t die for The Prize. Would you?”
“Yes,” Kate said. “Absolutely.”
There was no hesitation in her voice.
“I’ve got another,” she said. “Would you hurt The Ruler for The Prize?”
Gia Delmar, the Ruler. Always Number 1 on the boards, she was our biggest rival but this wasn’t the time to think about her. Not before rankings. “I wouldn’t hurt anyone,” I said, then I added, “Would you rehearse night and day?”
“Yes. But would you do drugs?”
“Rehearse night and day, sure. Drugs? Maybe.”
“Kate!” I said.
“Would you try to suck up to Monsieur Chevalier?”
“No. But maybe Louvet.”
Kate laughed. “I know. Would you sleep with The Demigod?”
The Demigod? I shivered. Like The Ruler, The Demigod was off limits. As a rare conservatory transfer, he’d magically appeared in Second Division one sunny day last February and had outdone everyone. I didn’t want to think about the leaders, the rats most likely to succeed, even if they were supremely sexy. “No,” I answered. “Of course not. Would you?”
“That’s sick,” I said. “Sleeping with someone to climb the ladder?”
Kate lowered her voice. “The Demigod is different, M. You know. Everybody knows. Even faculty. Look how they gawk at him. His talent is greater than the sun and the stars combined. Proximity to him is—” she paused, searching for her words. “The key to everything. Think of it as Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s lover, collaborating with him on a canvas. Except that our canvas is four dimensional, made up of flesh, of bodies. Lee’s paint strokes had to intensify, right? The Demigod’s balletic gift, his glow, rubs off like glitter on his partners. Haven’t you noticed? Anyone who spends time with him in and out of the studio shoots up on The Boards. M, he is The King. You know what dance is? The art of the sensual. Electricity, entanglement, ease. You partner with him and you will blow the roof off this effing place. Plus,” she sucked in her breath, kept me in suspense. “He’s got the hottest quads in the universe.”
I imagined Cyrille flying into splits, his thighs stiffening under silver tights, what his hands might feel like clasping mine if I was ever asked to partner with him. My whole body warmed. Kate was right. The Demigod was like food, like one of my mother’s pastries. You knew that eating it was bad for you, but you just couldn’t help yourself. I was about to warn Kate that the Greek demigods, as attractive as they were, ate their young and their lovers when Monsieur Arnaud, the groundkeeper, walked over to the old fashioned bell and rang it. The wooden doors creaked open and all the dancers scurried inside the Board Room. I still sat outside, frozen. What if I was ranked fifth or lower and got sent home? I thought of Oli. My promise to dance for him no matter what. Failing was not an option. Kate snagged my hand and pulled me up.
“Come on, sweetie,” she said.
I reluctantly followed her in.
Would you die for the Prize?
Best friends Marine Duval and Kate Sanders have trained since childhood at the Paris Opera Ballet School, where they’ve forged an inseparable bond through shared stories of family tragedies and a powerful love for dance. When the body of a student is found in the dorms just before the start of their final year, Marine and Kate begin to ask themselves how far they would go for the ultimate prize: to be named the one girl who will join the Opera’s prestigious corps de ballet. Would they cheat? Seduce the most talented boy in the school, dubbed the Demigod, hoping his magic will make them shine, too? Would they risk death for it? Neither girl is sure.
But then Kate gets closer to the Demigod, even as Marine has begun to capture his heart. And as selection day draws near, the competition—for the Prize, for the Demigod—becomes fiercer, and Marine and Kate realize they have everything to lose, including each other.
Bright Burning Stars is a stunning, propulsive story about girls at their physical and emotional extremes, the gutting power of first love, and what it means to fight for your dreams.
About the Author: A.K. Small was born in Paris. At five years old, she began studying classical dance with the legendary Max Bozzoni, then later with Daniel Franck and Monique Arabian at the famous Académie Chaptal. At thirteen, she moved to the United States where she danced with the Pacific Northwest Ballet for one summer in Seattle and with the Richmond Ballet Student Company for several years. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary and has an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When she’s not writing, she spends time with her husband, her puppy, and her three daughters, and practices yoga. Bright Burning Stars is her first novel.
Bright Burning Stars by A.K. Small
Algonquin Young Readers / Publication Date: May 21, 2019
Price: $17.95; Hardcover; 304 pages; ISBN: 9781616208783
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