Rebecca Horsfall Dancing on Thorns: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780345479785

Dancing on Thorns: A Novel

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9780345479785: Dancing on Thorns: A Novel
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Ten years in the making, this sweeping, evocative, and graceful novel will capture the hearts of readers with its vivid portrayal of a close-knit group of friends and a love that won’t be denied.

Jonni Kendal and Jean-Baptiste St. Michel have come to London separately in pursuit of their dreams. Michel is haunted by the man who abandoned him as a child. Driven by his determination to forge a life for himself outside the shadow of his father’s famous name, he’s ambitious, talented, and dangerously attractive–but suspicious of emotional attachments.

Full of courage but naïve, Jonni is determined to excel as an actress. Just nineteen, she’s made up her mind to escape the narrow, parochial life her parents have planned for her. When Michel rescues Jonni one night and takes her home, there’s an immediate attraction. Jonni soon finds herself embraced by an exciting new world filled with bohemian dancers and musicians, a family of planets orbiting around their sun–Michel.

But before Michel can commit to any kind of future–with or without Jonni–he must free himself from his past. And when tragedy brings him to the edge of a fiery burnout, Jonni and the pair’s friends must rally to save all they have come to count on.

In Dancing on Thorns, Rebecca Horsfall has captured the vulnerability and passion of young artists in achingly beautiful prose. Through characters who live and love as grandly as the art that consumes them, we witness a world that is by turns seductive and heartbreaking.

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About the Author:

Rebecca Horsfall grew up in a theater family in London. Her father is an actor and her mother is an actor-director from America. Like her parents, Rebecca has worked in the theater as a director, production supervisor, and script editor. She also spent a year as a company manager and wardrobe supervisor for two ballet companies. This experience gave her great insight for Dancing on Thorns, her first novel, which she worked on for ten years. She lives in a remote house in the Lincolnshire hills with her husband and is now working on her second novel. For more information visit www.rebeccahorsfall.com,

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Once a year, in the spring, Nadia Petrovna cleared her desk. She scooped the piles of unpaid invoices and tax demands into drawers with a long sigh of relief and escaped London for a fortnight to revisit the beloved Europe of her youth.

This year, as always, Paris laid out the red carpet for her. At the airport she was met by the Minister for the Arts, and stopped on the pavement beside his black limousine to beam at the select band of press photographers who showered her with affectionate greetings. The Minister’s secretary presented her with a bouquet of spring flowers and her wrinkled face lit up in delight.

“How lovely!” she said, more delighted by the daffodils than all the other combined attention. “They’re absolutely my favorite.”

Nadia Petrovna adored Paris. She went out to lunch with the director of the Opéra and then attended a gala performance on the arm of a great dancer who had taken his first classical steps under her tuition—and who had now, in his turn, retired to become one of France’s foremost choreographers.

At the Académie Française de la Danse, a little girl in pink tulle and satin slippers presented the dowager étoile with a bunch of pink roses, curtsying deeply as she had been instructed by the junior ballet teacher. Every year it was exactly the same; Nadia Petrovna Sekova had been making these visits for so long they had become part of the tradition of the dance world. Only the faces of the children changed; little girls who had once presented that annual pink bouquet were now dancing in the company, or had become teachers in their own right, or were married and had children.

“Nadia Petrovna,” said her old friend Henri, taking her hand. Like everyone in the ballet world, he addressed her in the old-fashioned Russian style, adding the feminine form of her father’s Christian name to hers. “You look younger every time I see you.”

The ancient woman smiled in reply and shook her head. They both knew she couldn’t go on making these trips forever. Already she relied heavily on her walking stick and this year, for the first time, she had taken a taxi to the Académie from her hotel instead of walking. Even the journeys to and from the airport exhausted her now.

“Paris always makes me feel young,” she said with a courageous sparkle in her old eyes.

Madame de Sancerre, the school’s director, accompanied Nadia Petrovna on her traditional tour of the classes, pointing out favorite young dancers with her long fingers. The atmosphere in every studio they entered prickled with nervous unease. Whenever Madame walked into a room it was as though an icy wind swept in with her through the open door. One by one, they went into each of the studios, sitting on wooden chairs at the front of the class while the anxious students performed their rond de jambe exercises, adages and allegros for the great dowager prima ballerina of the Diaghilev era.

Nadia Petrovna sat upright on her chair—alert and attentive—with her knotted, arthritic hands folded over the handle of her walking stick.

“That tall boy at the back,” she said, picking out one of the students at the barre in a large class of boys. “Why does his teacher not correct his position? Here . . .” She indicated on her own body a line between her shoulder and her hip. “Here, this is all wrong.”

Madeleine de Sancerre glanced sharply at the boy and turned to her guest with a gesture of irritated dismissal.

“There’s no point correcting him. He won’t be taught. It’s not his teachers’ fault: the boy is unteachable. He’s one of the ones we’re getting rid of this term. He was a promising child—extremely promising—but, like so many, puberty has ruined him. He’s sixteen now, and quite beyond salvage. Instead of improving, his technique just gets worse and worse. As you see, everything is out of place. Look at his feet and hands.”

Nadia Petrovna looked. Carefully. The light-haired boy was tall; his gangly limbs seemed too long for his narrow body, giving him an unbalanced, coltlike air. There was something very forlorn about him as he danced halfheartedly behind the other boys, not even attempting to keep up with the exercise. Nadia Petrovna studied him through pensively narrowed eyes. His technique was a disaster. Every movement he made was wrong. The question that puzzled her was why they hadn’t got rid of him sooner. Competition for places at the Académie was extremely fierce.

Madame went on, with pursed lips, “See how he keeps his eyes down? Henri has told him a hundred times that he can’t balance if he gazes at the floor. And yet look at him. I haven’t made up my mind whether it’s from stubbornness or sheer stupidity.”

Nadia Petrovna was still watching him with calm interest.

“Perhaps it’s just fear of heights.”

“No,” Madame snapped. “He’s deliberately obstructive. And the other boys take heed of his rudeness. He’s a nasty, destructive influence in this school and the sooner we’re rid of him the better. I hate that boy.”

The old woman turned her head to look at her in surprise. Madame de Sancerre looked down at her clasped hands as she apologized mutedly for her outburst.

“Forgive me,” she muttered. “It makes me so angry.”

Nadia Petrovna nodded her sympathy. There was no need to explain. She knew from her own experience that nothing makes a ballet teacher more bitter than wasted talent.

“Madeleine, I’m sure the poor boy has no idea he’s caused you so much frustration.”

“Oh, he knows,” she replied acidly. “He doesn’t speak—won’t even answer direct questions. Never looks you in the eye. Never smiles. Never frowns. No expression at all. He does it on purpose just to infuriate us.”

Nadia Petrovna doubted that even a stubborn teenager could keep that up, day after day, merely for the satisfaction of annoying his teachers. But she kept her own counsel and tactfully pointed to a different student.

“That boy there, with the black hair, has the most beautifully polished feet. You’ve done a marvelous job with him.”

“Yes, he’s a very dedicated worker,” Madame said with relief. “Only fifteen. Henri thinks he might go into the Upper School a year early.”

A few minutes later she rose from her seat and led her aged guest out of the studio to continue their tour of the classes. At the door Nadia Petrovna stopped and looked back along the row of boys as they swept their feet over the floor in rapid unison, all in identical green dance uniform. At the far end of the barre, the willowy boy with the blond curly hair and invisible eyes was marking the exercise listlessly, his arms and feet moving mechanically in time to the thumping of the pianist’s hands, his technique floundering on every step. Nadia Petrovna’s heart went out to him.

In the afternoon, after lunching with Madeleine de Sancerre and Henri Renoir, Nadia Petrovna escaped from her companions and stole a pleasant half hour to wander alone through the school where she had taught for so many years. In the pillared foyer she lifted her face, still radiant despite its great age, to look at the Rococo paintings on the curved ceiling of the huge dome. She had always loved that dome. Such grandeur. Like classical dance at its best—untouched by the pettiness and the humdrum of the lives that passed beneath it.

She walked slowly through the corridors of the school, leaning on her walking stick, thinking of all those children she had taught so long ago in these echoing studios. She still remembered every face, every pair of feet, every heartbreaking injury that had destroyed a promising career. Silently, in one of the empty studios on the top floor, she ran her hand lovingly over the barre remembering a time even before her teaching days. Her hands were misshapen and white now, crippled with arthritis, fragile skin stretched over them like parchment. Once they had been described as the most beautiful hands in Europe.

She stopped outside one of the small studios, resting both hands on top of her stick, and looked through the little window in the door. The tall, fair-haired boy was standing alone in the studio, his back propped indolently against the barre with his arms folded and his feet, in long white ballet socks and ballet shoes, crossed at the ankles. Through an open window at his side the sound of piano music drifted in from across the courtyard. He was gazing through the window, listening, lost in abstraction.

Nadia Petrovna opened the door quietly and went in.

When the boy saw who had entered he unfolded his arms and shifted his weight away from the barre in an unconscious gesture of respect. Nadia Petrovna permitted herself a small smile. Hostile and undisciplined he might be, but he was still a pupil of the Académie Française.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Am I interrupting you?”

He looked at her warily and glanced at the door behind her to see who might be about to follow her into the room. “No, Madame.”

“A little bird in the staff room whispered to me that I would find you up here. Under strict instructions, as I understand the situation, to spend an hour working on your pirouettes.”

He made a small explanatory gesture toward the window, indicating the music.

“Chopin,” he said. “Les Sylphides. I was l...

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