Les Danseurs Sur Glace
It was a daft idea from the outset, a cabaret set within the Mer de Glace. The location was remote; the construction of such a spectacle in a melting glacier was risky. No custom for miles. Only an outline of the nearest village remained, the inhabitants crushed by a landslide in the early 19th century in the midst of Bastille Day festivities. Fireworks had fizzed in the air as entire families suffocated beneath the rocks.
‘We’ll bring people in from Chamonix on the train, they’ll descend from the station to the entrance in a cable car.’ Vince’s enthusiasm leaked from his pores.
‘But what about lighting, seating, water?’ Charlotte asked.
‘Lottie, it’s a glacier, we’ll be surrounded by water and it’s easy to install lighting. Trust me.’ And even though Charlotte knew that her husband’s madcap schemes ended frequently in disaster, from the moment that he told her that she could dance, she knew that she would go.
The forms and administration felt interminable, it’s only a glacier Vince increasingly said, frustrated. Nobody else is using it. Bureaucracy, he sighed. Finally they got the go ahead. They sold their basement flat in London and drove a van containing their life across the continent to a small rental apartment in the Alps.
Spring is not the best time to carve an arts venue into a glacier, the machinery is loud, the access tricky, and inside it is like being stuck in the middle of a melting ice cube.
‘They’ve reassured me that it’s safe,’ Vince tells her, ‘It looks like a lot of water but really it’s completely average. Accumulation and ablation, the glacier self renews. Don’t worry darling.’ Charlotte is worried, but she pushes her lips together and smiles anyway.
Their French is coming along nicely. Though the handful of French people they meet are unable to understand them, their duolingo app tells them they are 78% fluent, and Vince is confident that once they reach 100% they will be able to communicate. If they actually meet any French conversationalists. Their apartment is in the middle of nowhere and aside from a weekly two hour round trip to the supermarket, she has almost no contact with any actual people. She walks often to the ruined village; it’s close to a river that she swims in, and she loves the way the broken houses nestle against the northern slopes of Mont Blanc, as if waiting for their owners to return.
It is okay for Vince, project managing the excavation. He is comfortable in his world of engineers and construction workers (all of whom speak a passable level of English). But it is so quiet here, with just the confluence of mountains and sky for company. Too quiet, her inner voice niggles. She ignores it. Years of silencing her thoughts and feelings has obliterated any desire to voice an opinion. It is easier to keep quiet, and she is good at it.
It wasn’t always like that. When they had met Charlotte had been a dancer, trained at the Royal Ballet School. The pinnacle of her career saw her as Princess Odette in Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House. Dancing was her great love; her limbs moving effortlessly through the story, a masterstroke of casting, critics had said. It had all ended with their car accident, her knee irreparably damaged; surgery had rendered it fit for walking but the joint would never be the same. At night it throbs restlessly. They don’t talk of blame. These things happen, said Vince. They don’t speak of his blood-alcohol levels that night when he was driving. Her knee insurance pay out was substantial, and has been helpful financing his business ventures. She doesn’t need to work again. Sometimes she accompanies Vince to the glacier, imagines she sees it shifting down from the mountain. Inside it creaks and cracks.
On the cusp of winter, Les Danseurs Sur Glace is almost ready. The final safety inspection of the site has been passed, and the venue is ‘Fit for purpose,’ Vince proclaims cheerily. He takes her down with him the next time he goes. Gone the dirty slushy ice that they used to wade through, gone the treacherous scaffolding that they had to clamber down like spiders clinging to the rock. The cable car is slick and silent, steady too. A walkway leads from the cable car to the cave like entrance. It is dark and cold and perpetually open. Inside, a narrow corridor lit by multi-coloured light bulbs leads to the frosty cabaret chamber; a cavern carved out of the ice. The smooth slick walls look like glass; only closer inspection reveals tiny droplets of water running down them. In the centre of the space is a huge ice table, with steps leading up to it. The stage, murmurs Vince, putting his arm around her shoulder. In front of the stage are tables and benches, translucent, transient. At the back where the room is darker, a long counter, on which sits a statue of a mermaid, tail draped over the edge of the counter and down to the ground where it flicks upwards. She is exquisite. It is all exquisite.
‘It’s beautiful’ Charlotte whispers, ‘Oh Vince.’
‘Told you that you should never doubt me Lottie.’ He smiles.
Charlotte visits the cavern every day, it as if the glacier has consumed her; at night she dreams of glittering dancers and wakes to find her hands cold. She does yoga to stretch her knee, and though it grinds painfully in their apartment, in the ice cave it does not hurt at all. As if the joint were never damaged. Sorting out staffing has proved difficult. Vince is outraged that although he now scores 100% on both the verbal and written French tests on his app, he struggles to make himself understood in conversation beyond asking for a coffee. Whilst he gestures and gesticulates, miming digging and pointing to the mountains, the pool of potential staff members in Chamonix dwindles. Nobody wants to work for a bad tempered Englishman who expects them to go and serve beers in a glacier.
‘Don’t worry,’ Charlotte tells him, ‘We can start off running it ourselves, once they see what a success it is everybody will want to work for you.’
Opening night. The moon is a swollen globe, beaming down upon the entrance to the cave and casting shadows as Charlotte and Vince show up for their first evening. It seems to Charlotte that the mountains wait in anticipation. She wears a glittering sequinned dress that sparkles in the silver light and reflects off the walls. Her hair is scooped up into a bun and a long necklace trails down her bare back.
‘You look ravishing,’ Vince tells her. She hasn’t dressed like this in a long time. She is calm, standing patiently at the edge of the corridor. They will come. Vince paces fretfully, glancing frequently at his watch. After some time Charlotte climbs up the steps to the stage and does some stretches.
‘Put the music on,’ she says to Vince. Tchaikovsky’s finale enters the glacier eerily, as if it has always belonged here, in this mound of ice. Charlotte is a princess, a swan; she is Odette flirting with the evil sorcerer in the shadows. The cavern glistens and flickers in the muted light, and Charlotte moves as if she never stopped at all.
Vince walks in circles, shakes his head, pours himself a vodka from the ice mermaid’s mouth. He notices Charlotte only when she has stopped to remove her ballet shoes. Too slippy, she says, and dances on barefoot.
That first night not a single customer comes, nor the night after that. Charlotte comes back to life; her edges fill in. Vince’s anger diminishes him. He cannot believe that all of his work has been for nothing. On the third night they enter the cavern as usual, Charlotte’s pulse quickening as Vince’s slows. Half way through the Danse des Petits Cygnes, he brings his hand down on the stereo. Silence slams through the cave.
‘What is it?’ she goes to him, puts her arms around his waist.
‘I’m going to Chamonix, I’m going to bring the punters here myself.’
‘So late? Not today, tomorrow darling, come on. We’re having so much fun.’
‘We? You are having fun. Dancing as if nothing else matters. Our business is collapsing before it’s even had a chance, and all you want to do is dance? I’m going to bring the punters in, you see if I don’t!’ Charlotte follows him along the corridor and out of the entrance, watches his retreating back as he boards the cable car. It lifts him soundlessly, a pod rising through the still air. Then he is gone. As she turns to go back into the cave she feels icy water running over her feet, and looking down she sees a small stream of water running from the entrance. She is used to the melting ice now.
Back in the cave she sits for a long time upon one of the ice chairs. Perhaps she should have gone after him. No. Let him do what he likes. He always does. Pressing play on the stereo she climbs back onto the stage and waits for Tchaikovsky to enter her veins.
But her music does not come. Instead, the chords of an accordion fill the space. It’s not possible. No one has changed the music. She is about to leave the stage to inspect the stereo when a movement by the entrance catches her eye. A sweep of a dress, the clink of a bracelet.
‘Hello?’ she calls out. The woman enters slowly, as if she has stumbled on this place by accident, dark hair tumbling around her shoulders. Her face is painted red white and blue.
‘Bonjour. Bienvenue aux danseurs sur glace’. It’s the limit of Charlotte’s vocabulary; she hopes the woman will speak English. But she does not, and nor do her friends, who stream into the cavern like moths to a flame. Could Vince already have spread the word? They speak in their tongue that is foreign to her and the cavern bubbles with voices. They want drinks, they gesture. They do not want food. She busies herself at the bar, and pours wine and water into carafes that she puts upon the tables. There must be twenty people at least, men, women, a couple of children. They wear plain cotton clothes and many have bare legs and feet. The women wear garlands of flowers in their hair. Their gaiety is infectious. Charlotte relaxes. They are not from Chamonix, that’s for sure. But something tugs at Charlotte’s memory. Bastille Day, in the middle of summer. Red white and blue, Bastille Day colours. Nobody looks cold.
‘Madame, s’il vous plait allez-vous danser pour nous?’ Charlotte recognises the word dance and is jolted from her reverie.
‘Il a ete un long temps puisque nous avons vu danser.’ This is lost on Charlotte, but the word danser is enough. Her audience quietens and the music enters her body in a way that the language cannot. One by one the customers rise and together they move with the music. The night is afire with lightness and laughter, and onwards they dance as the dark gives way to dawn. The sun breaks over the melting mountain and as the villagers dance, Charlotte knows now that she will never stop.
Vince’s body is discovered by German tourists the next day, fallen from the icy rocky path that leads to Chamonix. Local authorities cannot explain the footprints in the snow that lead from the doorsteps of the ruined houses in the village to the glacier. There are none leading back. The collapse of the cavern was inevitable. Too many lights, too much heat. Not enough attention to detail. It’s a fine balance, they say. Accumulation and ablation.