Gattaca Meets Black Swan
by Melissa Rose Rogers
I’m illegal: a crime from birth of someone else’s choosing. My older brother was born with congenital heart defects. All in all, he lives a normal life, but my parents never wanted normal. They wanted special, so they looked to illegal genetic engineering, thinking they could hide it.
Artificial reproductive technology has come a long way from best guesses on eye color and hair color. Phenotpying is now manipulated down to minutiae. If the authorities find out, it means prison for the genetic engineers. The process is viewed as playing God, as making choices for someone who doesn’t yet have a voice. The current policy is to hate the sin, the sinner and, to some extent, the one who is sinned against.
I, Arabella, would not suffer legal ramifications for my parents’ decision, but it would be a career-ender for me. In another industry, people might be a little more accepting. In athleticism, however, genetic engineering for embryos is seen as an unfair advantage and results in blacklisting. Everything I’ve worked so hard for would be erased.
Most days I don’t think about my differences, since most are subtle enhancements like having green eyes, even though they’re rare. Some days I’m acutely aware of my differences. I like to think of myself as enhanced rather than engineered. No alleles were added to make me. I was formed from the best combination of my existing genes.
After the fouettés today, my feet are killing me anyway. The Black Swan’s sequence may have just thirty-two fouettés, but I spent hours lurching my body with as much grace as possible from one unnatural position to the next. We’re practicing for Swan Lake. The corps master, Serge, says I have a wandering path in my fouettés like Margot Fonteyn, a British prima ballerina assoluta from the early twentieth century. He kept calling me Fonteyn today, to rub it in. I don’t hate the comparison, but I want to be perfect. Isn’t that the ultimate aim of ballet? Perfection?
* * *
Julia, one of the corps dancers, invited me to coffee after work. She sips a decaf mocha latte without whipped cream: she’s watching her calories despite being tall and slim. I’m having a decaf cappuccino with whipped cream, drizzle, and gingerbread biscotti white chocolate. Guilt hits me as I wonder if this is Julia’s dinner. Anorexia is so prevalent among corps dancers. It’s one of those unspoken pains besmirching ballet. The warm lighting makes her fiery freed curls seem even redder.
Julia looks around as if she’s expecting someone. I follow her gaze, not knowing who or what she’s looking for.
She relaxes before saying in a low voice, “A little bird told me the League is sending an inspector in the next few days to check for PED’s.” She gulps down more coffee.
I don’t say anything. Inspectors scare me. Every time the League observes us, it seems closer to my secret.
“I hate it when they send inspectors,” she sighs. “It feels like we lose so much progress because everything’s under scrutiny and everyone’s nervous.”
Performance-enhancing drugs have long been banned in sports, but it wasn’t addressed in ballet until a class action lawsuit against multiple companies from failed auditionees charged that they had been passed over in favor of steroid users. LPD — the League of Professional Dancers — enforces anti-doping with guidelines similar to the Olympic Standard. In the last Summer Olympics, it was discovered that one of the gold medalists had been genetically engineered. His medal was revoked, and the Olympic Standard now includes testing for genetic engineering. Sooner than later, the LPD will add CRISPR-Cas9 off-target DNA cleavage detection to root out genetic engineering as well.
I gulp my coffee hoping it’ll drown the butterflies. It seems like the LPD is always sending investigators, like they don’t believe we should be as good as we are. I know several of the dancers use Rhinadrene for endurance and muscle-building; I’ve seen the bottles and syringes.
“How did you hear about this?” I ask.
“A few years ago I danced the Grand Prix, and my partner Isaac was injured. He went on to be a League investigator. He let me know he’d be in the area. He has a thing for me.” She does a little shrug.
“You look nervous,” she says. “I know you don’t use PEDs. I would have noticed. You’re just one of those lucky divas with hyper-flexible hips and ridiculous feet. I hate you a little for that.”
“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful,” I chuckle half-heartedly. She laughs.
“It’ll be good to see Isaac. It’s been years since I’ve seen him.” She twirls a curl.
* * *
I lurch awake, sweating and with my heart pounding. I dreamt they took it all away: my parents imprisoned, my career over, my life ruined. It felt so real. The clock reads five in the morning. Trying to slow my heart, I take a deep breath and hold it. In the dream, Isaac figured out my secret. I don’t know what he looks like, but I dreamt he was paunchy since his injury. I wonder: does he resent dancers using PEDs because he regrets not having used them himself?
Rolling out of bed, I turn on the lamp. In the light, things don’t seem so bad. I look at my perfect feet, and point my left foot. Other dancers would kill for arches as flexible as mine. I fondue forward and stare into the dresser mirror. Ballet is my life. No one will take that away from me, no matter the cost.
* * *
“You’re all over the place,” Japeth whispers. Serge has been scrutinizing the Corps de Ballet dancers intensely this morning. I scan the room. Serge’s attention is drawn to someone’s arabesque that isn’t quite enough. His voice is low and his brow furrowed.
“I’m sorry. I have a lot on my mind,” I say.
Japeth smiles. “Let it all fall away. Focus on me and the next step.” Sweat glistens on his scalp between the coils of his dark hair.
There are three people besides the doctors who engineered me that know what I am: myself, my mother, and my father. Even my brother doesn’t know.
Japeth hoists me high into the sky. I feel his strength underneath me. Japeth wouldn’t tell a soul. Perhaps I should tell him. I’ve known him since I came to the corps house three years ago. Soon after I began solo work and then became the principal dancer. The last principal dancer tore her ACL on a skiing trip and never recovered.
“Reach for the sky, Arabella!” Serge commands, attention back on me. I stretch my arms to their fullest. He shouldn’t have to tell me that; I should do it automatically. Worries are pulling me down literally and figuratively. The resolve I felt earlier is gone.
* * *
“Let’s go to dinner. My treat,” says Japeth at the end of the day. His grin is brilliant against his deep skin. I can’t help but smile back.
“Don’t you have a date with the gym?” I turn, clutching my pointe shoes.
“It’s Friday. I’ll make up for it tomorrow. Besides I think lifting you as much as I did today counts for weight lifting.” His own smile falters. “Not that you’re heavy or anything.”
“What did you have in mind?” I tap the dense toe boxes of my worn shoes against each other, creating an echo.
“Italian?” he asks.
“Vietnamese?” He shifts as if expecting rejection.
“Sounds lovely. As soon as I hit the shower and smell decent, I’m game.”
“See you in a few.”
I’m still smiling as I head to the pointe shoe room. This was the last day’s use out of these shoes, so I turn them in to be processed and sold to fans. They’ll have a new pair waiting for me Monday.
As the shower drizzles over me, I try to let my anxiety dissipate down the drain. I get my breathing under control and shut the water off. I’m about to enjoy a meal with the co-worker I spend more time with than anyone else. He’s my friend and could be my confidant, but I’m too tightlipped, and that probably won’t change.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Melissa Rose Rogers