Friday, June 22, 2012

The Master's Muse

I did

It is that good.  Ooooh, and lest the cover throw you off--no, you do not have to be a balletomane to relish the book (although ballet fans will undoubtedly eat this up).  This is more than a novel about ballet.

Tanaquil Le Clercq, as her mother never failed to point out to the other mothers of her daughter's ballerina colleagues, was a prima ballerina.  A protege of famed choreographer George Balanchine. Balanchine-- a Russian emigree who made the New York City Ballet a powerhouse in the international ballet world and brought ballet to the American masses through his Nutcracker productions.  Balanchine tended to fall in love--and marry--his young stars, and Le Clercq soon became his fifth wife.  Worldwide fame, appearing on the cover of Time magazine, and creating sublime ballets together was everyday life for the couple.  That is, until she contracted polio.

With the dread of polio a distant memory for many Americans, it's difficult to imagine the fear caused by the disease and the pain it caused its survivors. The imprisonment and disfigurement into which it forced its victims must have been unimaginable.  For a ballerina at the height of her career, it was unthinkable. 

Balanchine, determined that Le Clercq would recover, devised a recovery plan for his wife;  at the same time, she became an object of pity and dismay in the ballet community.  At first the devoted husband, Balanchine's attention eventually turned to a beautiful young dancer, Suzanne Farrell.  Their Don Quixote ballet, in which Farrell danced the part of Dulcinea with Balanchine's Quixote, was a sensation, not just for the artistry of the ballet but for Balanchine's obvious obsession with Farrell. Naturally, Le Clercq was
 incensed and humiliated; she alternated  between wanting to end the marriage and refusing to grant Balanchine a divorce.

O'Connor, the daughter of a polio survivor, has created a vivid, vibrant, and memorable portrayal of the ballet star, her physical and emotional struggles with polio, and her complicated relationship with Balanchine.  Secondary characters, including Le Clercq's confidante, the celebrated Broadway and ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins, are skillfully woven into the story.  Ballet is, of course, a centerpiece of the novel, but never to the point that it alienates those not familiar with ballet terms and techniques. O'Connor artfully recreates the 1950s American ballet scene, in which Balanchine was a household name and stars appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and on numerous magazine covers. Le Clercq is neither a saint or a victim in O'Connor's interpretation.  The Master's Muse is not just a ballet novel; it's a remarkable novel about a woman struggling and coping with a cruel twist of fate.  I know this will be on my 2012 favorite reads list.

If you're in the mood for more dance-centered books after The Master's Muse:

Dancing on My Grave: An Autobiography

Gelsey Kirkland was also a young protege of Balanchine; in her autobiography, co-authored with her first husband, Kirkland candidly reveals her ballet career and her struggles with eating disorders and drug addiction.  She continued her life story in The Shape of Love (which I have not read).

George Balanchine co-authored 101 Stories of the Great Ballets.

Suzanne Farrell wrote her autobiography in 1990.

I must read Maria Tallchief's autobiography; the half-Native American ballerina created the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the first Balanchine Nutcracker and was also Balanchine's wife.

Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet received fantastic reviews when it was published in 2010, but I never got around to reading it. Must correct that ASAP.

You can check out author Varley O'Connor's website here.

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