The Master's Muse
Varley O'Connor
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Buy *The Master's Muse* by Varley O'Connor online

The Master's Muse
Varley O'Connor
256 pages
May 2012
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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O’Connor gives voice to the arduous life of Tanaquil LeClercq (1929-2000), a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet whose career was cut short when she was stricken with polio and paralyzed from the waist down. Watching her famous husband, George Balanchine foster, relationships with Diana Adams and Suzanne Farrell, Tanaquil was forced to reinvent herself while shouldering the burdens of her disability.

In the haze of nostalgia, the past seeps into the present. “Mr. B” leads the New York City Ballet though the 1957 grand European tour, where in Copenhagen, the shadowy wraiths of his dancers perform to much acclaim. Although Tanaquil is admired for her astonishing depth and complexity, the bonding of a shared passion for a new kind of ballet technique does little to stop the growing tension with her husband. Married for only three years, both master and muse are already in trouble.

For Tanaquil, the resurrection of that fateful night in Venice only serves to point out the horror of her last walk. When she comes down with a slight cold, no one even thinks of polio--not her mother and certainly not George, as the deadness invades her arms and shoulders and strangles her lungs. Amid fever dreams and this strange paralysis, Tanaquil must learn to rely on her imagination as she dances the windswept Serenade and the Faun beneath the full moon.

Focusing on the aftermath of her affliction, O’Connor has her embattled heroine running on music and muscle and heaven, still passionate for a world that she adores but which now seems beyond her grasp. Like all young women, Tanaquil is surprised at the outpouring of love and the hold she still seems to have over ever-elegant Mr. B. Willing to rise above her tragic circumstances but also waylaid by grief, she’s packed off to Warm Springs. There the therapy, leg braces, and parallel bars only reinforce the subtle irony that Tanaquil's life is still so much about her physical self, even after she can no longer dance.

It is hard to envision the adversity of such an existence, especially for dancers who must rely on the use of their body for spiritual, emotional, and financial livelihood. While George surprises us with his continued love, devotion, and loyalty, Tanaquil assumes that, through her love and her acquiescence to all of George’s wayward desires, she will eventually convince her husband to share every aspect of himself with her as he has done with no other.

Although O'Connor centers on Tanaquil’s daily struggles to build a new kind of life, she also focuses on the dancer's friendships with Balanchine’s previous wives. There is also the emotionally exhausting portrayal of Mr. B himself. Once a principal dancer of the Mariinsky ballet, Balanchine is shown as a member of a clan of provocative avant-garde artists determined to embrace a new American dream: the notion that you had to be “inside the dance.” For Balanchine, dancers didn’t just dance to music; they expressed the music itself with the lines of their bodies and the beat of their feet.

A story encompassing LeClercq and Balanchine’s life together is a tall order, but O’Connor easily combines historical sweep with meticulous storytelling and her effortless ability to mix and match tones and styles--sad, erotic, mythic, and tragic--as she sets LeClercq and Balanchine against actual figures of the era: Maria Tallchief, Jerome Robbins, and composer Igor Stravinsky. The author does much to illuminate them, making us care about all of her characters.

Channeling Balanchine's simmering charisma and his outsized (and almost misogynistic) appeal, Tanaquil fixates on making the best of her lot, coping each day with her paralysis and life in a wheelchair, her battered body existing in surroundings so altered that they often seem incomprehensible and uncontrollable. O’Connor daringly recounts Tanaquil’s world, plunging us deep into Balanchine’s refined New York City Ballet where his desire for beauty, exasperation and sour disappointments remain powerful and indelible symbols for the worlds of creativity and dance.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2012

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