Varley O’Connor
Scribner ($25)

by Erin Lewenauer

Varley O’Connor’s dynamic and remarkable portrait of Tanaquil “Tanny” Le Clercq investigates the cost of being a muse. The novel, O’Connor’s fourth, follows the interior life of Tanny, a student at the School of American Ballet who quickly ascends to principal dancer for the New York City Ballet by age twenty-three and marries its artistic director, George Balanchine, becoming his fifth wife. Tanny reflects, “I think I responded to George so profoundly because he taught me how dancing took us beyond our own little selves . . . Ballet linked us to other cultures and other times, through its history. And as living dancers, we carried the past into the future.”

Tanny’s narration follows her relationship with dance and Balanchine, echoing the autobiographies of other dancers, and her voice vacillates between irritatingly prim and wildly confessional. Any whimsical moments are quickly balanced by a cruel or unflinching thought. In 1956, while touring with the company, Tanny contracts polio and finds she will never walk again. The disease moves her from a life of fame to a life of privacy, and her understanding of her loss is vivid: “One day I was able to sit up enough for a full view of my legs—my legs, which had been able to squeeze men to death, turn a floor into a Stradivarius, conquer Balanchine’s wickedly fast pas de cheval, the horse step straight up onto pointe. My legs: my weapons, my wings.”

To add insult and isolation to serious injury, Balanchine has numerous affairs, yet Tanny’s love and even lust for him is persistent. Her husband’s dalliances and the disease, however, divide and organize Tanny’s life into something new. On a trip to the theater she notices “the work of getting there—the time to dress, the station wagon with room for the chair, how my muscleman hoisted me, like a sack of potatoes, for the transfer to the car, how we’d do it again at the theater, discreetly from a back entrance, and go up with the chair in the freight elevator . . . Now there was time for everything: the fascination of the ballet itself, flowers, love, how the days opened out long and bright like a scarf.” She constructs her identity around her new circumstances, but her core—her beauty, vanity, and spirit—remains.

Balanchine’s obsession with Suzanne Ferrell marks the end of his marriage to Tanny. Of Suzanne, Tanny says, “I dreamed her before I saw her. I dreamed of being inside a house burning down.” Of Balanchine, “He had always been interested in the lives of young girls, in their problems, hair, clothes, the aches and pains of their young bodies from what he asked them to do. They were his material.” And yet, Tanny’s spirit continues to transform and expand. She writes several books, including a book for children and a cookbook, and begins a new career of teaching which presents her with new challenges.

The Master’s Muse is intensely lyrical; Tanny’s bottomless voice travels like the mind, skimming and diving into her tormented psychology. Furthermore, the book is populated with familiar characters of the dance world of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. In dialogue with Tanny, these characters all tell their own stories through episodes of their lives. Tanny too, often speaks in insightful vignettes, revealing much in a single paragraph. The collection of small details and large stories build an evocative and memorable atmosphere of the dance world.

A novelization of real-life figures is always risky business, even when its subjects have passed away; O’Connor’s biggest success is that she seems to channel Tanny, writing into her life rather than over it. Of course, while O’Connor follows the basic structure and known facts of Tanny and surrounding characters’ lives, the rest is a skillful fabrication. And in this imagining, we can learn from Tanny’s life despite the fact that she never wrote an autobiography.

Perhaps most importantly, O’Connor’s graceful and dense prose, which often mirrors the intricacies of dance itself, traps a reader in Tanny’s mind as she herself was trapped when her body failed her. In a sense, Tanny embodies and redefines power, glamour, grace, and romance as she tells her story; she was a dancer inside and out. Tanny concludes, “I wrote down what dancing had taught me and what I still believed: that chaos could be mastered, life and ourselves made capable of order, and that order and beauty could be one.” O’Connor has opened a portal into the elusive world of dance and the mind of an artist.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012