The Master’s Muse: A Novel

  • Varley O'Connorm P, Performing
  • Scribner
  • 256 pp.

A fictionalized look at the marriage of ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq and choreographer George Balanchine after Le Clercq’s dancing career ends due to polio.

Reviewed by Karen Hansen

Twenty-seven-year-old dancer Tanaquil Le Clercq was a celebrated prima ballerina with the New York City Ballet when she contracted polio on a European tour in 1956. Le Clercq suffered permanent muscle damage from her bout with polio; she spent the remainder of her life confined to a wheelchair. An early winter performance of Jerome Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun” with dancer Jacques D’Amboise would be the last time Le Clercq, the fifth wife of choreographer George Balanchine, danced. The Master’s Muse by Varley O’Connor is the fictionalized story of the emotional duet of Le Clercq and Balanchine during her illness, recovery and reinvention of herself.

Le Clercq, an intensely private person in real life, was reluctant to discuss her personal or professional life with outsiders. She wrote neither an autobiography nor a memoir. O’Connor conducted extensive research, relying on film, videos, books, publications and interviews in order to construct dialogue that gives life to Tanaquil Le Clercq and her relationship with George Balanchine.

The Master’s Muse differs from recent fictionalized memoirs, such as The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, in that Le Clercq was a powerhouse of talent in her own right. She was at the pinnacle of her career and fame when she contracted polio. Her technique and graceful fluidity inspired choreographers such as Jerome Robbins and Merce Cunningham to create dances. Balanchine considered Le Clercq the “ideal Balanchine dancer … American legs … small head … light bones.” He choreographed “La Valse” and “Metamorphoses” for her. Both dances remain in the repertory of the New York City Ballet.

Returning to New York after receiving treatment at Warm Springs, Le Clercq suffered from nightmares that left her exhausted and depressed. She dreamed she “kept falling and awakening … the dreamscape of juxtapositions … in my old body but in surroundings altered enough they were incomprehensible and uncontrollable.”

Le Clercq does not behave like a martyr, nor was she humbled by her illness. With a will of steel, she raged against her pain, her physical limitations and her separation from the dance world. Balanchine encouraged her to teach ballet, telling Le Clercq that resilience is the key to redefining oneself. To Balanchine, who suffered miserably from poor health and hunger during the Russian Revolution, “every day’s good, like a bonus.”

When Le Clercq decides to refocus her energy on new endeavors, she throws herself into each project with the same intense drive and work ethic she applied to studying with Balanchine and perfecting her craft. She wrote for three hours a day and produced two books. After coaching members of the New York City Ballet, she goes on to a career as a dance teacher at Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem.

The novel traces the relationship of Balanchine and Le Clercq from her diagnosis with polio through their later years. The two remained married for 13 years following her illness. Balanchine’s infatuation with the talented young dancer Suzanne Farrell was the final crack that fractured their marriage. However, Balanchine and Le Clercq remained in each other’s lives until his death.

O’Connor, the daughter of a polio survivor, is particularly skillful at realistically portraying Le Clercq’s emotions and thoughts during the active stage of her disease and in the months and years following her recovery as she struggles to reinvent her life. LeClercq despised the iron lung, which was “warm and womblike at first,” but “at night the bellows of my green metal bed was the breathing of monsters, a horror ballet … Eurydice … cannot be saved.” She laments the paralysis of her legs, which could once “squeeze men to death, turn a floor into a Stradivarius, conquer Balanchine’s wickedly fast pas de cheval …” and are now lifeless, “thin, white as snow, limp.”

From her research, O’Connor developed historically based, insightful portraits of people whose influence was critical to the nascent New York City Ballet, such as co-founder Lincoln Kirstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins, which will intrigue readers.

O’Connor’s interweaving of history, fact and imagination results in a convincing and realistic voice for Le Clercq. The author’s adherence to historical accuracy results in a few awkward passages that seem to jar the flow of the story. It isn’t clear why LeClecq reports on Robbins’ testimony before the House Un-American Affairs Committee after describing a day trip the two took to Staten Island.

Nevertheless, O’Connor has written a highly readable, absorbing account of the interdependence between Tanaquil Le Clercq and George Balanchine, a relationship that allowed her to survive polio and explore avenues outside dance, and him to create new dances and build one of the preeminent ballet companies in the world.

Le Clercq is an appealing character, beautiful and talented, but also intelligent, pensive and loyal. While she expresses gratitude to Balanchine for his support, acknowledging “He had seen me regain my zest for life, seen me bloom again,” she remains a fiercely independent, dignified woman who chooses to live her life by her own rules.

This is novel is a must read for dance fans and anyone interested in the relationship of Balanchine and Le Clercq.

Karen Hansen is a writer with a special interest in medicine and the arts. A former producer for CBS News in New York, she is currently working on a book about the 1951 Broadway musical, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

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