The Master's Muse: A Novelby Varley O'Connor
So begins The Master’s Muse, an exquisite, deeply affecting novel about the true love affair between two artistic legends: George Balanchine, the Russian émigré to America who is widely considered the Shakespeare of dance, and his wife and muse, Tanaquil Le/i>/i>
“We set our sights on each other almost from the beginning.”
So begins The Master’s Muse, an exquisite, deeply affecting novel about the true love affair between two artistic legends: George Balanchine, the Russian émigré to America who is widely considered the Shakespeare of dance, and his wife and muse, Tanaquil Le Clercq.
Copenhagen, 1956: Tanaquil Le Clercq, known as Tanny, is a gorgeous, talented, and spirited young ballerina whose dreams are coming true. She is married to the love of her life, George Balanchine— the famous mercurial director of New York City Ballet. She dances the best roles in his newest creations, has been featured in fashion magazines and television dramas, socializes with the country’s most renowned artists and intellectuals, and has become a star around the world. But one fateful evening, only hours after performing, Tanny falls suddenly and gravely ill; she awakens from a feverous sleep to find that she can no longer move her legs.
Tanny is diagnosed with polio and Balanchine quits the ballet to devote himself to caring for his wife. He crafts exercises to help her regain her strength, deepening their partnership and love for each other. But in the ensuing years, after Tanny discovers she will never walk again, their relationship is challenged as she endeavors to create a new identity for herself and George returns to the company, choreographing ballets inspired by the ever-younger, more beautiful and talented dancers. Their marriage is put to the ultimate test as Tanny battles to redefine her dreams and George throws himself into his art.
The Master’s Muse is an evocative imagining of the deep yet complicated love between a smart, beautiful woman and her charismatic, ambitious husband; it is the story of an extraordinary collaboration in art and in life.
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Read an Excerpt
We danced at the Biennale in Venice while it was still hot, while the canals stank and rats skittered in the alleys and sunned themselves on the ledges of fountains. Then it turned brittle cold. The day we left I couldn’t distinguish between the fog and the puff of my breath.
In Frankfurt, we were informed that Stravinsky had suffered a stroke conducting in Berlin and was not expected to live. Almost nothing could have upset George more than the possible loss of his artistic father, collaborator, and friend. He couldn’t sleep at night, and I ended up sleeping in Mother’s room to get the rest I needed for performance. Everyone felt the pall of his gloom.
Making it worse, George and I weren’t getting along. I suspected that he was infatuated with Diana Adams, another dancer in the company who happened to be my best friend. I had no real evidence. My husband, far as I could see, attended to the usual sprains and emergencies, rehearsed replacements that had to be made. But I could feel it.
We called the long, late summer and autumn tour of 1956 the German tour, because of Stravinsky prostrate in Berlin. The previous year, so very different, we’d begun in Nice, on to the flowers and sea and palm trees of Monte Carlo. The grand duchess came backstage with a bouquet from the prince of Monaco. I didn’t like crowded Marseille, the rough stage ripped the satin right off our shoes. From there we took the train to Lyon, where they gave us a lovely reception in the park and the mayor invited us to the palace. Florence in May was warm and sunny, and we danced on a huge stage with a good floor. I didn’t care for Lisbon, we were like film stars there, the people threw belts, ribbons, men’s collars to autograph, they’d clutch at our clothes, and I couldn’t understand a word they said. In France it was easy for me, and in Italy too, though I don’t speak Italian. In Italy I spoke French, English, and pantomime. In Stuttgart I bought beautiful cobalt-blue pottery and two feather quilts, rose and moss green. Amsterdam was exquisite, the canals, the paved streets, and the little white houses.
I thought of that tour lying awake in Mother’s room throughout our stay in Frankfurt, then in Brussels, with the days getting shorter and colder, as if the earlier tour were extant, parallel, proof that happiness and ease weren’t myths.
In Antwerp I spun off the stage and nearly fell in the wings, catching myself by clutching at ropes. Upright again, I was soaked through with sweat. Mouths moved on girls rushing by, but I couldn’t hear them. Somebody had shut off the sound, and the girls looked like ghosts. Sounds shot back and boomed, and I started violently shaking.
George came to my dressing room, a cramped trap that had a wide upholstered chair, where I huddled, cloaked in my old flannel bathrobe. He got in the chair beside me and rubbed my arms, and I calmed.
“No more sleeping with Mama,” he said. I could see he was worried about me. We had just learned Stravinsky was stable, and I tried not to link George’s openness and care to mere relief.
“You don’t love me,” I said. He didn’t answer, but he didn’t leave.
In the morning I felt better. Mother said if I lost one more ounce, the audience wouldn’t be able to see me. Since Venice she hovered, bringing me milkshakes thick with cream, white as her hair. It was quite strange because overall I was dancing effectively. I would drink Mother’s elixir, gag down a couple pieces of steak, and go on as if my muscles weren’t seizing. Onstage they revived, and in Paris I danced the best swan queen of my career.
I remember little of Paris. Ordinarily on trips to Paris I went to museums and cafés, I bought out the shops of gloves and perfume, but that year I stayed in and rested. This time Paris was a mission, saving myself, compressing myself into dancing well, showing George, proving that I could go on regardless of our future as a couple, and proving to myself that I wasn’t sick.
At night I lay in the bath then slid into bed and unconsciousness easily, dimly aware for a minute or two of George quietly moving about the room so he wouldn’t disturb me.
On the morning we disembarked from Cologne, I discovered that I hadn’t brought enough of the powdered dextrose many of us used in those days. I was riveted by the conviction that I couldn’t dance without it. I asked girls on the train and nobody had any. Mother hadn’t brought any extra, and as my options gave out I turned desperate. George claimed a cup of coffee would work equally well, that we girls were basically taking, “What they call? Placebo. The kick’s in your heads.”
I’m finished, I thought.
Arriving in Scandinavia, clammy in my coat, mittens, and hat, I thought, just get through Copenhagen, Stockholm. . . . Mother and George believed I felt a cold coming on, and with each day Stravinsky remained on the planet George acted more chipper.
We finished unpacking in our room with the brocaded wallpaper, in Copenhagen, before going over to the theater for a run-through.
“Did you pray for Igor?” I asked.
George sniffed, unsure it wasn’t a mock.
“What do you mean, did I pray? I always pray.”
“I mean especially hard?”
“Since when you take interest in religion?” and he picked up his keys and said, “Let’s go. I’ll let you out fast, you can come back and rest.”
I sat on the horsehair mattress smelling of straw. “Do you pray in Russian?”
I tried to laugh, but it hurt my chest. I said, “Tell me a prayer.”
“Come on, I will on the way over.”
“In Russian,” I said.
Shoving me through the door, he said, “Sure, Russian.”
A car waited for us downstairs and we rode to the theater with Diana and another dancer, who hopped down the sidewalk in the cold.
“Diana!” George called. “Yvonne!” I watched, a fist in my throat, as he greeted them—beautiful, long, dark-haired Diana, and equally dark and beautiful, voluptuous Yvonne.
The Royal Opera House was magnificent, red velvet and gilt, carvings and soaring arches, a cathedral of art. George was ballet master there in his youth for a season. But, wed to the past, the Danes didn’t want his ballets. George said Denmark grew the most beautiful women in the world like grass, but so what? They didn’t make anything of them. Since George had become such a star, the Danes had invited him back. He brought us and quietly gloated.
He let me go after only an hour’s rehearsal, saying I was out of Bourrée Fantasque for tomorrow. I would dance only one ballet for the opening and conserve my forces.
Outside the theater I did not hail a cab, I ducked away from King’s Plaza, dodging a streetcar that surged through teeming people on bikes, and set out along smaller streets, searching for dextrose. Ludicrous, because how would I ask for it? Where would it be? I had decided, however, that it would save me.
Copenhagen was handsome, rather like Prague. Because of dark autumns and winters, from four o’clock on candles flickered in banks and office buildings. In the lobby of our hotel you could barely walk for the pots of rust-colored and violet mums chockablock on the marble floor. Mother had threatened to steal one of the filigreed sterling sconces. Interiors in the north, George said, were everything.
I didn’t feel cold anymore. I smelled the sea. I thought of finding the Tivoli Gardens, but then I remembered they were closed. I knew Mother would worry if I didn’t head back to the hotel soon, and I was reminded of stories George told me about the mother of Tamara Toumanova, his first very young star, his “baby ballerina.” Mama Toumanova wore each new pair of Tamara’s slippers herself, tromping about, softening them so her daughter wouldn’t get hurt. Mama stood in the wings and called, “Four pirouettes, Tamara!” Yes, my mother, Edith, came on tour with us far too often and watched every one of my performances, but she wasn’t that bad. She even laughed at the sign on the dressing room door of the corps in New York at City Center, NO MOTHERS ALLOWED.
Damn, Tamara could dance. She could balance forever. George made the role I was now dancing in Symphony in C on Tamara, and I’d heard that at the difficult balance where the cavalier circles her in the grand tour, Tamara would let go of his hand. You had to knock her off pointe. I had yet to let go of the man’s hand, though I didn’t clamp on to it anymore.
It was pleasant out walking alone with nobody watching me, nobody asking how I felt. Strangers passed on the sidewalks and laughed inside yellow squares. Soon candles were lit. At cafés people sat outside wrapped in blankets, warmed by long metal heaters. I began to see stars.
There was a statue of the Little Mermaid nearby, perched on a rock by the water. I wished I could find her. Then I recalled that Hans Christian Andersen chopped out her tongue, as if the tail were not bad enough.
I didn’t see one single drugstore or grocery. You’d think in a large international city somebody might have a bag of corn sugar. Fatigue overtook me. I’d come to a park in a square and sat down on a bench. Cars, clusters of bicycles passed rapidly. I knew to go back, go to bed. But I watched the stars. I liked being out in the open air, free. I felt momentarily very good in my good old body. I could start over. I could do anything. I was twenty-seven years old.
The Danes saved their Jews. Thinking this churned my emotions, and I pictured the bombed buildings of Florence, the one bridge left spanning the River Arno—what was it? The Ponte Vecchio. What year had it been? 1952. Then I thought of my father, who was connected in a way I wanted to grasp to the problem between George and me. It wasn’t just that Mother and Father were separated. My father was a distinguished man, a scholar and a poet. George was as fascinated by him in the beginning as he had been by Maria’s father, who was marginally an American Indian chief. Father told George about Mallarmé speaking of a dancer as “writing with her body.”
I always liked dancing, but I was also always a bit of a lazy thing. Poor Father coped surprisingly well with my laziness, my lack of ambition in school: “What are you doing, Tanaquil?”
“Nothing,” slouched on the couch.
“Nothing will come of nothing.”
“So true.” What a brat, and Papa smiled mildly, continuing into his study. Despite his restraint, a father who named his daughter for an Etruscan queen had a few expectations.
When the dancing caught, he said, “Fine. Just do it well.” Mother was apoplectic with joy. In Mother’s St. Louis, becoming a ballerina wasn’t done. She read widely, traveled, married a glamorous Frenchman, and times changed.
There is a photograph of me at eleven months in Cannes, before we moved to New York. I’m holding on to a grille at the side of our building en pointe. Not technically, of course, but I’m already at the barre.
We were a family whose problem was we didn’t talk. Or I should say, our words were games, bilingual tennis matches. For us words themselves were too potent to trust as conveyors of emotion, of need, as if words taken seriously could kill or enslave. In fact, and this was the irony, words were everything for Father. As he and Mother drifted apart, while Mother got more involved with me, Father increasingly shut himself up in his study with liquor and books.
One night I dashed in distraught over a failed rehearsal and Father opened the study door, wafting brandy, eyes crimson in his narrow face. Swaying, but ever charming, he bashfully smiled and said, “Ma chère, I finished my translation of Villon tonight.” François Villon, poet-thief of Father’s cherished French medieval literature, though I’d had not an inkling of the project. We should have celebrated, with tea or cocoa at that juncture, yes. He could have read me a poem, I could have confided in him about my rehearsal—except Mother was finished with him. I copied her behavior, and nothing of this was discussed. The actual separation took years. I was a kid; I don’t blame Mother. Some women prefer kids to men and some want men forever and the kids are a big interference, and there are other gradations, such as how personalities mesh and so on. But inside, Father and I were alike, much more than Mother and I.
I wished in Copenhagen, face to the stars, that I hadn’t said, “Swell!” and hurried to my room. I wished I hadn’t been schooled to be light and gay and afraid of the passion in Father and in me. I wished George hadn’t fallen for me because I was funny and bright and long-legged and that, from the first, we had talked about more than dancing. I wished I had seen him more, seen Father more. Been more.
I wondered if Mother’s coming along this year on tour had spoiled the chance of a remedy, a renewal. I worried she served as a buffer between George and me, enabling him to do whatever he wanted with minimal questions and complications.
But as Mother herself might have said, how much could one affect, control? Father lived through written words as George lived through dancers’ bodies, and Father loved drink, and George got messed up as a kid in Russia eating cats off the street and replacing his absent family with music and girls.
The chill jarred me, the intricate scrollwork on a lamppost, the pristine condition of the park, its design, and the exoticism of the language I could hear snapped me back to my senses and I dropped the idea of the dextrose.
I stood like the Etruscan queen I was named for and hailed the gleaming black coach coming toward me. I deserved to be a queen, I thought, because I worked hard as a miner.
It had proved bracing, lingering outside alone, on my last walk through a city forever.
In the morning I awoke with a cold. Friday went swimmingly. George called music the water and us the fish. In his vernacular I could be angelfish, catfish, swordfish, or crab cake on a bad day. In another vein, my legs were columns, wands, whips, scissors, coltlike, needle-sharp, arrows, garrotes, and once, in an embarrassing class, he said, “Asparagus. Cooked asparagus.” Oh, the trials of learning to dance.
He checked on me as I lay in the bath on Friday after the opening-night performance and gala. In relief, or out of hysteria, I tried to get him to kiss me, but he wouldn’t.
“Rudolph red nose, I’m not getting sick.” His eyes skimmed my breasts, though, afloat in the water, and I began to believe I could get him back. I wanted him back. I said a silent pagan prayer that Diana or whoever the hell it was would elope and grow huge with child overnight. That was the one-way ticket out of the Balanchine kingdom.
I didn’t desire a child, being fully aware of George’s feelings on the subject. Other relationships of his had ended over “the baby question,” and anyway, having been in physical training since the age of seven, my plans for my postdancing life did not include labor. I thought I might lie around for a couple years and then play Joan of Arc on the stage and star in a sexy film with Sinatra.
There was the slightest heaviness in my left thigh. I lifted it from the water, testing. Champagne? The single glass I’d had at the party?
Back in the room, steam clung to the brocaded wallpaper, making the walls look swollen.
My thigh had this hitch, getting in bed.
Some said it took so long to become evident because I was strong. Others said the severity of my case resulted from my exertion during the incubation period. No one could pinpoint when I’d been infected, but George believed it had happened in Venice.
Saturday blurred. I was feverish. It is the repetition—the thousands of repetitions for each single motion you execute on a stage—that carries you through. I got through the matinee.
My back ached. I stretched out on my dressing room floor, deciding I’d stay there and rest until the evening performance. Dear Betty, our company manager, brought me a thick rug and one of the long metal heaters, a Danish delight!
I must have slept. George opened the door in pitch-dark. I knew it was him by the click of the knob, the efficient care he took doing all things, by his firm light tread, and his cologne—too cloying, I’d thought at first, then it mixed with the warming earth of him and I grew to love it.
The light. I drew my arm across my eyes.
“You don’t tell anyone your plans?” he asked me.
You care? I thought. I didn’t say it, too sick. I sat up. “I’m tired,” I said.
“Come,” he said, and, taking his warm dry hand, I stood. “Can you eat?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Can you dance tonight?”
We stood face-to-face, his bow tie slightly askew—I corrected it—his hair less tidy than I preferred—I pushed back dark strands twinkled with silver, gathered them through the others. His charisma, his mystery, his genius, and his fame too, yes, attracted me to him, and yet more than anything it was our world together, the studio and the classes and the tours and our apartment with the stupid plants I kept buying although they got dusty and died because we’d be gone—our world I most loved, one running on music and muscle and, heavens, more even than that: his body. His strong lean body.
“Hug me,” I said, and he wrapped me, full-body hug—our lengths together, his chin against my shoulder and head against mine.
“You’re hot,” he said.
“Not too.” I felt better.
“Where do you hurt?”
“My back.” My left leg is heavy, I said only in my mind.
“I’ll get you massage tonight.”
“Yes.” Dear Rat, I thought. I wouldn’t have said it aloud. But it was part of his sweetness, and I needed that. His parents left him as a child at the Imperial School. They shaved his head. With the head and the teeth and his sniffs and his, even then, supercilious expression when inanimate, when he wasn’t consumed by laughter, dance, music—well, the kids at the school called him Rat, and he ran away. Brought back, he secluded himself, playing piano. But one day he had looked through a keyhole at older dancers, three ballerinas at practice, and he saw something interesting. It appealed to his intelligence. They looked as though they were solving a puzzle. He thought he could do it. He liked it. He gave himself to it and it saved him. So, Rat. My Rat.
He pulled back. “You’ll be all right?”
“I’ll have them bring milk.”
He grazed my jaw with the backs of his fingers and left, and the space he had occupied rang.
I washed, redid my makeup, and crosshatched my slippers. I danced.
The next day’s matinee I danced Afternoon of a Faun, a ballet created by my good friend Jerome Robbins—easy steps, short, you came on, and out of motion wove an impression, and the Europeans went wild. I adored Jerry’s Faun for its atmosphere and its poetry. I stood in the wings pretending it was a hot summer day. I knocked wood and went through the door, stepping into the white silk room drifting as if from a breeze—fans blowing backstage—against the blue cyclorama of sky. Debussy’s music held me, told me the manner of the ballet. Swimming through my partner’s arms, staring into the mirror, the water—reflection. Such bliss: lifts, sudden surges, flicking my hair off my neck. Toward the end, Jacques kissed my cheek. My hand touched the spot. My eyes turned to him and, slowly, turned back away to aloneness, lost once more in self, and then I was going, walking those wonderful deer steps of Jerry’s offstage. Soon came the applause. I listened that day. I’ll never forget how that day I listened.
As I rested limply in my dressing room the sickness took me, traveling through me and pushing out of my pores, spilling heat that seemed to glow and settle like sand on the mirror, the lights, the brushes, the tube of greasepaint on my dressing room table, my costumes, those skins hanging on their glowing wires. I sank to the edge of a chair, too weak to do more than pick up my robe, could not even put it around my sore shoulders. Hearing a voice in the hallway, I called to it, any voice, told it to bring George, and he came. I said, “It must be a very bad flu.” He got me changed, bundled me in my coat, hat, and mittens, but we didn’t take off my makeup.
Mother creamed my face back at the hotel. I lay in the bath, I lay in bed, but I couldn’t sleep. Nothing helped. Hours passed, George in and out, Mother imploring me to drink water, but I couldn’t. I asked who was dancing for me tonight. Otherwise it was just ache and time and the swollen flocking on the wallpaper turning to fanciful shapes—orchid, pinwheel, a rabbit scampering onto the dresser.
George leaned over me and I nearly retched at the scent of vodka on his breath—crossing the Atlantic from Paris to New York, I was three, Mother was seasick, and I saw again her green face, her pale lips, Oh, gods—she rocked in the berth—curse the odor of onion soup.
“Do you want a doctor? Tanny?”
Shook my head no, no doctor, afraid of what he might find. “Sleep,” I said, and at dawn it came.
Smoke. George was out on the balcony having a cigarette. Morning light, hazed by the drab day, filled the room like dirty dishwater.
What was yesterday?
I got sick.
I must be better.
I didn’t ache nearly so much.
Letting him smoke, I sat up. But I couldn’t swing my legs over the side of the bed.
I pulled off the cover. I tested my toes. Nothing. Ache, though. It was still there. Flex?
Wouldn’t. Knees wouldn’t respond. The heavy left thigh was heavier. So was the right. Even my hips weren’t mine. Wait. Try again. No response.
When I spoke, my tone was steady. I was too disoriented to panic. It was all too odd.
I called, “George, I want to get up and I can’t move my legs.”
Meet the Author
Varley O’Connor is the author of three novels. She teaches fiction and creative nonfiction writing at Kent State University and for the Northeast Ohio Universities Consortium MFA program.
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