by Jessica Wallis, Founding Director, Ballet in Cleveland
“How can you not love the ballerina you dance with?” asked Jacques D’Amboise, former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, during an interview about his friend and dance partner, Tanaquil LeClercq.
To read Varley O’Connor’s The Master’s Muse is to be taken back. It is to be transported into a place, a time, a life in which… as tragic, and ‘epic’, as it was, we might all long to experience.
I first read The Master’s Muse in July of 2012. Afternoons and evenings spent, quite literally ‘musing’ on Tanny’s interactions with Jerome Robbins, and someone whom I will always always idolize, George Balanchine. It was the same summer I read several biographies on Balanchine and waited for word on funding from The Jerome Robbins Foundation. A summer of learning and even further immersing myself into the psyche of Balanchine, the commensurate genius, the sometimes overlooked talents of Robbins, and the beauty of Tanaquil (affectionately, ‘Tanny’).
From the first page of this novel, one cannot be intrigued by what lies ahead for these lovers, even we balletomanes who know the eventual, and indeed tragic outcome. O’ Connor makes us forget that there is anything other than a bright future for this stunning ballerina and her master.
Part of the intrigue and excitement of the book is that it is told by the point of view of Le Clercq herself. We feel in-touch with her youth, her vibrancy, her energy, her quest for more. More dancing, more rave reviews, more passion. One thing that strikes the reader as she goes along the journey with Tanny is that she never claims to understand the genius that was Balanchine. Although they shared an intense relationship from the beginning, she maintains her realism about the fact that George was not a man who could be truly understood.
Reality is not here on earth, George liked to say, and yet the earthly entranced him and he hungered hugely for it. It is difficult to describe such a complicated man.
-The Master’s Muse, p. 129
I am, and forever will be in awe of George Balanchine. I remember reading that he used to walk through the hallways of the New York State Theater saying, “Must I do it all? Do I have to do everything?!” I often feel like that with my business, knowing that I hold a high standard and that in order for things to be achieved to that standard, it is up to me. Although I could never hold myself to Balanchine’s almost surreal talent, I do feel a connection. However, it was not the fascinating description of Tanny’s relationship with George that most captivated me about this book; it is the connection between she and Jerome Robbins. Robbins seemed to have an unconditional love for Tanny. A kind of love that Balanchine was incapable of. I found their relationship, as evidenced by their letters and the descriptions of their time together the most touching and comforting part of this delicious novel.
Perhaps Tanny’s solace is in knowing Jerry loves her, desires her, and always will. He signs his letters, ‘Your Jerry’, and the reader envisions the smile it must bring to her, for at this point Balanchine is obsessed with Suzanne Farrell, and she is alone. She seems to live for the time they share together, albeit short and bittersweet.
Tanny’s heart breaks slowly over the course of the book, although her spirit never does. She comments about the romance between Farrell and Balanchine. O ‘Connor writes this in a brilliantly relatable way that makes us feel like Le Clercq is just a girlfriend venting about what an unfaithful boyfriend has done.
“Natalie had reported that George and Suzanne were often spotted together at Tip Toe Inn- how appropriate…”
-The Master’s Muse, p. 131
Through it all, we see that Tanaquil LeClercq is a heroine. Her toughness of spirit far exceeding that of the iron lungs that were the literal life breath of she and so many before and after her. It is this brute strength, showcased by such a seemingly delicate creature that is, perhaps, the ‘epic tragedy of Tanny’… as we can only marvel at how much more she could have been.
“Time heals all wounds: this does happen to be true.”
Purchase your copy of The Master’s Muse here. A must read!
After you read Varley O’Connor’s book, for more about Tanaquil LeClercq, George Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins, look for Afternoon of a Faun on your local PBS Station or on your PBS App.
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