Book Review: Polio took her dream; he gave her his

Friday, May 18, 2012

"The Master's Muse," by Varley O'Connor. Scribner, 248 pp. $25.

In 1953, Tanaquil "Tanny" Le Clercq, a talented young ballerina married to the artistic legend George Balanchine, woke up in her bed and could not feel her legs.

She was a victim of polio, a highly-contagious disease that attacks the body from the central nervous system out. No one is entirely sure where she may have contracted the disease, but they do know that she was not given the vaccine; at that time, the vaccine was limited, and only the younger ballerinas were treated.

Tanny will not walk again, and she will not dance again. But the love that she and George share transcends their current limitations. He will challenge her, and she will work hard to regain control over her body:

He talked with the doctors and watched the therapists working with me. He created variations on what they did, and once he felt confident that it was safe--or maybe it wasn't, George had the assurance of a pope--we worked together later in the day putting in extra sessions, the two of us in my room, in a sense just as we had worked in the studio together before, watching each other, trying out moves, laying sometimes, or one of us huffy, pouting and trying again, going through pain, watching pain, learning from pain, spitting pain in the eye in the endless struggle with the body we both already knew intimately.

Tanny is spirited and devoted to her craft. Her dedication is really what drew George's eye to begin with:

At eleven, though, I loved the audition number they pinned to my shirt like the number on a racehorse. I loved his fixed attention to my every move; little ham that I was, I danced exuberantly. At the time I didn't think much of a master in person. He looked ancient, sort of oily, with his front teeth sticking out and his cheekbones like blades. But even then I felt his radiance, his quiet power.

When she is diagnosed with her polio, and told she would not dance again, her husband quits his work and devotes his time to her. "The Master's Muse" is their love story, in the same style as Paula McLain's "The Paris Wife." The writing is as beautiful as Tanny herself. The plot itself is true; O'Connor came across it when researching polio for another book. The more she delved into the story the more she found about the character of Tanny, and the more she understood about this story between the dance legend and his muse.