George Balanchine, a Russian born in 1904 who adopted the United States in the 1930s, remade ballet to conform to his ideal of leggy American womanhood. Since his death in 1983, the entire field has seemed a little wobbly. Ballet is an unnatural act; like espaliered trees, its practitioners are trained daily for a decade to build strength and assume aesthetically pleasing shapes. Those who fell into the orbit of genius choreographer Balanchine traded the trappings
of normal life—domesticity, children, leisure time—for the exhilaration of being the instruments on which he developed his technique and his great neoclassical repertory. Maria Tallchief, an Oklahoma native who is half Osage Indian and half Scotch-Irish, became an international star under his tutelage, and the fourth of his five wives.
Her terrific autobiography, Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina (first published in 1997 and recently reissued in paperback), tells the story of a country girl with ambitious parents and a relatively clear head. Smart, lusty, and passionate, she finds herself in the right places at the right times—in Los Angeles in the ’30s, when many fine European ballerinas were teaching there, and in the Ballet Russe and Balanchine’s many ventures in the ’40s, making do and making dances during difficult years. Her romantic adventures form a counterpoint to the diligence of her devotion to craft and art—it’s ballet, rather than, say, coitus that obsesses her. Her marriage to Balanchine, obviously an alliance of muse and mentor, lasts five years, but her friendship with him, and their creative association, end only at his death.
An impulsive act of cunnilingus marks a turning point in the life of the ballerina heroine of Adrienne Sharp’s First Love, a new first novel set in 1981. The writer has steeped herself, through research and experience, in ballet lore. Tallchief’s book, Sharp says in an author’s note, is among her sources, along with other chronicles by Balanchine’s surprisingly literate colleagues.
Sandra Ellis, Sharp’s fictional dancer who moves as if in a trance through the School of American Ballet and subsequent years in the New York City Ballet corps, is stalled in her career and in her relationship with the young Adam LaSalle when the aging Balanchine finally notices her, develops a crush, and starts planning a production of The Sleeping Beauty around her. A motherless child whose father is an unstable Southern writer, she finds structure and community at SAB, along with a boy who starts out as her best friend and becomes her lover. LaSalle, a hunky gifted city rat whose parents are both dancers and who has basically been raised by his rich gay godfather, feels neglected, demanding commitments from Sandra that the ethereal creature is not ready to make.
Set against the dawn of the age of AIDS and in a veritable sea of drugs and alcohol, Sharp’s novel puts the young artists through experiences similar to Tallchief’s, but the kids somehow miss their meaning. Buffeted by damaged parents, battered by controlled substances, too headstrong to practice birth control, they tear themselves and each other apart while Balanchine staggers toward the great beyond. Sharp has taken a few liberties with chronology, but her ballet world feels authentic, albeit viewed through a scrim. Her characters, primarily physical creatures, don’t have a whole lot to say; it’s hard to see how this book will become a film, though I’m sure someone will attempt it.