In the SF Chronicle today, I review Adrienne Sharp’s new ballet novel, “First Love”:
“Sharp, a former dance student of some seriousness, has depicted this world before, in her short-story collection “White Swan, Black Swan.” This time she goes right for 20th century ballet’s venerated giant, New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine. “First Love” is built on an audacious premise: What if Balanchine, who died in 1983, had found one last muse? Defenders of the Balanchine faith need not work themselves into a tizzy. “Mr. B,” as he was known, comes off like a saint. It’s the novel’s main character, the naive woman plucked by Balanchine to star in his long-dreamed-of staging of “Sleeping Beauty,” who steadily loses the reader’s respect.
Here’s the setup: It’s 1981, and Sandra Ellis is 20 years old and languishing in the back row of the corps de ballet. Her boyfriend, Adam, is a rising sex symbol dancing across Lincoln Center Plaza with American Ballet Theatre. They’ve just consummated their love when Sandra catches Balanchine’s eye, and the choreographer’s attentions come at a price: Adam’s jealousy . . .
No one would accuse Sharp of sanitizing the glamour days of ballet-mania, and she paints the scene with tantalizing true-life detail. Rudolf Nureyev and Suzanne Farrell flit through as minor characters, along with a “Who’s Who” of other illustrious dancers. Balanchine is seen creating his masterpiece “Mozartiana” and rehearsing “Diamonds.” And there is tantalizing of a different variety: Adam and Sandra are young and horny, and Sharp renders their adventurous erotic encounters in breathlessly naughty prose that may make some readers turn a bit warm and others laugh out loud.
She uses her conceit well. The story enters Balanchine’s point of view (believably) just a few, judicious times. The plot zips along on Sharp’s lyrical writing style, and emotionality rises like steam off the page. The metaphorical possibilities of “Sleeping Beauty” are artfully explored, an emblem of awakening, hope and every fairy tale’s dark side. And yet even Aurora, asleep for 100 years, would seem to take more responsibility for her fate than our heroine, Sandra, does. ”
Click here for the full review.