A fine debut imagines George Balanchine’s last year—and depicts the elegant, often brutal world of ballet.
In New York in the early ’80s, we follow two young lovers, Adam and Sandra, as they struggle with the demands of dance careers—his on the rise, hers going nowhere. Adam was born to this world: his parents were dancers, as was his godfather, Randall, and Randall’s partner, Joe, is a choreographer. Adam, now 20, has just left Balanchine’s female-dominated NYC Ballet for Baryshnikov’s American Ballet Theater, where he is becoming a star, but at a price: Quaaludes and cocaine fuel his days, and his loneliness is quelled by the anonymous young men and women he takes to bed. As filled with promise and people as is Adam’s life, Sandra’s is conversely bleak. Her mother died when she was a baby (a fairy tale standby that goes along with the novel’s Sleeping Beauty motif), and she lives with her mentally ill father, a Civil War historian, in a rambling apartment her wealthy grandmother funds. After lingering in the corps for years, Sandra suddenly catches Balanchine’s eye, who plans to star her in Sleeping Beauty. Adam and Sandra’s turbulent relationship (their youthful lust is secondary to Adam’s jealousy of Balanchine, who plucks girls from obscurity, then wins their souls) is the heart of the narrative, but, as in fairy tales, it’s overshadowed by the far more interesting parent-child relationships Sharp (stories, White Swan, Black Swan, 2001) creates. Randall is dying of AIDS just as Adam is reconnecting with his philandering father. Sandra is unable to save her father from his depression, just as the childless Balanchine plans to make her his perfect daughter. At the center of all this is the dying Balanchine, slipping in and out of reveries of his past, pretending there is enough time left to mount one last production.
A noteworthy, if melancholy, examination of the dancer’s life: years of suffering for moments of beauty.