When New York City Ballet principal dancer Darci Kistler retired six years ago, the final bows she took on a rose-covered stage marked the end of an era. Reviews read more like obituaries. “The last Balanchine ballerina retires,” mourned Sunday morning news shows.
Kistler became a principal dancer at City Ballet in 1982 as a leggy 17-year-old who loved unicorns, glittery barrettes and green leg warmers. She was the final dancer chosen for the company by George Balanchine himself. The great choreographer, a Russian emigre, died a year later.
“Girl Through Glass,” Sari Wilson’s debut novel, presumes that Balanchine singled out one more muse after Kistler: Mira Able, a girl whose career was derailed by the undue attentions of a debonair City Ballet donor who often waited for her after class by the Lincoln Center fountain.
Sound a bit creepy? It is, but artfully rendered through the viewpoint of an adolescent dancer who performs with great maturity while remaining fatefully naive. “Girl Through Glass” adds another title to the growing list of films, television shows and novels that exploit ballet for its supposed seamy, sequined underworld rife with backstage drama. “The Red Shoes” and “The Turning Point” are historical examples, while “Black Swan,” the reality show “Breaking Pointe” and Starz’s new series “Flesh and Bone” represent the current revival.
Writers have used Balanchine as a plot device or archetype before. Some results are tawdry, such as Varley O’Connor’s novel “The Master’s Muse” (2012), but a few rise above the genre to become outstanding works of literary fiction, such as Maggie Shipstead’s “Astonish Me” (2014). Wilson’s effort falls somewhere in the middle.
“Girl Through Glass” is split into two narratives. One track follows young Mira, while a second is the first-person account of her attempts, some 30 years later, to piece together how she went from being “one of Mr. B’s girls” to a bitter woman who left ballet behind.
Older Mira — who has changed her name to Kate — is a floundering academic who earned a PhD in dance history but never landed a stable job. The events that send her back to New York and the secrets she uncovers there smack of melodrama and coincidence. To both herself and to readers, Kate is a disappointing contrast to the flinty young Mira, the girl who moves out of her mother’s volatile home at 11 and stars as Marie in City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” at 12. While Kate’s name-dropping — such as her cliched assessment of contemporary choreographer Mark Morris — feels forced, the supporting characters in Mira’s life are believable. She appears onstage with the great Patricia McBride, accepts compliments from Heather Watts and looks up to Kistler, “who is a mere two years older.”
Wilson grew up dancing in New York in the same era Mira did, although not at the same level. She admits that she “stole liberally” from her own childhood. Maybe that’s why the studio scenes feel so visceral, so real — as when Mira dances with an older boy for the first time at the small school she attends before moving on to Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. Learning to partner, Wilson writes, “is nothing like dancing on your own. . . . [It is] all sweating and grunting and hard-edged bones, hip bones jabbing into finger bones and taut thighs ricocheting, straining against a heaving shoulder, slick with sweat.”
The night she makes her big debut, a confused Mira watches as her prince swigs liquor from a flask and kisses another male character at intermission. Much later in Kate’s too-maudlin narrative, that prince will die of AIDS. But the plot isn’t the reason to read “Girl Through Glass”; it’s the tragic depiction of a girl adored far too soon by a grown-up world.
Rebecca Ritzel is an Alexandria-based freelance writer who also reviews dance for The Washington Post.
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By Sari Wilson
Harper. 289 pp. $25.99