Published by Regal House Publishing

Paperback: 256 pages

ISBN:9781646032570

US: $9.99

Release Date: 20 September 2022

Novels about ballet are much rarer than ballets about novels.   A Bullet in the Ballet, Caryl Brahms’ 1937 crime thriller (written jointly with S.J. Simon) is the first to spring to mind as having a strong degree of accuracy about life within the bubble of the ballet world, largely one suspects because Brahms was a leading ballet critic long before writing the novel.  Now, more than 80 years’ later comes another ballet-centred novel that presents a finely developed love story within an absorbing and believable scenario in which the technique and culture of the art are presented with an expert touch.

Three Muses is essentially the story of a love triangle that begins in a concentration camp and follows the young holocaust survivor, Janko, saved from the gas chamber when his mother pleads for him to sing a German song.  His fate is to provide the after-dinner entertainment for the Camp Commandant while his mother and younger brother disappear into oblivion.  Liberated by American troops, Janko walks for hundreds of miles to his home in Mainz only to discover that it has been taken over by another family. 

As a displaced person, Janko emigrates to America in the new identity of John Curtin.  He is housed by a Jewish couple from Yonkers who lost their own son, Buddy, in the war and he trains to become a psychiatrist.  On a trip to the World Congress on Psychiatry and Mental Health in Paris, the wife of his boss gives him a ticket to the ballet and he is immediately smitten by both the art and the principal ballerina, Katya Symanova.

As luck would have it the company in Paris is on tour from New York and John is able to follow up his obsession with Katya when the New York State Ballet begins its home season.  The third part of the love triangle is ballet itself, represented by the company’s director, Boris Yanakov; a clever fictional approximation of George Balanchine, and like Balanchine, a man unable to distinguish between the balletic and the physical and sexual control of his selected ballerinas.  Symanova is more than his muse in the studio although their personal relationship over many years never extends to spending the whole night together.  The narrative arc exposes the gulf between those who have a shared intimacy with the peculiar discipline of ballet and the outsider who can never understand that world.   It’s a contest between romance and ballet and the winner comes as no surprise.    

Martha Anne Toll has taken over twelve years to develop and refine Three Muses and her marathon effort has been well worth the while.   Ballet has been her obsession since the age of four and her experience developed into pre-professional class at the School of Pennsylvania Ballet.   Although she didn’t make it to dance professionally, Toll continued to take dance classes into adulthood and her elite knowledge shines through in elegant descriptions of the art form throughout the book; although always written in a style that is accessible by anyone, even readers with just a rudimentary knowledge of ballet. 

As a dance critic, one of the most pleasing aspects of Three Muses is that Toll choreographs the ballets that Yanakov makes.  She gives these imaginary works titles and assigns them music and her descriptive passages bring fragments of the choreography to life in a way that made me want to see these imagined ballets.  As an aside, she also deals with the issues of recording and reviving ballets (Boris kept it all in his head; Katya worried that his work would be lost).

This is also a ballet about identity.  Janko became Johan when he sang for the German officers and then John when he escaped to the USA.  Katya turned out not to be the enigmatic Russian ballerina he desired but Katherine Sillman from Queens, given her Symanova name to fit the image that Yanakov sought, just exactly as the Western Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancers were Russified by Colonel de Basil to sell more tickets. 

Toll has crafted a roller-coaster story that is an easy and arresting read.  Her attention to detail is robust and unusually I found very little to quibble with in her descriptions of ballet: one minor issue was the assertion that the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote, which Miss Sillman performed at her graduation was danced with the character of Don Quixote himself, and not with Kitri’s lover Basilio!   Her prose is littered with glowing and poetic sentences, enlivening the description of place, time and character.  All of the people she references are brought into vivid realisation: from Frau Koch, the German cook who looked after Janko/Johan in the concentration camp; Maya, the cynical dancer who performed alongside Katya from childhood through to Yanakov’s company; and Barney and Selma Katz, the warm-hearted couple who ‘adopted’ John on his arrival in New York.  They all live in my memory as if real people.

This is a remarkable debut novel enriched by the years that Toll has taken to pull together her diverse experiences: of ballet; of her family’s tragic experiences of the Holocaust, living in Mainz and living in the USA.  Above all else, it is highly recommended as a first class read.   

© Graham Watts