In recent fictions set in the filthy, burbling cauldron of 1970s New York City, the figure of the artist has been annoyingly skewed to mythical good. Representations of triumph and consolation abound, such as Colum McCann’s tightrope walker in Let the Great World Spin, who bedazzles the pain-wracked citizenry on the sidewalk below; or the addict-painter in Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, who confronts personal and social hegemonies while catapulting to fame by appropriating street signs. If these characters self-immolate their dying light blazes trails for the next generation.

Readers willing to scale down to the insular, specific world of professional ballet will be rewarded with an interesting, valuable takedown of mythic heroism and New York aestheticism in Girl Through Glass, Sari Wilson’s debut novel about a talented Brooklyn-born ballet student in late ’70s New York. Ballet’s circumference was actually quite large in ’70s Manhattan — the masters-of-the-universe patrons, the myriad Russian exiles, Balanchine’s bold new formalism and his confident, autonomous gesture attracted intelligentsia and artists from Susan Sontag to Frank O’Hara to Michael Harrington — yet the 11-year-old aspiring dancer in Girl Through Glass is authentically starved of influence. The narrative fixes only on a small group of dance world characters whose lives are illuminated, defined, and damaged by this momentous, oligarchic era in New York ballet history.

Rather than use the mad ballerina trope — the popular shorthand for mind-body dualism — Wilson’s dancer is unabashedly committed, talented, and progressive. Mira Able is a rather sullen, disappointed girl (read miserable), but she’s not conflicted mentally or physically when it comes to dance. Her newly separated parents are distracted elsewhere, and her talent appears to be truly her own. She’s not the embodiment of a choreographer’s vision, a muse or an open channel. In the face of sequential disintegrations and reorganizations in her home life, Mira experiences greater and greater wholeness in the studio: “the feeling of becoming something irrefutable, becoming beautiful, defying life.” She confidently seeks admission to Balanchine’s inner circle with plans to audition first for the school, then the company.

And Mira does defy some very great odds as her studies progress. But the narrative is not hers alone: every other chapter of Girl Through Glass features the present-day tale of Kate Randall, a tenuously employed middle-aged dance academic, whose own story dovetails back to the 1970s where she too aspired to perform with Balanchine. Unlike young Mira, Kate’s artistic composure and integrity is riddled with holes; she is susceptible to fits of rage, lust, or sorrow in every interaction. We first meet her in Ohio, installed in a kind of contained academic cell: “the white-washed, cinderblock viewing room on the basement level of the new arts center.” She still feels traces of her physical performer-self when conducting dance history classes, eagerly cueing up her DVD player with a taped restaging of Nijinsky’s outrageous The Rite of Spring. Yet, she has adjusted her expectations way, way down (“I’ve stopped trying to form chair circles”) and operates with pervasive self-questioning. “There is too much of me, or too much desire, or desire of the wrong kind […] Whatever it is, when I let go, I ruin things,” Kate declares.

At quick pace, these two alternating tales feature the imprint of a mysterious man named Maurice DuPont who arises from the mothballed world of New York ballet elite. Kate has just received an unexpected letter from him at her office — with spoiled, operatic vitriol, he insinuates that she has destroyed some perishable life-altering promise between them. The letter topples Kate, yet also jolts her from her rut. She makes a sexual lunge for one of her students, further risking her employment, then rights herself long enough to ask her department head for a long weekend off (so she can track down DuPont’s whereabouts).

From Mira’s angle, we meet Maurice in the 1970s when he was just a small, elegant middle-aged man with eccentric old-world habits; he wears a cape and passes a calling card that says only “Balletomane.” Through Mira’s eyes, this well-positioned, unaffiliated gentleman exerts an irresistible pull — he knows everyone from Balanchine to famed teacher David Howard. Since no one is paying much attention to her whereabouts after her parents split up, Mira begins meeting Maurice regularly to offload the fear and hope she feels about her dancing future.

Like a dream parent, Maurice is singly committed to Mira’s talent and ambition; he presents her with strange relics from the era of Romantic Ballet and insists that the young student seize her rightful place in the lineage of great artists. He speaks of the earliest European ballerinas who danced with such determination that they would keep time with the music even when their long tulle skirts caught fire from downstage gas lamps. Mira’s attention had initially seemed to drift toward life’s fraying edges — sunsets, dragging blue jean bottoms, dirty toe shoe ribbons — but now grows steadfast alongside Maurice’s intensity. Though she can only describe his presence with a sweet-and-sour synesthesia, her own internal focus and clarity brightens:

It is terrible to be singled out, to feel eyes on you all the time. It is wonderful, and terrible too. But more than that it does something to your insides: they don’t feel like they belong to you anymore. Your seams come loose and parts of you start coming out. It makes normal things — like walking or talking — feel hard, and things that are hard — like holding an extension until your leg shakes — feel easy.

As a title, Girl Through Glass paints a curiously static image, but one that speaks to the novel’s close, uncomfortable perspective. It is soon apparent that the two alternating biographies will not provide release from either situation. To further compress tension, both stories occur in the present tense. Mira’s is told in a closely held third-person limited preteen consciousness; Kate’s segments are penned in a jittery first-person adult voice. Rather than offer a preserved moment of snow-globe beauty, the weighty narrative progresses with a restless realism not unlike Kate’s description of peering through glass: “everything looks altered, too big or too small in this space.” An undercurrent of rhythmic motion and visual animation extends throughout: “You must trust, then jump. Trust, jump,” Mira is told in the dance studio. At home, one moment her evasive mother is playing cards at the table, the next she is tossing her cards skyward and fleeing, leaving a chair rocking back and forth as she calls, “Game over.”

Wilson is a first-time novelist who grew up in New York and studied ballet at Eliot Feld and the Harkness Ballet School, and so evokes both 1970s dance studios and today’s academic departments with quick masterful strokes. Hairnets, floating inside book bags, catching on school binders; the plastic pants that “swish” as you walk; the “bands of two-ply elastic around their waists” to enhance dancers’ lines. At the university, Kate’s rival for grant money is a man she met years back when he was “Bill the wunderkind first-year MA grad student, all loose-limbed from clown school in Europe.”

Wilson’s New York City imagery is applied exquisitely and dynamically. Never in Mira’s direct line of vision, the city is not so much seen as felt; and despite a childhood of acclimation, the neglected 1970s city-state defies comprehension. After the famous 1977 blackout, the oppressive scars include “an infestation of blue-bottle flies whose bug-out eyes see everything” and the stinking “flesh of tires” that her mother calls “the smell of the apocalypse.” Dark interior spaces have a relentless viability: “As she walks through the dim rooms, the city recedes and is replaced with the soft clicks of invisible clocks and the eerie glances of tropical fish from a large tank in one of the room’s corners.”

In the end, the well-honed story line of Girl Through Glass is not unlike a certain kind of stylized psychological ballet, á la Antony Tudor, with heightened characters dancing along dire boundaries. Powerfully stark, both pretty and not, the scene begins with a dissolving family, the father exiting right, the mother left, leaving room for a mysterious caped man to lure the remaining girl-child into an inhumanly fast pas de deux. Is this Lazarus or Lucifer? A woman enters from upstage, dancing with strength and purpose, here, perhaps, to save the girl. But the man has a double, too.

The novel’s two narrative viewpoints neatly convey the blunt before/after bisection of a ballet dancer’s life. And yet the law of motion remains as well — maybe best summed up by the indelible image of nesting dolls that Mira describes while dining at the Russian Tea Room with Maurice. That moment in time — which also brings Mira’s first sight of Balanchine himself, dining at a nearby table with one of his ballerinas — holds the wondrous possibilities and tragedies inside this fine tale: “Each woman rests inside another woman until the last tiny woman stands there wobbling on a table.”

¤

Jean Lenihan’s recent reviews and articles have appeared in the LA Times, the Orange County RegisterCoast and Pasadena magazines, and more. Her blog, fresh pencil, is hosted by http://artsjournal.com/.