A Ballerina Stricken in Her Prime
It’s generally known that the professional life span of a ballet dancer is short-lived. But Tanaquil Le Clercq’s story is far more tragic. This exquisite prima ballerina was struck down by polio at the height of her career, when she was only 27.
The poignant film, lovingly created by filmmaker Nancy Buirski, details the early life and training of Le Clercq, leading to her extraordinarily fast rise to prominence under the tutelage of the great choreographer and artistic director of New York City Ballet, George Balanchine.
Born in Paris and brought by her parents to New York at the age of 3, Tanny began ballet training at the age of 5. As a teen she entered the School of American Ballet, which Mr. Balanchine had founded. Struck by her unusual quality of movement, her long limbs, and her great sensitivity to music, Balanchine soon cast Tanny in solo roles, even though she had never been in the corps de ballet. It was clear that Tanaquil Le Clercq had become Balanchine’s muse, and in 1952 they married.
Noted choreographer Jerome Robbins was also fascinated by Tanny, and himself joined the New York City Ballet to work as choreographer and dancer under George Balanchine. Later, Robbins created his unique version of “Afternoon of a Faun” on Tanny Le Clercq.
The film shows some exquisite scenes with Le Clercq exhibiting her dynamic and engrossing style. It’s possible that George Balanchine’s later personal choreographic style, of angularity and precision, had been based on Le Clercq’s own idiosyncratic movement style.
All this took place in the ’50s, a time of great cultural ferment in New York City—dance, opera, theater, art—everything was pulsing at high pitch. However, it was also the time of a severe polio epidemic. When, in 1956, the New York City Ballet was preparing to undertake a European tour, the company dancers were inoculated with the Salk vaccine.
Unfortunately, Tanny chose not to take the injection at that time, and during the company’s stay in Copenhagen she was struck down with polio. She was placed in an iron lung, but it was feared she would not survive.
She did survive. She was later moved to Warm Springs, Ga., America’s foremost treatment center, where Balanchine nursed her, creating movements to help her regain control of her muscles. Jerry Robbins also visited, taking some remarkable photographs. Some of these photos are included in the film, along with special archival footage by both Robbins and Martha Swope.
Eventually, everyone accepted the hard facts. Tanny would never walk or dance again. Balanchine ultimately divorced her, in 1969. During the last years of her life, Tanaquil Le Clercq was arguably saved by accepting Arthur Mitchell’s invitation to teach at his Dance Theatre of Harlem. She continued this activity, from her wheelchair, until her death in 2000.
In addition to some lovely ballet sequences, the film includes remarks from her former dance partner, then a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, Jacques D’Amboise; as well as from Barbara Horgan, Balanchine’s personal assistant and managing director of the George Balanchine Trust; and others.
Fortunately, Tanaquil Le Clercq will be remembered, on film, for her striking performances in the ballets that were created for her: “Western Symphony,” “La Valse,” “Metamorphosis,” and “Afternoon of a Faun.”
“Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq” can be seen at Francesca Beale Theater in Lincoln Center Feb. 11–20.
Diana Barth writes about the arts for New Millennium, and other publications. For information email email@example.com
‘Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq’
Director: Nancy Buirski
Cast: Jacques d’Amboise, Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Tanaquil Le Clercq
Run Time: 91 minutes
Release Date: Feb. 11
4 stars out of 5
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