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‘Afternoon of a Faun’: A ballet career’s glorious start, abrupt end

Tanaquil Le Clercq dances “Metamorphoses” for George Balanchine.  |   KINO LORBER

Tanaquil Le Clercq dances “Metamorphoses” for George Balanchine. | KINO LORBER

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A FAUN: tanaquil le clercq’ ★★★1⁄2

Kino Lorber presents a documentary directed by Nancy Buirski. Running time: 91 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

Updated: April 29, 2014 6:11AM

In 1956, at the age of 27, ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq suffered what would be traumatic for any person, but the very worst imaginable nightmare for a dancer. Already an established, charismatic star of the New York City Ballet, “Tanny,” as she was known, contracted polio and quickly realized she would never walk again, let alone dance.

By the time she was put into an iron lung, Le Clercq was the muse of two master choreographers: George Balanchine (who she had married in 1952, becoming his fourth wife, 33 years his junior) and Jerome Robbins (with whom she had an intense on-and-off-again “friendship”). Both men were devastated in their particular ways. She would go on to live a relatively independent life until the age of 71, writing two books and eventually teaching and coaching.

In “Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq,” director-writer Nancy Buirski’s strangely haunting, often heartbreaking new documentary, we get to know this enigmatic woman for whom Balanchine (in retrospect, quite eerily) created “La Valse” (1951), the tale of a young woman seduced and destroyed by the figure of Death, and for whom Robbins created his “Afternoon of a Faun” (1953), a modern version of the Vaslav Nijinsky work that evoked the dreamy romantic connection between two dancers in an empty ballet studio.

Born in Paris to a French father (mostly absent) and an American mother (too omnipresent), Tanny received a scholarship to Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York in 1941. And in many ways she was blessed — with a beautiful, enigmatic face, a flair for drama and an air of wit and sophistication that set her apart from the start. In addition, at a time when most female dancers were small and quick, Le Clercq was tall, slender and long-limbed, setting the standard for Balanchine’s American dancers and influencing his choreographic style.

Buirski’s documentary unspools primarily in black and white, with many archival photographs and grainy but revealing footage of Le Clercq dancing her major roles. The contemporary interviews are filmed in color, with dancer Jacques d’Amboise (now 80) still deeply emotional as he recalls the woman who was his frequent partner, and Barbara Horgan, Balanchine’s longtime personal assistant, more stoic and analytical. Patricia McBride, a fellow dancer and friend, recalls their youthful exploits. Arthur Mitchell, who founded the Dance Theater of Harlem, explains how he finally recruited her to coach his dancers.

In many ways this film also serves as a chilling reminder of the horrors of polio in the period just before the Salk vaccine began to be widely administered. Le Clercq succumbed to the disease in Copenhagen, while on tour with the New York City Ballet. Although most of the other dancers had been inoculated before leaving the U.S., Le Clercq delayed the injection, not wanting to risk side effects that might interfere with her performing. But most bizarre of all is the fact that when she was 15, Balanchine had specially selected her to perform in a March of Dimes benefit he choreographed. It told the story of a girl with polio, with Balanchine himself playing “The Threat of Polio.”

Buirski’s film dances around the real reason Le Clercq and Robbins could not have a relationship (his sexual orientation), and the source of Le Clercq’s seemingly formidable financial reserves during the many decades she spent in a wheelchair. But she unquestionably captures Le Clercq’s spirit of grace and acceptance. And she reminds us of the all-too-brief but magical careers of all great dancers.


Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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