According to legend, George Balanchine first met his future wife Tanaquil Le Clercq when she was a teenager, standing in the hallway outside a classroom at the School of American Ballet with her arms crossed. “Why aren’t you in class,” he asked. “Kicked out,” she replied. “What’s your name?” “Tanny.”
A new documentary about Le Clercq, the last of Balanchine’s four wives, depicts the life of a ballerina who served as a creative spark for Balanchine, who co-founded New York City Ballet in 1948, and Jerome Robbins, who joined the company as associate artistic director soon after. Together the two choreographers built an American ballet company around the dancers who inspired them. But the film is also the story of a woman who maintained a certain will and orneriness throughout her life. It was this personal essence, the film suggests, that enabled her to survive a great tragedy.
Balanchine and Le Clercq married in 1952. On tour with her husband and the New York City Ballet in Denmark in 1956, she contracted polio and never danced again. She was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
“Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq” was written and directed by Nancy Buirski, and includes interviews with friends and dancers who knew Le Clerq as well as footage of the ballerina in some of NYCB’s signature ballets, including Balanchine’s “La Valse,”” Symphony in C,” and “Western Symphony” and Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun.”
The Robbins’ piece, a retelling of the 1912 ballet choreographed by Nijinsky for the Ballets Russes, features the same Debussy score. However, instead of a tableau with a faun and nymphs, it shows two dancers, here Le Clercq and Jacques d’Amboise, working together in a rehearsal studio. The audience functions as their mirror, and the self-absorption that Le Clercq portrays references the autoeroticism of the Nijinsky work, while suggesting a sexual attraction toward her partner in ways both subtle and brilliant.
Le Clercq was one of the first ballerinas to define the ideal Balanchine body type — she was skinny, leggy, and angular. Her dancing had a certain idiosyncrasy.
“She had a very stylish, witty way of dancing,” says Barbara Horgan, who served as Balanchine’s personal assistant for 20 years, including his time with Le Clercq. “He went for people with strong personalities on stage. They became his muses.”
“She really covered space,” d’Amboise says. “She was not afraid to use those long legs and make them longer. Before Tanny, ballerinas were usually short and quick. She was elongated, stretched out on a path to heaven.”
Actors recreate the voices of Le Clercq and Jerome Robbins in readings from letters that illustrate Robbins’ passion toward her as a dancer, a woman, and a muse. In a much later filmed interview, the choreographer said it would take five different dancers today to be able to equal the range of qualities Le Clercq was know for. “She could do concert style, crazy stuff; she was elegant, classical, and she could be wild.” Le Clercq made it clear, in her letters back to him at the time, that she was in love only with Balanchine. “There was one star in her solar system and it was George Balanchine,” said her long-time friend Randy Borcheidt. “She had total devotion to him as an artist and a person.”
In a director’s note, the filmmaker says that an early inspiration for her documentary was 1948’s “Portrait of Jenny.” She writes that the Debussy music, particularly “Afternoon of a Faun,” “captured the haunting, romantic, and elusive relationship between the painter and his young muse.” Buirski was also fascinated by the inherent drama in the fact that both Balanchine and Robbins were obsessed with Le Clercq, only to lose her, at least as a dancer. None of Balanchine’s wifes outlasted his hunger for constant inspiration. At the school, there were always new, younger, talented dancers for him to discover. “I suppose genius is hard to live with,” Horgan says.
After Le Clercq was stricken, Balanchine spent years attempting to rehabilitate her legs. He sometimes used the Pilates method and created exercises for her, moving her limbs — to no avail. Arthur Mitchell, one of the leading male dancers in the company during Le Clercq’s career, describes how in the 1957 ballet “Agon,” the male dancer manipulates the arms, feet, and legs of the ballerina, clearly a reference to Balanchine’s work with his wife. Mitchell went on to found the Dance Theater of Harlem, and offered Le Clercq an opportunity to coach dancers and teach class — which she did, from her wheelchair.
Le Clercq’s marriage to Balancine ended in 1969. He had become obsessed with ballerina Suzanne Farrell, although she later rejected him, married the dancer Paul Mejia, and left the company. Balanchine died in 1983. Le Clercq, who who had originally not been expected to live past 40, died at 71.
“Afternoon of a Faun” is not a gripping film. Le Clercq’s illness ended her dance career as well as her status as muse. Life in a wheelchair offered no possibility for redemption, no comeback tale. What glimpses there are of her short and remarkable career are historically fascinating, but the film is not a compelling story of survival. In a New York Times obituary, in 2001, Anna Kisselgoff wrote that Le Clercq’s “mysterious dramatic perfume had attracted an adoring public.” Nowhere else in the film, is this “perfume” better exemplified than during an excerpt of a performance of Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun.” Here, in a few minutes of black-and-white footage, are a gaze, a touch, a few steps and a look out at the audience that create an unforgettable impression. Buirski’s choice of a title for a documentary about Tanaquil Le Clercq rings true, even if the film itself has its limits.