It's a haunting story of life imitating art: the beautiful, headstrong dancer who enchants two powerful men, and is struck down in her prime by polio. But unlike the tragic figures in ballets, Tanaquil Le Clercq persevered.
Born in Paris in 1929 and raised in New York, Le Clercq was one of the first New York City Ballet dancers trained entirely at the School of American Ballet, and she became iconic. Her long limbs and tall, angular body set the model for how a Balanchine dancer should look.
A remarkable amount of footage and photos remains. In the documentary Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, director Nancy Buirski deftly pieces together the story with interviews with Jacques D'Amboise, also a former City Ballet star, as well as former Balanchine assistant Barbara Horgan, and other friends and colleagues.
Buirski takes us on an emotional journey, although the start may seem slow to people unfamiliar with the ballet world or Le Clercq's story. There are a few confusing bits, as well: Le Clercq's friend Pat McBride Lousada is introduced, but she is never distinguished from the better-known Patricia McBride, a City Ballet dancer from the next generation.
Also, it is not always clear what is archived footage, an actor voiceover, or a recent interview.
Still, Afternoon of a Faun is fascinating, particularly for the chance to see so much of Le Clercq's enchanting dancing in a style so removed from ballet's current emphasis on hyper-flexibility and tricks.
"She was a phenomenal dancer," the late Jerome Robbins says in archived footage. "All of the ballets I ever did for the company, it was always for Tanny," including his beloved Afternoon of a Faun.
Le Clercq maintained an off-and-on friendship with Robbins throughout her life, but she was devoted to George Balanchine, becoming his muse and fifth wife (they later divorced).
Just before City Ballet's 1956 European tour, the dancers lined up to take the new Salk vaccine for polio, but Le Clercq, 27, refused it. She became ill with polio while performing in Copenhagen.
Some Balanchine ballets for Le Clercq seemed to forecast her fate: such as La Valse, in which a woman is seduced by death, or a short piece he made for a March of Dimes benefit, in which Balanchine portrayed an evil Polio who paralyzed Le Clercq.
"It is almost better to have polio than to be with someone who has it," Le Clercq said, after watching Balanchine desperately trying to heal her through Pilates and other exercises.
The doctors told Balanchine that Le Clercq would not survive past 40, but she lived until 71, eventually living independently, and returning to ballet as an audience member and coach.
It's odd about ballet, D'Amboise notes: "You start out young and by the time you've got your technique, you're going downhill. She came to terms with it as all dancers do. 'I'm not a dancer anymore. Who am I?' "
Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Leclercq ***1/2 (out of 4 stars)
Written and directed by Nancy Buirski. With Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Tanaquil Leclercq, and Jacques d'Amboise.
Distributed by Kino Lorber.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 mins.
Parent's guide: Not rated
Playing at: Ritz 5