Tanaquil Le Clerq was in the right place at the right time. She was twelve years old when she won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet. She was described as an elongated, stretched-out, path to Heaven.
Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil LeClerq opens Friday, March 21 at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema. Directed by Nancy Buirski (Emmy-award winner of The Loving Story), this beautiful documentary opens up the life story of one of the most inspirational ballet dancers of the 20th Century. Affectionately known as “Tanny”, she was the muse of two great choreographers, Jerry Robbins and George Balanchine. She became Mrs. Balanchine in 1952.
She was tall, long-legged, and unusually beautiful. According to one of her most respected dance partners, Jacques Damboise, “She really covered space. She wasn’t ashamed to use those long legs – and make them longer in her dance.”
In one of the greatest ironies in ballet history, George Balanchine created a ballet for a 1946 fundraiser at the Waldorf to support the March of Dimes. Balanchine danced the figure of “Polio” and pulled Tanny from the school to dance the part of the victim. The pas de deux called for Tanny to drop to the floor, at which point dimes would be thrown in her direction by the audience and she would magically recover. The scene had a happy ending. Ten years later, when Tanny was dancing with the New York City Ballet, the company embarked on a European tour. During this time, the Salk vaccine had become available and the dancers were urged to get innoculated.
“She got out of the line,” says Damboise, “and said to me – I’m going to wait. I’m going to be miserable on the plane and more miserable if I have a shot. I’ll wait until I come back.”
When the company reached Cophenhagen, Tanny became paralyzed. At the peak of her artistry, Tanaquil LeClerq was diagnosed with polio and wound up in an iron lung. Though she spent the remainder of her life in a wheelchair, she became an instructor for the Dance Theater of Harlem.
Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil LeClerq is an incredibly moving work. It is a story of courage, fortitude, and inspiration. For many, the documentary will be an introduction to the world of Ballet itself. Director Nancy Buirski has assembled a fantastic array of footage containing scenes of Tanny’s memorable performances, recorded conversations, and vintage photos along with commentaries from Jerome Robbins, Jacques Damboise, and a rare television interview with George Balanchine.