If you’re not a dancer, ballet aficionado or George Balanchine acolyte, chances are you’ve never heard of ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq (1929 – 2000). Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Nancy Buirski aims to rectify that lapse in her new documentary Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun, making its PBS debut tonight on American Masters. (Friday, June 20, 2014, on PBS, 9:00 p.m. ET; and 10-11:30 p.m. nationally. Check local listings for premiere airtime and repeat broadcasts in your region).
Blending a flourish of classical music, home movies, intimate photos and letters, riveting vintage performance footage and recordings of her voice, the film introduces us to the meteoric rise and heartbreaking demise of Le Clercq’s career as principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. At 27 on a triumphant world tour, “Tanny,” as she was known to intimates, was tragically stricken with polio and paralyzed from the waist down at the height of her career.
It was 1956, and the scourge of polio had yet to be contained. At the time, I was a fearless tot, clueless to the life-altering paralysis and death that could result from infection by the virus. But I can remember not being allowed to frequent crowds or public pools due to the epidemic and remember lining up at my grammar school for three doses of the Salk vaccine as soon as it was deemed safe. Tanny was not so lucky. In fact, one of the most moving and ever-present voices in the film, her friend and fellow dancer Jacques d’Amboise, recalls when and how Tanny fell ill, immediately after postponing her pre-tour vaccination.
Tanny’s early life in Paris and New York City, as a sheltered child of privilege, and her dance training overseen by a domineering mother are too briefly sketched here. Taking center stage instead are the two principal men in her life: choreographer George Balanchine, to whom Tanny became muse and subsequent wife, and choreographer Jerome Robbins. While her pal and fellow dancer Robbins could not compete with Balanchine for her ultimate affection, her ties to Robbins survived his broken heart, her debilitating illness and their periodic estrangement to provide her with a sounding board and an emotional lifeline during her later years. Their intimate and, at times, passionate letters thread throughout this film.
Although Tanny is the film’s subject, you’ll come away learning as much or more about George Balanchine’s proclivities–the allure of new, young dancers who incited a seductive pattern of creative collaboration, leading often to career milestones, marriage and finally separation. Yet surprisingly, he remained with polio-stricken Tanny at first, believing that the right treatment and therapy would restore her ability to dance again.
While revelations from Balanchine’s long-time assistant, Barbara Horgan, dancer Arthur Mitchell and Tanny’s girlhood chum Pat McBride Lousada give a sense of the backstage drama that played out around her at various periods in her life, it is Tanny’s dance partner and a star in his own right, Jacques d’Amboise, who brings the soul to this story. d’Amboise opens the film; and whether visible on-camera or in voice over or in performance footage with Tanny, his presence is a definite asset to this film.
Jacques d’Amboise is an emotional firecracker who conveys clearly and passionately the challenges Tanny faced in the hothouse environment in which they worked and the implications of the tragedy that befell her. At one point, he is so wrenched with emotion that he simply can’t continue. Having met and worked with d’Amboise during two Christopher Award galas for which he was both an Award recipient and a presenter respectively, I am not surprised by the depth and quality of d’Amboise’s input and am happy that director/writer/producer Nancy Buirski included him to the extent that she did.
As you watch the generous selection of archival footage and kinescopes of Ms. Le Clercq’s performances in this film, you’ll be captivated by her stage presence and, most especially, by her extraordinarily long legs, elongated arms and angular body (principal female dancers at the time, according to d’Amboise, were primarily short and stocky). You’ll immediately understand why Tanaquil Le Clercq inspired the hearts and art of visionary choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins and why her untimely loss to the world of ballet was a loss for us all.
American Masters–Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun premieres on PBS on Friday, June 20, 2014, at 9:00 p.m. in the NY metro area, and 10-11:30 p.m. nationally. Check local listings for premiere and repeat broadcasts in your area. A DVD will be available June 24 from Kino Lorber. For three years after its original airdate, the film will stream in the USA @ www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/tanaquil-le-clercq/watch-tanaquil-le-clercq-afternoon-of-a-faun/3023/ –Judith Trojan