The recent documentary about Tanaquil “Tanny” Le Clercq is a terrific film about one of the great ballerinas of the twentieth century. She was a muse to choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and both men were in love with her. Her story embodies struggle and survival. Every dancer can learn, and take heart from her life
The film is called “Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq,” and chronicles her student days at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, her success as a prima ballerina with the New York City Ballet, her marriage to Balanchine (she was 23 and he was a thrice-divorced man of 48 and her boss), and the European tour where, tragically, she contacted polio. She never walked – or danced – again.
The movie includes excerpts of Tanny dancing in Afternoon of a Faun and La Valse, two of her most famous roles. She was the first ballerina to embody the Balanchine ideal. As New York reviewer Stephen Holder noted, she was “phenomenally long-legged, gracefully athletic, (and) passionately committed.” She was beautiful, and at the height of her career.
But in1956, she was in a Copenhagen hospital with her body encased in an iron lung. No one expected her to survive. After many months, she returned home. Despite Balanchine’s relentless attempts to help her recover, and the best medical treatments available at that time, she never recovered the ability to move on her own. For the rest of her life, she was confined to a wheelchair.
George Balanchine and Tanny eventually divorced. He found a new muse in Suzanne Farrell, although he and Tanny did stay in touch. Balanchine died in 1983.
Clearly her life dramatically changed. No longer was she at the height of a brilliant career. Instead, her physical affliction brought her to a new and very different place.
The photographs of Tanny after her illness are striking. She is smiling, elegant, definitely in control of her life. She is still very beautiful. In one photo, she is sitting in the front seat of a convertible. In another picture, she is outside, on a picnic blanket, with friends. Arthur Mitchell invited her to teach ballet at Dance Theater of Harlem. She did, using her
hands and arms (well, one arm) to teach ballet. She also wrote and published many books, including a cook book and children’s book about a cat.
The film quotes her colleagues and friends talking, post-illness, about her generous spirit and kind heart. She is portrayed as simply moving on with the next phase of her life. If there is bitterness or anger, she is not sharing. She continues to engage with her friends, with other people, and with the world. She died on December 31, 2000 at the age of 71.
Tanny’s lessons for dancers, and for all of us, are about struggle and survival. Despite hard work, strategic planning and good genes, life is unpredictable. (Luckily, in most countries, polio is no longer the life-threatening peril it once was.) Yet dancers face injuries, shrinking ballet company budgets, favoritism, and other daunting challenges too numerous to name. One path is to allow our hearts to be broken. A different path is to simply move on, as Tanny, building new challenges with grace and a generous spirit.