Prima Ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq Highlighted in Documentary 'Afternoon of a Faun'

Courtesy of Kino Lorber, Inc

Director Nancy Buirski spoke to THR about the film, which includes rare footage of Le Clercq dancing "Afternoon of a Faun," that comes to L.A. theaters April 11.

Alone in a hallway outside a studio at American Ballet Caravan, George Balanchine met a 14-year-old dance student named Tanaquil Le Clercq. She had preternaturally long limbs, an aquiline nose and a peckish disposition. “What’s the matter, little girl? Why aren’t you in class?” he asked. “Got kicked out,” she snapped.

Today, Balanchine’s oeuvre can be characterized as “before Le Clercq” and “after Le Clercq.” The prototypical long-line dancer’s impact was so great, she redefined what ballet looked like.

By the time she was 27, Le Clercq had become the muse of Jerome Robbins as well as Balanchine but married the latter. She was critically lauded, touring the world, and was the toast of European capitals. She was astonished by her own good fortune, only to be blindsided by an abrupt end to her career that almost seemed predestined.

The tragic chronicling the 20th century’s foremost prima ballerina is the subject of the new documentary by Nancy Buirski, Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, opening in Los Angeles Apr. 11 after platforming various markets since February.

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“In those days they didn’t videotape every ballet. So the ballet you see in the film was virtually everything that I could get on her, and they turned out to be the important ones,” Buirski told The Hollywood Reporter.

After producing and directing socially charged documentaries like The Loving Story and Time Piece, Buirski was watching a documentary on Robbins when she saw a clip of Afternoon of a Faun and was captivated by Le Clercq’s elegant style. Once she did the research, Buirski was astonished to find a story almost too grandiose for real life. Her movie features interviews with dancers including Arthur Mitchell and Jacques D’Amboise (Le Clercq’s partner in Faun, who describes her as an “elongated, stretched-out path to heaven”), as well as Balanchine’s assistant Barbara Horgan and others who knew Le Clercq and in some cases witnessed firsthand the events described in the film.

Included is rare footage of Le Clercq dancing Balanchine’s landmark Symphony in C and La Valse as well as Afternoon of a Faun, which bookends the movie. But the central clip is of an early performance from 1944, when Le Clercq was 15. The company did a benefit for the March of Dimes at the Waldorf Astoria in which Balanchine himself played a black-caped polio virus attacking the young dancer.

After Jonas Salk discovered his vaccine in 1953, polio was less a source of anxiety but still very much in the public mind. On the eve of the company’s European tour in 1956, the dancers lined up for their shots, but Le Clercq got out of line to talk to D’Amboise. A few nights later, following a performance in Copenhagen, she complained of feeling ill. The next morning the company was shocked to learn they would be going on to Stockholm without Le Clercq, who overnight had been confined to an iron lung and had lost the use of her legs.

“Even for someone who wasn’t superstitious, I think it would haunt anybody who cast this woman as the victim who had polio and then played the role of polio himself,” Buirski says of Balanchine who, being superstitious, blamed himself and the March of Dimes benefit 12 years earlier for her misfortune. Once she was able to be flown back to New York, Balanchine dedicated himself to her rehabilitation, driven to see her dance again.

“She’s concerned because he’s so upset about it and so determined to make her walk again,” notes Buirski. “In many ways she came to an acceptance much sooner than he did that she would never walk again.”

Ten years after she was stricken, Balanchine and Le Clercq were divorced. She spent the rest of her life avoiding the spotlight but returned to the dance world as an instructor at Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem, working from a wheelchair and using her hands to signify steps. Le Clercq dealt with her illness the same way she dealt with the painful demands of her art -- with grace and dignity, noting ruefully that in dance just as you reach the peak of your creative powers your body begins to fail you.

“She was like all dancers, passionate about her dance, and single-minded,” says Buirski. “Dancers dance until they can't longer dance anymore. How brief these careers are and how tragic it can be, one really does have to think about what else in life is important.”