Afternoon of a Faun: New York Film Festival Review

This dramatic true-life tale will be fascinating to even non-dance lovers.

Nancy Buirski's documentary recounts the fascinating tale of Tanaquil Le Clercq, the ballerina who inspired such legendary choreographers as George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.

“She was an elongated, stretched-out path to heaven,” says a childhood friend of the subject of Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, about the famed ballerina who served as a muse for two legendary choreographers, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Nancy Buirski’s (The Loving Story) revelatory documentary, receiving its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, will be manna for dance lovers. While theatrical prospects are necessarily limited, the film will no doubt become a staple on culture-oriented television networks.

Le Clercq, born in Paris in 1929 to a French intellectual and an American society matron, began her ballet training at the age of five. She eventually studied at the School of American Ballet, where Balanchine discovered her when she was just a teenager. Entranced by her distinctive elongated physique, he began casting her in ballets. Soon he was creating new works expressly for her, including such classics as Symphony in C, La Valse, Concerto Barocco and Western Symphony. She was also the original Dew Drop in his legendary The Nutcracker.

Another dancer/choreographer fascinated with the long-limbed Le Clercq was Jerome Robbins, who cited her as one of the reasons he decided to work under Balanchine at the New York City Ballet and who later created his version of the ballet that gives the film its title for her. The two formed a close, intense friendship, and, according to the film, he was devastated when she married Balanchine in 1952.

A major star in the company, Le Clercq traveled with them to Europe for a tour in 1956. Polio was raging throughout the country then, and the dancers were injected with the Salk vaccine shortly before the trip. But Le Clercq impulsively decided not to have the shot at the last minute, a decision that would have tragic results.

Shortly after their arrival in Copenhagen, she collapsed. Diagnosed with polio, Le Clercq is put in an iron lung. She spent six months in a Danish hospital, during which time Balanchine took a leave from the New York City Ballet to help nurse her back to health. She survived but never danced again. The couple eventually divorced in 1969, and despite her condition, she went on to teach at Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem. She died in 2000 at the age of 71.

Beginning with haunting black-and-white footage of Le Clercq in her prime dancing with her frequent partner Jacques D’Amboise, the film recounts this fascinating tale with a wealth of archival footage, including voluminous home movies and interviews with many of her friends and colleagues. It also includes frequent excerpts from letters between Le Clercq and Robbins, whose on-and-off friendship lasted until the end of his life (Marianne Bower and Michael Stuhlbarg provide the voices).

The film includes moments both poignant -- Le Clercq ironically danced the role of a polio victim in a benefit show not long before she herself succumbed to the illness -- and humorous, such as an interview with Balanchine’s longtime assistant who, when asked about his four spouses, archly responds, “You wanna do the wives?”

Thanks to its innate drama and roster of fascinating figures, Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq generates an appeal that should extend far beyond dance aficionados.

Venue: New York Film Festival (Motion Portraits)

Production: An Augusta Films production in association with Steeplechase Films, co-produced by American Masters

Director-screenwriter: Nancy Buirski

Producers: Paola Freccero, Bonnie Lafave, Alysa Nahmias

Executive producers: Derek Britt, Krysanne Katsoolis, Susan Lacy

Director of photography: Rick Rodgers

Editor: Damian Rodriguez

No rating, 93 minutes