The remarkable life of ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq, one of America’s brightest dance lights who suffered from polio, is the subject of a heartbreaking, moving new documentary.
“Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil LeClercq” profiles the gazelle-like LeClercq (1929-2000), who was one of George Balanchine’s great muses at New York City Ballet. She also became his wife.
Balanchine and Jerome Robbins choreographed dozens of ballets for her, and her great partners included Jacques d’Amboise and Arthur Mitchell, who appear in the film.
In 1956, while on tour in Copenhagen, LeClercq one night told Mitchell her body felt stiff. He advised her to stretch, and they performed “Western Symphony.”
The next morning, the company boarded a train for Stockholm, except LeClercq, who had collapsed. Diagnosed with polio, she was put in an iron lung. At age 27, paralyzed from the waist down, she never would dance again.
Footage in the film of a very young LeClercq shows a gangly, angular dancer moving with abandon, her legs stretching far beyond her frame. Her raw, animal edge remained as she developed, and is evident in her performance of Robbins’ 1953 dance “Afternoon of a Faun,” partnered by d’Amboise.
Balanchine — who singled her out when she was a student at School of American Ballet — liked long-legged, flexible dancers with instinctive musicality. She was the template for future New York City Ballet dancers.
With their histories inextricably entwined, “Afternoon of a Faun” is as much about LeClercq, Balanchine and Robbins, and their near love triangle, as it is about the striking ballerina.
At one point in the film, Balanchine’s personal assistant Barbara Horgan, speaking directly to the camera, says, “You wanna do the wives?” and laughs. LeClercq was Balanchine’s fourth, after his divorce from Maria Tallchief, another idiosyncratic, towering dancer.
The film suggests — through recited letter exchanges, film footage and photographs — that Robbins loved LeClercq passionately. Though his advances went unrequited, it is clear LeClercq had a deep, tender, lifelong affection for him and often needed him, especially after her divorce from Balanchine, who subsequently (and infamously) pursued Suzanne Farrell, a dancer 41 years his junior.
Though LeClercq’s diagnosis was stark, she lived decades longer than expected.
“Afternoon of a Faun” is a deeply moving film about a woman who used humor, patience and acceptance to overcome a heartbreaking fate.
Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil LeClercq
Starring Tanaquil LeClercq
Written and directed by Nancy Buirski
Running time 1 hour, 31 minutes