Afternoon of a Faun Documentary on Tanaquil Le Clercq

Afternoon of a Faun is an engrossing documentary about the life of New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Tanaquil Le Clercq, currently showing at the Lincoln Center Film Society until February 25.

Tanny, as her friends called her, was a tall, beautiful New York City Ballet dancer that inspired choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. The documentary adeptly focuses on her relationships with Balanchine and Robbins, the tragedy that struck her at the height of her career that left her paralyzed, and her struggle to survive and lead a somewhat normal life.

Tanny was born in Paris in 1929. She moved to New York with her ballet mother and took up dance. Enrolled at New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet, Balanchine quickly took notice of her; as a teenager standing outside of a ballet class at School of American Ballet Balanchine inquired “Why aren’t you in class?” The strong willed Tanny, with arms crossed, replied “kicked out.” She ascended quickly through the company, jumping to soloist roles without dancing corp de ballet parts.

Competition among female dancers for Balanchine’s attention was fierce; he liked perfume and, no surprise, the ballet studio was filled with multiple powerful aromas from the women. Balanchine was married multiple times to dancers, and all left him. “Genius is hard to live with,” dancer Jacques d’Amboise says. Tanny was a new challenge for Balanchine after his fourth wife Maria Tallchief left him. Balanchine and Tanny were married 1952.

Jerome Robbins was also in love with Tanny. The documentary is filled with excerpts of his letters to Tanny that reveal both love and aggravation with her. Robbins love was unrequited as Tanny seemed ambivalent, preferring a friendship instead. The two spent substantial time together and the film is filed with home movies of the two on picnics and other outings. Robbins choreographed a number of pieces for her, including Afternoon of a Faun. In the end, Robbins lost out to Balanchine. The documentary delves into her complicated and nuanced relationships with great precision and clarity.

The company went on tour to Europe in 1956. Tanny, then 27, didn’t want to go as she was tired from a grueling dance workload and the burdens of the relationship with Balanchine. Shortly before the tour, dancers were given the Salk polio vaccine in the studio. Tanny was in line to receive the vaccine, but bowed out, thinking that the vaccine would make her tired during the long flight. After dancing Western Symphony in Copenhagen with d’Amboise, she felt ill. The next morning, she was in an iron lung ventilator, stricken with polio and fighting for her life. Ironically, Balanchine choreographed a piece for a 1946 polio benefit which had Tanny dancing until a character representing polio, portrayed by Balanchine, strickened her and she collapsed to the floor.

In real life, Tanny survived but would never walk again. In the aftermath, with her glamorous dancing days a distant memory, she was filled with boredom, alternating between the iron lung, feedings, and baths given by the nurses, eagerly awaiting letters from a not always timely Robbins. Balanchine was supportive throughout, moving and massaging her limbs in a rehabilitation effort, spending time at a physical rehabilitation center in Warm Springs, Georgia.

Ultimately, they broke up; the split seemed mutual as Tanny realized that he would be unwilling to care for her. After the separation, Balanchine pursued a much younger Suzanne Farrell, who eventually rejected him.

In the end, Tanny accepted her fate and is portrayed as a resilient survivor. Balanchine did not want her around the New York City Ballet studios; instead she taught at former New York City Ballet dancer Author Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem, helping to develop several stars at the company.

Director Nancy Buirski did a great job of assembling and compiling film footage and photographs. The photos of Tanny, by Martha Swope and Robbins, are stunning. Watching Tanny, I can see her style in current dancers, with long limbs, beautiful proportions covering substantial space. Excerpts of more recent dancers Allegra Kent and Suzanne Farrell reveal substantial technique that would pass muster with current standards.

The documentary features interviews with an emotional and engaging d’Amboise, Balanchine’s personal assistant, Barbara Horgan, Arthur Mitchell, and Patricia McBride.

Here is an interview with Buirski on the film:

Update: The documentary will open in the following cities:

Portland, Cinema 21 – February 28
Philadelphia, Landmark Ritz 5 – March 7
San Francisco, Landmark Opera Plaza – March 21
Los Angeles, Laemmle Royal – April 11