Afternoon of a faun, interrupted

Public television's portrait of the great Tanaquil LeClercq is too little about the ballet, too much about the polio that cut her dancing career short

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, an American Masters film about the Paris-born dancer whose stellar career was cut short when she contracted polio at the age of 27,  was aired on OPB at noon on Sunday and repeats at the convenient hour of 2 a.m. this Saturday, July 19.

Directed by Nancy Buirski and billed as a “dance-disability documentary,” Afternoon includes some wonderful clips of Le Clervq dancing. But after a second viewing, I believe Buirski’s film to be deeply flawed, at least from a dance perspective, because the focus is on the polio, not the art. Footage of Le Clercq’s witty send-up of dance-hall girls (and of the ballet itself) in George Balanchine’s Western Symphony, the detailed drama of her performance of the doomed woman in the same choreographer’s La Valse, and her sensuous, narcissistic Nymph in Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun – all roles she originated – show far more clearly than most of the film’s talking heads why she was muse to two of the greatest choreographers of the twentieth century.

LeClercq in repose, faun-like.

LeClercq in repose, faun-like.

There are exceptions: Pat McBride Lousada’s recollections of their close friendship as teenagers at the School of American Ballet, as well as her descriptions of the intelligence, wit and musicality with which Le Clercq infused her dancing, seem to me some of the best parts of the film. Jacques d’Amboise, whom we see dancing with her in Western and Faun, gives insights into the way she worked, as does Arthur Mitchell, who danced with her in Western the last time she performed, on tour in Copenhagen in 1956. Years later, Mitchell  persuaded her to teach from her wheelchair at the School of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, founded in 1968, and we see fascinating footage of that. But why in the world didn’t the filmmakers include an interview with Virginia Johnson, now DTH’s artistic director, and former principal dancer, who was in those classes and, Mitchell says on camera, owes much of her career to Le Clercq’s training?

By the time Le Clercq reached Copenhagen, the next-to-last stop on a grueling New York City Ballet tour, the Paris-born dancer had been one of Balanchine’s muses (there were others, simultaneously, Maria Tallchief and Diana Adams among them) for eleven years, and his wife for four.  Balanchine took her in to Ballet Society, the precursor to City Ballet, when she was seventeen, and her first major role was Choleric in Four Temperaments, a wild tantrum of a dance in which she made as indelible an impression as had Todd Bolender in the same ballet, dancing Phlegmatic.

She had also originated roles in many Robbins ballets, showing her incredible range in the psychoanalytically oriented Age of Anxiety and her gift for comedy as the zoned-out audience member in The Concert. But that last program in Copenhagen was all Balanchine.  In addition to Western, she danced Odette in Balanchine’s one-act Swan Lake, and the first movement of his lighthearted Bourrée Fantasque, a physically demanding program for anyone – never mind someone, as we learn from Barbara Horgan, another talking head, who had said she was too tired to go on the tour. Horgan and Betty Cage were the linchpins of the City Ballet administration for decades, among other things keeping the books, making tour arrangements, mothering the dancers and doling out their pay. Both were on the 1956 tour. It’s good to see Horgan, who is responsible for the Balanchine Trust, which licenses Balanchine’s ballets and oversees their staging, get some credit and have her say. But I’d rather see more of Le Clercq’s dancing — for example, all of La Valse, not just a clip or two. And it would have been a good thing for viewers who never saw her dance “live and in person” to have heard what a dance critic or historian who did watch her dance speak about just exactly what made her so special.

LeClercq and Balanchine, "Metamorphoses."

LeClercq and Balanchine, “Metamorphoses.”

We do see and hear a great deal from Randal Bourscheidt, who was, like Horgan, a close friend of Le Clercq. Bourscheidt has had a long career as an arts administrator and advocate, and did the early studies that show the economic impact of healthy arts institutions: for example, the ripple effect on restaurants and hotels of the ticket-buying public. Both he and Horgan talk about Le Clercq’s personal relationship to Balanchine and Robbins, at times suggesting a romantic triangle that I’m not sure was there, creating a rivalry between the two choreographers for her attention in the rehearsal studio and out of it. Both men were passionately in love with her dancing body, her excellent mind, her musicality, and in Balanchine’s case, her French chic.  Her father was a French intellectual, her mother a socialite from St. Louis.  One of the things that comes through in the film is Le Clercq’s “Frenchness,” especially in a clip from a television show in which she and d’Amboise talk to some small children at SAB, after performing, as I recall, the grand pas de deux from the Nutcracker.  “You huff and puff a lot,” she tells them, with no trace of an accent, but her inflection is Gallic to the core.

The relationship with Robbins was quite different. They were much closer in age, with an eleven-year gap between them versus the quarter-century between her and Balanchine. Someone in the film points out that Balanchine once said that when Robbins and Le Clercq engaged in repartee in his presence, he couldn’t understand a word they said. Robbins was greatly affected as a choreographer by her polio. He had made an extraordinarily funny solo for her in The Concert; after she became ill, he removed it from the ballet and in fact for several years stopped making work for City Ballet, focusing, rather, on his Broadway career.

I don’t mean to diminish the impact that Le Clercq’s illness had on everyone who knew her, everyone who saw and loved her dancing. I have a vivid memory of a blaring headline in the New York Post, trumpeting the terrible news, and lying face down on my bed, crying my eyes out. I had been watching Le Clercq dance since I was eleven, had seen her in the hall at the School of American Ballet in my very brief stint there in 1950. I was also mindful that I had argued with my mother about getting the Salk vaccine, which in 1956 had just become available. I got it;  Le Clercq, as we learn in the documentary, declined it.  What we don’t learn is that when the company was in Venice, sightseeing by gondola on the filthy Grand Canal, someone wondered if the water was salt or fresh. Tanny, as she’s called  throughout the film, dipped her fingers in the water and tasted it. Some people have speculated that that is how she got sick. She was, however, also exposed at a party to another guest who became very ill shortly afterwards. She could have gotten it either way, or some way else.

The Venice story is told in Barbara Milberg Fisher’s excellent memoir In Balanchine’s Company, and was also told to me by two other former City Ballet dancers who were on that 1956 tour, Barbara Walczak and Todd Bolender. Bolender, who died in 2006, first knew Le Clercq in the mid-1930s, when she was a young child attending the King-Coit School in New York, where he had a job teaching modern dance on Fridays and Saturdays. For a recital, Bolender, who was a great admirer of Uday Shankar, made what he characterized as a sort of classical Indian dance for her, the first of a number of choreographies he would make on a dancer who showed her tremendous talent even at that very young age.  The first things he noticed were her “body and the face.  And the sharpness of her ability to pick up whatever I’d do, as if she’d been trained,” he said.  She was at this point five and a half years old.

The beauty of the line.

The beauty of the line.

Bolender, who at that point in his career was studying modern dance with Hanya Holm, made the shift to ballet and Balanchine in 1938. Le Clercq, after studying with Mordkin, auditioned for the School of American Ballet in 1941 and was accepted there as a scholarship student, first encountering Balanchine in the hallway after being kicked out of class, according to Bourscheidt. Bolender partnered her and Tallchief in her first professional appearance in 1945 in Balanchine’s Symphonie Concertante, danced with her in his Metamorphoses (she was a dragonfly, he was a beetle; there’s a shot of her in costume in the film) and Ivesiana, and in much of Robbins’ work, including The Concert. In Copenhagen, he partnered her in the first movement of Bourrée Fantasque.  

“Just before we went on stage that night,” Bolender told me, “Tanny was standing in the wings and she was in agony, she was cramping, and she said she didn’t think she could dance.  I said to her come on, let’s pretend we’re on a beautiful beach, we’ll have a wonderful time, and she went on stage and did wonderfully, and it was the last time she danced.”

The next day, the stunned company went on to Stockholm without her and Balanchine. Bolender said you could have heard a pin drop on the train that took them to the ferry, extremely unusual for dancers on tour.  Horgan’s account of informing the dancers and their reaction, of Balanchine’s devastation and determination that Le Clercq would dance again, is extremely compelling. And the footage of the spa town and rehabilitation center of Warm Springs, Georgi , where in desperation Balanchine took her for therapy (it didn’t work), is fascinating. Le Clercq remained paralyzed and used a wheelchair for the rest of her life, only her left hand fully functional.

She ended her marriage to Balanchine in 1969, and managed to live independently until she died on New Year’s Eve in 2000.  A gifted writer and photographer, she produced a cookbook and a terrific book about Mourka, the cat she and Balanchine had for years, and she created crossword puzzles that were published in the New York Times. She headed the faculty at Dance Theatre of Harlem’s School, coached dancers in her roles, and went to Kansas City to fine-tune Balanchine’s Haieff Divertimento when Bolender programmed it in the 1980s.

Some of this, but not all, we learn from the film. We do learn a very great deal about polio, iron lungs, and water therapy, and for younger generations than mine, it is a good thing for them to know how devastating the disease was, how fearful our parents were, how fearful we were. But I would vastly prefer to have come away from this film with an image in my mind of Tanny’s long, long legs rushing headlong through Symphony in C, than those same legs trapped in an iron lung. Not that the film concludes with that image. It ends with yet another iteration of Afternoon of a Faun, which emphasized Le Clercq’s sensuality, but not the speed and snap, the uninhibited style, that is what I and many others loved about Tanny on the move.

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A recent DVD release by Video Artists International (VAIO), New York City Ballet in Montreal, Vol. 2, shows Le Clercq devouring the floor in a 1956 performance of Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco.

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If you don’t want to get up at 2 a.m. to watch the rerun of Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun on OPB, or watch it on your computer, it has been released on commercial DVD, as well. A good deal of the footage is taken from kinescopes of mainstream, prime-time television broadcasts from the late Forties and early Fifties. While I know it’s possible to watch today’s television shows any old time, OPB’s scheduling of this and other dance programs seems to reinforce the art form’s current status as the stepsister of the performing arts.

 

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