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Last Dance: Tanaquil Le Clercq

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq (2013), directed by Nancy Buirski —

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For balletomanes everywhere and people fond of late-1940’s British movies; for Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale readers and “glorious Technicolor” aficionados; for girls and boys who hope to dance on stage at Covent Garden or Lincoln Center when they grow up; for members of Moira Shearer and Anton Walbrook fan clubs; for those who appreciate Brian Easdale film scores and Jack Cardiff cinematography; for hopeless romantics who become emotionally involved in rich, overripe stories of doomed love; for Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola, who dusted off the overlooked work of fellow film director Michael Powell, late in his life, and helped to restore his most brilliant creations; for cinemaniacs around the world and for those of us who can see the flick fifty or a hundred times and never tire of it, The Red Shoes is a pinnacle on the high altar of Motion Picture Art, the ne plus ultra of movies about ballet and its sometimes delirious cosmos of dancing stars. When the 1948 Academy Awards were bestowed, The Red Shoes won three Oscars (Best Art Direction, Best Set Decoration, Best Scoring) and was nominated for two more–Best Screenplay and Best Picture.

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Despite the artistic and commercial success of The Red Shoes on both sides of the Atlantic, writers and producers didn’t exactly hasten to develop more scripts centered on ballet’s insular world. The topic was probably considered too refined, too obscure and too effeminate–not the kind of picture an average American couple would line up to see on a mid-century, Friday night date. There were, however, some notable exceptions. In the 1950’s, while Hollywood’s “Golden Age” of film-making still retained its sheen, MGM musicals often featured spectacular ballet numbers. The 17-minute finale of An American in Paris, which cost $542,000 to shoot, raised the film from a good, standard musical to an exhilarating pageant of music, color and dance. Singin’ in the Rain, also shot in 1951, included a 15-minute, $600,000 Broadway Ballet; its centerpiece was a sensuous Cyd Charisse/ Gene Kelly pas de deux that remains the apotheosis of modern dance. (This segment was further enhanced by a pastel-hued, Dali-esque, “infinity” set, orchestrations that rival Ravel and a 25-foot length of silk, held aloft and steered by studio wind machines, that appeared to wrap itself around Charisse and Kelly as they danced). Two years later, one of the many highlights in MGM’s The Band Wagon was a 13-minute number with Charisse and Fred Astaire called The Girl Hunt Ballet. These sequences were all inspired by–and had a big influence on–contemporary ballet dancing of that era. But what became of “ballet movies” since then?

Once in a great while, a movie script with a ballet theme gets Hollywood’s fabled “green light” and actually becomes popular with the public. The Turning Point (1977) was full of cliches and perhaps most noted for a cat fight between its two stars, Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine. But Mikhail Baryshnikov co-starred, in his film debut, along with many members of the American Ballet Theatre and the film contains portions of a dozen ballets, new and old, with their original choreography and scores. Black Swan, released in 2010, re-fashioned the story of “Swan Lake” into an odd, dark, hallucinatory box-office hit that the New York Times called “dementedly entertaining”. Many actual dancers doubled for the stars and portrayed the corps de ballet. The compelling albeit over-the-top film was nominated for five Oscars; Natalie Portman won Best Actress for a demanding role that required her to do lots of her own dancing. But the characterizations were hackneyed, already tired when “The Red Shoes” first used them six decades earlier: the tortured, unsure-of-herself prima ballerina (Portman), the autocratic, heartless impresario (Vincent Cassel), the domineering stage mother (Barbara Hershey) and the star’s competitive understudy (Mila Kunis), waiting In the wings.

Documentaries about dance have been made since the invention of film and have preserved many complete ballets and at least fleeting glimpses of fabled stars. Tucked away in private archives and cultural institutions, in Public Television’s treasure chest or simply floating around on the Internet, there is an extensive visual record covering more than a century of dance. You can glimpse Anna Pavlova, Martha Graham leading her company, Agnes DeMille’s work on Broadway’s Brigadoon and Oklahoma, Rudolph Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn and the Royal Ballet of the 1960’s and decades of George Balanchine teaching students his influential choreography. Highly recommended is the Wim Wenders-directed film simply called Pina; it is a stunning, 3-D documentary about the avant-garde work of recently-deceased German choreographer, Pina Bausch.

This spring, a truly outstanding documentary about the world of ballet was premiered, first in select screenings in New York and Los Angeles, and then on the excellent Public Broadcasting biography series, “American Masters”. It is called Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq and is a work of great beauty, matching the ballerina whose life and interrupted career it chronicles. It was written, produced and directed by Nancy Buirski and flawlessly edited by Damian Rodriguez. In several reviews of the film, the same words keep appearing: “transcendent”, “mesmerizing”, “fascinating”, “haunted”, “ravishing” and “luminous”. Those descriptions are apt and they apply to the artist we see on the screen as well as the story of her life that Buirski’s work of art engagingly reveals.

Oddly enough, there are some direct parallels in Le Clercq’s life and the story of the fictional dancer in “The Red Shoes”. Both women are well-educated and raised in privileged circumstances and each has a domineering mother; both women are emotionally torn between the two men who love them, a ballet impresario and another artist for whom each woman is a “muse”; and both women’s careers as dancers come to an early, tragic end–one in death, the other with a crippling disease. (Anyone completely familiar with the 1948 film should look for one very brief excerpt from it, buried deep in the documentary.)

Tanaquil Le Clercq, known as Tanny to her friends and family, was born in Paris in 1929, the only child of a French academic and a former American debutante. After her parents separated, Tanny was raised in New York by her wealthy mother who placed the young girl in the School of American Ballet. The school’s founder, George Balanchine, first noticed her standing in a hallway, aged 14 and pouting, after she was “kicked out” of a class. In an incredible co-incidence that would later haunt Balanchine, he chose Tanny as the lead in a short ballet devised for a March of Dimes benefit. She portrayed a child who contracts poliomyelitis; the “Threat of Polio” was played by Balanchine. He continued to cast her in lead roles and she rose to stardom without ever becoming part of the corps de ballet. As is evident in the filmed performances and early television kinescopes that illustrate the documentary, Tanny grew up to be a long-legged, strikingly pretty woman with an angular face. Her tall, thin, model-like body–unusual for dancers of the period–became the standard for Balanchine. Her dancing skills–under his tutelage–made her famous. They fell in love and were married (he for the fifth time) on New Year’s Eve, 1952. Balanchine was 48, Tanny was 23.

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Men were always drawn to Tanny and you can see how tantalizing she was when she dances; home movies in later years show her vibrant, engaging personality. Her closest friend, the one she was most fond of, was Jerome Robbins. A bit older than Tanny, Jerry was already a rising star when they met; he joined Balanchine’s company so he could partner with her and later choreographed some of her most notable works. Letters between the two, written over many years and read in the film by actors, show deeper sides of both personalities. Jerry was infatuated with Tanny but got frustrated with her now and then; she treasured his friendship but deflected his more amorous intentions. The relationship was close and complex–Jerry was homosexual– but nothing could match the deep love she shared with Balanchine.

In the summer of 1956, as the company was about to embark on a lengthy European tour, polio was on the rise. All of the dancers got a shot of the new Salk vaccine, just to be safe. Tanny, who was actually in line to get her injection, decided at the last moment to skip it that day. By late October, she was exhausted and collapsed in Copenhagen, the morning after her performance in “Western Symphony”. Doctors confirmed she had been stricken with polio. She was placed in an iron lung in a Danish hospital where she would remain for months, not expected to live. Balanchine cancelled all engagements in order to spend every minute with Tanny. By this time, their marriage was rocky, but he continued living with her in New York, convinced that she could be cured. In a letter, referring to Balanchine during this period, Tanny wrote: “It’s almost better to have polio than to be near someone who has it.” She was only 27 years old.

Accepting her illness took a long time for Tanny. As a dancer, she had spent two decades developing her body, strengthening her muscles every day, but now there was no feeling at all in her legs. She knew that no amount of massages or Pilates sessions or praying to Balanchine’s Russian saints would ever work. Tanaquil Le Clercq’s career as a dancer was over. She would neither dance nor walk ever again. “The past makes me cry it seems so wonderful”, she wrote to a friend, “the future’s so far away and blurred and only the present is left.” Spoiled as a child and aloof by nature, she longed for her independence. Her gift for living in the moment enabled her to embrace life.

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One of the great pleasures of Afternoon of a Faun is seeing Tanny’s spirited personality slowly rise again after the shattering polio news. In her letters to Robbins and in his wonderful photos of her, in the recollections of other friends and fellow dancers and in hearing Tanny’s actual voice (in one of her few recorded interviews, unearthed by Nancy Buirski), we get to know the woman–before and after her illness. She could be a bit cranky in the hospital, was sometimes mad at Jerry for not writing more often and got frustrated with her mother’s suffocating attention , but she seemed to accept all adversity and move on.

Balanchine gradually moved on, too, when his attentions shifted to Suzanne Farrell, his next muse. After their divorce, Tanny continued to live–by herself–in their New York apartment and eventually moved to Weston, Connecticut. She mastered her wheelchair, became a writer and was convinced, by former dance partner Arthur Mitchell, to teach young students at his Dance Theatre of Harlem, using her expressive hands and arms. She had many friends, attended the ballet and even travelled to Europe. And she outlived both of her great loves: Balanchine died in 1983, followed by Robbins in 1998. After a full and vibrant life, Tanaquil Le Clercq died in 2000. She was 71 years old.

The reason to watch this documentary is to see Tanny dance. We should be grateful that even the primitive recording equipment of the 1950’s was able to preserve her prowess as a dancer. Her allure captivates us now as she must have then, in person. There are many clips, some just seconds long, with accompanying music by Bach, Stravinsky, Bizet and others but two of them are really glorious.

La Valse, with Balanchine’s choreography set to the ravishing music of Maurice Ravel, is set in fin de siecle Vienna. The men are in tuxedos, the women wear flowing gowns and all of them swirl in what Ravel called “the mad whirl of some fantastic and fateful carousel”. Death enters, places black gloves and black earrings on Tanny and ultimately hoists her limp body over his head. The superb editing by Damian Rodriguez heightens the growing frenzy of the waltz and also–suggesting Tanny’s real-life disability–intercuts other shots, from other ballets: Tanny falling; her legs being dragged, unable to move on their own; her body swooning; Tanny dying. The scene is an emotional highpoint of the film and a tour de force of editing skills. (Throughout the documentary, there are seamless matchings of photos or film-clips with voiceovers; these fluid transitions are helped immensely by the intelligent choices made by director Nancy Buirski and her team of researchers.)

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The film opens and closes with portions of Afternoon of a Faun, the subtle, erotic pas de deux with Claude Debussy’s beautiful music and choreography by Jerome Robbins. The ballet has a simple premise, best explained by legendary dancer Jacques d’Amboise, for whom–along with Tanaquil Le Clercq– it was created. The story is about “a couple of innocent dancers in a studio and the brilliance of making the mirror–that the dancers are looking at as they dance–the audience. And you see how beautiful Tanny is in it.” The pace of the dance is measured and unhurried, all the better to gaze into Tanny’s face as she looks directly out at us. She is awakening–as a dancer, as a woman–and appears, as her friend Robbins said, “like a gauche young colt, soon to become a graceful thoroughbred”. (He says, elsewhere: “She had a terrific sexuality underneath, with the possibility of that which was much more interesting than the obviousness of it.”) Jacques effortlessly lifts her, their arms and bodies intertwine tenderly, he gives her a tentative kiss on the cheek then she slowly turns to us, her fingers touching her face. No matter what happens, we can’t take our eyes away from Tanny.

Comments

  1. Mona Houghton says:

    Great article!!! Get more from this writer! Insights galore.

  2. Mary McGeachy says:

    Insightful, entertaining and brimming with new information about the world of dance. Sean Hayes has a gift and and this piece is as thrilling as his topic and lifts one right off the floor!

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