The Tragic Downfall of Tanaquil Le Clercq, Ballet’s Greatest Muse
Nancy Buirski, director of the new documentary Afternoon of a Faun, opening at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center in New York City on Wednesday, talks about the life of Tanaquil Le Clercq, the ballerina and wife of George Balanchine who was struck down at the height of her career.
Tanaquil Le Clercq is a name resonant with drama and tragedy. The first name is that of an Etruscan Queen, one sensitive to omens. The last comes from a French father who married a society woman from St. Louis, and together they gave birth to one of the greatest ballerinas of the Twentieth Century.
The creativity of many artists has famously been cut short by illness. But none comes close to the tragedy of this dancer who with her beauty and brightness drew to her two of the world’s greatest choreographers, and who was stricken at the height of her art, never to dance again. This is more than a career cut short. It is what dance is about, what it tries to convey—the quest for transcendence that cannot help but finally be pulled back to earth. It is the very form of ballet that is embodied in the life of Tanaquil Le Clercq, making her personal story a thing of poetry.
Tanaquil Le Clercq was born on Oct. 2, 1929, in Paris. At 3, her family moved to New York where she was raised, and where she began studying ballet. After graduating from the School of American Ballet at 17, Tanny was invited into Ballet Society, started by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein and later to be renamed the New York City Ballet. Tanny came to be known as the epitome of a Balanchine dancer, with her long legs and graceful, fluid lines.
By 17, she had danced her first professional solo as Choleric in The Four Temperaments, moving directly from the school to a principal role, bypassing the corps de ballet. Just four years later, Balanchine was choreographing all of his ballets for her, embracing her as his muse, loving her as a dancer and a woman. Jerome Robbins, also at NYCB, did the same, and she inspired him to create his radical Afternoon of the Faun for her. She married Balanchine in 1952, leaving Robbins heartbroken.
No one was thought to have a brighter future. She had love, fame, and adoration.
Until it all stopped. At 27, while on tour in Copenhagen, Tanny was stricken with polio.
She was in an iron lung, paralyzed from the waist down. Balanchine devoted himself to her recuperation, motivated, it seemed, partly by guilt. When Tanny was 15, Balanchine had cast her in a ballet he created for a polio fundraiser. Balanchine danced the role of Polio and Tanaquil, the Etruscan Queen sensitive to omens, danced the victim.
Their marriage had begun to suffer, and memories of the polio ballet loomed over the choreographer, known to be superstitious. Tanny returned to America, first to Warm Springs, Georgia, then to New York to live with her husband, their marriage rejuvenated by tragedy. Robbins pined for her, writing her passionate letters and visiting her in Warm Springs.
Despondent at first, Tanny gradually reached a level of acceptance. Her famously sharp wit returned, and she was able to talk of dance without pain. She coached dancers in her parts and taught at Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem, demonstrating moves with her hands from her wheelchair. Her choice to live in the moment rather than dwell on the life she lost may have been influenced by her discipline as a dancer. Unlike many accomplished artists, she rarely lived in the past, recounting tales of her glory days. She cooked, wrote a book about a cat who danced, and crafted crossword puzzles.
Balanchine remained married to her until 1969 when he could no longer resist his attraction to dancer Suzanne Farrell and divorced Tanny. Robbins, too, was in and out of her life; clearly, she could no longer inspire these artists from her wheelchair. Tanny remained faithful in her way to them both. She was with Balanchine at his bedside, among his other wives, when he died. Balanchine bequeathed to Tanny the American performance royalty rights to 85 of his ballets, bearing the burden of guilt after having left his crippled wife in vain pursuit of a new muse. Of Balanchine’s former wives, only Tanny was mentioned in his will, a final coda to a tragic and creative love story.
In the 10 years she danced with the New York City Ballet, 32 roles were created for her in ballets by Balanchine, Robbins and others. The solo of the “soulful music lover” that she performed in Jerome Robbins’ The Concert was taken out of the ballet after she could no longer dance it. Due to this tragedy, Tanny never developed the legacy she deserved outside the ballet world. We hope our film Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq illuminates the exceptional qualities of Tanny in dance and in life. Through her own words and through the people who knew and loved her, we have attempted to capture her dance, her unique personality full of humor, candor and sensuality, and her privileged perspective as the inspiration and love object of two of the greatest choreographers in history. Through the richness of dance and music, we’ve tried to express the universal in Tanny’s story. For it is the way her life personifies the poetry of dance that gives our film its resonance. Limitations from age and illness are part of our humanity. It brings dancers down to earth. Tanny’s story is a reminder of what we all face, and why transcendent art may be the ultimate escape.