Home Video Hovel: Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, by Sarah Brinks


If I say the word ‘ballerina’, you probably have an immediate image in your mind of a tall, slender dancer. This is the modern idea of what a ballerina is, but before the 1940’s that isn’t the image that would have come to mind. Before Tanaquil Le Clerq most ballerinas were short, stocky, and quick. It was Tanaquil Le Clerq and her famous husband/choreographer, George Balanchine, who changed the look of ballet forever. The tall, skinny, long-legged ballerina’s we think of today are known as “Balanchine Ballerinas”.

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clerq is part of the PBS on-going documentary profile series American MastersAfternoon of a Faun tells the tragic and heart-warming story of the famous ballerina Tanaquil Le Clerq (lovingly referred to in the film as ‘Tany’) who was struck down at 27 with a crippling bout of polio. She was tall, thin, and had legs that went on for miles and was one of the best ballerinas of her time. We learn about Le Clerq through interviews with her friends and ballet co-workers and her letters and journal entries. There are also lots of photographs and films (of varying quality) of Le Clerq dancing.

Tany is struck down in the prime of her career and fights a long and hard fight with polio. She completely looses the use of her legs and becomes wheel chair bound. She also looses significant motor skills in one of her hands. She perseveres, survives the disease, and lives a long and full life very different from the first 27 years.

One thing that I really liked about the documentary was the explanations given about polio. I am young enough that polio had been virtually wiped out thanks to the vaccination, so I didn’t really understand the mindset of people at that time. Apparently polio can be quite contagious and was a tricky disease because some people recovered almost completely from it, some were permanently crippled by it requiring wheel chairs or crutches, and some died. You never knew when or who it would strike and there was a great sense of fear and germaphobia. So when it struck someone in the dance company, people were very scared because they were all in close quarters and in constant physical contact.

Tany was still married to George when she contracted polio and he was considerably less willing to accept the truth of her condition than she was. She realized much sooner than he did that she was never going to dance or even walk again. Balanchine just couldn’t accept that the most talented dancer of her generation was crippled for life. Hearing people talk about it and the lengths he went to in order to try and help her was sort of disturbing. He didn’t give up and he was incredibly stubborn even though every doctor and Tany herself knew she would never walk again.

A through-line in the film were the many loves of Tany, George, and her good friend and almost lover, Jerry. At one point one of the interviewees asks, “Do you want to do the wives?” She then proceeds to list all of Balanchine’s wives and her opinions of them. It is almost laugh out loud funny but also goes a long way to explain his and Tany’s relationship and marriage.

At its heart this is a film about over coming adversity and being strong of spirit. Tany from her very earliest days of dancing was a strong willed girl who never gave up. She wasn’t go to be defeated by her teachers or even polio. She made a life for herself after she survived polio and bettered the lives of those around her. She had the body and training of a dancer but the conviction to be a survivor. It is obvious by the interviewees that her story and life touched many others and that the tragedy of her story made her both more inspirational and more infamous.

I think is a well put together documentary that is both educational and inspirational. It also has a sense of humor, which is good when the subject matter is so heavy. The footage and pictures of all the different ballets are fascinating and you understand why people were so mesmerized by Tany and why the best choreographer of the day created ballets just for her. Tanaquil Le Clerq was a magnificent ballerina and fascinating person. I can recommend this documentary to everyone.

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