Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, Nancy Buirski’s 2013 documentary is playing at the U-District’s Varsity Theatre, but not for long. If you can get there, see the film. If you can’t, get your hands on the dvd (or a Netflix account). Afternoon of a Faun is a beautifully crafted rendering of one of ballet’s great tragedies. Tanaquil Le Clercq—“Tanny,” by all accounts—was one of the great mid-century American ballerinas, a tall, captivating performer who was muse to both George Balanchine (whom she married) and Jerome Robbins (whom she didn’t). In 1956, at age 27, Tanny contracted polio on tour in Europe and never danced again. She was on stage one night and in an iron lung the next morning.
Through letters, photos, voice recordings, rich archival footage, and interviews with those who knew her, the film gives a taste of Tanny’s personality and talent as both dancer and human being—first as a brilliant performing artist, then as someone who lives with the terrible hand she has been dealt. The film paints a poignant picture of her life before and after polio without being sappy or sensationalist, and the same goes for how it treats her relationships with Balanchine and Robbins. (She and Balanchine divorced about the time he was going crazy for a young Suzanne Farrell, although the film says they became close again toward the end of his life). It’s also an education in what polio truly meant before the vaccine, with eye-opening footage, for current generations at least, of polio treatments and rehabilitation centers.
It seems there has been a resurgence of interest in the Le Clercq mythos lately (Varley O’Connor published a novel about her in 2012), but it’s hardly unjustified. Tanny set the precedent for a new kind of ballerina—the long, lean Balanchine ballerina—and she created roles in some of the most iconic 20th century ballets: Balanchine’s Symphony in C, Concerto Barocco, and La Valse, and Robbins’s Afternoon of A Faun. One wonders how different the modern ballet repertory might look if she had continued to dance.
For more information on Afternoon of A Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, visit the film’s website. Click here for tickets and showtimes at the Varsity Theatre, where the film plays through at least through May 8.