From “The Red Shoes” to “Black Swan,” the lives and passions of ballet dancers on the screen tend to end badly. Tanaquil Le Clercq, subject of Nancy Buirski’s intriguing but discursive documentary, rivals her fictional counterparts in the tragic irony of her fate. A charismatic dancer, she was the “muse” (as the film’s press kit puts it) of choreographers George Balanchine (whom she would marry) and Jerome Robbins. In 1956, at the age of 27, she contracted polio and was paralyzed from the waist down. She would never dance again.
Such is the “myth,” as Le Clercq’s frequent dance partner Jacques d’Amboise puts it. The person, though, proves more elusive, at least in Buirski’s amorphous assemblage of talking heads; letters read in voice-over; music by Ravel, Debussy, and Bach; photos of Le Clercq’s noble profile and luminous, long-limbed beauty; and footage of her ravishing, uncanny performances.
Perhaps such images should suffice — ghosts of the dancer, her artistry ineffable, transcendent and ephemeral. Nonetheless, Buirski’s sketchy portrait “Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq” presents enough teasing glimpses into the dancer’s personal and inner life to demand a fuller picture.
Born in Paris, she moved with her mother to New York, where she attended Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. There she was first noticed by the master as a sullen 15-year-old, standing, arms crossed, outside a studio. As Le Clercq’s friend Randy Bourscheidt tells the story, when Balanchine asked why she was not in class, she responded petulantly, “Kicked out.” This is one of a few anecdotes that offers a more vivid impression of Le Clercq. She certainly made an impression on Balanchine, who, smitten, would create some of his best-known ballets for her. He married her in 1952, when he was 48 and she was 23, his fourth and last wife.
Buirski relates more of the professional than the personal details of that relationship, and provides insights into how Le Clercq’s tall, lithe body type shaped Balanchine’s vision of the perfect dancer, and how that vision has shaped an archetype for ballet dancers ever since. The film also suggests how Balanchine molded his dancers, Pygmalion-like, into his impossible ideal of female beauty.
Devastated by Le Clercq’s illness, Balanchine attended to her care with devoted attention. Unwilling to accept her condition, he tried to force her unresponsive limbs back into motion, his efforts at times driving her to tears. As dancer Arthur Mitchell recalls, Balanchine’s futile attempts to coax movement back into Le Clercq’s legs translated into the pas de deux in Balanchine’s “Agon,” in which the male dancer similarly manipulates the passive body of his partner.
Le Clercq’s relationship with Robbins, meanwhile, comes across as more intimate. Their letters convey an unfulfilled longing for one another’s company, and though Le Clercq preferred Balanchine’s work to that of Robbins, it’s the pas de deux Robbins choreographed for her based on Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” set in a studio with the “mirror” being the audience, that gives the film its title. In footage of a performance of the piece, Le Clercq turns away from her partner (d’Amboise) to face the mirror — those watching — her look of sorrow seeming to acknowledge the transient glory of her art.