Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq

Were you unfamiliar with the story of ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, you’d be forgiven for assuming at first the documentary Afternoon of a Faun is about her untimely death, considering how often her weeping friends refer to her being “struck down” in her prime. And much is made of the supposed ill omen of her performance in a March of Dimes benefit, in which George Balanchine, as the personification of polio, symbolically killed her with his black cloak. But in that performance as well as in reality, Le Clercq survived polio.

Her struggling marriage to Balanchine improved for a time, as his guilt over the March of Dimes performance compelled him to remain by her side during her recovery in the hospital and at Warm Springs. Le Clercq did recover the use of her breathing muscles and arms, but Balanchine’s insistence that she would dance again caused friction when her body simply could not comply. Eventually he strayed, pursuing a younger ballerina (as he had done many times throughout his life), but Le Clercq’s friends characterize her decision to leave Balanchine and move into a hotel as one of self-sacrifice, opining that her wheelchair and altered body was too much of a burden for the great choreographer to handle.

By all accounts, Le Clercq achieved a level of acceptance of her disability. She went on to write two books (Mourka: The Autobiography of a Cat and The Ballet Cookbook) and teach ballet at Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem, demonstrating moves with her hands from her wheelchair. (Balanchine was reportedly too embarrassed of her wheelchair to let her teach at his School of American Ballet.) She renewed or continued her on-again-off-again relationship with Jerome Robbins, and lived independently in New York City until her actual death of pneumonia at age 71.

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