American Masters — Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun
A film by Nancy Buirski
movie web site [entire film view-able here]
[In addition to off campus ventures to attend and review professional theatre offerings (and all those on-campus O’Neill developmental performances that are off limits for public review), 2014 Fellows of the O’Neill National Critics Institute observed a dance documentary and held an extended seminar with a dance reviewer to hone these particular observational instincts.]
Fuzzy black-and-white filmed images of ballet dancer Tanaquil Le Clercq (1929-2000) in lanky languid action are the perfect bookends in Nancy Buirski’s dreamy poetic musing on her life. In the 2013 film Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun we begin and end in silent consideration of the dancer, in the studio, considering herself in us as her mirror.
The details of Tanny’s early life are sketched broadly. She was born in 1929 Paris to parents who may or may not have remained married while “ballet mother” Edith raised Tanny alone in New York City. At 10, she was awarded a scholarship to Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, and by the age of 27 she contracted polio on the New York City Ballet’s 1956 European tour. Poignantly, as several interviews highlight “you start out young and by the time you have your technique, you are going downhill.” In Tanny’s case, that “downhill” was more extreme; her exposure to one of the world’s great mid-century epidemics anticipated that inevitable stage of every dancer’s life.
Buirsky notes that she “wanted to treat her dramatic experience as poetry and create an intimate film that captured this mood.” If moody musing rather than documentary is the goal, this is a successful and moving creation. Perhaps there is something about this illusive, magical creature with a dramatic early career twist that compels this kind of documentary effort. Her physicality, at least, is preserved for us now: the exquisite legs, strong back, fine bones, long neck, small head that changed the look of the ballet world.
The storytelling focus is upon the men in her life (Balanchine married her, Jerome Robbins loved her, Arthur Mitchell saved her teaching life) and her stage persona, evoked through archive performance film and lovely photographs rather than Tanny’s inner life. Her tenacity and grit in reclaiming her life inspires her friends, whose reflections of Tanny more than Tanny’s own words about her life fill this cinematic poetic musing. The video’s final comments are given to Jerome Robbins, but the final legacy is hers.
© Martha Wade Steketee (July 15, 2014)