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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

New Movie Documents Famed Ballet Dancer Felled By Polio

From Left, Edward Bigalow tying Tanaquil Le Clercq into her costume. (A Kino Lorber Release)Jacques D’Amboise and Tanaquil Le Clercq in Afternoon of a Faun, choreographed by Jerome Robbins. (A Kino Lorber Release)Tanaquil Le Clercq, left, and Jerome Robbins in Bourrée Fantasque, choreographed by George Balanchine. (A Kino Lorber Release)

Tanaquil Le Clercq isn’t a household name, but she still holds a stunning place in ballet history. In the 1950s, “Tanny,” a gorgeous Paris-born American, was muse to the great New York City Ballet choreographer George Balanchine, who’d become her husband, and also to choreographer Jerome Robbins, who remained her friend.

But in 1956, at the age of 27 in the middle of a NYCB European tour, Tanny’s muscles felt stiff. She was struck down by polio, never to walk or dance again. In eerie foreshadowing, Balanchine had cast her as a polio victim in one early ballet; he danced the role of polio.

It’s a story told in the new documentary about Tanny’s life called “Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq.” Director, producer and writer Nancy Buirski joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the film.

The documentary is showing exclusively at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York City, from Feb. 5 to Feb. 25 (showtime info here).

Interview Highlights: Nancy Buirski

On why she decided to make the film

“Actually, it was how compelling Tanny was herself. I saw her dancing a small segment of ‘Afternoon of a Fawn’ and I was mesmerized by her beauty and her talent and her intelligence on stage. And I just wanted to see more of her and I was amazed that I didn’t know anything about her. Well then I discovered what had happened, that she had been stricken by polio and that her career had been cut tragically short. And I immediately committed myself to telling her story.”

On choreographer George Balanchine’s relationship with Tanny

“Balanchine choreographed something like 32 works for Tanny. He was captivated by her when she was a young student at the School of American Ballet. She was apparently thrown out of class for being the kind of willful, ornery person that she was and continued to be throughout her life. And he said, ‘why are you not in class?’ And she said, ‘kicked out,’ and he said ‘what’s your name,’ and she said ‘Tanny’ and people like to say that the rest was history.”

On Tanny’s decision not to take the polio vaccine

“She wasn’t the only one who choose not to take the vaccine. The vaccine would often make people feel ill. And she was about to take a long plane ride and she just didn’t want to feel ill. So she decided she would take when she got back. And I guess that’s a lesson to all of us as to how critical decisions like that can be.”

On the ballet world’s reaction to the film

“First of all, they’re very grateful. They get to see how she comes to accept this. You know, Tanny did not overcome polio, but she personally comes to some level of acceptance about this disease. And I think that that’s something we all take away from the film, that we — even if it’s just a question of age, which causes some limitations, that if we can accept it as gracefully and eloquently as Tanny did, then we can still have a full life.”


  • Nancy Buirski, director, producer and writer of the documentary “Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq.”

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