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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

New Movie Documents Famed Ballet Dancer Felled By Polio

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.”

Guest

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

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

As we're watching all the fantastically talented Olympic athletes, we're reminded of how quickly it can be taken away, and how it was for one ballerina of a different era. Tanaquil Le Clercq is not a household name, but she still holds a stunning place in ballet history.

In the 1950s, "Tanny" was muse to the great New York City Ballet founding choreographer George Balanchine, who'd become her husband; but also to choreographer Jerome Robbins, who remained her friend, and to the men she danced with, including Jacques D'Amboise. But in 1956, at the age of 27, in the middle of a New York City Ballet European tour, Tanny felt stiff. She was struck down by polio, never to walk or dance again.

In eerie foreshadowing, Balanchine had once cast her as a polio victim, himself as polio. It was a fundraising take-off on his great work "La Valse" in which she dances the female ideal. A male dancer representing death slowly seduces her, and leaves her body lifeless on stage. The symbolism now too much for her friend D'Amboise.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AFTERNOON OF A FAUN: TANAQUIL LE CLERCQ")

JACQUES D'AMBOISE: I don't - I think I can't talk anymore about it.

YOUNG: Jacques D'Amboise in the new documentary "Afternoon of a Faun," written, directed and produced by Nancy Buirski. It tells the incredible story of Tanaquil Le Clercq. And Nancy joins us now. Welcome.

NANCY BUIRSKI: It's great to be here. Thank you.

YOUNG: What drew you to it? I mean, did you know this story?

BUIRSKI: Actually, it was how compelling Tanny was herself. I saw her dancing a small segment of "Afternoon of a Faun," 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'd been stricken by polio, and that her career had been cut tragically short. And I immediately committed myself to telling her story.

YOUNG: It's quite amazing. Here's Jacques D'Amboise ,describing her to you in your film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AFTERNOON OF A FAUN: TANAQUIL LE CLERCQ")

D'AMBOISE: The tragedy of Tanny is epic. Epic. She was destroyed as a dancer.

YOUNG: So Nancy, she was stunning. She was young. She was different. She obviously caught George Balanchine's eye. Tell us about the work they did together.

BUIRSKI: You know, Balanchine choreographed - I think 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.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well - and there was also the relationship with Jerome Robbins. Did he choreograph "Afternoon of a Faun," the name of your film and the dance, for her?

BUIRSKI: Yes, he did. He was inspired by her. He said he saw her rehearsing in a studio, and watched her rehearsing in front of a mirror. And that just motivated him to create this dance where the dancers are actually using the audience as a mirror, and looking at the audience as if it's a mirror and dancing in an innocent way in front of them.

YOUNG: We'll have some of this footage at hereandnow.org. It's really something. But here is part of a letter that she wrote to him. They exchanged letters after she was struck by polio. The letters are read by actors in your film. Let's listen to her note to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AFTERNOON OF A FAUN: TANAQUIL LE CLERCQ")

MARIANNE BOWER: (Reading) Dear Jerry, this is a right-handed letter. I hold my hand up and write, and Edie(ph) moves the paper along like a typewriter. I started to write a letter with my left hand, as that's the one that works, but it proved quite impossible.

YOUNG: Well, and Nancy, what we're seeing in this relationship is, it's so complicated. Jerome Robbins, a closeted gay man at the time, this was a complex love.

BUIRSKI: It was indeed, and I think it also tells us something about the love that artists have for their muses. It's not simple, and it does involve a complicity on the part of the object, the muse herself. You know, we all have reasons for falling in love. And I think in this case, it's often a love of talent and beauty and artistry.

YOUNG: Yeah. And she's on this tour. Now, it's in the 1950s. It's in the midst of the polio outbreak but also, the Salk vaccine is out. They've gone on this tour. She was standing in line to get the vaccine and decided not to?

BUIRSKI: That's correct. And she wasn't the only one who decided not to take the vaccine. 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 that she'd take it when she got back. And I guess that's a lesson to all of us, of how critical decisions like that can be.

YOUNG: It's just amazing hearing all these dancers who were with her on that tour describing, you know, how she said she didn't feel well. She - her muscles hurt. And then they all wake up the next morning, and she's not there because she can't move and has gone to the hospital.

BUIRSKI: She's in an iron lung. They weren't sure she would live. But eventually, she came out of her respirator, and she was able to move the top of her body. Part of the reason is that she had developed this discipline as a dancer, so her lungs and her upper body was - were very - quite strong.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, and so was the love between her and Balanchine. He's strapping her feet to his, to try to get her to move; takes her to Mr. Pilates - the man who would create the system that we know now - to try to get her to move and exercise. It just is extraordinary.

BUIRSKI: He was trying to make someone walk who couldn't walk, just like he had tried to make dancers dance who perhaps could not do the steps that he wanted them to do. Sadly, he wasn't able to.

YOUNG: In one of her letters to Robbins, she talks about how Balanchine gave her a religious talisman he thought might cure her. Here, she writes to Jerome Robbins about Balanchine.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AFTERNOON OF A FAUN: TANAQUIL LE CLERCQ")

BOWER: (Reading) This is not at all like George. I'm afraid he is being unrealistic about this. I told him over the phone that I didn't like the sound of it, and he sounded so disappointed. It's almost better to have polio than to be near someone who has it.

YOUNG: To think of this great choreographer whose muse can't move.

BUIRSKI: It's amazing. That's why, when Jacques d'Amboise describes what happened to Tanny as epic, I think he's trying to get across the idea that we didn't just lose a dancer. We lost one of the most extraordinary dancers whose physical abilities - whose ability to move was cut short, and these people who were inspired by her to create these wonderful ballets would no longer have this inspiration to work with.

YOUNG: Well, actually, they did. After her illness, it resulted in one of the great ballets of the 20th century, as you point out in the film - "Agon." It's plotless. It's to the music of Stravinsky. But Arthur Mitchell, the great dancer, talks about how it was obvious to him that it was about someone trying to help someone move.

BUIRSKI: It's manipulating the body. You know, there is the theory that many of the steps that are in "Agon" were the very same exercises that George Balanchine was using on Tanny.

YOUNG: And of course, he choreographed that. She had great spirit, it seemed, after the polio. She never did any on-camera interviews, but there is an audio interview of her after she had polio. You have some of that in your film. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AFTERNOON OF A FAUN: TANAQUIL LE CLERCQ")

TANAQUIL LE CLERCQ: It's a very funny thing because you start out young. And by the time you've gotten your technique, you're going downhill already. Our basque isn't as high. Knees are bending. You know what I mean? Thirty-something - you don't look the way you did when you were 24 or -5.

YOUNG: Nancy Buirski, your subject - Tanaquil Le Clercq - wasn't supposed to live past 40 but did live until 71; died in 2000. What have you been hearing from people in the ballet world now that you're telling her story?

BUIRSKI: Well, first of all, they're very grateful. They get to see how she comes to accept this. She - 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 that 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 as eloquently as Tanny did, then we can still have a full life.

YOUNG: Nancy Buirski, director, producer, writer of the documentary "Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq," about the 1950s ballerina, muse to choreographic giants, struck down in her prime by polio. Nancy, thanks so much.

BUIRSKI: You're very welcome.

YOUNG: And, Meghna, the film is in limited release. We'll have information and scenes at hereandnow.org.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

What a story.

YOUNG: What a story. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm - I'm Robin Young.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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