Aspen Film, Aspen Institute to present ‘Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq’

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Tanaquil le Clercq and choreographer George Balanchine. The pair's relationship is featured in the documentary "Afternoon of a Faun," which chronicles le Clercq's career and battle with polio. The film screens Tuesday at Paepcke Auditorium.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go…

What: ‘Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq,’ presented by Aspen Film and the Aspen Institute

Where: Paepcke Auditorium

When: Tuesday, July 22, 7 p.m.

Cost: $20


Tannaquil Le Clercq was an unrivaled ballerina and a muse to the most accomplished choreographers of her time — George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. But in 1954, on a tour of Europe, she was struck with polio and never danced — or walked — again. The documentary “Afternoon of a Faun: Tannaquil Le Clercq” tells her story, combining archival footage with Le Clercq’s letters and interviews with her contemporaries.

On Tuesday it opens the summer’s New Views documentary series, presented by the Aspen Institute and Aspen Film.

“The tragedy of Tanny is epic,” her dance partner Jacque d’Amboise says in the film. “She was destroyed as a dancer, and horrendously, by polio.”

Filmmaker Nancy Buirski came upon Le Clercq’s story while working on a documentary about Robbins. She recalled being transfixed by footage of a healthy Le Clercq dancing.

“I was totally mesmerized by her the moment I saw her on screen,” Buirski said in a recent interview. “And not just the dancing — it was her look, her sensuality and her personality that came through so strongly.”

Buirski wondered why she’d never heard of Le Clercq, and then learned the story of how the dancer’s career was cut short at age 27. She began researching Le Clercq’s life, collecting footage and letters from the estate of George Balanchine, who married a young Le Clercq and then spent a few years putting the film together with Martin Scorsese serving as an advisor.

“She had a regalness about her and this tremendous wit,” Buirski said. “That’s what has drawn me to her.”

Dancers are always concerned about injury, about treating the wear and tear on their bodies. But losing the use of their legs is unthinkable, and the loss of Le Clercq’s talent brings out intense emotions from her fellow performers in the film, even half a century after the fact. Buirski compares the tragic irony of Le Clercq losing her legs to Beethoven going deaf or Degas going blind.

The film retraces Le Clercq’s career trajectory and captures her mythic allure.

“Her talent could take in almost anything,” Jerome Robbins says in the film. “The parts I created on her, they’re danced by five or six women — no one can do them all.”

As a teen at the School of American Ballet, Le Clercq was discovered by Balanchine, who found her standing in a hallway after being kicked out of a class. She went on to become his muse and his wife, and traveled the world performing.

“I didn’t know about the latest records or Frank Sinatra,” a young Le Clercq says in the film, of her unusual life as a teen ballerina. “But you end up in Europe and everyone else is sitting at home going to high school.”

Le Clercq had a creative rebirth later in life when Arthur Mitchell convinced her to teach at his Dance Theater of Harlem.

Mitchell recalls in the film how a wheelchair-bound Le Clercq would use her hands to teach dance steps, and the profound effect she had on his African-American dance company.

“My two lead dancers are really products of Tanny,” he says in the film.

The film aims to transcend the dance world and tell a universal story of perseverance. Buirski has screened it at veterans’ hospitals, where soldiers are recovering from traumatic injuries.

“We’re all going to have something happen to us,” Buirski said. “If nothing else, we’ll all age. So how we accept that and move on from that is what Tanny offers us with her spirit. She accepts it and has a willingness and enjoyment of life.”

The New Views series, now in its fifth summer season, runs through August. It continues on July 28, with a screening of “Print the Legend,” a look at the emerging technology of 3-D printing.

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