It’s no sin to celebrate art and love in the middle of the continent. And it’s no sin to come to dance through MGM. Charismatic dancers have always found a home in cinema and for anyone that learned about love through Charisse and Astaire floating through a reconstructed Central Park, Tanaquil Le Clercq is instantly engaging. In the middle 1950s Le Clercq was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, wife of George Balanchine, and muse to Jerome Robbins.
The new documentary by Nancy Buirski, Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, out now from Kino Lorber, explores the seemingly inherent glamor of Le Clercq’s history. And it also provides a great venue to celebrate her enormous magnetism. The archival footage alone, Tanquil and Jacques d'Amboise in an enraptured pas de deux, give Afternoon of a Faun a very sensual charge.
Director: Nancy Buirski
Producers: Nancy Buirski, Ric Burns, Paola Freccero, Bonnie Lafave, Alysa Nahmias
Writer: Nancy Buirski
Cinematographer: R.E. Rodgers
Editor: Damián Rodríguez
Cast: Tanaquil Le Clercq, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jerome Robbins, Jacques d' Amboise, George Balanchine, Arthur Mitchell, Patricia McBride, Marianne Bower, Barabara Horgan
Premiere: September 30, 2013 – New York Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: February 5, 2014
US Distributor: Kino Lorber
The film follows LeClercq’s development as a dancer from childhood, through her meteoric arrival as the quintessential Balanchine dancer, called by dancer Suzanne Farrell: “leggy, linear, musical, unsentimental and, of course, untouchably beautiful.”
The surprising drama of the film comes as Le Cerq is stricken with polio and paralyzed at the peak of her career; just following her marriage to Balanchine and just before Salk released his vaccine.
It makes for powerful and mesmerizing filmmaking, not only because of the very Hollywood reality of Le Clercq’s circumstances, but also through the very unhollywood examination of what comes next.
Buirski offers a cursory, yet insanely compelling, look at the familiar question of “how to live when you’re no longer the principal ballerina at the New York City Ballet”—also popularly framed as the plight of “trying hard to be the shepherd,” “chopping wood and carrying water,” and being compassionate when “everything happens so much.” Life as the long haul is the grist of a lot of great film, including Linklater’s recent Boyhood, Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, Cassavetes’ Love Streams, and Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. But Buirski happily resists the need to exhaust, as she considers the dancer that no longer dances.
On a final note, Afternoon of a Faun, makes major mention of the sea change that Le Clercq brought in changing the idealized body type of principal ballet dancers. Up until that point, dance demanded an athleticism that corresponded with small wiry bodies (think Isadora Duncan). Le Clercq was notably the first major dancer with the ideal “Balanchine body,” read: fashion plate body. That Le Clercq’s body and style should seem so glamorous today, raises questions about the now ubiquity of this body type across mainstream culture. That is to say, certain normalizing trends in media and technology have influenced the world of dance, just as they have influenced other spheres. (The tension certainly remains timely in dance. The New Yorker just ran an article about African American principal Ballerina Misty Copleland, and her success in spite of a body type: more Marilyn Monroe than Balanchine). But this tension surpasses dance. Not only do fashion models have the ideal “Balanchine body,” but we see it in Film, Sports, Politics, and generally every arena women engage a “mass” audience. Rather than problematize the imposition of this form, Buirski celebrates it, which seems like a misstep in an otherwise compelling picture.