From the Imagine Athena archives. A story of incredible strength and virtue.
“I’m not a dancer anymore, who am I? – Jacques d’Amboise
When prima ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq (1929-2000) played the part of a stricken polio victim in Resurgence (1944) when she was fifteen, little did she know that she was rehearsing her own sad fate.
The biographical documentary Afternoon of a Faun (2013) tells the melancholy tale of the exquisite American dancer who was crippled by polio in 1956 at the age of 27 and at the height of her career.
Her husband, the legendary choreographer, George Balanchine, did everything he could to revive her paralysed legs, but to no avail.
She never danced again.
Act I Part I: Luminosity
The film comprises archival footage and interviews with friends and colleagues of the late Tanaquil.
Could fate have designed anymore heartless an outcome? An extremely talented – perhaps unparalleled – ballet dancer’s ability to move is snatched away from her with no warning or explanation.
“The tragedy of Tanny was epic… she was destroyed as a dancer.” says her former dance partner, Jacques d’ Amboise, in an interview in the film, at one point he even breaks down into tears at the recollection.
Seeing footage in the film of the two dancing together, it is not hard to see why the memory of Tanaquil provokes such strong emotion.
She was so beautiful.
As another friend, Barbara Horgan describes her in the film: “She had a very witty, stylish way of dancing.”
She became his wife and his muse. He choreographed ballets especially for her. He pushed her hard and always expected the very best of her, at all times. It was an artistic ideal he sought, which, she later admitted, she found hard to live up to.
Nevertheless, together, they made wonderful art.
Western Symphony (1956), one of Balanchine’s creations, in which Tanaquil danced the principal role shortly before she fell ill, showcases the brilliant combination of her adeptness and his vision.
Right: Tanaquil Le Clercq and George Balanchine in Metamorphoses
Alas, however, the dream was not to last, and whilst on tour in Europe with the American School of Ballet in Copenhagen, Tanaquil, who had been complaining of ill health, was diagnosed with polio.
Act I, Part 2: Ashes
At first, the prognosis was dire.
“We were told that she was in an iron lung and that she was dying”, says Horgan.
Luckily, such dark prophecy did not come to pass. She did not die.
But she could not walk, and for the nimble ballet dancer it was sometimes too much to bear.
Afternoon of a Faun narrates letters she wrote to friends at the time:
“The past makes me cry, it seems so wonderful.”
“Why me? Why polio?”
“Why can’t I be strong?”
The doctors tried to reanimate her legs, before reaching the conclusion that there was nothing they could do. They warned that she might improve a little, but would most likely worsen over time.
Obstinately refusing to accept defeat, Balanchine tried every therapy and treatment available. He made Tanaquil exercise daily and perform physical feats outside of her comfort zone. Sometimes reducing her to tears in the process.
Eventually, however, he too gave up. And with their creative partnership extinguished they drifted apart, finally separating.
It reminds me so much of the classical myth of the lovers Orpheus and Eurydice:
In the mythological tale, the two are in rapturous delight together, immersed in a blissful twirl of music and love. On their wedding day, Orpheus played sublime melodies to which his wife danced in the meadow. But one day, very suddenly, Eurydice is bitten by a poisonous viper. She dies instantly, condemned for all eternity to the Underworld.
Orpheus, desperate and heartbroken, descends into the Underworld to plea with Hades and Persephone to resurrect her. Using his gift for music, he charms them with a delightful song, and they agree to release Eurydice from her deathly captivity if Orpheus leads her through a particularly treacherous path out of the Underworld. With one condition: he must walk in front of her and not look back until they have both reached the upper world. If he fails to comply, Eurydice will be lost to him forever.
Orpheus agrees and successfully traverses the path; as he emerges into the warm sunlight, fearful that Hades has deceived him and Eurydice is not there, he turns to look at her, before she had fully crossed over.
She vanishes, cast into the abyss once more.
Act II: The Possibility of Resurrection
For Tanaquil, it appears she had lost everything: her career, her husband; a sense of purpose, direction and reason for living.
What was next for her? Obscurity and a solitary death?
Not exactly. Afternoon of a Faun presents her more as phoenix than pity.
She had a second act. It may not have been centre stage in the spotlight, but that inner glow, the thing she possessed that had made her such a successful dancer was still there and it propelled her upwards and outwards from the ashes of polio.
Film footage of her in her later years shows her laughing and playing. Flirtatious and alluring.
Perhaps Afternoon of a Faun is seeking a happy ending, but it depicts her as such: though inert and confined to a wheelchair, Tanaquil was still magnificent. Surrounded by loyal friends and admiring fans she went on to lead what appeared to be a happy life – which lasted much longer than many medical professionals predicted.
She taught, she wrote. She came to accept her frailty with grace and elegance.
A final pas de deux with cruel circumstance. She danced it as well as she could. All that could ever be asked of anyone.
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Featured Image Credit: Footage from Afternoon of a Faun (2013)
Image Credit, Metamorphoses: Kino Lorber (2013)