Truth really is stranger than fiction sometimes. Consider this uncanny incident in 1944, when the original March of Dimes – a pet cause of president and polio victim Franklin D. Roosevelt – was in full swing, raising money to fund research for a cure for infantile paralysis even as the nation endured the privations of war rationing. For a benefit performance, New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine agreed to choreograph a dance in which he would play a character named Polio, personifying the ravages of the disease. In the part of his victim – who would be stricken with paralysis and fall to the floor until enough children tossed dimes at her character to persuade her to get up and dance again, like the fading Tinkerbell resuscitated by applause in Peter Pan – Balanchine cast a 15-year-old dance prodigy named Tanaquil Le Clercq.
A scholarship student at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, Le Clercq went on to become one of the most acclaimed ballerinas of her time and a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. True to his habit of pairing off with his top female stars, Balanchine married her in 1952 – though it has come to light since their deaths that the couple was involved in a romantic triangle with Balanchine’s bisexual collaborator Jerome Robbins. They were divorced in 1969, as Balanchine became increasingly obsessed with his next protégé, Suzanne Farrell.
While still at the pinnacle of her success, during a European tour in 1956, disaster struck Le Clercq in a most ironic form: She contracted polio at the age of 27. She never danced again, and remained paralyzed from the waist down until her death on the cusp of the new millennium, on December 31, 2000. She continued to teach dance nonetheless, and authored two books.
Documentarian Nancy Buirski has captured the life and influence of the legendary ballerina in a new biographical film titled Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, which is getting rave notices. Featuring interviews with surviving New York City Ballet compatriots Jacques d’Amboise, Arthur Mitchell and Patricia McBride, the documentary uses rare and forgotten footage to present Le Clercq’s artistic legacy, as well as personal photographs and correspondence to explore her relationships with Robbins and Balanchine.
Afternoon of a Faun will be the next offering in the Rosendale Theatre’s monthly Dance Film Sundays series, to be screened this Sunday, March 9 at 2 p.m. Admission costs $10 for adults, $6 for children age 12 and under. For more information visit www.rosendaletheatre.org or call (845) 658-8989.
Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq screening, Sunday, March 9, 2 p.m., $10/$6, Rosendale Theatre, 408 Main Street, Rosendale; (845) 658-8989, www.rosendaletheatre.org.