A beautiful young woman rests her hand on a ballet bar with tentative delicacy, contemplating the audience as though they are her mirror. This is Tanaquil le Clercq. Nancy Buirski’s documentary of her life on “American Masters,” Afternoon of a Faun, opens and closes with this same mesmerizing image: a ballerina of exquisite poise onstage, emanating that intangible, unknowable quality known as grace.
“Tanny,” as she was known, danced with the New York City Ballet since she was essentially a child. Her life, both professionally and personally, was tied to George Balanchine, master choreographer and founder of the school. Afternoon of a Faun uses interviews, voiceovers, old pictures, and, most effectively, archival footage of le Clercq’s performances in the 1940’s, to paint a tragic portrait of a woman with indomitable spirit and talent.
It’s these immersive videos of le Clercq at the height of her power that truly tell her story; the way she stretches and floats onstage is breathtaking, and she knew how to use stillness as much as motion to communicate. A friend describes it as “more like watching a model on the stage,” and I’m reminded of the way Marilyn Monroe would turn her charm on for the camera, fully aware of her magnetic effect upon it. Most riveting is le Clercq’s “dance with death,” which a friend describes while on the verge of tears.
Here and elsewhere the film foreshadows the polio that would render le Clercq’s legs useless, a devastating disease that should have ended her life at forty. Instead her resilient spirit carries her almost to age eighty. This biography necessarily spends more time on her grappling with her illness than the preceding triumphs, but the images in the second half are just as striking as in the first: le Clercq, with long white hair and a red flower behind her ear, in her wheelchair laughing and winking at a picnic. She is proof that grace transcends movement.