Ballet is so often about heartbreak. In Swan Lake, after her lover proves unfaithful, Odette is trapped in the body of a swan. Giselle goes mad and dances herself to death. And so on and so forth. And then there’s the story of Tanaquil Le Clercq. This real-life saga is so poignant that it inspired a documentary film: Afternoon of a Faun.
The documentary’s title points back to a short, intimate duet (set to the music of Debussy) choreographed by Jerome Robbins on behalf of his sometimes-dance partner at the New York City Ballet, Tanaquil Le Clercq. About that exotic name: Amanda Vaill, Robbins’ stellar biographer, explains that Tanny was “born in Paris to an American mother and French father and named after an Etruscan queen of the fourth century BC.” Jerry Robbins was short and streetwise; Tanny was unusually tall, long-limbed, and elegant. (Her frequent partner Jacques d’Amboise later described her as “this elongated, stretched-out path to heaven.”) Though physically very different, Robbins and Le Clercq shared intelligence and a wicked sense of humor. Their emotional connection lasted throughout their lives. In his final years, Jerry placed at his bedside a framed photograph he’d taken of Tanny, so that he could gaze at it first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
Though Robbins and Le Clercq adored one another, his bisexuality certainly complicated their relationship. Then, at age 23, she fell under the spell of George Balanchine, co-founder and artistic director of the New York City Ballet. Balanchine, himself a great choreographer, was in the habit of falling for the ballerinas who inspired him. At 48, he had already wed and shed four, including Vera Zorina and Maria Tallchief, when Tanny came into his line of vision. They were married at midnight as the year 1953 began. A letter spelled out the situation to Jerry: “I just love you, to talk to, to go around with, play games, laugh like hell, etc. However I’m in love with George. Maybe it’s a case of, he got here first.”
Then came the year 1956. While Jerry Robbins was on busy on Broadway, launching The Bells Are Ringing and pondering the project that would become West Side Story, Tanny and the New York City Ballet were touring the capitals of Europe. Suddenly, in Copenhagen, she began to feel flu-ish. The next morning, she found herself paralyzed from the waist down. It was infantile paralysis: Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was still so new that it was being used mostly on school children, and she had skipped being vaccinated before her European trip. Though Tanny survived days in an iron lung, it was clear she’d never dance (or walk) again. She had just turned 27.
Balanchine remained by her side throughout the crisis, but he was soon emotionally moving on. Inevitably his eye strayed to others, including a new young ballerina, Suzanne Farrell. In 1969, he initiated a quickie Mexican divorce from Tanny in the vain hope of winning Suzanne. As always, Jerry Robbins was her comforter and court jester in this crisis.
Amanda Vaill’s Somewhere ends with the death of Jerome Robbins in 1998, at the age of 79. In 1994, he’d had a poignant dream of Tanny standing and walking. But she was still wheelchair-bound when she passed away in 2000, age 71. According to the documentary, she lived out her last years as a book author and a teacher of dance, inspiring the young students at the school of the Dance Theater of Harlem. I too am inspired by someone who discovered how to begin again.
Here’s a fascinating web tribute to Tanaquil Le Clercq, in the form of a book review of a 2012 novelization of her post-Balanchine life.