Nancy Buirski

Afternoon of a faun, interrupted

Public television's portrait of the great Tanaquil LeClercq is too little about the ballet, too much about the polio that cut her dancing career short

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, an American Masters film about the Paris-born dancer whose stellar career was cut short when she contracted polio at the age of 27,  was aired on OPB at noon on Sunday and repeats at the convenient hour of 2 a.m. this Saturday, July 19.

Directed by Nancy Buirski and billed as a “dance-disability documentary,” Afternoon includes some wonderful clips of Le Clervq dancing. But after a second viewing, I believe Buirski’s film to be deeply flawed, at least from a dance perspective, because the focus is on the polio, not the art. Footage of Le Clercq’s witty send-up of dance-hall girls (and of the ballet itself) in George Balanchine’s Western Symphony, the detailed drama of her performance of the doomed woman in the same choreographer’s La Valse, and her sensuous, narcissistic Nymph in Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun – all roles she originated – show far more clearly than most of the film’s talking heads why she was muse to two of the greatest choreographers of the twentieth century.

LeClercq in repose, faun-like.

LeClercq in repose, faun-like.

There are exceptions: Pat McBride Lousada’s recollections of their close friendship as teenagers at the School of American Ballet, as well as her descriptions of the intelligence, wit and musicality with which Le Clercq infused her dancing, seem to me some of the best parts of the film. Jacques d’Amboise, whom we see dancing with her in Western and Faun, gives insights into the way she worked, as does Arthur Mitchell, who danced with her in Western the last time she performed, on tour in Copenhagen in 1956. Years later, Mitchell  persuaded her to teach from her wheelchair at the School of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, founded in 1968, and we see fascinating footage of that. But why in the world didn’t the filmmakers include an interview with Virginia Johnson, now DTH’s artistic director, and former principal dancer, who was in those classes and, Mitchell says on camera, owes much of her career to Le Clercq’s training?


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