Tanaquil Le Clercq: the muse of Balanchine and Robbins and her bravery in life after dance

In a new documentary, the American film producer and director Nancy Buirski tells the tragic story of Tanaquil Le Clercq, known as Tanny, who was the muse and fourth wife of George Balanchine.

Titled Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, the film was released in the United States a week ago and will be screened at this month’s Berlin International Film Festival.

The beautiful Le Clercq was born in Paris, the daughter of Jacques Le Clercq, a French poet and writer and his American wife, Edith (née Whittemore).

They named their daughter after the Etruscan Queen Tanaquil.

Le Clercq became Balanchine’s protégée and a good friend of the choreographer Jerome Robbins, who created his Afternoon of a Faun on her in 1953.

She danced at New York City Ballet in the 1940s and 1950s and became a principal.

On tour with the company in Europe in 1956, Le Clercq contracted polio and was confined to a wheelchair. She could never dance again.

The tragedy is one of the most distressing events in ballet history, particularly as Balanchine eventually left her for his new muse whom he loved, Suzanne Farrell.

Le Clercq and Balanchine divorced in 1969 and she died in 2000.

Balanchine’s biographer, Bernard Taper, wrote that the choreographer bequeathed American performance royalty rights of 85 works to Le Clercq.

“Her continued well-being, as someone who would always be confined to a wheelchair, was of acute concern to him, and he bore a burden of guilt at leaving her in 1962 in vain pursuit of his newest muse, Suzanne Farrell”, wrote Taper.

“Of his four former wives – or five counting his common-law marriage to Alexandra Danilova – Le Clercq was the only one mentioned in the will”.

The couple married on 31 December 1952, soon after the annulment of his marriage to Maria Tallchief.

Buirski said she was inspired to make the film after watching footage of Le Clercq dancing in Afternoon of a Faun.

“I’d seen nothing like it – her elegance, her beauty, her movement.”

In an obituary of Le Clercq in The New York Times, Anna Kisselgoff wrote:

“Although she remained paralysed below the waist, Ms Le Clercq became a teacher at Dance Theater of Harlem, wrote two books and frequently attended dance performances. In 1998, City Ballet opened its 50th-anniversary season with a tribute to her as a charter member of the company and to her legendary status within it.

“Ms Le Clercq acknowledged a tumultuous ovation at the New York State Theater from her wheelchair as Peter Martins, the company’s artistic director, presented her with a bouquet”.

One Comment

  1. Adrian Ryan
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this alert Valerie. There is a very interesting and affecting 2012 book entitled “The Master’s Muse”. It takes the form of a memoir by Tanaquil Le Clercq, although it was written by Varley O’Connor. So I suppose it should be called a “fictionalised memoir”. Anyhow it certainly adds another deeply personal layer to the seemingly inexhaustible Balanchine story.

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Tanaquil Le Clercq and Francisco Moncion in Jerome Robbins' Afternoon of a Faun

Tanaquil Le Clercq and Francisco Moncion in Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun

Tanaquil Le Clercq at Lenox Hill Hospital, 1957, after returning from Europe, Jerome Robbins/Robbins Rights Trust

Tanaquil Le Clercq at Lenox Hill Hospital, 1957, after returning from Europe, Jerome Robbins/Robbins Rights Trust

Tanaquil Le Clercq with George Balanchine in  costume for his ballet Metamorphoses

Tanaquil Le Clercq with George Balanchine in costume for his ballet Metamorphoses

Tanaquil Le Clercq with Corrado Cagli, Vittorio Rieti, and George Balanchine, photo © Irving Penn, 1948

Tanaquil Le Clercq with Corrado Cagli, Vittorio Rieti, and George Balanchine, photo © Irving Penn, 1948