Of all the great ballerinas, Tanaquil Le Clercq may have been the most transcendent. With a body unlike any before hers, she mesmerized viewers and choreographers alike. With her elongated, race-horse physique, she became the new prototype for the great George Balanchine.
Because of her extraordinary movement and unique personality on stage, she became a muse to two of the greatest choreographers in dance, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. She eventually married Balanchine and Robbins created his famous version of Afternoon of a Faun for her.
She had love, fame, adoration, and was the foremost dancer of her day until it suddenly all stopped. At the age of 27, she was struck down by polio and paralyzed. She never danced again. The ballet world has been haunted by her story ever since.
AFTERNOON OF A FAUN illuminates the exceptional qualities of Tanny in life and in dance. It portrays her artistic triumph and her personal tragedy. Through her own words and through the people who knew and loved her, our film captures her love of dance, her unique personality full of humor, candor and passion, and her position as the inspiration and love of arguably the two leading 20th century choreographers working in America.
The subject of artist and muse has fascinated me since my own days as a painter and later a photographer. The poignancy of this ephemeral relationship enchants me; indeed an early inspiration for this documentary was the 1944 film Portrait of Jenny, a film whose score directly influenced my own. The Debussy music in the 1944 David O' Selznick film, especially the piece Afternoon of a Faun, captured the haunting, romantic and elusive relationship between the painter, played by Joseph Cotton, and his young muse, played by Jennifer Jones. The first time I saw footage of Tanaquil Le Clercq dancing was in Robbins' haunting ballet set to the same music; the mystical, eroticism of that music underscoring her dance impressed me as it had in the 1946 film. Even as a child I'd felt the pain of the artist as he yearns for the muse he cannot have; the same quality seems ever present in the men who appear to want to possess Tanny. Jacques D'Amboise tells us that Balanchine needed the unattainable; it is painfully ironic that even as Balanchine ultimately "processes" Tanny as his wife, her role as his inspiration will become elusive.
The possibility of treating Tanny's intensely dramatic story as poetry was highly attractive to me as the painter as well as the filmmaker. A ballet dancer tries to ascend weightlessly into air, only to be brought back by the earth's gravitational pull. It is the poetry of dance itself, and what could be more symbolic of the art form than a transcendental dancer pulled back to earth forever. It is what all dancers fear and face as they age out of their professions - so much sooner than most. It is a form of death greeting them prematurely. Balanchine created La Valse for Tanaquil Le Clercq - death comes to her, it embraces her and she falls to the ground, dead. It was the metaphor of dance as he had come to know it. Our film has tried to capture this poetry in mood, music and stirring dance.