“Afternoon of a Faun,” Nancy Buirski’s documentary on famed ’50s prima ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, has a lot going for it: extraordinary footage of the exquisite dancer in signature roles created for her by master choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins; a romantic triangle involving those artistic giants; full-blown tragedy as Le Clercq is struck down by polio in her prime; and enough terrible ironies to fill several documentaries. Questionable emphases sometimes skew the film’s proportions, but between the beauty of the dance imagery and the lyricism of passages culled from Le Clercq’s personal letters, “Faun” often soars.
Buirski opens and closes her film with excerpts from the titular Debussy pas de deux, choreographed by Robbins and featuring Le Clercq and partner Jacques d’Amboise. The soft-focus kinescope footage, shot from a particularly felicitous camera angle, highlights the elegant, articulated movement, coltish grace and gestural wit that distinguished the incredibly long-legged Le Clercq from the petite, compact ballerinas that preceded her, inspiring choreographers to experiment with moves they had never before envisioned. Balanchine “discovered” her at his School of American Ballet when she was 14 and soon shaped many of his seminal ballets around her unique talents.
One of the earliest, most prophetic of their collaborations was “Resurgence,” commissioned by the March of Dimes, in which Balanchine chose the 15-year-old “Tanny” to dance the part of the girl stricken with infantile paralysis while he himself undertook the role of Polio; no visual record remains of this chilling enactment of future disaster. Footage survives, however, from Balanchine’s 1951 staging of Ravel’s magnificent “La Valse,” with its joie de vivre opening and climactic danse macabre, in which Le Clercq, seduced by Death, dons black accoutrements and spins until she falls lifeless on the stage. Buirski reprises film clips from the brilliant, prescient ballet, periodically returning to the image of the motionless ballerina carried off aloft.
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Le Clercq became Balanchine’s third wife in 1952, the revered ballet master winning out over her best friend and confidant, Robbins, whose impassioned letters to her fill the soundtrack and whose choreography for her often fills the screen. The docu’s final irony finds a tired Le Clercq postponing her Salk polio vaccine before setting off on the troupe’s European tour, fearing it might further debilitate her, then succumbing to the disease weeks later in Copenhagen.
Contemporaneous footage of polio wards capture the trauma for this creature of movement condemned to paralysis, though some repeated shots from outside and inside an iron lung tilt toward the overly melodramatic. Balanchine worked tirelessly to reanimate his muse, refusing to believe her prognosis, but Le Clercq would never walk, much less dance, again (though she did outlive her predicted life expectancy by 30 years).
Throughout, an emotional d’Amboise; Balanchine’s personal assistant, Barbara Horgan; Le Clercq’s lifelong friend and fellow Balanchine ballerina, Patricia McBride (here hiding her own fame behind her married name, Lousada), supply a biographical throughline largely in voiceover, while long sections from Le Clercq’s correspondence map out her interior journey. Her wheelchair-bound years are glimpsed in footage of her hosting al fresco parties in her Connecticut backyard or teaching future prima ballerinas at ex-partner Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem, expressively miming complex dance movements with one hand.