History is filled with countless fictional stories delving into the tragic reversal of fortune - the painter who went blind, the musician who lost his hearing, the athlete who suffered a crippling blow. But what of the actual people who inspired the stories? The 2013 documentary Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq sheds some light on a real-world example from the realm of 20th century dance. It tells the story of Tanaquil "Tanny" Le Clercq, an expressive ballerina who had her career cruelly cut short by contracting polio.
Tanny Le Clercq was apparently a legend in her brief time as a dancer; this episode of the PBS series American Masters combines the reminiscences of friends with copious amounts of archival performances to explain why. Upon her arrival in the early '50s, Tanny's expressive face and graceful, elongated physique were an anomaly when most ballet dancers blended into the crowd. Adding to her mystique is the fact that she was intimate with two of the iconic choreographers of her era - George Balanchine (who made Le Clerq his fourth and final spouse in 1952-69) and Jerome Robbins (who was in love with her during the Balanchine years, although they drifted apart in later years). The film lacks interview footage with Tanny herself, although the combination of various friends' fond memories and her own correspondence read via an actress' voice-over make the subject appear as an enigmatic, spectral figure. Probably the highlight of Tanny's career came with Robbins' 1953 piece Afternoon of a Faun, a sensual pas de deux of two lovers observing themselves in a mirror. The documentary includes several clips from a television production of the ballet, along with glowing recollections from her dancing partner Jacques D'Amboise (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers).
On a 1956 European tour with Balanchine's company, Tanny became ill and was eventually diagnosed with polio (ironically, she declined joining her fellow dancers in getting vaccinated with the Salk vaccine back in New York). The film is at its best conveying her fighting spirit and wicked sense of humor during her arduous recovery, while confined to an iron lung in a Copenhagen hospital (in one letter, she complains of the nurses' body odor). Despite Balanchine's attempts at encouraging her physical recovery, she never danced again. That would crush anyone's spirit, yet she took it with vitality and grace. She even returned to work, choreographing from her wheelchair during a '70s tenure with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq comes up short when dealing with Tanny's later years. She died in 2000 at the age of 71 (not 80, as one of the people in the doc stated), yet the the film shows no images of her beyond the mid-'70s and completely neglects her life past Balanchine's 1983 death. Despite the somewhat frustrating lack of comprehensiveness, Afternoon of a Faun nicely paints a picture of Tanny as a quirky, independent, strong individual.
Kino Lorber's DVD edition of Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq is mastered with a crisp, pleasant look which preserves the detail and nicely saturated colors in the photography. Since there isn't too much in the way of excess, unneeded data taking up space on the disc, the 1.78:1 picture ends up looking relatively good for a standard-definition release. Archival clips vary in quality, with most of them taken off '50s-era kinescopes, although they are properly window-boxed in their original proportions.
The DVD uses a nice 5.1 Surround mix which keeps speaking voices in the central channel while using atmospheric music around the sides. Most of the archival clips replace their classical music soundtracks with more recent recordings in stereo - a good touch.
While it would have been fantastic to have the unedited versions of the performances included in the documentary as bonuses, disappointingly the disc only included a few Previews for other, similar releases from Kino Lorber.
A documentary about an accomplished ballerina crippled by polio? Sign me up! Thankfully, Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq is not so much a massive bum trip as an intriguing and, ultimately, life-affirming portrait. This tidy film captures the indomitable spirit of "Tanny" so well. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.