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Cosmopolitan Review: remembering ballerina Tanaquil le Clercq

Yvonne Delaney Mitchell | 2/20/2014, 1:09 p.m.

For all of you ballet lovers out there—and I know you are there—the film “Afternoon of a Faun” was most recently shown at the Francesca Beale Theater at Lincoln Center. The documentary, which follows the dance career of prima ballerina Tanaquil le Clercq, will keep your eyes fixated on the screen. It will amaze you with le Clercq’s mind-blowing talent and move you to tears as the story of her life unfolds on the screen. 

Born in 1929 in France, le Clercq moved with her mother to New York at the tender age of 10, where she began to study ballet at the School of American Ballet, founded by the incomparable George Balanchine. Destined to be a star, le Clercq rose quickly through the corps de ballet. She possessed long legs that melted into her slender body and all of the grace, charm and allure of any creature known to man.

Balanchine was so captivated by her innate beauty and talent that many of his ballets, such as “La Valse” and “Western Symphony,” were choreographed for le Clercq, allowing her to move through the air. On pointe like an angel with wings, it was if her feet never touched the ground. Le Clercq continued to inspire Balanchine in more ways than one. Balanchine had a reputation for falling in love and marrying his star ballerinas, and so it was with le Clercq, who was often referred to most lovingly as “Tanny.”

In roughly 1944, possibly 1948, the company was scheduled to go on tour throughout Eastern Europe. Prior to leaving, company members were told to get vaccinated against the deadly disease polio, was beginning to spread rapidly. The members of the company stood on line in the ballet studio waiting to be inoculated with the newly discovered polio vaccine. That is, all except for le Clercq, who feared becoming ill during the transatlantic trip as a result of the inoculation. Le Clercq left the line; she decided to wait until she had returned home to the States to be inoculated.

The company arrived in Europe, and the grueling performance schedules began. Theaters were often cold and damp from the constant rain. Everyone sniffled and coughed their way through rehearsals while plunging their way through performance after performance. 

Meanwhile, a young Black, male dancer named Arthur Mitchell, co-founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem, had recently become a member of the company; he was the first Black male to really break through the ranks of classical ballet. He and le Clercq had performed “Western Symphony” together many times in the past and performed together again while in Copenhagen, Denmark. Just before one of their performances, le Clercq said to Mitchell that she felt a stiffness throughout her whole body; he told her to just stretch. Little did she know that would be her very last performance.

While the company was traveling on the train the next day to another country for another performance, the train was brought to a startling halt. Everyone in the company was ordered off the train and given a second dose of the polio vaccine. All of the members of the company, as well as Mitchell, were there—everyone except le Clercq and Balanchine. During the night, le Clercq had been rushed to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with polio. She stayed on the iron lung machine for several weeks while the company traveled on. Her stay at the hospital lasted for a year, and for a year, Balanchine stayed by her side. Le Clercq, one of the most artistic, alluring and talented ballet dancers in history, was paralyzed from her waist down; she was given only a few years to live.