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.
Deeply depressed, distraught and dismayed, le Clercq finally returned to the States. Eventually, she and Balanchine got a divorce, and while she couldn’t bear to go anywhere near the ballet, it was Mitchell who finally came to her rescue.
Fast-forward to the ’60s. The country was in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated. Everyone was still in shock over the death of President John F. Kennedy, and Mitchell, along with his partner, Karl Shook, couldn’t stand by any longer and do nothing. Hence, out of this need, Dance Theatre of Harlem was born.
Classes first began at the studios at St. James Presbyterian Church, where the Harlem School of the Arts first resided under the masterful leadership of soprano artist Dorothy Maynor, and where the company began to form.
A year or two later, Mitchell and Shook found an alternate space that they could call their own—in the basement of Church of the Master. Here, classes in classical ballet were given to the local children as the newly formed company continued to flourish.
How do I know this? I know this because I was among the very young students from the streets of Harlem to learn classical ballet there. Wide-eyed and full of dreams of becoming a prima ballerina myself someday, I attended class every afternoon after school. I loved twirling across the ballet studio floor, learning how to develop an artistry that I didn’t know would carry me far.
One day, this beautiful lady in a wheelchair was rolled in and onto the ballet studio floor. We were introduced by Mitchell, who said something to the effect, “This is Tanaquil le Clercq. She will be your teacher every Tuesday and Thursday. Now places, everyone.”
Le Clercq would demonstrate the steps for us by using her hands while softly counting out the beats. It never occurred to me until I learned from watching the documentary that she had lost the use of one of her hands. Her one good hand was so swift, graceful and precise; no one knew she could only use one. Her ability to emote and her passion for ballet was now encapsulated in the use of her one hand. With a nod of her head to the pianist, which was probably the masterful Tania Leon, the lesson began.
Though that particular episode wasn’t in the film, it did depict how le Clercq continued in later years, how she continued to work with Mitchell and with what had by now become the world-renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem. She traveled with the company to performances all over the world and continued to teach aspiring ballerinas how to move with grace and style. While my dreams of becoming a ballerina somehow dwindled, le Clercq continued her career by evolving to a higher spiritual plane, a place where there was no longer sorrow, pity or blame.
Many, many years had passed since that romantic episode in my life until the year 2000, when I read in the obituary section of The New York Times that le Clercq had died. She lived so much longer than originally predicted. I felt a deep sadness as my memories all came flooding back. It was also the year that my own dad had died, and to this day, I remember reflecting on how two people who had touched my life in such an impactful and dramatic way had passed on just as we entered the new millennium. For me, it underscored the end of an era.
The film is a poignant tribute to and reflection of an artist who, though physically had fallen downward at the pinnacle of her career, had a spirit that still continued to dance, to live, to soar. Another lesson learned.
We should also remember another hero who, with so much to give humanity, was taken down way before his time, at the pinnacle of his career. The man is Malcolm X. His mission was to teach a culture how to build, love and respect one another and have financial stability for themselves. Near the end of his life, his mission expanded to encompass respect and love for mankind; his quest was for human rights. In his memory, the Malcolm X Museum Annual Commemoration of the Anniversary of the Assassination of Malcolm X/Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz will be held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Friday, Feb. 21 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. By any means necessary.
Until next week … kisses