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June 19, 2014

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq

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Nancy Buirski - 2014
Kino Lorber Region 1 DVD

So I had no idea who Tanaquil Le Clercq was. And it's not that the world of dance, much less ballet, is unknown to me outside of dance on film. I've been to a few concerts by some of the great choreographers. More personally, I did some video documentation for some local dance companies and performers, so I was interested in seeing what I could glean from how dance was documented in the days before digital media.

As it stands, the unknown documentarians always had the right idea. If you are going to visually document dance, you need to show the entire body. Even when dance was performed for television, as seen on several kinescope recordings, it's the entire body that we see. There are a few moments given over to partial views, the camera following the legs, and a couple more abstract images involving arms. Most of the dance performances are filmed in much the same way so that the viewer understands where dancers are on the stage, and in relationship to each other. Some might assume that the cuisinart style of editing the dance in many small pieces is more cinematic, but it destroys the sense of performance. What some might call old fashioned more truly honors the dance and the dancers.

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The story of Tanaquil Le Clercq involves a couple of tragic twists of fate. As a rising young star, Le Clercq performs on behalf of The March of Dimes as a young woman who beats polio. Almost ten years later, she puts of getting the vaccine prior to a tour of Europe, only to be struck down at the height of her career. If Le Clercq's life were a Hollywood movie, people would be questioning the imagination of the screenwriter.

Concurrent to the dramatic events is an abbreviated history of dance in New York City, mostly in the form of George Balanchine's company, The New York City Ballet, and the dancers he mentored, and in the case of Le Clercq, married. Much of the footage is devoted to Le Clercq with frequent dance partner Jacques d'Amboise. Additionally seen is Balanchine choreography performed by Suzanne Farrell and Allegra Kent. Le Clercq's long friendship with Jerome Robbins is part of this story.

What may surprise younger viewers is to know that there was a time when ballet was not considered too rarefied for mass audiences. Footage of Le Clercq is taken from national broadcasting, with Red Skelton's show, as well as a children's show hosted by a fixture of New York City television fixture, Sonny Fox. For those with a more casual interest in ballet, there is the question as to whether interest in Le Clercq is in spite of, rather than because of, the premature ending of her career as a dancer. A look at a novel about Le Clercq's life after polio gives many hints about what is not in this documentary. The footage of Le Clercq dancing does reveal a special gift, a difference that may be understood viscerally, with the quick movements and agility on a pair of undeniably long legs.

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Posted by peter at June 19, 2014 08:28 AM