Afternoon of a Faun

Afternoon of a Faun

Afternoon of a Faun, in addition to being the name of a piece of music by Claude Debussy and the ballet created to go with it by Vaslav Nijinsky, is a biographical documentary about ballerina Tanaquil (Tanny) Le Clercq.

I know virtually nothing about ballet, and it’s not something I’ve ever really had any interest in. I’m pretty sure I’ve been to just one ballet in my life—I saw The Nutcracker a few years ago. It was OK. I think if I hadn’t been sitting so far back I probably would have gotten more out of it.

In other words, it’s not like I came to this documentary with a significant preexisting interest in the subject matter. Le Clercq is apparently a big deal in the ballet world; I had never heard of her. She was closely connected with two major figures in ballet: George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. I had heard of Balanchine but not Robbins. I had heard of Nijinsky too, but I couldn’t have told you anything about Balanchine or Nijinsky beyond that they were ballet guys, and approximately when and where their careers took place.

The name Tanaquil Le Clercq sounds foreign certainly, and granted she was born in Paris, but basically she’s American, the story is set mostly in America, and the movie’s in English—no subtitles.

I appreciate the way the film is put together. It’s nothing all that unusual or fancy, but that’s a good part of why I like it. It’s straightforward rather than artsy and obscure. I gather there isn’t a huge amount of available footage from her life and career, but it makes good use of what there is, along with relevant still photos and other visuals. Several people who knew her well and worked with her are interviewed on camera. Various letters written by her and to her are read in voiceovers. All this material is woven together quite well.

Ballet is apparently like certain sports, where you almost have to start young and pursue it obsessively to have any chance of making it to the top, and that in turn requires having arguably abusive parents pushing you and molding you, since little kids will rarely if ever devote themselves to something to that extreme if left to their own devices. (Basically everything I say here about the ballet world and these specific people I got from the film, or inferred from the film.)

Born in 1929, Tanny was raised by one of these “ballet mothers.” One of the interviewees says she isn’t sure if her parents were formally divorced, but in any case her father was only in the picture infrequently, so she was almost entirely brought up by her strong-willed mother.

Balanchine, who was already a big shot ballet guy, discovered her when she was 14. According to the well-known story, which the interviewees admit might be embellished a bit but who knows, he came upon her in the hallway outside a ballet class and asked her why she wasn’t in class. She told him she’d been thrown out. He saw a feistiness in her that appealed to him, and took a personal interest in her and her development.

Balanchine evidently had a pattern of entering into romantic involvements, sometimes culminating in marriage, with his top dancers. Not so much just trying to get into their pants and have a quick fling with them all, but a handful of fairly long, serious relationships, where he’d fall in love, they’d be together for years or a decade or more, and then the relationship would grow stale or whatever and a new girl would get his attention and he’d move on.

Tanny eventually became one of those, maybe the most serious, longest lasting of all. He was about 25 years her senior.

The film opens with footage of her in a performance (of Afternoon of a Faun, appropriately enough). In this and the other performance footage, especially where she has elaborate outfits on and such, I wasn’t all that taken with her looks—facially I’m thinking of especially. Some of it is one of those time or fashion-relative things, where just the style of the hair or make-up or whatever looks old fashion and so subconsciously one associates the person more with one’s mom or grandmother rather than a hot girl, and some of it is that I’m typically not blown away by over-the-top costumes, even, like, with contemporary pop stars—maybe it just seems kind of phony to me, or makes the person seem like someone you could never really connect with because they’re of some other lifestyle if not some other category of being.

But then they show photos of the young Tanny as a regular person, just a civilian with her hair down and not much make-up and not an artificial facial expression chosen to fit some artistic role, and I immediately was like, “Oh, she’s really pretty!” like a pleasant surprise. Add to that that she was quite tall—I’m a sucker for tall women—and I’d say she was pretty hot stuff.

It may be that most people are the opposite, that they’d say that when she’s all dolled up for some ballet part that that’s her peak beauty, that’s when she’s some kind of ideal woman. But all-in-all I found her especially appealing just as herself.

Speaking of the height, an interesting thing mentioned in the movie is that prior to her time, ballet dancers tended to be more short and squat. I think we now think of ballerinas as tall and angular, but apparently that’s at least in part because Balanchine chose to feature women of that physical type, like Tanny.

Tanny’s career is notable for two main reasons. One is that she reached a certain superstar level, where evidently she’s considered one of the great ballerinas of all time. The other is that that career, that excellence, was abruptly cut short by polio when she was only 27.

The story is a reminder of just what a huge deal polio was, I mean psychologically, socially. It’s one of those things like leprosy or the black plague that attains a certain level of terror and dread, almost a kind of symbol of evil or mortality. In the time since the defeat of polio, cancer’s maybe the closest thing to that. Perhaps AIDS.

But it was a devastating thing. Not at all uncommon, from what I understand would strike pretty unpredictably in terms of who and when, and was just a horrible thing to get. It could kill you pretty quickly, or if not that then you’d be crippled for life.

The wild thing is, when Balanchine and Tanny (who by then were married) and his troupe left for a European tour in 1956, the Salk vaccine had just been approved and was being made available on a mass basis for the first time, and the members of their party all arranged to get the shot before boarding the plane to fly overseas. At the last second, Tanny changed her mind and got out of line, saying that she didn’t like the idea of taking a long flight right after getting such a shot, and she preferred to wait and get it upon their return in a few weeks or months. It was early on that tour that she fell apart physically and upon being hospitalized was diagnosed with polio.

The movie implies that had she remained in line and gotten the shot then she wouldn’t have gotten polio. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I would have thought that the virus would have had to have been in her system for a while before she manifested symptoms, and that the vaccine wouldn’t be effective on someone who already has the virus. Perhaps not, though. A quick check of Wikipedia tells me that the devastating symptoms can occur within “a few hours to a few days” of getting the virus. So maybe she really didn’t get it until Europe, and the vaccine would have protected her.

It’s eerie timing either way. And that’s not the only eerie thing. When she was young, Balanchine featured her in a ballet (La Valse) where he was Death, and she was the maiden who dances with and succumbs to Death. Worse yet, when she was a teenager, he created a short charity ballet for the March of Dimes, where he was polio, and he danced with her and struck her down. Evidently he was superstitious enough that when she later contracted polio in real life he felt guilty about casting her in these ballets, especially the second one.

The story of her pre-polio career is somewhat interesting, then not surprisingly the movie becomes more intense after she is diagnosed.

Some of that—I’d say most of it—is a matter of the fact that any life interrupted by a horrible disease like this makes for a compelling story, if skillfully told, just on a human level. But I’m sure that’s augmented by her having been a famous person (well, among the minority of folks who are interested in ballet, anyway), who was intimately connected with an even more famous person (Balanchine), who was highly accomplished in her field, and where that was a field that specifically involved perfected physicality (as opposed to, say, the mental giant Stephen Hawking being crippled by Lou Gehrig’s disease). The interviewees certainly speak of her as a larger-than-life figure.

She doesn’t sound perfect certainly; this isn’t full-on hagiography. But she comes across as damn impressive. In addition to being one of the very best at her chosen profession in the world, and the looks, she seems—from what is said of her and from her letters that are read—to have been highly intelligent, articulate, emotionally deep, and especially strong-willed and determined. I can certainly understand why people fell in love with her, or wanted her in their life.

The relationship with Balanchine, including after she contracted polio, was a complicated one, and it’s presented as such here, which I respect because the material is such that I think you could easily spin and cherry pick it so as to make it sound ideal and heroic or to make Balanchine into a cad.

He pushed her incessantly to do therapy, to move, to keep trying to recover, and he was physically involved in a lot of that—carrying her around, pushing and pulling body parts to assist her in her exercises, etc. He was like one of those drill sergeant personal trainers, sometimes driving her so hard that she broke down into tears.

It was a highly paternalistic approach, which very much fit the kind of person he was. In its way it was a manifestation of great love and devotion, but one could also object to the coerciveness of the “I’m going to make you do what I know is good for you even when you don’t want to do it” approach, and be left wondering how much of his willingness to throw himself so wholeheartedly into this was a matter of the relationship fitting him much better when she became helpless and dependent.

Also, he, as I noted above was his pattern, eventually fell for another young dancer of his and moved on from Tanny. The way it’s told, Tanny actually left him first, but it was when things had become increasingly conflictual between them and he had already developed an interest in this other woman.

That certainly could be presented as reflecting poorly on him—dumping a wife with polio when you tire of all the effort and sacrifice such a relationship requires. But the interviewees on the whole are not condemnatory toward him about the way the marriage ended. Their take is that he did an enormous amount to enable her to recover as much as was possible—arguably saved her life—and it was only well after they had gotten through the true crisis period of the illness together and she was physically and emotionally stabilized, not when she was at her low point, that the relationship ended. And when it ended, it was a mutual decision that came after they had gradually drifted apart.

It’s not like she became a cripple and he was out the door. As I noted, he stayed with her longer than any other partner in his life.

Still, there’s plenty of room for reasonable disagreement over how well or poorly he responded to what happened to her.

Another factor that could be taken to reflect poorly on him is that several years into her recovery, she had at least an openness to the idea of teaching ballet, but he shut down any notion of her teaching at his school. He didn’t want her around when he was at work, maybe due to it being a potentially weird dynamic because of their by now troubled personal relationship, maybe due to his not wanting her to cramp his style if he was hitting on other dancers, maybe due to his anticipating that it would just be a downer for his students and the others to have a woman in a wheelchair around in a ballet context.

Ultimately, years later, she did indeed become involved with ballet teaching, when another close friend encouraged rather than discouraged that from her and recruited her to teach his ballet company. It turned out to be a very positive thing for her (and it sounds like for the students too, as she was a quite passionate and skilled teacher). You can make the case that Balanchine harmed her by delaying this stage of her life.

The initial prognosis for Tanny was very grim. It sounds like when she was diagnosed she was told she was dying, and then shortly after that, maybe when they returned to America, she was told that she likely wouldn’t live a great many more years—to about age 40 at the outside—and would be crippled for as long as she did hang on and certainly would never walk. Her legs became useless almost immediately—evidently she retained some minimal sensation in them but they were almost completely paralyzed—and her arms and upper body were affected to a lesser degree but were deteriorating.

Balanchine’s recovery goals for her from the beginning were maximally ambitious. He was determined—and he worked tirelessly, with some success, to fire her up to get her determined—that not only would she survive, and not only would she walk, but ultimately she would return triumphantly to her profession and dance for him again.

Relative to that, her recovery was a partial success and partial failure, and you can argue about how much of this was attributable to just the kind of person she was, to how his efforts helped or hindered her, to how the efforts of other people in her life helped or hindered her, and to just blind luck.

She not only made it to 40 but lived beyond 70. She never walked again, and therefore obviously never danced again. She stopped the deterioration of her body above the waist and to a limited extent reversed it. Though she experienced plenty of major low points along the way, ultimately she persevered emotionally and was able to accept what had happened to her reasonably well and rebuild a life.

It’s a terribly tragic story, in that aforementioned sense that this is a person whose whole (highly successful with the potential to be phenomenally successful) career was built on having tuned her body to a state of near perfection, and indeed whose self-image, whose personhood, was based on that physicality far more than is true for most people. What could be more horrific for someone with the soul of a dancer than to contract a dreaded disease that makes your legs useless overnight?

In its way, it’s analogous to a Hall of Fame level athlete being suddenly felled by such a disease. You’ve worked your way to the very top of your field, and out of nowhere that career—and likely soon your life—will end.

Another way to look at it, though, is that in their own way every athlete eventually reaches a time when their body simply won’t allow them to perform at the level they are used to. That’s the sadness of the aged Muhammad Ali being pummeled by a young Larry Holmes (and the joy of Ali’s fight with Foreman not turning out that way, as so many had feared it would). As one of the interviewees says, ballet careers are typically not very long, and every dancer must find a way to deal with the day when he or she will no longer be able to dance at a professional level.

As that same interviewee remarks, it’s a common lament in ballet that by the time you really reach your peak in terms of the development of your knowledge and skills, you’re invariably already past your physical peak. (Again, boxing provides an apt analogy in the form of moving stories such as Jack London’s A Piece of Steak and Harry Sylvester’s A Boxer: Old, about an aging prizefighter who by now knows all the tricks of the trade but whose body can no longer take him where he’s trying to go.)

In that sense, every dancer faces what happened to Tanny, but of course in another sense it’s quite different. Tanny’s career ended in the blink of an eye, not with the usual very slow, very gradual decline, not with the many years to prepare for the end. And her post-career life, unlike that of the overwhelming majority of dancers, was spent in a wheelchair with a minimally functional body.

It’s an inspiring and positive story in that Tanny seems to have been a remarkable human being and she did manage to achieve greatness and to achieve a far from complete but still impressive recovery. It’s a tragic story in ways that are at least as obvious. And it’s well told in Afternoon of a Faun.

As a final note, even as a non-ballet fan I did get caught up to some extent in some of the ballet scenes. There’s a beauty to ballet that can be mesmerizing, and certainly much of the music in the movie is lovely. I’d like to open myself up more to ballet, to learn more about it and understand it more, to experience it more. Will that happen? I don’t know. But I think it would be a good thing. It’s a reminder that there’s so much in life, in the world, that would be worth exploring more, such that you’ll never come close to getting to all of it. It’s never justified to stop learning, to stop venturing into new areas that have at least some potential to enrich your life.

So I’ll add ballet to my long list of things that I’d like to get to before I die, but I can’t say for sure whether in fact I’ll seriously explore it next month, next year, ten years from now, or never.