*as published on November 11th, 2020
The story of Tanaquil Le Clercq deserved a movie, even for those who don’t know ballet. In addition to having played a key role in the development of dance in the United States (she was a student, later muse, and wife of George Balanchine) she tragically was the victim of polio at the height of her career, losing the movement of her legs for the rest of her life. She passed away nearly 20 years ago (December 31, 2000) in New York. She left a repertoire that is still danced by the New York City Ballet to this day and is one of the most moving stories of Art in the 20th century.
Born in Paris, but raised in the United States since she was three years old, she aroused interest in dance from an early age. At just 12 years old, she was one of the young women that Balanchine selected for his school in America. She stood out so much that in just four years he was already choosing her to star in his productions. Some of the pieces, considered brilliant and danced to this day, are Symphonie Concertante and Elegie.
In a macabre sign of fate, Tanny’s first leading role, as she was called, was rightly prophetic. Balanchine created especially for her a choreography dance at a charity event against polio. Tanny was the dancer with no movement in her legs and Balanchine himself the role that played the disease. Ten years later, reality would make the fiction of that night even more painfully reminiscent.
Tanny was beautiful, irreverent, tall, musical, intense, and agile, setting the standard for a ballerina that Balanchine would recreate multiple times in the future. She was the first to dance Four Temperaments, Serenade, and Symphony in C works that are still part of the company’s repertoire. Her cambré (the bent-back movement) in La Valse is still legendary, but her most memorable roles were in a duet with Jerome Robbins in both Bourrée Fantastique, Afternoon of a Faun, and The Concert. “Tanny could do anything,” Jerome said of her. (Videos at the end of the article)
In addition to Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Frederick Ashton, and Antony Tudor also created ballets, especially for her. The relationship with the teacher and mentor evolved, as was his habit, into love. The two were married when she was 23 years old and was already one of the biggest stars in dance. The following years were one of total synchronicity between love and ballet, with Tanaquil as the adored muse of the genius and beloved by her peers. Until that fateful tour in Europe came.
In the late 1950s, a polio outbreak scared the world. Before traveling, many dancers were vaccinated, but Tanny was one of those who decided to board without taking medication. There is a sad (unfounded) legend that tells that, in Venice, she would have gotten into a game of “truth or dare”, which demanded her the dangerous challenge of dipping her finger in the waters of the canal and then putting it in her mouth. The fact was never confirmed, on the other hand, the overdemanding schedule of practically non-stop between cities and two shows a day did make the Tanny even thinner and quite tired. Whatever happened, when she arrived in Copenhagen, the very last city on the tour, she began to feel ill. The tight muscles in her legs were a bad sign, but at first, she thought only of exhaustion. When the higher fever made her hospitalized it was confirmed the worst. The ballerina had contracted polio and was soon paralyzed from the waist down. Never walked again.
She spent months hospitalized in Denmark, taking special treatment for polio, but it was irreversible. With only 10 years of career and less than 30 years of life, the young and energetic Tanaquil started to get around in a wheelchair.
Back in New York, Balanchine stopped working for an entire year just to devote himself to his wife. The adaptation was not easy for her, but little by little she found happiness again.
The couple lived in the historic Apthrop building on the Upper West Side, a few blocks from the theater and studio of the New York City Ballet. Tanny and Balanchine hosted friends for elaborate dinners. Some of the recipes were part of The Ballet Cookbook, which she wrote, as well as the children’s book Mourka: The Autobiography of a Cat, which was about a kitten who was trained by Balanchine and attended the company’s rehearsals. Photography and crossword puzzles were also passions that Tanny developed, having created several puzzles even for the New York Times.
After a few years, dancing returned to fill Tanny’s time, who taught her roles to new dancers and was a teacher at the Dance Theater of Harlem, showing the steps only with her arms and hands. She attended the 50th anniversary of the New York City Ballet in 1998 and was cheered in the packed theater as she took the stage in her wheelchair.
Her marriage to Balanchine, however, ended in divorce in 1969, when he fell in love with another young ballerina. The friends felt for the cruel fate, but Tanaquil regained his enthusiasm for life, refusing to victimize himself for what happened.
In 2000, Tanaquil ended up with pneumonia that cost him her life. She was 71 years old and the dance community felt her death. She had an impressive number of 32 ballets created especially for her. Fashion also paid tribute to her memory, in 2004, with the collection created by Alberta Ferretti in her honor. There are few books on the life of Tanaquil Le Clercq, but his strength, her smile, and most of all his talent will always be a source of inspiration. Not even time can erase.