'American Masters' honors Tanaquil Le Clercq: From prima ballerina to paralyzed overnight

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The ballerina's loose hair flows as her partner lifts her in the old black and white film. The ballet, however, is timeless, the romance eternal.

That was among Tanaquil Le Clercq's gifts. She was a timeless, romantic ballerina, and the muse for two of the 20th century's most important choreographers, George Balanchine, whom she married, and Jerome Robbins, who was in love with her.

PBS' "American Masters" does a terrific job with "Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun" Friday, June 20 (check local listings), chronicling the tragedy that marked her life.

At 27, at the height of her career, Le Clercq contracted polio. Overnight she went from being a prima ballerina to being paralyzed.

Expertly weaving in interviews with friends, including Jacques d'Amboise, her young partner in that timeless ballet, "Afternoon of a Faun," filmmaker Nancy Buirski tells the story of a woman who seduced her just as she had so many others.

Buirski was watching another "American Masters" film a few years ago and happened upon Le Clercq.

"I was just seduced and mesmerized by her -- not just the dancing but her personality came through so strongly," Buirski tells Zap2it. "She was a muse to me not just because of what she looked like on screen and how she danced, but her story was what really inspired me."

Le Clercq was born, in Paris 1929, seemingly to be a ballerina. The daughter of a French intellectual and a St. Louis society matron she moved to New York at 3. Within two years she was studying ballet.

She trained at the School of American Ballet, and her Randall Bourschedit, shares an anecdote on screen.

Le Clercq was 14, standing outside the studio, arms crossed when Balanchine, school director, asked why she was not in class. She said they kicked her out.

Balanchine recognized the inherent grace and talent in this tall, angular dancer.

"We know Balanchine could create works of extreme beauty for an extreme range of physical types," Bourschedit says. "There are certain roles of having special magic, and some seem to work best or demand amazingly long limbed graceful creatures. And she was that."

"She wasn't ashamed to use those long legs and make them longer in her dance," d'Amboise says. "Dancers were usually short and quick, stocky and fast. Along comes this elongated, stretched out path to heaven that she was."

Footage of her shows a woman reveling in dance, perfecting her technique and artistry. In the fall of 1956, the New York City Ballet was touring Europe.

Just before they left, the dancers are shown getting their polio vaccinations. Le Clercq opted out, knowing she would be unhappy on the long flight and a shot would only add to her misery.

Arthur Mitchell, one of her dance partners, recalls her saying she felt weak. The next day she was in an iron lung.

Balanchine stayed by his wife's side. Initially, Le Clercq was wretched, asking herself why, writing to friends, bemoaning her plight.

She regained enough strength to be removed from the respirator, then was able to sit, and finally use a wheelchair. Le Clercq and Balanchine eventually divorced, but he had stayed with her though the worst.

She wrote a book about a cat and a ballerina's cookbook, both showing a sly sense of humor. She had devoted friends, and wound up teaching dance at Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem. The photos of an old woman, in a wheelchair in the middle of a dance studio, using her one good hand to explain a movement, are magical proving the timeless romance of Le Clercq.

Photo/Video credit: PBS