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Review: 'Afternoon of a Faun' a graceful tale of ballet, loss

EntertainmentMoviesReviewsDancePolioArts and CultureMichael Stuhlbarg

We open with two dancers, a man and a woman, on a bare stage. He is Jacques d'Amboise, one of the greatest male dancers this country ever produced, but you barely notice him. Your eye is drawn to the woman, to the fluid, almost miraculous way she moves, to a style you feel you've never seen before. You're looking at Tanaquil Le Clercq.

That footage of the Jerome Robbins ballet that gives "Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq" its name is grainy and six decades old, but the dancer's power to intoxicate remains. No wonder Robbins and the New York City Ballet's George Balanchine fell in love with and choreographed significant ballets for her. And no wonder that the shock felt when she contracted polio at age 27 at the height of her career has never gone away.

"The tragedy of Tanny is epic," says D'Amboise today in this intimate, beautiful and melancholy documentary, still not quite believing it. "She was destroyed as a dancer."

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Directed by Nancy Buirski, "Afternoon of a Faun" offers privileged glimpses of Le Clercq's life (she died in 2000 at age 71) before and after she contracted polio. It interviews friends and confidants, provides glimpses of what she was like as a person and, best of all, shows us clips of her dancing, which tell us so much of what we need to know.

No matter what the setting, and there were some doozies, including CBS' "The Red Skelton Show," Le Clercq was exhilarating to watch. "She was an elongated, stretched-out path to heaven," D'Amboise says, adding later, "to see her was to be wrapped in wonder."

Offstage, says Barbara Horgan, Balanchine's longtime assistant, the story was the same: "She had a magnetic quality, she knew how to seduce people. She could fascinate anyone she wanted to."

Groomed for ballet by her mother since she was a tot, Le Clercq was discovered by Balanchine when she was still a teenage student at his School of American Ballet.

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Always on the lookout for the next dancer who could inspire him, Balanchine was entranced by Le Clercq. He choreographed ballets like "Symphony in C," "La Valse" and "Western Symphony" for her and even married her in 1952, when she was 23 and he was 48.

That marriage apparently devastated Robbins, another premier choreographer who considered Le Clercq his soul mate. "Her talent could take in anything," he says in an archive interview. "The parts I created for her are now danced by five or six people. She could do them all."

If much of Le Clercq's story sounds predetermined, almost mythic, her experiences around polio were especially that way. Balanchine had actually choreographed a polio ballet for a March of Dimes benefit and had Le Clercq dance the victim a decade before her attack, while he danced the virus.

Just before a 1956 New York City Ballet European tour, the troupe members were lined up to get the newly available Salk vaccine, but Le Clercq left the line, saying she'd get inoculated later. She was stricken in Copenhagen, and her life was never the same.

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Balanchine and Robbins remained in Le Clercq's circle, and one of this film's unexpected bonuses is access to the honest, emotional letters between the dancer (read by Marianne Bower) and Robbins (read by Michael Stuhlbarg). "I've always known I'd been so lucky," she wrote him soon after the attack. "It just couldn't go on, all taking and no paying."

A woman of indomitable will who was determined to enjoy her existence despite the disease, Le Clercq made an independent life for herself that included traveling to Europe with friends and teaching at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, founded by former dance partner Arthur Mitchell. After she and Balanchine divorced in 1969, she lived alone for the rest of her life, which this fine documentary makes you feel is very much the way she wanted it.

[For the record: An earlier version of this review stated that Tanaquil Le Clercq died in 1980. She died in 2000.]

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq'

No MPAA rating

Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

Playing: At Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Town Center 5, Encino

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