Friday, June 20, 2014

The saddest story in American ballet

Tanaquil LeClercq was exhausted. She faced a wearying transatlantic flight with the other members of New York City Ballet and feared a vaccination might further weaken her. So she decided to forgo the inoculation most of the troupe was getting, a shot of Jonas Salk's recently developed polio vaccine.

She began that 1956 tour as a principal dancer at NYCB, an inspiration to master choreographers George Balanchine (who had made her his fourth wife) and Jerome Robbins. She ended it in a wheelchair, never to walk again.

Documentary maker Nancy Buirski has told her story in "Afternoon of a Faun," now playing on PBS stations nationally in the "American Masters" series. (It premieres on Thursday at 8 p.m. on UNC-TV. It's already running on South Carolina's ETV: The next time is 4 a.m. Monday.) Here's a sample:

If Buirski's name sounds familiar, you may know her as co-founder of the DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival -- now called "Full Frame" -- in Durham. This is her fourth feature film as producer, her second as writer-director (after "The Loving Story").

She has collected remarkable footage of LeClercq, and you can watch some of it at American Masters. LeClercq's swanlike neck, flexible arms and extraordinarily long legs lent themselves to comedy, drama or romance. Sometimes she was both serious and comic by turns in the same piece, as in Robbins' "The Concert." (He dropped the work when she could no longer dance it.)

The Paris-born ballerina had a rare command of styles: She could be alluring yet distant in Robbins' "Afternoon of a Faun," remain elegant in Frederick Ashton's "Illuminations" or whoop her way through dance-hall merriment in Balanchine's "Western Symphony." She even experimented with Merce Cunningham's modern work in 1949, a year after she became a charter member of NYCB.

This all came to an end before her 28th birthday. She went to bed in Copenhagen, weak and shaking, after a performance on NYCB's gruelling European tour. She awoke without the use of her legs.

Besides celebrating LeClercq's greatness, Buirski poses the question every dancer finally has to ask: What do I do when I have always defined myself by physical grace and skill, and my body no longer responds to my will?

Few dancers have had to wrestle with that question as suddenly as LeClercq did, and none so publicly. After a long period of depression, she redefined herself as a teacher. Former NYCB colleague Arthur Mitchell, who co-founded Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, invited her to teach there. She did so from a wheelchair, using her arms to demonstrate steps.

Every athlete -- and dancers are athletes -- eventually asks that question. Think of NFL Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, who's dealing with chronic traumatic encephalopathy and reduced brain function, or Muhammad Ali struggling with Parkinson's disease.

In fact, everyone who has chosen a beloved career and been forced to give it up wrestles in a way with that dilemma. What am I after I stop being a teacher, a journalist, an electrician, a physician? "Afternoon of a Faun" explores a profound artistic tragedy. But in some small way, it's about millions of us who've been pierced by a sliver of the same sadness.