Spotlight Saturday: Tanaquil Le Clercq

This week's Spotlight Saturday focuses on Tanaquil Le Clercq.

Tanaquil Le Clercq was born October 2, 1929, to French intellectual Jacques Le Clercq and his American wife Edith Whittemore. Born in Paris, she moved to New York at the age of three, where she studied ballet with Mikhail Mordkin. In 1941, she won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, founded and run by George Balanchine.

As Dewdrop in 'The Nutcracker', 1954

With Nicholas Magallanes in 'Jones Beach', 1950

Balanchine singled her out as a potential ballerina almost at once, and in 1945 cast her in two ballets for a student performance, Symphonie Concertante and Stravinsky's Elegie. The latter was done in an experimental style for which Tanaquil - known as Tanny - was to be famous. The following year, Balanchine choreographed a ballet entitled Resurgence, for a polio charity performance, 'March of Dimes'. In this, Tanaquil appeared as a young dancer threatened by Polio, a character played by Balanchine himself. The tragic irony of this was not lost on Balanchine eleven years later.

With Jerome Robbins

Tanaquil became Balanchine's muse, and he created many roles especially for her. She embodied the style he had envisioned when he had emigrated to America from Russia and started his own company. She was the original 'Balanchine' ballerina. As a ballerina in the Ballet Society (precursor to the New York City Ballet), she set the standard for ballerinas to come with her performances in the company's first season in 1946: as Choleric in the Four Temperaments, and in Bizet's Symphony in C.

Above and below: with husband George Balanchine in rehearsal

Jerome Robbins and Merce Cunningham also created roles for her, and she performed them perfectly, not only technically, but with a stage presence which could not be taught. She was particularly stunning in Serenade, in Robbins' La Boutique Fantasque, and in her legendary performances of La Valse. She performed Cunningham's The Seasons in 1947; danced as Sacred Love in Frederick Ashton's Illuminations in 1950; as Episode in Antony Tudor's Lilac Garden; and Robbins' Afternoon of a Faun and The Concert. Her solo in The Concert was so iconic that Robbins cut it from the ballet when she was no longer able to dance it.

In 'Metamorphoses' for Life Magazine

In 'La Valse'

Tanaquil's dance career lasted only until 1956. During the New York City Ballet's European Tour that year, Tanaquil contracted polio in Copenhagen. She recovered, but was paralysed from the waist down for the rest of her life. Unable to dance, she re-emerged as a teacher, using her arms to demonstrate movements. She briefly taught at Dance Theater of Harlem and continued to support the New York City Ballet, even after her divorce from Balanchine in 1969.

In later years, confined to a wheel-chair, with husband George Balanchine

Tanaquil Le Clercq died on December 31, 2000 from pneumonia, aged 71.

Here's Tanaquil Le Clercq and Diana Adams in Balanchine's Concerto Barocco for the New York City Ballet:

And Tanaquil Le Clercq and Jacques d'Amboise in Robbins' Afternoon of a Faun (an excerpt from the documentary 'American Masters: Tanaquil Le Clercq - Afternoon of a Faun'):

Unfortunately I cannot share any footage of her in La Valse, since the only video I can find is not a YouTube one; Balanchine choreography is generally hard to find since the Balanchine Foundation is rather strict about its use.

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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