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Tanaquil LeClercq - Balanchine’s Tragic Muse

Above - La Valse with Tanaquil LeClercq and Nicholas Magaallanes, 1951

Choreography: George Balanchine (1951)

Music: Maurice Ravel (piano accompaniment by Dianne Chilgren added to video in 1994) Recorded at Jacob’s Pillow: August, 1951

Only fifteen when she made her professional debut with two solos at Jacob’s Pillow in 1945, Tanaquil LeClercq (1929-2000) went on to make history in creating more than twenty-five roles in the ballets of George Balanchine. She was a charter member of the New York City Ballet, but her performing career ended tragically in 1956 when she contracted paralytic polio. She was married to Balanchine from 1952 to 1969, and later achieved distinction as an author, photographer, and teacher. The Mexican-American dancer Nicholas Magallanes (1922-1977) auditioned for Balanchine as a teenager and made his professional debut with Ballet Caravan at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He created roles in some two dozen Balanchine ballets, including La Valse with Tanaquil LeClercq. This film of the dance was made with its original cast less than six months after the premiere. 


Tanaquil Le Clercq was born in Paris in October of 1929 to a French father and American mother, who moved with their daughter to New York three years later. Though her mother wanted her to become a musician, Tanny had an early affinity for the ballet, and began her training at seven with a former partner to the great Anna Pavlova, going on to audition for the School of American Ballet when she was twelve . Though she was very small – described by Balanchine “as if you were looking at her through the wrong end of a telescope” – she beat out 125 others to win a scholarship and began training there. Tanny spent the next five years honing her craft.

Tanaquil first caught Balanchine’s eye at the age of 12, and was awarded a scholarship tot at the school under the tutelage of Balanchine and others, then at 17 was made a part of Balanchine’s company – the Ballet Society - which would morph into New York City Ballet. 

 She grew into a willowy, commanding and stupendously graceful dancer and became Mr. B’s (as he was fondly known in the dance world) muse as well as his fourth and final wife. Her years dancing with the New York City Ballet and its precursor, the Ballet Society, were few. Yet during those precious ten years, she created 32 roles for Balanchine and for another galvanizing force of genius in the ballet world, Jerome Robbins. 

Tanny had her first major parts in the Balanchine-choreographed Four Temperaments and Divertimento and soon was working also with choreographers like John Taras and Merce Cunningham. But it was her performance in Symphony in C in 1948 that brought her to the attention of another great choreographer, Jerome Robbins. Already famous in his own right for directing and choreographing musical theater productions like On the Town and High Button Shoes, Robbins soon came to work at NYCB as an artistic director under Balanchine with an eye towards creating work for Tanny.

There are numerous dancers who can lay claim to the title of “Balanchine’s muse,” among them Balanchine’s third wife, prima ballerina Maria Tallchief, his would-be fifth wife, Suzanne Farrell (who hastily married another dancer after Balanchine’s quicky divorce from Tanny, a move he had hoped would win him Farrell’s hand) and Balanchine’s last great muse, the dancer Allegra Kent. But Tanny holds the unique distinction of being a once-in-a-lifetime muse to both Balanchine and Robbins, the two soon battling over the NYCB schedule (with Lincoln Kirstein acting the referee) as to who got to use Tanny in their productions. For such seminal work as Bourree Fantasque, Metamorphoses, and the great, La Valse – she danced for Balanchine. For the more experimental Age of Anxiety, The Cage and what arguably became Tanny’s signature role, Afternoon of a Faun, she was Robbins’ muse.

In 1956 while dancing in Copenhagen, Tanaquil Le Clercq collapsed on stage. It was soon learned that she had contracted polio and, very rapidly, she became paralyzed from the waist down. Everyone in the tight-knit ballet community was crushed, Balanchine more than anyone. He placed the blame on himself as, eerily, he had choreographed a benefit ballet for the “March of Dimes” when Tanny was 15 – casting himself as a black-clad dancer portraying “polio” and having Tanny portray his “victim,” who he touches at one point, condemning her to a wheelchair at the end of the performance. 

Robbins, too, was devastated back in New York and immediately began sending telegrams and letters to Tanny’s bedside in Copenhagen (as well as a large stuffed dog Tanny dubbed “Morgan”). Tanny, however, did not want to be seen after her accident and became increasingly reclusive. Balanchine moved her to their cottage in Weston, Connecticut full-time and helped her adjust to her new life, but soon got busy again with the NYCB in New York – coming home only on weekends. Tanny stayed put in her wheelchair with only her cat, Mourka, by her side. 

With Tanny unable to dance, Balanchine began to seek a new muse, leading to him neglecting Tanny. This all led up to an evening in 1969, when Balanchine announced – via a telegram sent from Mexico - that he was in the process of securing a divorce (the one to win the hand of Farrell). Tanny was devastated. Balanchine was the first and only love of her life.

In the case of Tanaquil Le Clercq, Robbins had always been a part of Tanny’s life, but after the divorce from Balanchine, his presence increased. It was through Robbins that a former dance partner of Tanny’s – Arthur Mitchell – approached Le Clercq about coming to the dance school he had started, the Dance Theater of Harlem, to teach. Tanny agreed and soon returned to New York where her love of dance was reinvigorated. She ended up teaching at the school for many years, all from her wheelchair. Ironically, a number of her students later went on to dance for Balanchine at NYCB.

After her return to New York, Balanchine and Tanny became friendly again at the end of his life (he died in 1983), so much so that Balanchine left her the stewardship of the rights to much of his choreography when he died.

Tanny and Robbins’ friendship continued right up until their deaths – Robbins in 1998, Tanny on what would have been her forty-eighth wedding anniversary to Balanchine in 2000. When Robbins died, the only photograph found in his bedroom was a simple, framed snap of Tanny taken at some point in the seventies – not one of her glamorous, Cecil Beaton-taken shots, but one of Tanny simply smiling at the photographer, likely Robbins, from her wheelchair – a memory more than a picture.

See Tanny with Jacques d’Ambois in Afternoon of a Faun -  here