Afternoon of a Faun both is and isn’t your typical biographical documentary. Destined for American Masters, it tells a fairly complete story of a great artist, ballet dancer Tanaquil Le Clercq. Yet before it makes its way to television it is being screened at the New York Film Festival, and will likely have a theatrical run in the near future. Its images, both still photographs of its subject and film clips of her legendary performances, have a cinematic beauty that is not seen quite so often in documentaries made with TV in mind.
I sat down with director Nancy Buirski the day after she won an Emmy for her debut film, The Loving Story, which is as good a time to talk to someone as any. She is also the founder of the Full Frame Documentary Festival, which turned sixteen this April. Afternoon of a Faun is her second feature documentary. We talked about how she chose the title for the film, how she approaches narrative in documentary filmmaking, and the difficulties of presenting the always enigmatic artist/muse relationship.
Nonfics: You begin and end with one particular work, Tanaquil Le Clercq’s performance of Jerome Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun,” from which you also got the title of the film. What about this particular piece jumped out at you?
Nancy Buirski: I think there are a couple of reasons for it. One is that it’s a powerful metaphor for what happened to her. When we think about afternoon of anything, it’s usually the end of a trajectory. Things are kind of getting quiet, they’re closing down. Night is coming, darkness is coming. Every dancer deals with that, not just Tanny. Her afternoon came tragically early, but there is no dancer that doesn’t deal with getting older, experiencing physical limitations, and coming to some understanding of who they are when they can no longer dance.
The other reason I used it is that she is just so incredibly beautiful in that dance. Seductive. She was classically a fabulous dancer but what really made her stand out was her personality on stage. And that comes through so powerfully in “Afternoon of a Faun.” She doesn’t have her hair tied back in a tight bun. She uses her hair, she uses her arms. I think that’s so much of why Tanny was appealing to both Balanchine and Robbins and so many others.
Nonfics: The position of the camera, in place of the mirror in a dance studio, also makes it particularly cinematic.
Buirski: That’s a really good point. It does. The idea that Jerry Robbins had of making the audience the mirror — it speaks to a number of things about dance. First of all, dancers always dance in front of a mirror, except when you’re on stage. When you’re rehearsing you’re always watching your body. That’s an essential part of the ballet experience.
The original “Afternoon of a Faun” that was created for Nijinsky was really about the narcissism of the piece. There is that quality that gets mingled when someone’s looking in the mirror and they’re looking to check their body. That’s why “Afternoon of a Faun” is so appropriate.
Nonfics: The other images that you’ve featured, in particular the stills, were stunning as well. Yet the destination for the film, after a theatrical run, will be television. Do you think about that difference in medium when you’re making a film that’s primarily with pre-existing images?
Buirski: I want my film to look as good on a large screen as possible. I usually assume it will also look wonderful on a small screen. I was conscious of Tanny’s beauty and I certainly found photographs that displayed that in all its force but she is a life force and I think that comes through in those images as well.
The other thing that I was conscious of, I knew from the beginning that I was going to start the film with “Afternoon of a Faun” and that I was going to end the film with “Afternoon of a Faun.” This film is very musical. It’s not just the score itself, but the trajectory of the film. I think it plays like a piece of orchestration, just like a great symphony or concerto. You start with something and then you come around to it at the end to conclude it in a poetic way. I didn’t do that just for the sake of being artful; I think Tanny’s life is poetry. I think Tanny epitomizes the poetry of all dancers who are trying to ascend, to defy gravity in their dance.
Nonfics: One of the things that I find most interesting about the film is that you come away from it without having any particular judgment on George Balanchine, neither harsh nor sympathetic. In a way this is your second film about a relationship, and I wonder how you decided to portray Balanchine in particular with such reserve.
Buirski: The artist/muse relationship is an ephemeral relationship. I don’t think you can really define it very well. I think that in dance it’s unusual because the dancer gets as much out of that relationship as the choreographer. In other artist/muse relationships, you might think that women or men who are the objects of the artist were a little bit more exploited. I didn’t sense that the women that Balanchine focused on and fell in love with were really exploited. I think that they were complicit in the relationship and they got as much out of it as he did.
Nonfics: Perhaps an odd question for the end of an interview rather than the beginning, but how did you come to the project?
Buirski: It’s such a mundane thing. I love ballet, but I’m not an expert in ballet. I also love musical theater. I happened to pick up the documentary on Jerome Robbins, Something to Dance About, and there’s a small chapter in it on Tanny. I didn’t know her story. When they showed a very small piece of “Afternoon of a Faun” I moved forward in my chair, I was so mesmerized. Then I found out what happened to her, and very much like the Lovings, how has this not been a film?
I was still finishing up The Loving Story and just grabbed this. I started the process of putting together relationships to secure the cooperation of people in the dance world. Until I had that, I didn’t know if I could make the film.
Nonfics: Were those in the dance world you spoke to initially excited about the project?
Buirski: They were. They were a little bit reserved in that Tanny was reserved. She was a very private person and they recognized that she had tried very hard to be private. But I think they all felt that she deserved this, that it was time to tell her story. They must have realized I wasn’t going to get gossipy, and this wasn’t going to be a sensational film about Tanny’s loves and all of that. It was really going to be about her life, her dance, and the poetry of her story.
Nonfics: How did American Masters become involved?
Buirski: They came on pretty early. Susan Lacy saw the 12-minute trailer that I had worked on and she bought it based on the trailer. Then she left me alone to make the movie. She did give me some wonderful notes.
I think the challenge for them was that because Tanny was so private, she wasn’t particularly well known. After she stopped dancing she basically faded from the public eye. They’re a brand that believes they need to tell the story of great masters, and people who had great influence. They challenged me with the need to show that she had influence, and that helped the film.
Nonfics: Outside of the ballet world all we might know of Balanchine’s wives is the list on the Wikipedia page. It’s good to have a full story of Tanny as an artist.
Buirski: That’s right. It’s kind of like the instinct that I had with The Loving Story. This was a couple that was responsible for a major civil rights trial that overturned all of the anti-miscegenation statues in the country, and no one knew anything about them. They were a statistic. In some ways Tanny was a statistic, not only because she was one of Balanchine’s wives but because she was one of these very tragic cases of people that have to stop dancing because she was injured or disabled in some way.
Nonfics: And given that you stumbled on this while finishing up work on The Loving Story, have you stumbled across anything else?
Buirski: There are a couple of things out there, including narrative projects, that I’m starting to explore. One of the reasons that I find myself thinking about narrative as well as documentary — and I adore documentary, I was running a documentary film festival — is that both of my docs have taken a narrative approach. The story unfolds almost in acts, and in a narrative way. Obviously the information is important and it’s critical that it’s accurate, but the trajectory of the story delivers the real power.
Nonfics: People don’t realize how little difference there really is between narrative and documentary.
Buirski: I could see myself going back and forth, and I could see myself working on some sort of hybrid film. Though those are really hard to get financed, because financiers really want to be able to define what it is that you’re doing and be able to sell it in a certain way. That might be too much of a pipe dream.
Nonfics: There are a number of films at this year’s festival that have that same understanding of the importance of narrative in documentary, and that doesn’t have to be just an essay…
Buirski: With a thesis, right. I’m sure that’s very much due to Kent [Jones], who is such a smart curator. He said on opening night that one of the very first films shown at the festival was The Battle of Algiers. There’s the perfect example of a hybrid film. I remember talking with Mira Nair about that film. It’s her favorite film, and she said “Why do we have to call them docs, why do we have to call them fiction? They’re stories.” I’m all for that.