Afternoon of a Faun begins with, well, “Afternoon of a Faun.” Nancy Buirski’s new biographical documentary on famed ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq opens with a performance of Claude Debussy’s famous tone poem, choreographed by Jerome Robbins and danced by Le Clercq and Jacques d’Amboise. The two performers are very simply dressed and they dance in a studio rather than a theater. The camera is where the mirror would be, giving a privileged position to an audience that rarely gets this particular view of ballet. It’s probably the most cinematically interesting footage of Le Clercq that exists, and Buirski smartly puts it front and center.
Otherwise, the structure of Afternoon of a Faun is fairly straightforward. It’ll make an excellent addition to PBS’s American Masters series, where it will be headed after a theatrical run. Buirski covers Le Clercq’s childhood and her arival at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, followed by her rise to prominence in Balanchine’s company and their eventual marriage in 1952 (her first, his fourth). The central tragedy of her life comes midway through the film, though it’s foreshadowed by an eerily prescient piece that Balanchine choreographed for a polio charity benefit.
This somewhat traditional structure works because Le Clercq’s personality shines through so brightly. The “Afternoon of a Faun” dance might be her most beautiful, but her extraordinary versatility makes the very phrase “most beautiful” almost meaningless. Buirski has assembled a treasure trove of stunning photographs of her subject, and displays them as prominently as one can on a screen. Le Clercq looks a little bit different in every one of them, and not simply because some are posed and others are not. She was able to dance beautifully in a number of styles, to express innumerable tones and emotions with her art. To draw a comparison between Le Clercq’s most stunning images and performances is to compare an infinite number of gilded apples and oranges.
The marriage to Balanchine is the one element upon which something could really go awry. He has been criticized for the way that he handled his various marriages, and Buirski could have used this opportunity to further make a case against the legendary artist and possible lothario. Yet she knows that such a tactic would feel gossipy, especially given Le Clercq’s very close friendship with Robbins. Far from the dramatic dancer infidelity of All That Jazz, Afternoon of a Faun chooses to define Le Clercq by her character and her artistry, rather than the men who loved her.
In the end, Buirski returns us to “Afternoon of a Faun.” It’s amazing how our perspective on a single performance can change over just a few minutes, but there seems to be something different about Le Clercq’s expression the second time around. Obviously it’s exactly the same clip, but knowledge of the dancer’s life somehow both enriches her performances and makes them a little more enigmatic. One can never truly know a person through biography, but it can certainly help us appreciate their work anew.