Movie review: Documentary charts rise and fall of prima ballerina

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In the canon of classical ballets, there are stories of dreamers, love triangles and tragic endings -- and sometimes the lives of the dancers who performed them can be just as riveting.

In "Afternoon of a Faun," director Nancy Buirski chronicles the rise and premature fall of prima ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq (1929-2000), a muse to dance greats George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. She inspired choreographers with her effervescent wit and charm and her long, lean build, which became the model for the physique of the Balanchine dancer still seen on stages. (Historically, dancers tended to be short, stocky and quick.)

Her career was cut short, however, when she contracted polio at age 27 while on an overseas tour with the New York City Ballet, where she was a principal dancer. She never danced again.

'Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq'

Rating: No MPAA rating but PG-13 in nature.

The story is seamlessly told through archival photos and remarkable black-and-white videos of Le Clercq on and off stage throughout her life. Some footage of Le Clercq performing with the New York City Ballet is a true treat for any dance aficionado (or just history buffs in general) to see. They excel at illustrating what made Le Clercq's movement and physical build stand out against other dancers of the time.

Interviews with former Balanchine assistant Barbara Horgan, past New York City Ballet dancers Jacques D'Amboise and Arthur Miller and close friend and dancer Pat McBride Lousada, among others, put the photos and videos in context with candid tales of Le Clercq's childhood, dance years and her journey to recovery and coping with partial paralysis. (She went on to write books, travel and help mentor the next generation of professional dancers.) Viewers also get the scoop on her marriage to Balanchine, who is said to have been smitten with Le Clercq since she was a student at the School of American Ballet.

Le Clercq's close yet, at times, contentious relationship with Robbins is highlighted through interviews with friends and colleagues and readings of letters they exchanged. This allows the late artists to have a voice, in a way, in the film and to tell their stories in their own words. The mix of interviews, archival footage and letter recitations are nicely paced, although the time spent illuminating Le Clercq's doldrums during her initial months with polio could have benefited from some more editing.

This film's appeal is that it's more than just a story about one of the most influential ballerinas of the 20th century. It's a story of the human spirit: its dreams, its dark days and its capacity to endure and reinvent itself.

Opens Friday at the Harris Theater, Downtown.

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