02/05/2014 11:37 am ET Updated Apr 07, 2014

Afternoon of a Faun: A Life of Dancer Tanaquil LeClercq

Tanaquil LeClercq was a lithe, angular beauty, a dancer who graced ballet until polio struck, paralyzing her and ending her career at age 27. Nursing her to a life beyond this disease, a crippler in the 1950's and now nearly eradicated, were her husband George Balanchine, and friend Jerome Robbins. She had been muse to each of them. The luminous documentary about her, aptly named Afternoon of a Faun from a memorable performance when she is coupled with Jacques d'Amboise, limns her brief career. Archival footage shows this remarkable talent in key performances, including a prophetic dance choreographed by Balanchine for a March of Dimes benefit; in "Resurgence," she is a girl afflicted with polio as Balanchine himself dances the role of Death.

Balanchine imagined he had brought on the illness. Just before a European tour, many in the corps de ballet were inoculated against polio. She, however, wanted to wait. She collapsed in Copenhagen, ending up in an iron lung. Balanchine did what he could to restore her spirit. Her friendship with Robbins is evoked in letters read by the actors Marianne Bowers and Michael Stuhlbarg.

"I fell in love with Tanny," said filmmaker Nancy Buirski, even before she knew the tragic dimension of this dancer's life. Buirski's previous film was the documentary, A Loving Story, about the Loving's, a couple who stood their ground ending laws forbidding interracial marriage. At a special screening this week at the JCC, Arthur Mitchell, one of Tanny's many leading men who also hired her to teach at his Dance Theater of Harlem, saw the film for the first time. Others attending: Albert Maysles, D. A. Pennebaker, and Chris Hegedus.

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