Muse of many faces: Ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq’s life and times, before and after Balanchine, remembered (and, now, novelized)

Le Clercq as a young ballerina ()
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On stage, New York City Ballet star Tanaquil Le Clercq could embody every archetype of woman she was called on to portray, and so could be every type of ballerina.

Her unique style and sensibility were due in part to the unlikely marriage of her father Jacques, a French academic, and her mother Edith, a former debutante from St. Louis. It reflected, too, the way she was molded by, and had inspired the world’s great choreographers, above all George Balanchine, NYCB’s founder and artistic director.

When she married him in 1952, Le Clercq was 23 and he was 48. The next years were momentous. Tall and long-limbed, Le Clercq "could be compared to no other contemporary ballerina," critic Marie-Françoise Christout wrote when NYCB visited Paris in 1955. But a year later, three weeks after her 27th birthday, while on tour with the company in Denmark, the ballerina was stricken with polio. Le Clercq never walked, or danced, again.

Now Varley O’Connor’s The Master’s Muse, a novelization of Le Clercq’s post-polio life until Balanchine’s death in 1983, is about to come out from Scribner. (Le Clercq herself lived until 2000.) Reading the book will be for some, as it was for me, a significant exercise in déjà vu.

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Thirty years ago, just out of school, I had wanted to write a book on Le Clercq. She was unwilling to participate, which is part of why my project never got anywhere.

But I continued to research her; in 1984, Ballet Review published an article I wrote on her career. I was gratified when she told BR editor Francis Mason that she’d been impressed by it. And then, a few months after she died, I was asked to inventory photographer credits in her extensive personal archive, from which was culled a video montage aired at a memorial tribute that NYCB was presenting. I spent several memorable afternoons in her apartment (old-world spacious but not baronial) in the Apthorp at 79th Street and Broadway, where she and Balanchine had spent most of their married life.

It had been an act of audacity for me in 1981, without a portfolio, without any real connections in the ballet world, to envision a book, and so I appreciate O’Connor’s own audacity all the more. Her interest in Le Clercq was initially piqued by the fact that her own father was also a polio victim. O’Connor is not an expert on dance. Her research into Le Clercq is thorough without being deep. She has certainly read every English-language article written on Le Clercq that I ever came across, and she has consulted many books; but she hasn’t done much investigating of primary sources.

O’Connor’s task was not made easier by Le Clercq herself, who in later life refused most requests for interviews, and was often cryptic and contradictory in the things she did reveal. When I wrote her in 1981, she called me and was curt.

"I don’t want to talk about the old days," she told me.

But a month or so later, to my surprise and delight, Le Clercq’s mother agreed to see me. O’Connor unfairly presents Edith as something of a ditz; the author also doesn't refer to the conflicts between mother and daughter, which were real.

"I never knew my daughter very well," Edith confessed almost immediately when I went to see her, "because I always had her packed off to dancing school."

A friend later told me that she thought one of the hardest things for Le Clercq about her paralysis was the dependence on her mother that it created.

Le Clercq spent her early life fulfilling what were to a great degree the dreams and ambitions of others. But there was an undercurrent of rebellion to her acquiescence.

In 1949, 19-year-old Le Clercq, already a charter ballerina of NYCB, had gone on a holiday in Paris with friend and colleague Betty Nichols. Both were enchanted by the city. While they were there, Merce Cunningham created a trio for them to dance with him. Le Clercq was in fact so enchanted that she informed family and bosses in New York that she would not be returning to NYCB, but would stay in Paris and pursue a career there.

That however, was out of the question for the people in New York whose lives were invested in hers. It was soon after she returned to the fold and the United States that she and Balanchine began their relationship. His marriage to Maria Tallchief, then NYCB’s most famous ballerina, was ending. Balanchine’s personal infatuations almost invariably went hand in hand with professional interest. Le Clercq was a highly attractive prize; she was also an asset that Balanchine needed for his fledgling company.

But also very much in the picture was choreographer/director Jerome Robbins. He cried watching her adagio in Balanchine’s "Symphony in C" and asked Balanchine if he could join the company. Before marrying Balanchine, she seems to have had a relationship with the bisexual Robbins.

And then there was young Dutch composer Juriaan Andriessen. He had composed a ballet, Jones Beach, for the company that it premiered in 1950. Adriessen and Le Clercq were said to be engaged at one point. But both he and Robbins were ultimately rejected.

Where Le Clercq’s mother was concerned, there was of course no contest. Indeed, Le Clercq’s marriage to Balanchine was to some degree arranged by Edith, Muriel Stuart, who taught at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, recalled to me.

"Mama was this type of person," she said.  

Marriage to Balanchine proved more difficult than Le Clercq could have imagined. Balanchine was old enough to be her father, and her own father was now in the throes of a drinking problem. He was separated from her mother, whose preoccupation with Tanaquil had made him redundant.

Yet if something in her had looked to Balanchine to remedy the absence of a vital father, she must have been sorely disillusioned. At their country house in Weston, Conn., Le Clercq was grateful that Balanchine cooked and cleaned, did everything to allow her to stay off her feet. Balanchine’s first wife, dancer-actor Tamara Geva, whom he had married in Russia before they left forever in 1924, had a country house nearby. Geva once found Le Clercq crying in the grounds of the modest Balanchine home.

"The only thing he’s interested in is work," Le Clercq complained bitterly. "That’s what we all found out, my dear," was Geva’s response.

Le Clercq was certainly aware as well of her husband’s roving eye, which never abated no matter how seriously he was involved with any woman. One night, Balanchine put his hand on her arm as she came offstage. She threw it off, and with real enmity in her voice told him not to touch her.

Writing about the master’s infidelities, O’Connor makes Le Clercq too much the disconsolate housewife, almost something out of an Updike novel. What now seems apparent is that in her last ambulatory months she was in fact exploring a new identity for herself apart from him.

Biographies of Robbins have made clear that she and he were resuming a romantic relationship in the summer of 1956; Balanchine was by this time moving Diana Adams, one of Le Clercq’s best friends in the company, into the ultimate position of privilege that she had occupied.

They were still officially together on the lengthy tour that began in August, with Edith in tow. Le Clercq, Balanchine, and the company were feted by audiences, critics, as well as the crowned heads of Europe. She found time, however, to write Robbins on an almost-daily basis. NYCB was in those days a small company and the dancers worked their fingers (and their toes) to the bone. When Tallchief left the tour unexpectedly, all of her performances had to be covered by Le Clercq and fellow ballerinas. There is no question that Le Clercq was in a weakened and susceptible state.

There are flashbacks throughout The Master’s Muse, and in one, O’Connor intimates that Le Clercq was infected with polio in Venice, based on the recollection of ex-NYCB dancer Shaun Obrien. They went on a late-night jaunt through the canals with a group of colleagues that did not include Balanchine. Someone asked whether the canal water was salt or fresh. Le Clercq dipped her fingers and tasted it. Bizarrely, this was not the only time Le Clercq was spotted doing this in Venice; she was, in fact something of a daredevil prankster, a cut up, and a wit offstage as well as on.

It’s certainly possible that Le Clercq contracted polio that way, but it’s also true that the company performed throughout Germany, which was hit by outbreaks that year. Le Clercq was under visible duress during the company’s week-long season in Copenhagen at the end of October, but she kept on dancing. The day after the closing performance, however, she couldn’t walk.

Balanchine was guilt stricken by Le Clercq’s illness, which of course delayed any possibility of a divorce. He was away from NYCB for a year, tending to her, and continued over the next couple of years to try to help her regain the use of her legs. He was shaken by the memory of a little ballet he’d created in 1946 for a March of Dimes benefit at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. In it a polio victim was miraculously restored by a flood of donations. Balanchine enacted the specter of polio. The victim was portrayed by none other than sixteen-year-old Le Clercq.  

But he also had a more legitimate reason for guilt that is not discussed by O’Connor: Balanchine had not ensured that Le Clercq was vaccinated before they left for Europe. At that time, medical practice was still using the live polio vaccine, which could produce a slight case of polio in the vaccinated. In Venice, a friend of Balanchine’s and Le Clercq’s was horrified when she told him she hadn’t gotten the shot, explaining nonchalantly that she didn’t want to get sick.

She was not alone, though; certainly as many dancers had not been vaccinated as had been.

O’Connor chronicles the many things that Le Clercq did in her post-polio life. She wrote a children’s book and a ballet cookbook. She even taught ballet for a decade from her wheelchair, at the school of Dance Theater of Harlem.

Balanchine divorced Le Clercq in 1969, laboring under the delusion that his latest infatuation, 23-year-old Suzanne Farrell, was going to marry him. Long before then, Le Clercq and he had largely gone their separate ways. O’Connor describes a post-divorce affair with a hired caretaker whom she’d known in school. I believe something like this may have happened before her divorce. Either way it is clear that Le Clercq, as well as her mother, resented Balanchine's public rejection. And also that, as time went on, he and Le Clercq were again friends.

In Manhattan, in Weston, and in Florida, where she later bought an apartment, Le Clercq lived as independently as possible. Edith told me that her daughter had never complained to her about the tragedy that had shattered her life, "but it must dig very deeply into her that she cannot even cross the room on her own." The inevitable reality of Le Clercq’s ambivalence about the past and the choices she’d made was brought home to me when I worked in her apartment.

It seemed to be exactly as she’d left it; I was impressed with the almost total absence of aids for the disabled. There on Le Clercq’s piano was a snapshot of her with Balanchine, the exact photo I had given to Edith when I sat behind her at a NYCB performance in 1982, six months after I’d interviewed her. (Like Le Clercq herself, Edith never stopped loving ballet.) And next to that was a photo of Balanchine and Le Clercq’s ex-fiancee Juriaan Andriessen sitting together at the keyboard.

I see Le Clercq’s decision to deny so many researchers access to her as a product of her ambivalence. It was perhaps also a way to fulfill a need for control by a proud and strong-willed woman who had been deprived of so much control over fundamental matters of access and mobility. The fact that Le Clercq divulged so little gives the novelist that much more license to speculate.

The Master’s Muse is most interesting when O’Connor does try to get inside Le Clercq’s head. It’s not only that there’s a certain degree of plausibility to what she posits, it’s that the very act of trying to shed light on something that is unknowable commands admiration. O’Connor’s writing is at its best here, too, and it’s very readable throughout.

Yes, Le Clercq was the master’s muse, but she was so much more as well. I would have liked to see a wider lens trained on her life than O’Connor applies, a less-exclusive concentration on Balanchine. Yet I was glad, as I read the novel, that this extraordinary artist and woman had stimulated yet another imaginative act of creation.