What Price Daring?

Born in France, Living American Lives

Tanaquil Le Clercq was 71 when she died December 31. What hurts to contemplate is that she graced New York City Ballet, unforgettably, for only 10 years and spent the next 44 in a wheelchair. She was just 27 when polio stilled her limbs.

Woman almost overboard: Nehara Kalev in Jacques Heim’s Trajectoire
photo: Ellen Krane
Woman almost overboard: Nehara Kalev in Jacques Heim’s Trajectoire

Racy, witty in her dancing, she could appear supremely elegant or as easy as the kid down the block. She was a muse for both George Balanchine (to whom she was married) and Jerome Robbins. Beginning around 1946, her slim, leggy body and unaffected manner redefined Balanchine's idea of "American." In a film of Western Symphony, made immediately before her illness, she flashes those legs and hips and shoulders with such sly ebullience that you laugh in delight. To watch her (again on film) perform the beautiful duet in Concerto Barocco is a revelation. Who knew that the moment when the ballerina pulls away from her partner could mean so much? I was lucky enough to see her perform live. In my mind, she is, forever, that fresh young dancer in Robbins's Afternoon of a Faun, who pauses in the doorway of a sunlit studio to rosin her shoes and adjust the ribbon at her waist before entering that world she left too soon.

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