Dancer Tanaquil LeClercq (1929–2000) was affectionately called Tanny by all who knew her. Jerome Robbins, the choreographer who cast her in his "Afternoon of a Faun," told the New York Times the ballerina "could do anything." She won instant success as a dancer right from the start and became a solo premiere performer for the New York City Ballet Company at its inception. Her career was cut short when she was diagnosed with polio while on tour. LeClercq, however, did not let the illness stop her and she remained in the dancing world, teaching other young dancers to perform.
Led an International Childhood
LeClercq was born on October 2, 1929, in Paris, France. Her parents were Jacques LeClerq, a French poet and writer, and Edith Whittemore, an American. She was given the name of Tanaquil, after the Etruscan Queen Tanaquil, who was known to be a wise reader of omens. When LeClercq was three years old her family moved to New York City where she was raised, although she often visited Europe with her parents.
LeClercq took up ballet at a very young age and studied with the ballet great Mikhail Mordkin until 1941. At that time she auditioned for the School of American Ballet. She was only 12 years old at the time, but the famous choreographer George Balanchine saw her at auditions and was so impressed by what he saw that he immediately offered her a scholarship to the school. After attending the school for several years she won a fellowship, and was able to continue her education under Balanchine.
Three years later Balanchine, still actively watching LeClercq's progress as a dancer, found himself was even more impressed by the young ballerina's skill. When she was 15, Balanchine asked her to perform with him in a ballet he choreographed for a polio charity benefit. In the ballet Balanchine danced the part of a character named Polio and LeClercq danced the part of a victim whom he paralyzed.
Premiere Dancer of New York City Ballet
After graduating from the School of American Ballet at age 17, LeClercq was invited to take part in a new ballet company, the Ballet Society, which was started by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. It would later be renamed the New York City Ballet, one of the most famous dance companies in the world. Balanchine started out doing all the choreography for the new ballet company. He was enthusiastic about LeClercq, who was a lead dancer in the group. She was the first ballerina Balanchine had worked with and choreographed for who had been taught by him. In fact, LeClercq came to be known as the epitome of a Balanchine dancer, with her long legs and fluid, graceful lines. She was so limber, in fact, that there was a famous story told by another girl who danced with her. Apparently this other dancer came to class one day to find LeClercq with a bandage on her nose. When asked what had happened to her, LeClercq replied that she had kicked her leg too high and accidentally kicked herself in the nose. She seemed the perfect choice to dance Balanchine's ballets, and the pair became very close.
In her first year with the Ballet Society, Balanchine gave LeClercq a solo spot as Choleric in his famous ballet The Four Temperaments. Just a short while later she was given a role in Divertimento, also choreographed by Balanchine. As her career progressed, LeClercq also danced in the premieres of works by other great choreographers, such as John Taras and William Dollar, as well as in The Seasons by Merce Cunningham and John Cage. She was also seen as the Princess in The Spellbound Child. Every dance she performed in seemed to be made for her, and she amazed audiences and critics alike.
Choreographers Made Ballets For Her
Just four years later, Balanchine was choreographing all of his ballets for her, the first one being La Valse. By 1948, after the Ballet Society had become the New York City Ballet, LeClercq was one of its principal dancers and she remained so throughout her dancing career. She made ballet popular and brought some of the more famous ballets to television. Balanchine wrote his first ballet for television for her as Cinderella, dancing to Tchaikovsky's music.
But despite her closeness and relationship to Balanchine, LeClercq also worked with other choreographers. She worked closely with Jerome Robbins and it was she who inspired him to create and choreograph his version of Afternoon of the Faun. She premiered many ballets choreographed by others, including The Minotaur by Taras, 1947; Highland Fling by Dollar, 1947; The Seasons by Cunningham, 1947; Ondine by Dollar in 1949; Illuminations by Ashton, 1950; and Cakewalk by Ruthanna Boris, 1951.
One of the reasons people liked to choreograph dances for her was because she was known for her great professionalism as well as her grace and skill. One story about LeClercq described an accident on stage: one of the dancers in The Nutcracker dropped a large wooden hoop in the middle of the stage. Audience and dancers alike were distracted by it, with some dancers trying without success to kick it off the stage. LeClercq, according to Dance magazine, took care of the problem. "Tanny looked unconcerned. During one of her solos, when she was hovering close by, she kicked the hoop cleanly off stage with precise musical aim, not missing a beat in the choreography, and she brought the house down. A small, inscrutable smile beamed on her face for a second or two while she continued her work."
Married Balanchine Before Polio Struck
In 1952, on Christmas day, Balanchine and LeClercq became engaged. They were married just a week later. She was Balanchine's fourth wife. In 1956, when she was 27, LeClercq toured Europe as part of the New York City Ballet Company. While she was in Copenhagen she started feeling ill. She went to the hospital, where it was discovered that she had somehow contracted the disease of polio. She soon became paralyzed from the waste down. She was moved to a Danish hospital that specialized in polio treatments, and while she was there she was visited by many, including the Queen of Denmark. No one could quite believe the tragedy that had struck down the woman who had been a muse and inspiration to Balanchine and Robbins, among many others.
LeClercq had danced for only ten years professionally, but she premiered an unprecedented number of ballets, many of which were choreographed especially for her. It was an immensely tragic way for a woman's career to end who had danced in such ballets as Balanchine's Haieff Divertimento, 1947; Symphonie Concertante, 1947; The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, 1948; Symphony in C, 1948; Elegie, 1948; Orpheus, 1948; Bourrée Fantasque, 1949; Caracole, 1952; Metamorphoses, 1952; Concertino, 1952; Valse Fantaisie, 1953; and Divertimento No. 15, 1956. She had also been seen in premieres choreographed by Robbins, including Age of Anxiety, 1950; The Pied Piper, 1951; Ballade, 1952; and The Concert, 1956. Robbins and Balanchine got together to choreograph Jones Beach in 1950. Tragically, however, LeClercq's dancing career was now at an end.
Life After Dance
LeClercq returned to the United States, and Balanchine took a year off to take care of his ailing wife. LeClercq had a hard time dealing with her illness at first, but she slowly became accustomed to her life and began taking on new ventures. She frequently stayed at her country home in Weston, Connecticut, becoming increasingly interested in reading and writing. She became a benefactor of the local library and wrote several books of her own. Her first book was a cookbook filled with recipes she gathered from dancers along with beautiful pictures of those dancers doing ballet. It was called The Ballet Cookbook. Her second book was a children's book about a cat that was trained to dance ballet by Balanchine himself because he attended rehearsals of the New York City Ballet. This one was titled Mourka: The Autobiography of a Cat. She developed a great interest in photography and also in crossword puzzles. She not only did the puzzles, but she created them, and some were published as part of the famous New York Times crossword puzzle series.
She maintained a position in the world of dance by teaching at the Dance Theater of Harlem, demonstrating moves with her hands from her wheelchair. She also trained dancers at the New York City Ballet Company who were taking on roles that she had once danced herself.
Left a Tremendous Legacy
In 1969 Balanchine fell in love with his next young dancing muse, Suzanne Farrell, and he and LeClercq were divorced. The pair remained close throughout their lives, however, and LeClercq visited him daily when he was on his deathbed.
LeClercq died in Manhattan of pneumonia on December 31, 2000. She was 71 years old. The dance world mourned her death but honored her spirit. The Dance Insider website wrote, "In a brief but moving sermon, the Reverend Stephen S. Garney, vicar of Calvary Church, noted that 'When she saw she could no longer dance, Tanny soon revealed that she had other gifts up her sleeve,' teaching younger dancers, and writing books."
LeClercq left an amazing legacy behind her. She inspired Balanchine, Robbins, and others to create a total of 32 roles just for her. The poem Ode to Tanaquil LeClercq was written about her by Frank O'Hara. She was an inspiration to everyone who knew her long after she stopped dancing. Even after her death her great influence could be felt, when fashion designer Alberta Ferretti made a collection for the spring/summer of 2004 inspired by pictures of LeClercq from the 1950s.
Back Stage, January 5, 2001; June 8, 2001.
Dance Magazine, April 2001.
Harper's Bazaar, January 2004.
Independent (London, England), January 6, 2001.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 2, 2001.
Newsweek, January 15, 2001.
Newsweek International, January 15, 2001.
New York Times, January 1, 2001; January 5, 2001; May 22, 2001.
Time, January 15, 2001.
Time Inernational, January 15, 2001.
Times (London, England), February 15, 2001.
"Flash Report 2, 1-7: LeClercq Laid to Rest, Ballet World Bids a Ballerina Adieu," Dance Insider, http://www.danceinsider.com-f2001-f107_2.html (January 2, 2007).
"Tanaquil LeClercq," Ballet Encyclopedia, http://www.theballet.com-leclercq.php (January 2, 2007).
"Tanaquil LeClercq," Carnegie Mellon University, http://www.cmi.univ-mrs.fr-∼esouche-danse-LeClercq.html (January 2, 2007).