Le Clercq, Tanaquil (1929–2000)

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Le Clercq, Tanaquil (1929–2000)

American ballerina. Name variations: LeClercq. Born on October 2, 1929, in Paris, France; died on December 31, 2000, in New York; only daughter of Jacques Georges Clemenceau Le Clercq (a writer and professor) and Edith (Whittemore) Le Clercq; attended the Lycée Français de New York for three years; taught by private tutors from age 12; studied dance at the King-Coit School in New York; studied with Michael Mordkin; attended the School of American Ballet; married George Balanchine (choreographer and founder of the New York City Ballet), on December 31, 1952 (divorced 1969); no children.

Distinguished by her exquisite technique, her unique style, and her astonishingly long limbs, Tanaquil Le Clercq had a dazzling career with the New York City Ballet from its inception in 1948 until 1956, when a bout with polio put an end to her career and nearly took her life. Considered to be the quintessential Balanchine ballerina, Le Clercq was also the wife of the famous choreographer for 16 years.

The daughter of Austria-born Jacques Le Clercq and Edith Whittemore Le Clercq, Tanaquil was born in Paris in 1929 and named after the legendary Tanaquil , wife of the Roman ruler Tarquin. Jacques had used the unusual name as a pseudonym when he was a young writer, calling himself Paul Tanaquil. "Tanny," as she was called by her friends, was raised in New York, where her father became a professor of romance languages at Queens College. From the age of four, when her talent for dancing was discovered, her life centered on ballet training. At age seven, she was a student of Michael Mordkin, then considered by many the best teacher in America. At 12, she accepted a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York City, where she first met George Balanchine, her future husband. Her initial impression of the famous choreographer was hardly favorable; she saw him as an "old fogy" and a somewhat lackluster teacher. Tanaquil soon warmed to her mentor, however, and under his tutelage refined her technical skills. At 17, she danced her first professional solo role, the lead in the choleric section of The Four Temperaments.

By 1948, Le Clercq was a principle dancer with Balanchine's fledgling New York City Ballet, having won acclaim in a number of roles, among them Ariadne in the ballet-cantata The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, a collaborative effort of designer Corrado Cagli, composer Vittorio Rieti, and, of course, Balanchine. (Irving Penn created a stunning photograph for Vogue, featuring Le Clercq as Ariadne, with the three collaborators seated at her feet.) She also danced in Bourrée Fantasque, Symphony in C, Orpheus, Afternoon of a Fawn, and La Valse. "What precocious sense of the transience of beauty and gaiety enabled her to dance this role with such infinite delicacy and penetration?" queried critic Lillian Moore after seeing her performance in La Valse. "Fleet, fragile, touchingly young, incredibly lovely, she brought it a haunting quality which lifted it into the realm of poetry." In England, where Le Clercq performed during a tour in 1948, the London Daily Mail called her "a remarkable dancer, particularly with her arms and hands," and went on to compare her "fluttering quality" to that of Anna Pavlova .

Le Clercq and Balanchine were married on December 31, 1952, shortly after the annulment of his fourth marriage to ballerina Maria Tallchief . Le Clercq, then 23, had the brightest future of any dancer of her day and was also one of the hardest working, practicing every day, including Sundays, and appearing in two or three ballets six nights a week. She once compared the rigors of dancing to "training a racehorse and being a racehorse at the same time." In October 1956, Le Clercq was touring with the company in Copenhagen when she contracted poliomyelitis. Doctors were barely able to save her life, let alone her career.

The dancer, paralyzed from the waist down, arrived home in a wheelchair, despondent. Balanchine, nearly blaming himself for what had happened, frequently recalled a ballet he had created for Le Clercq years earlier, when she was 15. Resurgence was set to music from Mozart and presented at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel as a benefit for the March of Dimes, a charity devoted to curing polio. The piece took place in a ballet classroom, where students were hard at practice but also rejoicing in their youthful vitality. Into the scene there suddenly appeared a grotesque, black-clad monster—the evil Polio—who reached out and touched one of the girls, who fell paralyzed to the floor. The girl was Tanaquil; the evil Polio was Balanchine. "It was an omen," he said. "It foretold the future." The ballet ended with the girl's miraculous recovery, a "balletic finale," said Balanchine. "Nothing like that ending will happen in Tanny's real life," he sadly added.

Balanchine took a year off from the New York City Ballet to care for his wife. With time, Le Clercq broke out of her depression and in 1962 was able to assist Patricia McBride in her preparation for a revival of La Valse. She also wrote a book, Mourka: The Autobiography of a Cat (1964), about the couple's pampered cat Mourka, who was trained by Balanchine to perform jetés and tours en l'air. A second book, Ballet Cookbook, was published in 1967. In the meantime, Balanchine's obsession with yet another dancer, Suzanne Farrell , was undermining the marriage. In 1969, the choreographer obtained a Mexican divorce from Le Clercq so he could marry this latest paramour, who was 40 years his junior. (Unwittingly, Farrell had foiled the plan by marrying dancer Paul Mejia in the interim.) In 1970, Le Clercq accepted an invitation to teach ballet at the Dance Theater of Harlem.

On November 24, 1998, Le Clercq was honored at a gala celebrating the New York City Ballet's 50th anniversary. The event, which was preceded by an alumni reunion, included a reenactment of the company's famous first program at the City Center on October 11, 1948, and included three of the ballets that had been part of Le Clercq's stunning repertoire: Concerto Barocco, Symphony in C, and Orpheus.


Candee, Marjorie Dent, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1953.

Hunt, Marilyn. "New York City Ballet Turns Fifty," in Dance Magazine. November 1998, Vol. 72, no. 11, p. 34.

Taper, Bernard. Balanchine: A Biography. NY: Times Books, 1984.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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