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Review: 'Afternoon of a Faun' is (nearly) as gentle as the dancer it profiles

The documentary "Afternoon of a Faun" looks at legendary dancer Tanaquil Le Clecq, muse to both George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.

Dancer Tanaquil Le Clercq, the focus of "Afternoon of a Faun," is seen here with George Balanchine. Credit: Kino Lorber, Inc Dancer Tanaquil Le Clercq, the focus of "Afternoon of a Faun," is seen here with George Balanchine.
Credit: Kino Lorber, Inc

‘Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq’
Director: Nancy Buirski
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
3 (out of 5) Globes

Lives are knotty and complex, and many biographical documentaries get so bogged down with the burden of exposition that they’re forced to neglect aesthetics. The life of legendary dancer Tanaquil Le Clercq is not one of those. It’s so simple it could be mistaken for one of the tragic stories that inspired her routines. It could even be “The Red Shoes,” the classic that packed ballet schools not longer after her own ascent.

A teenage prodigy, she became a principal in the New York City Ballet. She was muse to not one but two impresarios: George Balanchine, whom she married, and her dear friend Jerome Robbins. At only 27, she was felled by polio. It didn’t kill her, as many predicted. Instead, she stuck around into her 70s, a physical reminder of the greatness that could have been and which existed, trapped in a frail body.

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Named after one of Robbins’ pieces, “Afternoon of a Faun” instantly takes the pace of a Le Clercq dance, beat-up films of which periodically fill the screen: slow and graceful, contemplative, hushed. There are the occasional, obligatory talking heads, but most of the time the images stick on Le Clercq, be they her dances or still photos. It generally takes the same tack as “Senna,” the doc on racer Ayrton Senna, which memorably, even innovatively filled the soundtrack with interviews but reserved the picture for old footage, keeping our eyes, at least, stuck in the past.

Director Nancy Buirski aims for elegance, though she doesn’t completely have the chops to pull it off. The pacing can be choppy, overly reliant on light piano work to smooth over any fits of editorial gracelessness. But as the film goes on, the filmmaking seems to get better, especially once it gets into Le Clercq’s initial incapacitation after illness hits. Here, Buirski digs up footage from the past of people encased in iron lungs or floating in nebulous wonderlands — outside-the-box visual cues that turn the film momentarily phantasmagoric.

Throughout Le Clercq, who died in 2000, remains more abstract than human, even after polio robs her of many of her physical abilities. “Afternoon of a Faun” likes it this way. It reads aloud letters to and from Robbins (the latter voiced by “Boardwalk Empire”’s Michael Stuhlbarg), but not in an invasive way. “If I’m not a dancer, who am I?” she asks after polio strikes. The question is never answered, neither by Le Clercq or by the film, which instead uses a languid pace to allow minds to wonder and wander.

 
 
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