In 1944, when fifteen-year-old Tanaquil Le Clercq (1929-2000) was one of ballet master George Balanchine‘s star pupils, she danced the role of a girl stricken with polio in his short piece “Resurgence.” The performance was a March of Dimes benefit held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. The music was Mozart‘s String Quintet in G minor, and at the close of the plangent adagio [slow part]…
Balanchine, as the Threat of Polio, came onstage wearing a large black cape and enveloped her [Tanaquil]; she sank to the floor [stricken ill with polio]. In the final movement – a sunny allegro – she reappeared in a wheelchair, children tossed dimes, and she rose and danced again.”1
In 1944, few diseases frightened people more than polio. At that time, there was no cure. Polio struck in the warm summer months, sweeping through towns in epidemics every few years. It was known that polio was highly contagious. What was not known – and was particularly terrifying – was how the virus was transmitted. People did everything they had done in the past to avoid infection but these tactics never worked. They avoided crowds. They stopped going to theatres, swimming pools. Schools closed for weeks at a time.
Though most people recovered quickly from polio, some suffered temporary or permanent paralysis and even death. Many polio survivors were disabled for life. Charities like the March of Dimes raised money to help families deal with their stricken loved ones and to search for a cure. Finally, in 1955, a vaccine became available.
For the next twelve years, Tanaquil Le Clercq /tan-uh-kill luh-clair/would continue to dazzle audiences of the New York City Ballet with her “perky young vivacity” and “crisp and tangy style.” With her long and limber flamingo legs, Tanaquil Le Clercq – “Tanny” to her friends – defined the Balanchine Ballerina style. Allegra Kent, a young dancer at the time, recalls those limber legs. Once she arrived at ballet class to discover Tanny with a bandage on her nose. Tanny explained her injury, saying that
she had just kicked her leg too high but that she was going to be fine.”2
On New Year’s Eve 1952, Tanny became George Balanchine’s fourth official wife. Every dancer knew she was Balanchine’s favorite, his inspiration to create, his muse. And now she was his wife. She was 23; he was 48.
To understand Tanny’s broad appeal, here is a video clip from one of her 1956 Paris performances. In “Western Symphony,” a satire on the American Wild West, Tanny plays a dance hall girl strutting around a saloon with a cowboy. She has wit:
The Paris performance of “Western Symphony” was part of a 10-week European tour, begun in August 1956, that encompassed Salzburg, Vienna, Zurich, Venice, Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Brussels, Antwerp, Paris, Cologne, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. It was an ambitious schedule, brutal and exhausting, especially when prima ballerina Maria Tallchief (Balanchine’s third wife) unexpectedly departed mid-tour and Tanny had to fill in for her. Although most of the dancers had been given the polio vaccine before the trip, Le Clercq decided at the last minute to wait.
Coughing, thin, and tired, Tanny collapsed in Copenhagen. On November 1, she was rushed to the hospital. She fell into a coma and could not breathe on her own. They placed her in an iron lung. Tanny had contracted polio. She was 27.
It made international news. “Tanaquil Le Clercq Stricken With Polio,” reported the New York Times on November 2, 1956. The dance world was shocked.
Tanny remained in the Blegdamshospitalet (Copenhagen Polio Hospital) for four and a half months before returning home. Although she survived the disease, she was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. The most beautiful dancer of the New York City Ballet would never walk again. Tanny, who had danced ballet since the age of 7, would never again dance. Her career was over.
But not her marriage. Balanchine took a year off to take care of Tanny himself. Deeply mystical, he could not shake the feeling that he had somehow played an evil part in her fate. He recalled that March of Dimes performance twelve years before when he had played the part of the Threat of Polio. He had reached out his foul hand and laid it on Tanny, afflicting her in what then seemed then but an innocent little play.
‘It was an omen,’ he would later say. ‘It foretold the future.'” 3
However, in the March of Dimes play, after the shower of dimes was bestowed on the wheelchair-bound Tanny, she retrieved her ballet slippers, put them on, and danced joyfully across then off the stage.
‘It was, alas, a balletic finale.’ Balanchine reflected. ‘Nothing like that ending will happen in Tanny’s real life.'” 3
1 “Dancing Around the Truth” by Holly Brubach. The New York Times, February 15, 1012.
2 “Tanaquil Le Clercq.” Ballet Encyclopedia online.
3 Taper, Bernard. Balanchine: a Biography. University of California Press, 1996.