Interview: Director Nancy Buirski, Afternoon of a Faun

AoaFI-featureTo say that ballerina Tanaquil “Tanny” Le Clerqc had a profound impact on the world of ballet is an understatement. As a 12 year old in 1941, she auditioned and won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, and at 15 was asked by the great choreographer George Ballanchine to dance in a ballet with him. Ballanchine allowed his dances and choreography to be impacted by the dancers that inspired him. He fell in love with Tanny, first as a dancer and then as a woman. Her physicality stood out among the shorter dancers around her; she was longer, leaner, and thus able to use the space around her body more gracefully and effectively. Tanny became the prototypical “Ballanchine dancer,” and would forever change the image of what a ballet dancer should be.

In her film Afternoon of a Faun, director Nancy Buirski portrays the life of Le Clerqc, from her meteoric rise on the stage, to her contraction of polio at the age of 27, and her subsequent reinvention as a paralyzed, but independent woman. I spoke with Buirski about her process in making the film, the complexity of portraying Tanny’s relationships with husband George Ballanchine and choreographer Jerome Robbins, and her determination to forge a new life after dancing.

Cinedelphia: Afternoon of a Faun is very different from other documentaries I have seen recently. Can you talk a little bit about how the mood and tone of the film took shape?

Nancy Buirski: For me, documentary is not that different from a feature narrative film in that it’s all about telling the story and not necessarily illustrating a thesis. There are many wonderful documentaries that do lay out a thesis, and they put all their materials together to make that point and be persuasive, but my films tend to be about the story and the emotional content of the story. So when I approached this film about Tanaquil Le Clercq, I was very moved by her beauty, by her dance, and the music that she danced to. I soon realized that in a sense all these components coming together would help me tell the story in a lyrical way, in a poetic way, and allow me to really delve into the emotional content of her life. That’s what I set out to do. I was sure from the get go that I was going to use “Afternoon of a Faun” as the opening and the closing moments of the documentary because, for me, it was a metaphor about her life and the reaching of the afternoon of her life in a sense. The ballet also had so much to do with the way dancers perceive their work. They look at each other, they look at themselves. Sometimes the way they look is more important than the way they feel on stage, and that’s what “Afternoon of a Faun” is really about.

C: The footage of that ballet, as well as some of the other footage is very impressive given the time period it was filmed. How did you find such amazing pieces?

NB: A lot of hard research. It’s true that ballet wasn’t videotaped the way it is today. I was very very lucky that some of the key ballets that Tanny danced had been recorded. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had recorded “Afternoon of a Faun,” and they planned to put it on television. One of the most beautiful pieces of footage that we came across was shot by one of the dancers at the New York City Ballet, a woman named Anne Barzel, who would stand in the wings  and shoot rehearsals and sometimes live performances. So some of the more experimental looking footage is actually shot from the wings, and allowed us to be a little more experimental in the way we exhibited it. You’re not just seeing the dance from the audience’s point of view, but you are also seeing it from the side, and getting the chance to feel like you are behind the scenes. And that’s another thing I like to do in a documentary, is give you a sense that you’ve gone back in time, that you are there with these dancers in this case, or whoever the subjects are. So you’re not sitting in 2014 and reflecting back on something but you almost feel like you are there.

C: Did you know anything about dance before you came to this project?

NB: No I did not! I love it, I would occasionally go to the ballet as a young girl growing up in New York. I would go to the New York City Ballet and was just fascinated by it but I didn’t dance, I didn’t study dance and as time went on I ended up attending less and less. So this was a total introduction to it for me.

C: Really? So as you were working through this film, what surprised you the most about the world of ballet?

NB: I think how collaborative they all are. I had always thought of dancers, you know, some of the stars are prima ballerinas and they were removed from the rest of the company, and they were fawned over, and there was a star system that was very much in place. The more I learned about the New York City Ballet, the less I found that to be the case. Even the better known dancers all worked very closely to each other and even if George Ballanchine was exhibiting more interest in one of them as compared to another, it didn’t seem to affect how collaborative they all were. They all wanted the attention of course, but I think they all worked as a company and were all very good friends.

C: That’s interesting, because it’s definitely not the impression you get, even today.

NB: There’s always competition, but that sense of being a part of a company was strong, and it is still there today. I know a few dancers today and they are always first to support each other on stage. Actually, one of the other things that I felt very strongly about was the obsessive, passionate dedication these dancers have today, and back then. They are totally living the world of dance, and that was one of the hardest things for Tanny, and I think any dancer who finds their career cut short. That world changes so drastically for them. Many of us who are in other professions and decide to retire, we usually have other things going on in our lives, and we look forward to actually living more of that other life. But in the world of dance you have almost nothing else. So when that stops it’s like your whole world comes crashing down.

AoaFI-postC: Tanny’s world of dance also included two of the loves of her life, the choreographers George Ballanchine and Jerome Robbins. The abrupt end to her career affected these relationships in unique ways, and creates an interesting love story not told too often. Can you discuss that aspect? 

NB: I completely agree that there is something special about the kind of love they had for each other, but when you think about it, there are many who fall in love with people who are involved with similar professions because it bonds you in a way that you might not have with someone who isn’t a part of your professional life. If you are completely dedicated, even obsessed with, your professional life, then having someone from that world, in a way, makes it easier to exist. In the case of Tanny, George, and Jerome, she was clearly a muse and inspiration for both of them, and I think that also turned into love for all of them. It’s hard to know when to separate it.

C: The complexity of the love between these individuals took a particularly emotional turn for me when after so many years of rehabilitation, George left her. Yet as an audience we manage to understand, if not completely agree with the choice he made.

NB: For me, it was one of the things that made the story interesting, and that is that these relationships are complicated. They don’t have a simple right or wrong. George spent a lot of time trying to help Tanny walk again, to work with her, to use her legs and help her recuperate. He couldn’t change what was inevitable, but he was so devoted to her when she was ill. But then, you know, he kind of reverted to who he was, and that was someone who falls in love with another because they can move. Even she understood that. I found myself unable to pass judgement about something like that. Art is a very complicated thing, and you’re dealing with a genius who is a very complex human being. It’s very hard to understand why people leave each other, it’s hard to know what goes on between two people.

The most important thing about her life after she’s ill is that she becomes independent. She becomes independent from these men. And it really talks to the strength of this individual who is no longer functioning as a muse to these two great choreographers, but is learning to live a different kind of life on her own. Thats really the message we were trying to send.

C: Absolutely. This film evokes such an emotional response in the audience, and that can’t be easy when Tanny and many of those close to her are no longer with us. How did you manage to get that side of the story across?

NB: Well thank you for saying that, I’m glad that you felt that way. It’s what I wanted, it’s what I was aiming for, and I think it’s a combination of having gotten to know these characters extremely well through my interviews and through my association with many of their friends. I think the letters helped enormously, again, like some of the footage, they help put us back in time. They help any viewer feel like they are close to someone, and when you read someone’s letters you feel an intimacy that you don’t feel when you’re just hearing about them.

C: Because so many people today may be unaware of Tanny, what was the most important thing for you to get across to the audience with this film?

NB: Oh there are so many things! The emotional impact of what happened to her, not just for us as viewers but for her and to the people in her life. The courage that she had to regain a life and accept what had happened to her. I guess one of the messages that comes through to me is that anyone of us can become afflicted at any time in our lives, and it doesn’t spare the privileged or the supremely talented, anybody can get a disabling disease or even just deal with the limitations of aging. And there’s a certain purity in being able to accept this, and deal with it with the grace and dignity that Tanny did, I think that’s pretty amazing and I think it’s a lovely message about the human spirit. Her story is especially impactful to dancers because they all get injured, they all think about how long they want to stay in this career, because it’s very taxing and painful on a day to day basis. And I think that Tanny, who so gracefully exited when she was forced to, is also a message to a lot of dancers that one has to think about the next thing in their life, the next chapter, and to enjoy it for what it is. Live in the moment as Tanny did, and then find a way to live in another moment once it’s over.

Afternoon of a Faun opens on March 7th at the Ritz 5.

Director Q&A’s to follow the 4:45pm and 7:00pm shows this Friday at the Ritz 5 Theatre.


Author: Jill Malcolm

Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.

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