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Movies at the Library Season finale: Stunning documentary on ballerina

COURTESY PHOTO

COURTESY PHOTO

For 20 years — from 1963 to 1983 — Shelter Island weekender Barbara Horgan was the personal assistant to George Balanchine, one of the 20th century’s most prolific and influential choreographers.

Ms. Horgan worked daily with Balanchine; toured the world with his company of dancers; she knew the man, his works and his wives. When he died, Ms. Horgan became his executor and a founding trustee of the George Balanchine Trust. She will be our guest Tuesday, June 9 at Movies at the Library.

The movie being shown at 7 p.m. that evening is “Afternoon of a Faun,” a 2013 biographical documentary directed by Nancy Buirski. It tells the story of Tanaquil LeClercq, Balanchine’s fourth and last wife and the dancer for whom he created a number of his best-known ballets.

Together they transformed American ballet, with Balanchine choreographing “Symphony in C,” “La Valse” and “Western Symphony” in ways that took advantage of LeClercq’s beauty and physicality. As one critic puts it, “Tall, svelte and long-legged at a time when most ballerinas were short, she exuded a coltish energy and cut a striking figure on stage.”

Barbara Horgan adds, “She had a magnetic quality, she knew how to seduce people. She could fascinate anyone she wanted to.”

LeClercq was groomed for ballet virtually from toddlerhood by her mother. Balanchine discovered her when she was just 15 and a student at his School of American Ballet. He became enchanted with her and she soon became his muse. They married in 1952, when she was 23 and he 48.

Famed choreographer, Jerome Robbins, who regarded LeClercq as both muse and soul mate, was heartbroken. Nonetheless, the two remained close, exchanging letters and confidences for the rest of her life.

In 1956, four years after her marriage to Balanchine and a few days before the New York City Ballet began its summer European tour, LeClercq lined up with other dancers to get inoculated against polio, which was then a rampant and greatly feared disease. But LeClercq, concerned that the shot would make her too tired to dance her best in Paris, left the line. She contracted polio a few weeks later in Copenhagen. Her life was never the same.

The sudden horror of her illness and the struggles that ensued are what make the film even more fascinating. After months in an iron lung, LeClercq went to Warm Springs, Georgia, in an attempt to regain the use of her legs. Balanchine egged her on. Even in her lowest moments, he helped her to have hope. But it was to Robbins that she confided her most intimate thoughts. “I’ve always known I’d been so lucky,” she wrote in a letter. “It just couldn’t go on, all taking and no paying.”

It was Robbins who choreographed “Afternoon of a Faun,” the ballet that opens and closes the film and gives it its name. Which is to say that the film is far more than simply a profile of a mesmerizingly beautiful and talented dancer. It also chronicles two complex and moving love stories.

The 91-minute film relates these stories via interviews, black and white kinescopes of dances, documentary footage from Warm Springs, Super-8 films made by friends and many of Robbins’ still photographs of LeClercq.

Together they form a portrait of woman, as one critic put it, with “a truly amazing spirit blessed with an insight, a warmth and a generosity that are far beyond the normal.”

Please join us in the Gill Patterson room at the Shelter Island Public Library for this beautiful tribute to a rare artist with an even rarer spirit. A Q & A with Barbara Horgan and a reception will follow.

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