‘Afternoon of a Faun’ – movie tells tale of prima ballerina before, after polio

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

There is a marvelous movie playing at the Landmark Midtown right now that may not last another week. “Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq” is about the life and art of the phenomenal dancer who, in the early 50s, was one of George Balanchine’s wondrous prima ballerinas as well as one of his wives (fourth and last). As we learn very early in the documentary, her career was tragically cut short when she contracted polio.

The film exists as both a chronicle of her astonishing talent and her formidable spirit. After she was confined to a wheelchair, Arthur Mitchell hired her to coach his new company, the Dance Theater of Harlem.

Look for “Faun” on Netflix or perhaps PBS after its brief theatrical life is done. In the meanwhile, if you can’t get to the Midtown by Friday, these films could pirouette in your head.

“The Children of Theatre Street”

A behind-the-scenes documentary about the Kirov School, one of the world’s premiere ballet schools. Among those who first arabesqued in its hallowed halls are Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Nijinsky.

As a shared dream, it is wonderful; as a movie, maybe less so, with wobbly sound and obtrusive camera work. But try to ignore the filmic flaws and focus on the sea of legs, going up, up, up, until, like Icarus himself, they would touch the sun.

In a strange way, it’s a timely movie, too. The narrator is Grace Kelly, aka the Princess of Monaco. Nicole Kidman plays her in “Grace of Monaco,” the film set to open this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

“Ballet Russes”

Yes, another documentary. On the one hand, this is an invaluable record of ballet performances from the first half of the 20th century that otherwise might’ve been lost forever.

On the other, it’s a collection of interviews with some of those same dancers, many of whom have since passed away. The film is also a fascinating chronicle of an end of a way of life as much as the final bow of a ballet company.

Though a good part of the movie is pure soap opera — all those artistic temperaments — mostly it’s a record of many of ballet’s most famous performers.  Balanchine is here, as are George Zoritch, Maria Tallchief (another Balanchine bride), Alicia Markova and other greats.

Interestingly, the directors are the same team who made “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden,” which also just breezed through town. Breezed in, as it didn’t stay nearly long enough.

If it’s fiction you prefer, the list is surprisingly long: from Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning portrayal in “Black Swan” to Jamie Bell as the dancing fool in “Billy Elliot” (yes, it was a movie before it was a musical). There are several “Nutcrackers” around (one with Macaulay Culkin, at the time still basking in his “Home Alone” fame). And of course, Michael Powell’s almost orgasmic classic “The Red Shoes.” 

Back in the late 1970s, Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft squared off as former rivals in “The Turning Point.” The legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov made his feature debut here in what would be a spotty (at best) movie career. But you might want to check him out in the barely remembered….

“White Nights”

Baryshnikov plays Kolya, a Russian ballet superstar/defector (hmmm…) who finds himself back in the USSR when his plane crashes on a world tour (the Berlin Wall is still alive and well).

Gregory Hines is Raymond, an American tap dancer/defector who finds himself banished to Siberia now that his propaganda value has dropped. The two are thrown together by a cunning Commie colonel who sees Kolya’s return to the Kirov as the supreme propaganda coup.

Raymond is charged with convincing the reluctant star attraction that dancing for the reds is better than dancing for the red, white and blue. Outside the rehearsal hall, the picture is graceless and a bit contrived; but it’s worth it for the rare privilege of watching these two marvels in motion.

With Hines gone and Baryshnikov pushing 65, this is your only chance. I’d take it. Just fast-forward —or whatever we do these days — through the cloddish Cold War clichés.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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