Melissa Barak is the founder and artistic director of The Barak Ballet in Los Angeles. She danced with the New York City Ballet for nine years.
When I was a young dancer, ballet dancers appeared to be these mythical creatures. I used to think Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov had always just been divine beings, certainly not regular people doing everyday things like I was. As a very young girl who happened to study ballet and loved it, I was quite unaware that pursuing a career as a ballerina was actually even possible.
As I got older and began discovering that I had just as much of a shot as any to become a professional dancer, no company appealed to me more than the New York City Ballet. It was where dance legends seemed to be made. It had a history so rich, it drew me in. Like other young, hopeful ballerinas I watched videos about NYCB all the time and was smitten. I was determined to dance there.
In 1998, I found myself signing a contract with NYCB and I couldn't believe it. I had arrived, but it was overwhelming. I suffered a minor injury in rehearsal just before the gala performance that celebrated the company's 50th anniversary. Instead of getting to perform on stage that night, I watched the performance from the front. I don't remember quite where in the theater I was, but that was when I saw Tanaquil Le Clercq roll right by me in her wheelchair. Tanaquil was one of New York City Ballet's major stars during the company's inception in the late 40's. Her lyrical, sinuous style gave founding choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins inspiration for many of their early works. It was her feminine quality and physical ability that allowed these two significant choreographers to find their voice as makers of dance, thus changing the ballerina ideal forever.
She was being honored that night. Her story was true, this legendary woman I had always heard about and known of but not for all the usual reasons dancers hope for in their careers. She appeared ghost-like to me as she went by, fair skinned with silvery white hair and sharp yet delicate facial features. I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. Many dancers' careers are cut short due to injuries, but her fate was due to an illness that affected her life forever, and right at the height of her career. In the middle of a tour through Europe, the New York City Ballet was performing in Copenhagen when Le Clercq found herself unable to move one day. She was struck with polio, at age 27, and lost all use of her legs. Anybody who loves to dance can only imagine the utter horror.
In the new documentary, Afternoon of a Faun by Nancy Buirski, I learned more about Le Clercq's childhood, her illustrious career with NYCB, and her tumultuous relationships with two of ballets most influential figures, Balanchine and Robbins. Yet what I appreciated most from the film was her display of true heroism — her ability to laugh and be silly with friends during her life when dance was no longer an option. I didn't just learn about a special dancer, I learned about what she was made of as a human being. In the film you see how this courageous young woman must start her difficult journey in what's called an "iron lung" (which was horribly anxiety producing) to acclimating to an entirely new existence altogether. Most often with great ballerinas, you only learn of them as they always were - on stage seeming so far from real. Yet with Tanny, you get to know a rather quirky, cool person who is left with nothing but her very own humanness.
The dancer dies, but the person inside lives on. All of us dancers have to face that reality at some point. As a dancer ages, so does the body. The legs don't go up as high, the joints begin to ache, the years of pushing the body to the limit begin to take their toll. Tanny's life is a story about resilience. It's a lesson every dancer must take in — that you simply can't do it forever and that finding balance and other interests is crucial in order to move forward and find renewed purpose in life.
"Afternoon of a Faun" opens in Los Angeles on April 11. A trailer for the film: