Balanchine and Tanaquil Le Clercq in Weston
For a string of summers, beginning
in the early 1950’s, the unimposing cottage at number
10 Ridge Road became, in a quiet way, the center of the
ballet world – at least insofar as it can be said
that the world of American ballet revolved around the person
of George Balanchine, now widely regarded as the greatest
choreographer of the twentieth century.
road to Weston began in St. Petersburg, Russia, where from
the age of five he studied at the Imperial Ballet School
and later, at the Petrograd Conservatory of Music. In 1924,
along with the dancers Tamara Geva and Alexandra Danilova
(who later became his first and second wives, respectively)
he left the stifling artistic climate of Stalinist Russia
and joined Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris.
He came to the United
States in 1933 at the urging of Lincoln Kirstein, (another
weekend Westonite) with whom he founded the School of American
Ballet and the New York City Ballet. With Kirstein’s
support, Balanchine set out to create a new kind of ballet
– one that would bring classical form and technique
into the twentieth century. The first step towards realizing
this goal, he knew, would be training young dancers.
On of the most gifted
students in his school in the early 1940’s was a young
dancer named Tanaquil Le Clercq, the child of a French father
and an American mother. Balanchine could see in her the
makings of a great ballerina and he gave her the opportunity
to prove herself. In 1946, at just 17 years of age, Le Clercq,
“Tanny” to all who knew her, was given a solo
part in “The Four Temperaments,” a work Balanchine
created for Ballet Society, the company which later became
the New York City Ballet.
As a physical type, she
was the perfect model of what he had long had in mind –
lean, lanky, and lithe. She would become the first dancer
trained by him from an early age for precisely the kind
of ballets he wanted to make. Over the next ten years, Balanchine
created dozens of ballets inspired by Le Clercq’s
long-limbed grace, her musicality, and a certain comic,
witty streak that leapt off the stage to engage audiences.
Tanny was smitten with
the charismatic (and much older) Balanchine almost from
the beginning. And sometime around 1950 the master began
to look on his protégé as something more than
just one of his dancers. His marriage to prima ballerina
Maria Tallchief was ending, and he began seeing more and
more of Le Clercq. He proposed on Christmas day, 1952, and
on New Years Eve they were married. She was either his fourth
or fifth wife, depending on whom you talk to or whether
you count Alexandra Danilova, with whom he lived for several
years but didn’t actually marry.
Back in 1946, Balanchine
had purchased seven acres of land on Ridge Road from Alice
DeLamar, who was a friend of his, for the princely sum of
$8,500. After he and Tanaquil Le Clercq were married, they
began the arduous task of taming the wildly overgrown property.
Later that same year they put up a house. It was a modest,
one storey pre-fab – all they could afford at the
time – but it suited their needs exactly.
Weston proved to be the
ideal retreat from the pressures of the city, and the couple
spent as much time there as they could. Gardening was a
favorite activity; they planted roses, day lilies, peonies,
irises, and rose-of-Sharon, which was Tanny’s favorite.
George enjoyed carpentry and made a number of improvements
to the property himself, including a tool shed that he built
with his own hands. He derived enormous pleasure from simple
domestic tasks. He was an avid and ambitious gourmet cook,
and even enjoyed doing laundry.
Part of his time in Weston
was devoted to reading scores; he was enough of a musician
to be able to read an orchestral score and write out his
own piano reduction of it – an invaluable talent for
a choreographer, and one which has been shared by few others.
And he created new ballets in his head while breathing the
fragrant country air.
The ease with which he
could change gears between such widely divergent activities
was viewed by Tanaquil with amusement that was not unmixed
with a touch of awe: One minute he’s doing the laundry;
the next he’s making “Agon.”
This phenomenon did not
escape Lincoln Kirstein’s attention, either. In his
book, “The New York City Ballet,” he noted,
“APRIL 1957: WESTON, CONNECTICUT. Balanchine preoccupied
with roses; more satisfactory than choreography or cooking.
Blossoms are perfection, blooming without excuse or complaint;
they smell good, die quickly; hundreds of old, plenty of
new kinds. Later he called me, having received piano score
for Stravinsky’s AGON; the music was more ‘appetizing’
than roses or kitchens.”
In 1956, the New York
City Ballet embarked on a tour of Europe where they played
to wildly enthusiastic audiences. Tanaquil Le Clercq, at
27, was at the pinnacle of her art – hailed by critics
as one of the world’s greatest dancers. She was also
one of the most beloved by audiences, who could feel her
warmth and vivacity reaching them across the footlights.
Much of the season’s repertory had been planned around
her. But the tour that should have been a triumph ended
On October 28, during
the company’s stop in Copenhagen, Tanny began feeling
ill. She danced the matinee and evening performances believing
she was coming down with a bad case of the flu. By morning
she was unable to move her legs. The terrifying diagnosis
was polio. She never walked again. The ballerina who had
lit up the stage with her iridescent personality, her brilliant
technique and lyrical athleticism, spent the last 45 years
of her life in a wheelchair.
She was taken to a Danish
hospital that specialized in the treatment of polio, where
she was placed in an iron lung. For weeks her survival was
in question. While there, she received visits from the Queen
of Denmark, and from George Jenson, who named a new silver
pattern, “Tanaquil,” after her.
When she was finally
well enough to return home, she and Balanchine once again
divided their time between New York and Weston, where a
wheelchair ramp was added to the house. Balanchine didn’t
go back to work for a year, preferring to stay home and
care for Tanny, himself.
A long period of adjustment
set in. She confided to one friend that it took her ten
years to decide not to commit suicide. But others saw a
more cheerful side of her. She refused to indulge in self-pity
and didn’t want pity from others. Another friend asked
her, many years later, how she managed not to be bitter.
“It’s because I’m lazy,” Tanny replied.
“Dancing gets much harder as you get older.”
The poet, Frank O’Hara
wrote about her; his “Ode to Tanaquil
Le Clercq” begins:
smiling through my own memories of painful excitement your
narrow like a lost forest of childhood stolen from gypsies
here to read the complete poem)
The marriage lasted another
eleven years, until 1967 when Balanchine fell in love with
his new ballerina, Suzanne Farrell. The divorce was finalized
in 1969, but George always remained deeply concerned for
her welfare and stayed in close touch. In fact, he remained
close with all his ex-wives. When he was sick, near the
end of his life, they all went to visit him. Tanny went
every day. She never stopped loving him until the day she
After the divorce, she
continued to spend her summers in Weston, arriving in June
and sometimes even staying as late as Thanksgiving. She
had devoted friends here. Every morning, Paul Cadmus, the
painter, (whose sister was married to Lincoln Kirstein –
they lived next door to each other) would stop at Weston
Center and buy a copy of the New York Times to bring to
her. Others helped with the shopping, brought her stacks
of books from the Weston library, or brought a lunch to
share with her. She particularly liked the soup from Organic
Market in Westport.
Tanny loved the daily
parade of nature that surrounded her in Weston. She studied
the birds that frequented the feeders she placed around
the house. She was thrilled whenever she saw a deer or some
other animal cross her yard. Once, she phoned her accountant
in New York to describe a fox she was watching outside her
window. “I wish you could be here to see this,”
she said. “It is so beautiful!” On summer evenings
at around five o’clock friends would often stop by
to sit with her on the patio, drink champagne, and watch
the cardinals flitting in and out of the big trees.
Members of the New York
City Ballet were frequent visitors. Maria Tallchief was
one of them. Diana Adams was another. Peter Martins and
Darci Kistler would come for lunch at least once each summer.
Tanny loved red wine and Martins would send her a case from
time to time. She also received numerous gifts from Jerome
Robbins, who remained devoted to her all his life.
As difficult as it must
have been, she traveled. She visited Robbins in Spoletto,
Italy, and at his home in Sneedens Landing. Or she would
visit Saratoga, the summer home of the New York City Ballet,
to take in performances there. Later she bought a house
in Florida and started spending part of each winter there.
But she always came back to Weston.
Days in Weston were filled
with the ordinary pleasures of a quiet life in the country.
The garden continued to give much satisfaction. Though she
was no longer able to do the physical work herself, she
chose the plants she wanted to see each year, and others
would set them in the ground following her direction. She
loved going to the movies and read mysteries by the dozen.
She was a supporter of the Weston library.
Tanny enjoyed dining
out. Among her favorite restaurants were Maria’s in
Norwalk, The Three Bears, and Le Chambord in Westport. Friends
who dined with her remember her as a vivacious and amusing
dinner companion who would unabashedly express her curiosity
about what people at other tables were eating, and her opinion
about what they were wearing. And she remained blithely
unconcerned about whether the other diners could overhear
Holly Brubach, who began
spending her summers in Weston, came for dinner most nights.
After dinner they would invariably do the New York Times
crossword puzzle together. Tanny loved doing crosswords,
and even created some that were published by the Times.
She also compiled a cookbook with recipes from members of
the City Ballet, and wrote a book about her beloved cat;
Mourka: the Autobiography of a Cat.
That cat actually had
a story worth telling. Balanchine had trained Mourka to
perform jetés and various other ballet steps, and
was quite proud of her abilities. At a holiday party in
the Balanchine’s New York apartment one year, Igor
Stravinsky asked to see the cat perform. One guest recalled
that it was the only time he had ever seen Balanchine appear
nervous before a performance.
Stravinsky and Balanchine
shared a profound friendship. Their long-time collaboration
resulted in 29 ballets that remain central to the repertory
of the New York City Ballet and of dance companies around
the world. Though I haven’t been able to uncover evidence
to prove it, it is not unlikely that Stravinsky would have
visited Balanchine and Le Clercq in Weston.
Most years, Tanny would
return to Connecticut for the holidays. She celebrated New
Year’s Eve at home in Weston with a few close friends:
Eloise and Seth Armen; Paul Cadmus and John Anderson; Holly
Brubach; one or two others. Eloise Armen recalled, “We
grilled steaks, drank a lot, and laughed a lot. On the night
of Tanny’s last New Years in Weston there was a blue
moon and we all went outside to look at it.”
A so-called blue moon
is the occurrence of a second full moon in a given month.
It derives its name from the practice of almanacs, which
was to depict this rarely occurring second full moon in
blue. The luminous gifts of Tanaquil Le Clercq, the blazing
genius of George Balanchine, come along once in a blue moon.
On quiet afternoons, when I stand in their meadow on Ridge
Road, I like to imagine that some of the glow still remains.
© Barry Katz 2002
1. Holly Brubach, “Muse, Interrupted.”
NY Times Magazine, 11/22/98.
2. Lincoln Kirstein, The New York City Ballet.”
(Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1973)