The Impresario and the Ballerina: George Balanchine and Tanaquil Le Clercq
George Balanchine May 1958 New York City
“Tanny’s in hospital again.”
George Balanchine, New York City’s preeminent ballet impresario, was talking with his man-servant, Rene.A Manhattan penthouse’s magnificent terrace, Balanchine’s own mise en scène glowed in the city’s early summer evening just past sunset. The garden’s trees and lush shrubbery stood guard as the lights of this spectacular city partnered with Lincoln Center’s stage lights to provide Balanchine a gleaming palette for his life and art.
Beyond the apartment’s Russian icons, velvet draperies, and priceless antiques inexplicably mixed with a collection of quirky objects brought in by the impresario to cheer up his ill wife, his terrace this summer evening fairly cried out for cocktails and the sophisticated conversation and village gossip typical of balconies all over the city once candles were lit.
Summer in the City:
Women’s jewels would sparkle, crystal goblets would drive home the point, and the magical patina of
America’s favorite city would take over. The delights of an urban evening awaited most participants even as one of its foremost ballerinas was delivered more pain medication in a stark white hospital room nearby.
Balanchine’s lofty garden was lovingly tended by the patient, his wife, ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq. The dancer with the impossibly long legs, who on stage seemingly could jump a mile high with the grace of an eland. Now two years later, was confined to a wheelchair by the polio that from its cruel onset in Copenhagen while on tour in 1956, now claimed her career, but not yet her life.
Rene’s concern was evident in his serious tone: “Her pain has worsened?”
“They are increasing the morphine. For that, I am told, she must be in the hospital. She will be home tomorrow. Then, we shall take her to the cottage. Perhaps the country air will do her more good than this noisy, impersonal city.”
For this information, Rene had no good answer. Instead, he lit the candles on the patio, fussed over some dirt that had spilled from a container. He grabbed the vodka from the refrigerator and made his boss a simple drink over ice.
No conversation is necessary. His presence and steady silence was all the famous artist required now.
Rene, like Balanchine, was a Russian émigré.
As his employer achieved critical acclaim in America, Rene preferred to observe life from in front of the footlights. He cared for “Mr. B” in every way imaginable. He spoke only in Russian; if anyone addressed him in English, he feigned confusion. He was a Russian through and through. And he was devoted to George Balanchine.
‘Tanny’ was Tanaquil Le Clercq, Balanchine’s fourth wife, one of Balanchine’s prized ballerinas. Her long limbs carried the purity and strength of Balanchine’s new distinctly American ballet form. At least they had once. Le Clercq and her mentor carried forward the tradition of Petipa, but clarified it to create a fresher version that would lead the way for ballet the world over for years to come.
Old World Elegance meets new world ballet
If one somehow were to combine Old World elegance with the power and lean strength of the racing horse, then one might begin to understand the Balanchine ballerina. Lithe, long-limbed, and uniquely and athletically American.
Yet, with the Russian heritage brought by their impresario, these new dancers showed their pedigrees, with a classical ancestry that stretched all the way back to the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. For this pleasing and somewhat surprising combination, they had Balanchine to thank — the man in the velvet smoking jacket who could whip up a plate of Russian piroshkies as easily as he later would choreograph a startling new masterpiece set to Stravinsky’s latest work.
Tanaquil Le Clercq
Born in Paris, Balanchine’s wife, Tanaquil Le Clercq, was the first ballerina wholly trained in his style. At 15, he tapped her to dance with him in choreography he made to be performed at a benefit for a Polio charity.
In the ballet, Balanchine was a character named Polio and Tanaquil was his victim who became paralyzed and fell to the floor. Children tossed dimes at Le Clercq whereupon she got up and danced again.
Some years later, in 1956, while touring with the company in Copenhagen, in a development too hideous to imagine, Le Clercq contracted the actual disease. Balanchine took a year off from work to tend to his stricken wife. It was two years later and Balanchine was back at the New York City Ballet Company.
Now in May, Balanchine’s triumphal 1958 season had just ended, and the city’s early summer heat was still a pleasant novelty. New Yorkers were beginning to think about packing for their annual retreats to the mountains to escape the city’s summer heat.
Balanchine was back to his normal activities as his wife, paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, divided her time between giving company classes and the couple’s country home in Connecticut. She would never walk again, let alone dance, lingering evidence of God’s folly: a famous ballerina struck down in her prime.
As Balanchine accepted the iced vodka from Rene, he said, “Now, more therapy, I expect. Always, more therapy. It never ends, it seems.
Rene noted Mr. B’s distress.
Even without an ill wife, he knew that Balanchine would be up nights pacing the floor, listening to the latest musical score, devising in his fertile mind a new ballet season to top the last one. But now he also waited on his dear wife, here, adjusting a lap robe, there, bringing her a favorite cup of Russian tea in a glass with raspberry jam. The furrows on his brow deepened as he told Rene the news.
Rene responded, “Notchka, let me prepare your favorite chakhobili and reheat the eggplant for your supper. A glass of wine. It is not your fault. You must stop worrying so much. Now, about the company, now, about Tanny’s health. Never, about yourself. You must take a break.”
“A break. To the coast or the mountains, you mean?”
“Not at all. Not at all. Look, you have your special guests arriving soon from France. Why not prepare a little party for them? Perhaps they could be your mystery guests. You could plan it all. Forget the stage for once. Let this beautiful Russian apartment be your setting. Stage it, Notchka. Plan it and then step back to observe and enjoy.”
Rene kept a close eye on Balanchine’s home atmosphere and temperament. He knew when to suggest when to step back into the shadows. So many celebrities flitted around Balanchine. They all wanted to see him, to touch him, to know him. He knew his boss might warm to his idea of staging a party — a chance to be in control of others, to manage them, to manipulate them on his own terms.
It was not that Balanchine was a superficial, petty man. But he did love a good gossip, the same as anyone. And a trifling diversion now seemed more than appropriate to take his mind off Tanny. And to free up his spirit for the creative juices that would be needed for the coming season.
He knew the idea was being seriously considered when Balanchine answered pensively in Russian, “Mojet Byeech.” – “Perhaps.”
A start to a memorable evening. One like no other.
Rene knew Balanchine would arrange his guests at the table as if he were a woman preparing a ball. There would be his hand-dried Baccarat glasses for sipping his favorite dry white Burgundy, Chateau de Puligny-Montrachet. And the menu, ah, the menu!
The busy impresario absent-mindedly clinked the melting ice in his glass as he mulled over Rene’s suggestion. Invitations would be lovingly engraved. The guest list would be designed to provide an evening of enchanting conversation and perhaps a little drama. He was, after all, Russian. Nothing less could be expected of such a man.
As Rene brought Mr. B. another iced vodka, he noticed him already studying a desk calendar. One day, Friday, June 20, was circled. Above the date floated a small drawing of a champagne glass.
Good, thought Rene, as he moved into the kitchen to warm the Eggplant a la Russe Mr. B., an avid cook, prepared earlier.
Already he could feel the mood lightening. Perhaps things could be put right. Music and laughter would fill the apartment again. To be sure, no summer party would make a difference in Tanny’s health. But a memorable evening might provide temporary solace to her husband, the great man of American ballet.
Through the open door, Rene could hear Mr. B. begin to laugh. Rene knew the mystery guest’s identity. What he did not yet know were the names of the other guests being selected to amuse that important person.
Obviously, the mere thought of who might attend his Manhattan summer party already was providing the ballet master with much-needed relief. Rene silently congratulated himself and reached for his own vodka. Mr. B. was fortunate to have such a man in his service, he thought, not for the first time.
A fellow Russian, a man of many talents, Rene Deriabin.
Lead Image: Ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq – screenshot from the embedded video
This article is a work of fiction based on the real lives of George Balanchine and Tanaquil Le Clercq, however the narrative elements are the creation of the writer in homage to the ballet.