George Balanchine and Tanaquil Le Clercq in Weston
by Barry Katz
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.
George Balanchine’s 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.”1
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.” 2
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 in tragedy.
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 wide eyes
and narrow like a lost forest of childhood stolen from gypsies
(click 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 died.
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 her comments.
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)