BY LINDA HULL
Rotary Club of Los Alamos
Author Orel Protopopescu spoke via Zoom from her home in New York on January 11th about her most recent book, Dancing Past the Light: The Life of Tanaquil Le Clercq, a biography of one of the most highly acclaimed principal dancers of the New York City Ballet (NYCB) who reached this pinnacle in 1948 at the age of 19. Le Clercq’s is a story that connects the dance world with Rotary International in a most unexpected way.
Born in France in 1929, Le Clercq is shown in a family photo as “up on her toes,” as Protopopescu described, before her first birthday. By the time she was 11 years old, she had received a scholarship to study with George Balanchine, considered the greatest choreographer of the 20th century. His fourth wife, she would marry him in 1952 at the age of 23; Balanchine was 48. With her “power and lightness,” slender build and long legs, she was the “prototype of the Balanchine ballerina,” Protopopescu remarked.
In 1956, before flying to Europe to perform on tour with the NYCB, Le Clercq declined to be vaccinated against polio while her fellow dancers stood in line for the inoculation. She stepped aside, concerned that she would fall ill from the vaccine, jeopardizing her essential role in the performances abroad. The vaccine had also recently received bad publicity after a tainted batch had made headlines.
It was a fateful decision. It is believed Le Clercq contracted the polio virus in Germany. Polio ended her career in Denmark less than a week later.
Le Clercq, a dancer at the peak of her career, was confined to an iron lung for several months in Denmark. She would never walk again; dancing was a shattered dream. After a decade of despair and challenge, years (she later admitted) of suicidal ideation, she became a beloved teacher, instructing ballet students with her “delicate hands and a gentle voice” while seated in a wheelchair. In addition to dance instruction, Le Clercq pursued interests in writing, photography and embroidery.
Over time her marriage to Balanchine failed. He stayed with her longer than any of his other wives, perhaps (in part) because he felt superstitiously responsible for her illness. Incredibly, in “Resurgence,” a 1944 ballet commissioned to benefit the March of Dimes, he had cast her in the role of a girl with polio; he danced the menacing part of the threat of polio. The couple divorced in 1969. Balanchine, however, left her the rights to more than eighty of his ballets, thereby providing a more than comfortable life for her until her death in 2000 from pneumonia.
Protopopescu continued, “Tanaquil never held bitterness toward those who could dance.” She was admired for her “great resilience” and the way in which “she lived in the moment.”
In addition to her indomitable spirit, Le Clercq is remembered for her signature role in Afternoon of a Faun, made for her by Jerome Robbins, the renowned choreographer, theater director/producer, and dancer. Her performance with Jacques d’Amboise was recorded by the CBC in 1955.
Although Protopopescu says she doesn’t “have a strong connection to dance” apart from being an ardent spectator, Le Clercq’s poignant story touched her and drew her closer to the art of ballet. Dancing Past the Light: The Life of Tanaquil Le Clercq is the first biography of Le Clercq and the first one Protopopescu has written. It began as a book for young adults, but grew into compelling reading for adults.
Protopopescu’s award-winning titles include A Thousand Peaks, Poems from China and A Word’s a Bird, a bilingual app for iPad. Protopopescu won the Oberon Poetry Prize in both 2010 and 2020.
A former storyteller and film producer, Protopopescu lives on Long Island with her husband, in the same house where they raised their two daughters. They have two grandchildren.
Dancing Past the Light: The Life of Tanaquil Le Clercq and some of Protopopescu’s other books are available through area bookstores and/or on Amazon. For more information about Protopopescu and her writing, please go to https://www.orelprotopopescu.com/
Since 1985, Rotary International has joined with other organizations worldwide to eradicate polio, or poliomyelitis, a highly infectious and disabling disease caused by the polio virus. The virus is spread person to person, typically through water contaminated with feces from an infected individual or through exposure to mucus when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The virus attacks the nervous system, often infecting the spinal cord, and can cause paralysis. Most commonly it affects children under the age of five. Although there is no cure, there is a safe and effective vaccine. To learn about Rotary International’s initiative to eradicate polio, please go to https://www.endpolio.org/
The Rotary Club of Los Alamos, through its Club Foundation, is a 501(c)3 non-profit and one of over 34,000 clubs worldwide. Rotary, which now has 1.5 million members, was founded in 1905; the local Club was chartered in 1966. Rotary areas of focus include promoting peace; fighting disease, particularly polio; providing clean water, sanitation, and hygiene; supporting education; saving and enhancing the lives of mothers and children; growing economies; and protecting the environment.
The Rotary Club of Los Alamos meets in person Tuesdays, 12:00-1:00, in the Community Room, Cottonwood on the Greens, at the golf course. A Zoom option is available by contacting Linda Hull, Rotary Club vice-president, 505-662-7950. Hull is also happy to provide information about the Club and its humanitarian service.