A ballet dancer’s view: what Tanaquil Le Clercq’s 1940s personal photographs can tell us about her self-image

Some of the most unexpected discoveries during the course of my research on Russian émigré ballet and the body c.1920-50 have been the personal photographs in dancers’ archives.  Personal photographs, unlike the widely publicised media images, which typically feature the dancer in costume and attempt to restage a ballet’s choreography, are the snap-shots taken by a dancer’s family and friends.  Within these latter images, it has been interesting to consider how far the dancer’s self-image, and possession of the learned fluid mannerisms acquired from ballet training, influenced her body image in unofficial snapshots.

The personal photographs of Tanaquil Le Clercq, an American dancer who became a protégé of the Russian émigré choreographer George Balanchine from 1940, when she won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet (SAB), reveal an experimental approach to body image and identity.  Le Clercq, who had long tapering legs, a feline profile, and a playful, instinctive sense of musicality, embodied Balanchine’s ideal of an American ballerina.

Three distinctive genres emerge in Le Clercq’s 1940s photographs, which are stored at  the Tanaquil Le Clercq Personal Archive at the New York City Ballet Archive in New York: the diligent American ballet student,  the metropolitan ballet dancer,  and the ingénue exploring her identity.

A series of Le Clercq in exuberant poses, reflective of a typical American dancer, were taken around 1945 by her mother Edith Le Clercq when the family were on vacation in Cape Cod. In one photograph, Le Clecq wears a long, full-skirted patterned dress with a white petticoat and executes a high arabesque on toe, with her arms extended wide at a diagonal. The discrepancy between her legs’ balletic stance and her free arms evoked the naturalist vitality and elevation that were common in official representations of American dancers in dance interest magazines. However in one image, the blurry thrust of a raised leg, and the downcast-eyed, parted-lipped expression of intense concentration, which are different from the dancers’ unmannered ease in media photographs, document more realistically the dancer at work. This unofficial image thus countered the critic Edwin Denby’s myth of American dancers as carefree ‘boys and girls in exuberant health who are doing pretty much what the charming animals do, and are as unconscious of their grace as they…’, with a portrayal of an ambitious dancer on a conscious mission of self-improvement.

A 1946-48 image of a pony-tailed Le Clercq in a black leotard was taken on the SAB’s Madison Avenue rooftop by her then boyfriend Job Saunders. Her weight is slightly forward, her knees are bent playfully and her head is tipped away and twisted to the side as she attempts to synchronise her trained body with the urban context of New York City. Here Le Clercq’s syncopated, sleek body posture reflects Balanchine’s own aesthetic in mid-1940s ballets such as The Four Temperaments (1946); however, her ballet-jazz improvisation on the ballet school’s roof also indicates an independent exploration of her physicality, both as a dancer and as a woman. Interestingly, the boundaries between dance-wear and everyday wear had become looser after 1943, when the New York sportswear designer Mildred Orrick introduced a leotard similar to Le Clercq’s, thus encouraging women to imbue a dancer’s sinuous mobility in their everyday body image. In light of ballet’s fashionability, Saunders’ image of Le Clercq on the roof, perhaps unconsciously, positioned her as a hyper-visible City style icon.

Fellow-dancer Patricia McBride’s 1944-5 photograph of a loose-haired Le Clercq, crouching in a black leotard and holding a round mirror that reflects her face, presents a more mysterious view of the dancer. The Polaroid frame, which crops Le Clercq’s body from both ends, provides a cloistered perspective, while the abundant wavy hair flowing down her back suggests a semi-erotic state of abandon and perhaps even evokes John Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). Significantly, the fashion photographer Richard Avedon adopted the figure of Alice in a February 1947 issue of Junior Bazaar, where a modern version of Carroll’s protagonist undertakes a journey of self-realisation through adopting new fashions. While Avedon’s commercial imagery lacks the intimacy of Le Clercq’s, collectively the images imply that the sense of ludic self-discovery represented by an Alice figure was relevant to women’s fluctuating sense of identity in the 1940s – a decade in which women had to adjust to men’s absence during the war years and their reinvigorated presence in peace-time. In Le Clercq’s case especially the mirror could recall the ballet studio ritual, but it is also a poetic device that alludes to an unseen dimension within the subject.  While McBride’s photograph in itself insufficiently explains the young dancers’ self-image, it implies that some aspects of identity were explored through fantasy in a girlish, coterie atmosphere. Interestingly, this dynamic mirrored that of the late 1940s Junior Bazaar photographer Lillian Bassman and her models, who would share their personal experiences and fantasies rather than engage in the camera seduction of photographic sittings dominated by male photographers. Additionally the sense of engaging with something that mattered to the sitter, evident in Mc Bride’s photograph, also applied to Bassman’s introspective soft focus images which portrayed women engaged in private reveries or rituals.

Although they vary in subject-matter and mood, collectively, Le Clercq’s personal photographs indicated that her sense of identity in the mid-1940s was plural and adolescent as she expressed Balanchine’s vision of the American ballerina alongside other more personal aspects of feminine identity. The parallels with contemporary fashion images in Le Clercq’s photographs position her within the collective of young American women who engaged with forming a public persona, whilst they simultaneously cultivated a personal self-image.


Denby, E. (1949) ‘Against Meaning in Ballet’, in Looking at the Dance, New York: Curtis Books.