Violette Verdy, Distinguished Professor of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, died Monday, Feb. 8, in Bloomington, Indiana, at the age of 82.
She had been on the ballet faculty since 1996 and was elevated to distinguished professor in 2005. Verdy was a leading ballerina of the 20th century, principal dancer for New York City Ballet for 20 years and former artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet and Boston Ballet.
In presenting Verdy with the President’s Medal for Excellence, IU President Michael A. McRobbie said, “Violette is one of the greatest ballerinas from an era of great dancers and choreographers, and she is an Indiana University treasure. Her remarkable achievements as a dancer and choreographer have garnered her international acclaim and several of the highest honors in her field, and she is equally renowned for her dedication to training future generations of dancers, including many who have launched successful careers”.
“Violette was not just a wonderful person, with a wicked sense of humor, she had been a truly remarkable principal dancer, especially with New York City Ballet,” said Michael Vernon. “For us here at the Ballet Department at the Jacobs School of Music, the most important contribution she made was with her incredible teaching. She served as a beacon of information for our dancers, not just for the Balanchine ballets that had been created for her, but all of his repertoire, as well as for all of the classical repertoire that she had intimate knowledge of. The generosity in her coaching illuminated all our performances. She will be missed.”
Verdy was born on Dec. 1, 1933, in the working-class seacoast town of Pont-l’Abbe in northwest France and christened Nelly Armande Guillerm by her parents. She changed her name to Violette Verdy at age 15.
She was raised by her strict single mother after her father died when she was an infant. She was a very active child, and a doctor once advised her mother to “tire her out harmoniously,” which prompted her mother to steer her toward ballet from the age of 6.
In 1942, with Pont-l’Abbe occupied by the Nazis, she moved with her mother to Paris, where she began her ballet training under the tutelage of Carlotta Zambelli and later with Rousanne Sarkissian (Mme. Rousanne) and Victor Gsovsky.
After rumors of an allied invasion and the city becoming a battleground, Jeanne Guillerm moved her daughter back to Pont-l’Abbe in 1944. At the end of the summer, after the city was liberated, they returned to Paris, and Nelly resumed her training.
Her first engagement, in 1945, was with Roland Petit Ballets des Champs-Elysees, later called Ballets de Paris, with which she toured the United States for the first time in 1953, as Violette Verdy.
In 1954, she accepted an invitation from the London Festival Ballet to join the company for a season in London and an American tour. After her return to Europe, she danced the full-length “Cinderella” and “Romeo and Juliet” as guest ballerina with Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. She was asked to join American Ballet Theatre in 1957. There, she premiered the title role in Birgit Culberg’s “Miss Julie” as well as many other roles.
Upon invitation of George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, Verdy joined New York City Ballet in 1958. She danced more than 25 principal roles in a performance career that extended through 1977.
Verdy performed with over 50 companies on such stages as the Paris Opera, La Scala, Bolshoi Theatre, Mariinsky Theatre, Metropolitan Opera, Convent Garden, David H. Koch Theater and the White House (by invitation of President Gerald Ford). She was a principal dancer with Ballets des Champs-Elysées and Ballets de Paris (1945-56), London Festival Ballet (1954-55), Ballet Rambert (1957), American Ballet Theatre (1957-58) and New York City Ballet (1958-77).
She performed in over 100 different ballets with works by more than 50 choreographers, including those of the classical canon: “Giselle,” “Swan Lake,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Les Sylphides,” “Don Quixote,” “La Sylphide,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Cinderella” and “Coppélia.” Ballets created especially for Verdy include Roland Petit’s “Le Loup”; George Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” “Jewels,” “La Source,” “Sonatine,” “Liebeslieder Walzer,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Episodes,” “The Figure in the Carpet,” “Electronics,” “Glinkiana” and “Choral Variations on Bach’s ‘Vom Himmel Hoch'”; Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering,” “In the Night” and “A Beethoven Pas de Deux”; and Balanchine/Robbins’ “Pulcinella.”
Verdy worked as a teacher and coach with over 150 professional companies and schools worldwide and visited many more around the United States when she served as a scout for the Ford Foundation and The School of American Ballet. She served as principal guest teacher to The School of American Ballet, New York City, and as artistic advisor to the Académie Américaine de Danse de Paris. She was invited to teach at the Paris Opera Ballet for the past several summers.
Verdy had many firsts to her credit, including the first woman to be artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet (1977-80), the first non-Russian woman to be invited to teach at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow since the Russian Revolution of 1917 (2004, 2005) and the first to hold a university faculty chair position solely for ballet.
She appeared on stage and film, and she was featured on British, French, Canadian and American television. Appearances include the title role in Ludwig Berger’s film “Ballerina” (1950) and Jacqueline Audry’s film “Olivia” (1951); Montherlant’s play “Malatesta” with Jean-Louis Barrault (1950); MGM’s film “The Glass Slipper” (1955); NBC’s “Bell Telephone Hour,” “Dinah Shore Show” and “The Mike Douglas Show”; CBS’ “Carol Burnett Show”; CBC’s “The Still Point” and “The Nutcracker” (by Neumeier); BBC’s “Music for You” and “Turned Out Proud”; PBS’ tribute to George Balanchine, “Dance in America,” and American Masters’ “Jerome Robbins — Something to Dance About”; Dominique Delouche’s “Comme les Oiseaux” (2009) and “Balanchine in Paris” (2011); and the documentary “Budding Stars of the Paris Opera Ballet” (2013).
Verdy was a published author of children’s literature, including “Of Swans, Sugarplums and Satin Slippers: Ballet Stories for Children” (1991) and “Giselle: A Role for a Lifetime” (1970). She has been the subject of two biographies: “Ballerina: A Biography of Violette Verdy” by Victoria Huckenpahler (1978) and “Violette Verdy” by Dominique Delouche and Florence Poudru (2008); and of three documentaries: Rebecca Eaton’s “Violette: A Life in Dance” (1982), Dominique Delouche’s “Violette & Mr. B” (2001) and the VAI documentary “Violette Verdy: The Artist Teacher at Chautauqua Institution” (2009). She was on the cover of the March 16, 1959, edition of Life magazine.
Verdy was the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions. Most notably, she was awarded two medals from the French Government: the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1971 and Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’honneur in 2009. She holds honorary doctorates from Goucher College, Boston Conservatory and Skidmore College. In 1992, her hometown of Pont-l’Abbé, France, named its new theater auditorium in her honor. In 2000, she was the recipient of Chautauqua Institution’s Kay Logan Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 2001, she was awarded the Gala XV Women of Distinction Award from Birmingham-Southern College and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from CORPS de Ballet International. In 2003, The School of American Ballet awarded her its Artistic Achievements Award, and in 2007, she received the Ballet2000 Irène Lidova Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2009, The School of American Ballet honored Verdy with the Mae L. Wien Faculty Award for Distinguished Service, and in 2011, she received the Jerome Robbins Award.
The Japanese call them “living treasures.” They are those artists and artisans “who embody the traditions of the past and pass them along to new generations of apprentices,” says Eugene O’Brien, executive associate dean of the Indiana University School of Music.
Violette Verdy is one of the premier ballet dancers of the twentieth century and has dedicated her post-performance life to training future generations of dancers. Her remarkable achievements as a dancer, teacher, and administrator in several of the world’s foremost dance companies and ballet schools have garnered her international acclaim.
“Violette is truly a ‘living treasure,’ one of the greatest ballerinas from an era of great dancers and choreographers whose teaching now transmits her skill, her art, and her impeccable style to new generations of young dancers,” says School of Music Dean Gwyn Richards.
Sonatine was the last ballet Balanchine made for Verdy before she retired, in 1977. She was 43 and had already suffered for years from various dance-related injuries. By then, Verdy had been dancing for all but nine years of her life. She was born Nelly Guillerm, in 1933, in the small medieval town of Pont-l’Abbé in Brittany, the only child of a shopkeeper (father) and a schoolteacher (mother). When her father died of kidney failure, only a few months after her birth, Nelly’s education was taken in hand by her capable and protective mother, Jeanne, who soon decided that the child’s highly strung, sensitive nature should be channeled into an edifying activity: ballet. With this in mind, she packed their bags and moved them to Paris. It was 1942, the middle of the Occupation.
Because the Paris Opera Conservatory of Dance was not taking auditions, Madame Guillerm was directed to Carlotta Zambelli, an Italian-born former opera star who now ran a private studio. (Verdy’s early training is vividly evoked in Victoria Huckenpahler’s 1978 biography, Ballerina.) Through the grapevine of ballet mothers, she heard of Rousanne Sarkissian, an Armenian teacher with Russian training. Young Nelly acquired different skills from each: strength and technique from Zambelli, an almost religious devotion to the art from Sarkissian. “She had a great spiritual dimension,” Verdy told me recently, “so from the start, I had a vision of ballet as a high activity.” It was a vision that would guide her through her dancing career and on into her work as a company director and teacher.
In her early teens, Nelly began to tour with Roland Petit’s Ballets des Champs-Elysées and later with his Ballets de Paris, dancing small roles at first, then the leads. She was the loving young bride in Petit’s Le Loup (a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast”) and the sexy, doomed gypsy in his adaptation of Carmen. One of her companions on these tours was Leslie Caron, who would go on to star in An American in Paris and Gigi. (“I felt rather bland next to her,” Verdy said.) The dancer’s theatrical flair, adaptability, and unmannered classical technique led to a starring role in a film, Ludwig Berger’s Ballerina, as well as stints with the London Festival Ballet and Ballet Rambert and, eventually, in 1957, to an invitation from American Ballet Theatre in New York. By then, she had become Violette Verdy, a name that, to her ear, sounded more sophisticated than Nelly Guillerm. It was in New York, at a performance of Birgit Cullberg’s Miss Julie, that Balanchine noticed her. When ABT briefly shut down operations—it was always disbanding and getting back together in those days—the choreographer asked her to join his company, New York City Ballet.
The offer came as something of a surprise. Balanchine was known for his love of tall, leggy, and fearless American dancers whom he had trained in his own, more dynamic, streamlined technique. They were cool and didn’t overlay the steps with their own personalities. He preferred to let the steps speak for themselves. With the exception of her fearlessness, Verdy did not embody this type at all. “I was more of a French poodle than a borzoi,” she likes to say. Her technique was Old World, her stage personality strong. She liked to flavor the steps. And yet, Balanchine wanted her. As she explained in the oral biography I Remember Balanchine, he “may have wanted to work with me because of a certain clarity in the articulation of the feet and legs”— a characteristic of the European school in which she had trained—“some sort of eloquence, a pronunciation of the dancing. Something to be joyous with…. What he had to do was to tone me down a little bit. I had a little too much garlic. He had to keep me quiet and busy.”
A dancer with a superior musicality plays against the music, bending it to her own wishes.
To keep Verdy occupied, Balanchine made witty, joyous ballets for her to dance, like the buoyant Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, La Source, and, of course, Sonatine. Often, but not always, they were set to French music. They seemed to reflect her temperament and her past. Of La Source, a sparkling, hyperfeminine work that took as its inspiration the ballet music of Léo Delibes, Verdy told her biographer that it was like a “transfusion out of my own blood.” Balanchine also cast her in other ballets, works that relied on charm, esprit, and brilliant technique, like Donizetti Variations, Allegro Brillante, and Stars and Stripes. To all, she brought her own particular accent, at times even daring to add her own twist to the choreography. Huckenpahler recounts that at a performance of Donizetti—a frolic set to infectious melodies by the bel canto composer—Verdy peppered a series of turns with little hops, like popping champagne bubbles. As she came offstage, Balanchine, who stood in the wings at every performance, bowed semi-seriously and commented: “Spécialité de la maison!” To which she responded, without batting an eye: “Plat du chef.” This kind of tac au tac was anything but typical in the company.
Balanchine and his fellow choreographer at New York City Ballet, Jerome Robbins, quickly realized there was more to Verdy than sparkle. Both created roles for her that called for introspection, complex emotions, and the ability to suggest layers of buried subtext in the steps. In his 1969 Dances at a Gathering, set to Chopin piano pieces, Robbins cast her as a woman in green who appears halfway through the ballet, an isolated figure who dances for her own pleasure, giving herself airs, reveling in her own charms, perhaps remembering past conquests. With small pauses, sudden changes of emphasis, flashing glances, and alternating staccato and legato movements, Verdy was able to evoke a wide range of emotions, both real and affected: insouciance, self-importance, vulnerability, an underlying loneliness. The woman in green became a multidimensional character, despite appearing onstage for only a few minutes. Verdy was particularly skilled at navigating the fine line between sincerity and affectation. During a coaching session captured in the film Violette and Mr. B, she explains the difference between two moments in a pas de deux from Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer. “Pretend to be submissive here,” she says to the Spanish dancer Lucia Lacarra. “But, you know, I think the second swoon is for real. Like something out of Max Ophuls’s [The Earrings of] Madame de….”
How should a dancer show such things, without words? In part, by using the music. But then, not all dancers are particularly musical. They are trained to listen and count and follow certain cues, to start with the first note of a phrase and end with the last, but this is a superficial definition of musicality. A musical dancer helps you to see and feel the music in your own body; a dancer with a superior musicality goes even further, playing against the music, entering into a conversation with it, bending it to her own wishes. This is the kind of dancer Verdy was. Such musicality is innate. Verdy already had it as a child; when she heard music on the piano, “I just had to participate, I had to do something about it,” she told an interviewer. Having studied piano and violin, she had a grasp of the structures that underpin music: rhythm, the mood evoked by certain tonalities, the workings of counterpoint, the excitement of syncopation. And she understood phrasing, the changes in topography that give music its character. “It’s like speaking. If you’re going to emphasize a certain thing, then you can slide over something else. Phrasing is a recognition of the values of talking, of thinking; it’s an evaluation, an itinerary.”
Ballerina: A biography of Violette Verdy (The Dance program), 1978 by Victoria Huckenpahler (Author)
Series: The Dance program
Hardcover: 244 pages
Publisher: Audience Arts (1978)
Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.6 x 1.1 inches
libros Ballerina: A biography of Violette Verdy by Victoria Huckenpahler
Ballerina: A biography of Violette Verdy (The Dance program) Hardcover – 1978 by Victoria Huckenpahler (Author).