A soloist with New York City Ballet in the 1960s and ’70s, Marnee Morris died of complications of pneumonia last May. She was a favorite of Balanchine’s and shined in roles she created in his ballets.
“She was exactly like you’d imagine an Adirondack mountain stream: clear, pure, innocent, and cascading,” said Jacques d’Amboise recently. Talking about the part she created in Who Cares?, he said, “In one variation of pirouettes she’d be spinning this way and that. Balanchine used to chuckle watching her and say, ‘You see Jacques, she is my spinning top.’ ”
Morris was born in Schenectady. She came to the School of American Ballet in 1959 at the age of 13, and two years later was hired by NYCB. She was soon promoted to soloist and created lead roles in seven Balanchine ballets.
Robert Weiss, director of Carolina Ballet, who joined NYCB shortly after Morris, recalls, “She had a unique way of moving. She was fantastic in the third act of Don Q. Marnee’s solo variation was quirky and wild and no one else could do it. It was a fast, jazzy, weird, contrapuntal variation.”
It was while making this variation for Morris that Balanchine, as remembered by Heather Watts, made up a song about her whose lyrics were simply “Marnee, Marnee, Marnee.” Watts goes on to say, “I was in awe of her natural turning ability, and as one of the early people to take on her turning role in Who Cares?—“My One and Only”—I can assure you it was not a replicable model. Her fouettés were not only consecutive triples and more, but so stylish and personal that we could only attempt to follow in her spinning and sweet way.”
Balanchine choreographed the third principal couple in Symphony in Three Movements for Weiss and Morris. About partnering her, Weiss said, “She was very dynamic and technically secure, so it was easy to dance with her. She had a very staccato, wonderful sense of rhythm.”
Another partner was John Clifford, who choreographed his first ballet for Morris at NYCB. “She was a Balanchine favorite and a terrific dancer,” he says. “No one has matched her in her original roles in Who Cares? and Symphony in Three Movements. Her Sanguinic in The Four Temperaments was the best ever. Mr. B really did love her. After Suzanne Farrell left, he cast Marnee in several of her roles.”
“There are several good videos of her,” Clifford added, “and one with her opposite Farrell in Concerto Barocco shows her unique technique (the best in the company in those days) and leggy glamour. She would have been a principal dancer but she didn’t have the killer instinct that a ballerina must have.”
In 1975–76 she danced with Clifford’s Los Angeles Ballet, where she performed his Firebird, as well as in Balanchine’s Allegro Brilliante, Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, and Raymonda Variations.
Dr. Linda Hamilton knew Morris while both were dancing at NYCB. “She seemed increasingly like a lost soul after leaving the highly structured world of NYCB,” says Hamilton. When Morris’ son, Ted Schmidt, was born in 1977, she went into postpartum depression. Eventually Morris moved to South Dakota, where she was living in a halfway house. According to Schmidt, she later tried to teach dance classes locally but they didn’t last long. In 1990 she was diagnosed as HIV-positive.
Her former partners remember her with great affection. “Marnee was pure and beautiful, and full of energy,” said d’Amboise, who is planning to make a tribute ballet to her for the inauguration of the new building for National Dance Institute on Oct. 21, 2011. “She’d smile and everything would light up. She was always positive, wide-eyed, as if every experience she was going through was her first.”
Robert Weiss concluded, “Her contribution to the company was quite large. She was an important part of Balanchine’s creative process.”
Clifford said, “Marnee was one of the most innocent and good-natured people I have ever known. She was famous for her sweetness, and no one could ever say a negative thing about her. A tragic loss.” —Wendy Perron
Marnee Morris with Balanchine at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in the 1960s. Photo courtesy NYCB.