We Will Miss You, Violette Verdy
A photo of Violette Verdy from the Dance Magazine archives
Violette Verdy didn't just love dance. She loved dancers. And she dedicated her life to both. When she died yesterday at age 82, the ballet world lost one of its classiest, most graceful souls.
After training in her native France, Verdy first performed with Roland Petit Ballets des Champs-Elysees in 1945. She spent a season with the London Festival Ballet and guested with La Scala, then came to the U.S. to join American Ballet Theatre in 1957. George Balanchine wooed her away just a year later when ABT temporarily disbanded, and she became a beloved principal at New York City Ballet for the next 20 years. She was shorter, danced with a more old-world style and put more of her personality into her movement than most of his stars. Yet she became Balanchine's French muse. He created several iconic roles for her, including Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, "Emeralds" from Jewels, La Source and Liebeslieder Walzer. Jerome Robbins also made Dances at a Gathering and In the Night on her. She was lyrical yet sprightly, and knew how to draw out a note until its very last moment. As Balanchine put it, she spoke with her feet. But more than anything, audiences fell for her natural charm. Simply put, she sparkled onstage.
Anyone who met her knew she was just as charming offstage. After retiring in 1977, Verdy became the first female artistic director of Paris Opéra Ballet, then artistic director of Boston Ballet. But she might have been most renowned as a teacher and coach at the School of American Ballet, Indiana University and around the world. She was incredibly generous, giving her insights on the nuances of technique and Balanchine's intentions. As writer Marina Harss wrote in a beautiful profile of Verdy in The Nation last summer, "Hers is an irrepressible friendliness." She delivered her notes with passion, intelligence and a wicked sense of humor, teaching dancers how to find deeper layers of ballet, while always encouraging their talent.
Though she was married briefly, and is survived by a few family members in France, she told Harss that ballet was her biggest love. And boy did it love her back. There's been an outpouring for her on social media since last night. Wendy Whelan wrote on Facebook this morning, "I could listen to and watch Violette Verdy coach and dance and just plain 'be' in these amazing video tribute postings for weeks on end... Missing more than ever that incredible soul, wit, passion, intellect, integrity and that sparkling generous light of hers!" Indiana University dancers are sharing their memories of her here. Pennsylvania Ballet principal (and IU grad) Lauren Fadeley wrote, "Such a selfless person, she always wanted you to be you and to just enjoy the gift of dance. The last time I saw Violette a few years ago, she gave me her book as a gift and said I was a ballerina now; something I could never have achieved without her." Verdy was such an incredible influence as both a dancer and a teacher, it's possible that ballet itself wouldn't have achieved what it has without her.
More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:
"Is your daughter the dancer?"
"Actually," I say, "I am."
"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"
"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."
Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.
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