David Blackburn (1937–2013)

July 14, 2013

David Blackburn as Dr. Coppelius, Roman Jasinski, Jr. as Franz, in Frederic Franklin’s staging of
Coppelia, Act II. Photo: Sandy Underwood, courtesy Archives and Rare Books Library, University of Cincinnati.


A former principal dancer with Cincinnati Ballet, David Blackburn played an integral role in expanding the company from civic to professional status, and developing the University of Cincinnati dance program from which the company grew. Together with American dance pioneer David McLain, they established both entities as permanent �xtures on Cincinnatiʼs cultural map with rigor, care, and informed passion. Blackburnʼs exuberant personality brought a welcome light-heartedness to a serious undertaking. He died of cancer on June 15.

At 6’ 1”, Blackburn was handsome, strong, and a good partner. But a late start in training put him at a disadvantage in classical parts. His forté became character roles like Dr. Coppelius, a role in which Frederic Franklin closely directed him. Donna Grisez, one of Cincinnati Balletʼs ï¬�rst Swanildas, said of his performance “He really became that character on the stage and helped me become mine.”

In a 1981 interview with this writer, Blackburn described his all-consuming emotional investment in preparing a character part. “You’re like the child who plays pretend…you have to pull up your imagination and believe in that way. But it must never get out of hand. If you personally have an emotional catharsis onstage, you can be sure it’s the worst performance you ever gave.”


 In a
Nutcracker rehearsal. Photo: by Bob Free, courtesy Archives and Rare Books Library, University of Cincinnati. 

In the companyʼs early years, Blackburn was coached by Roman Jasinski and Moscelyne Larkin. He also gave commanding performances in searing Lester Horton modern dance works restaged by James Truitte, his faculty colleague at the university’s College-Conservatory of Music.

Raised in the small farming town of Dundee, Michigan, Blackburn became enchanted by a performance of the New York City Ballet while on a short break from the University of Michigan School of Music, where he was a piano major in the late 1950s. He left college to study ballet with Sandra Severo in Detroit while he earned a bachelorʼs degree in Speech and Theater from Wayne State University. He later performed with the Dayton Civic Ballet and the Cincinnati Civic Ballet. In 1968 he was among the ï¬�rst recipients of an M.A. in Dance from the University of Cincinnati. He became Cincinnati Ballet’s assistant artistic director in 1970, and seven years later became the company’s first associate artistic director.

As a teacher, Blackburn’s sense of fun made him easily approachable. Regretful about his own start at age 19, he wanted to impart ballet’s correct positions and steps at the ideal time in youngsters’ lives. According to Jane Green, his ï¬�rst Cincinnati dancing partner, he taught strictly, but with imagery and small expressions of humor to which the students could relate.

He steered the most talented pupils towards his colleagues’ classes at the University and beyond. Among them were Patrick Hinson, who went on to join the New York City Ballet; and Sarah Jessica Parker (click here to learn about her new reality web series with NYCB) whose career began as an adorable Nutcracker party child. (Her brother, actor Toby Parker, danced Fritz). Parker expressed her gratitude to Blackburn in an essay in Marlo Thomas’ 2004 book, The Right Words at the Right Time. Apparently she and Toby Parker were the last people to speak with Blackburn on the telephone two days before his death.

Blackburn was predeceased nearly 30 years ago by McLain, his partner of many years. A memorial gathering for friends will take place in Cincinnati on July 20, 2013. A public memorial is scheduled for 6:30 P.M. at Patricia Corbett Theater at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. (Contact e-mail is [email protected].) —Janet Light


Songs of Silence,
 choreographed by David McLain for Cincinnati Civic Ballet, with David Blackburn and guest soloist Cora Cahan, principal dancer with the Norman Walker Dance Company and guest faculty member at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, 1967-68. Choreographed by David McLain as part of the dedication of Corbett Auditorium and Mary Emery Hall, which housed the ï¬�rst dance studio at the UC College-Conservatory of Music. Photo: C
ourtesy Archives and Rare Books Library, University of Cincinnati.