Lois Ellyn, ballet dancer, choreographer, teacher and founder and artistic director of Nouveau Chamber Ballet in Fullerton, California, died on Saturday, August 28, 2021, just a few weeks after directing the ballet production A Little Night Dancing, at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton.
Ellyn was born Lois Margaret Ellen Smith on June 19, 1924, to Edith Baldwin Smith and Thomas K.M. Smith, in Anaheim, California. Lois Ellyn's father was a supervisor for Pacific Lighting & Standards Co., and her mother, Edith Baldwin Smith, came from the Hawaii Baldwin family. Lois had an older brother, Thomas, born in 1922.
Ellyn's passion for ballet began at age 11, when she saw the Ballets Russes perform in Los Angeles. "That did it," she said in an interview with The Orange County Register in 2014. "It was just so glamorous...the whole experience." Her first lessons took place at the home of Mrs. Martin (of the Richard-Martin studio in Anaheim), where, in Ellyn's words, she "danced on carpet in a living room." By the time she was a teenager, Ellyn's parents were driving her the long miles into Los Angeles to the studio of Rozelle Frey. She also studied with Carmelita Maracci, and at the Lichine Ballet School.
After high school graduation, Ellyn turned down a scholarship to the University of Southern California for classical piano in order to pursue a career in ballet. Her first opportunity came with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in 1945, touring the U.S. and South America. She then joined Mia Slavenska's Ballet Variante in 1947. She partnered with Joey Harris, with whom she would later form a ballet company.
Slavenska and Frederic Franklin then formed the Slavenska-Franklin Ballet, touring as Stars of the Ballet Russe, with prima ballerina Alexandra Danilova as a guest artist. Ellyn joined them on tour, receiving critical acclaim for her role as Stella in a ballet adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, choreographed by Valerie Bettis.
Reflecting on that ballet a few weeks before she passed away, she said that the deciding factor in her earning the lead role was the way she threw Stanley's jacket during the audition. "All those years doing tendus and working on my technique, and what got me the part was my acting," she recalled with a small chuckle.
"My dear, you were lovely," Ellyn remembers Tennessee Williams had told her when he visited her dressing room on opening night.
During the 1948 season, Ellyn accepted an offer to join the brand-new New York City Ballet under the direction of George Balanchine. When Balanchine phoned her to offer her a job, saying, "I hear you're pretty good," she told him frankly, "Yes, I guess I am." She moved to New York City and danced for NYCB for two years, where she also received instruction from Bronislava Nijinska as well as Vincenzo Celli, renowned master teacher of the Cecchetti method.
Her teaching career began in 1956 when she opened her own studio in Anaheim, while her father built a permanent home for her dance school in Fullerton. The new Lois Ellyn Studio featured a sprung-wood ballet floor measuring 60 by 40 feet, larger than many theater stages in Orange County at the time.
She continued to teach at her studio while dancing as a guest artist across California for many ballet companies, including City Ballet of Los Angeles, Pacific Ballet Theatre, Ballet Pacifica and American Ballet Theatre. She was also a resident guest artist for the Pasadena Playhouse.
Ellyn was a principal dancer for Wenta Ballet Company and danced in almost all of the original Stefan Wenta works with Los Angeles Ballet and then Wenta Ballet.
It was during this same time period that she and her former dance partner, Joey Harris, formed the Ellyn-Harris Concert Ballet, which was followed by Joey Harris' The Group in 1971. At the same time that she was dancing guest artist roles, Ellyn produced shows with the Lois Ellyn Ballet & Youth Ballet from 1972 through 1988.
In 1988, Ellyn founded her own company, the Nouveau Chamber Ballet, with her own Lois Ellyn Ballet Studio as the adjunct school. She staged a full-length Balanchine version of The Nutcracker each year, and amassed a repertoire of her own choreographic works, including Appalachian Spring, Picasso, The Tale of the Little Grey Horse and Colors. Her last new work, The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks, premiered in 2017, choreographed to original music composed and conducted by Kimo Furumoto of the Rio Hondo Symphony Orchestra and the California State University, Fullerton, Orchestra.
Hundreds of students of ballet passed through her studio and performed in her company over the years, many moving on to professional careers in dance. Her students remember her wit, her humorous stories of life on tour and on stages around the world, and her deep knowledge and careful instruction in classical ballet.
Nouveau Chamber Ballet will continue under the guidance of Sheree King, one of Ellyn's students and dancers. The Lois Ellyn Dance Studio will continue to train young dancers in the traditions and technique of classical ballet.
Nouveau Chamber Ballet will present a memorial tribute production, Lois Ellyn—A Celebration of a Life in Ballet on Tuesday, October 12, at 7:30 pm, at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton. Those who would like to support the company and studio, and to help to honor the memory of Miss Lois Ellyn, may contact the studio for tickets at 714.526.3862, or visit the company's website at nouveauchamberballet.com to order tickets online or to make a donation in lieu of attending.