Remembrance of Truman Finney by John Neumeier
I knew Truman Finney probably longer than any one else in the dance profession. He was 16, I believe, when we met at the Stone-Camryn School of Ballet in Chicago. He came from Quincy, I commuted from Milwaukee. We took ballet and character dance classes together, rehearsed for school performances, and became friends, sharing serious ambitions, a sense of vocation, and a deep commitment to dance.
We both had scholarships for which we had to work. At the beginning, I was a little envious of Truman—not as a dancer, but because, in return for his scholarship, he only had to answer the telephone at the front desk, while for mine, I had to scrub the studio floors every Thursday night! But there was no real conflict between us as we soon discovered a similar, enormous sense of humor we shared then and that stayed with us until the end.
We parted ways: Truman went to New York and the School of American Ballet, while I finished my dance education at the Royal Ballet School in London. Later he joined the New York City Ballet while I went to Stuttgart to join the company there. We kept in contact. During a vacation we met shortly in Venice where I saw him performing with his company, and where we rode a vaparetto and exchanged news about our work.
Our paths crossed again when he left America to join the Stuttgart Ballet. It was there that our friendship deepened. We danced Cranko’s repertoire together—and the laughter continued. During rehearsal one day, Truman asked me (as we were both bored rehearsing “monsters” in John Cranko’s version of Firebird), why I had not choreographed since leaving America. He knew and admired the work I’d done with Sybil Shearer’s Company in Northbrook and Father John Walsh at Marquette University. Almost immediately our friendship became more than just repertoire performances and humor shared, as we, together with the third member of our “special group” Marianne Kruuse, began work on new creations. Truman was essential to every one of my Stuttgart ballets. Any choreographer knows how important a special group of intense “believers” can be as he struggles with his early creations. Truman and Marianne “believed”—their commitment made them my first and perhaps most important inspirations. Those characters in my first ballets and their descendants in many later works are based on Marianne’s humanity and Truman’s physicality. Their belief, hard work and unquestioning loyalty helped me to create the ballet Haiku, which was the turning point and start of my choreographic career in Europe. Working together deepened our friendship as Marianne, Truman and I became an inseparable group of company outsiders, revolutionaries with a profound conviction in our own, unique, and very special point of view towards dance. Defending our new artistic credo, Truman, as always, knew no compromise!
Already then I was conceiving my Romeo and Juliet, and we together were imagining our own ballet company. But, in spite of work and dreams we continued to laugh a lot—unforgettable, the snowy winter night after dinner and quite a bit of wine at the Serbian restaurant “Oberseck” when all three of us fell into deep snow in the middle of the street, lying back, waving arms and legs making “angels” in fits of laughter.
But, my story with Truman has always been one of an intense coming together and sudden parting. Truman left Stuttgart to become principal dancer in Cologne and I was very soon invited to be ballet director in Frankfurt, Germany. However, after signing my contract, my first telephone call was to Truman, asking if he would join “my company” as principal dancer for the coming season. Marianne, Truman and I, together with Max Midinet and Persephone Samaropoulo, were united again in Frankfurt. With these friends and eager artists, now including Beatrice Cordua and the ballet master Ray Barra, I worked seven days a week creating signature works, which are still a part of our and many other companies’ repertoire today. Truman was Romeo. Truman was Daphnis. Truman was sensational—possessed with a never again achieved physicality and intensity—as the leading male dancer in Le Sacre.
When the invitation came to become ballet director in Hamburg, it was clear Truman would come with me as first dancer. But after a few years—as so often in our story—Truman decided to leave again, this time returning to the United States. Years later, I began hearing stories about the wonderful teacher, coach, mentor, and ballet master he had become. I was curious, invited him back to Hamburg and experienced then another even stronger aspect of my old friend who had become a marvelous, subtle and uniquely personal teacher. His work as ballet master during these years most certainly was responsible for a physical poetry, articulation and musicality that has become a hallmark of the Hamburg Ballet. For the development of our school, moving into the newly remodelled space of the Hamburg “Ballettzentrum”, Truman was the designated pedagogical director. The plan seemed perfect. The company we dreamed about long ago together in Stuttgart was developing successfully, and in the unique concept of the Ballet Centre, school and company would be united under a single roof. Truman would determine the pedagogical direction for students, preparing them to enter our Company. But just at this moment, it was Truman’s time to move again. This was a difficult parting.
During the following years I heard nothing from Truman but very much about him. Wonderful, glowing stories of how he continued to grow and develop as a fine, special and sought after teacher—a kind of “guru” to some of the biggest stars and most important schools and companies in America. We met again many years later when he became Nikolaj Hübbe’s ballet master in Copenhagen. So much time had passed, but it seemed like the beginning again. We had so much to say to each other—so much to laugh about. In his love of dance, he was 16 again, on fire with determination to shape and inspire the students and dancers of the Royal Danish Ballet. One of the last times we met was during a rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Theatre, watching a young dancer rehearse the role he had created in 1971. Then, Truman left Copenhagen.
On the 6th of June 2012, I was in Chicago. Leaving the Harris Theatre, where the Hamburg Ballet is scheduled to perform during the coming year, I started to walk along Madison Street, where our ballet school—Stone and Camryn—once stood. Feeling nostalgic on that sunny day, Truman was very much with me as I remembered our beginnings there together. When I returned to my hotel, there was a message from Nikolaj Hübbe telling me of Truman’s serious illness. I tried unsuccessfully to call him…
In the early hours of Saturday the 9th of June 2012 Truman Finney passed away.
artistic director, Hamburg Ballet