Samuel Kurkjian (1937–2013)

December 2, 2013

An undated photo of Samuel Kurkjian
Courtesy of Boston Ballet


Choreographer and master teacher, Samuel Kurkjian, passed away at age 76 in Chelsea, Massachusetts on November 18, 2013, after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. A former principal dancer and resident choreographer during the early seasons of Boston Ballet, Kurkjian went on to form his own company, Boston Repertory Ballet, serve as ballet master at the Basel Ballet, Switzerland, and teach for 34 years in the dance department at Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, MA. He is well remembered as a beloved teacher and mentor by the legions of students whom he influenced.


Kurkjian was born in St. Louis, Illinois. He started dancing by the age of 10 and performed as a professional in summer stock productions while in high school. He attended the University of Illinois where he appeared in student dance concerts and later earned a master’s degree in history. He became an elementary school teacher before turning to a career in dance.


Courtesy of Boston Ballet


Kurkjian attracted the attention of E. Virginia Williams when he entered the first Vestris Prize competition for choreography, winning one of the awards for his ballet, Arietta. She invited him into the company in its 4th season, 1967, and soon promoted him to principal dancer, resident choreographer and ballet master. Among the roles he performed were the Third Campaign in Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes and corps in Allegro Brilliante, a junior cadet in Graduation Ball, and the character roles of Dr. Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker and Dr. Coppelius in Coppelia. He also appeared in Pearl Lang’s Persephone.


Kurkjian choreographed at least nine ballets for Boston Ballet before 1974. Among his most successful and frequently performed works were Speed Zone (set to “Kammermusik No. 1 by Paul Hindemith), Peter and The Wolf (music by Sergei Prokofiev) Lousadzak (music by Alan Hovhaness) and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Peter and The Wolf, conducted by Arthur Fiedler and narrated by Joan Kennedy, was broadcast nation-wide by PBS-TV in 1970. In 1973, the 120 member Masterworks Chorale sang at the performances of Carmina Burana, conducted by Michel Sasson.


Kurkjian with students in 1982

Courtesy of Boston Ballet


Following his career with Boston Ballet, Kurkjian founded his own studio and company in Boston, but the city could not support two troupes. He moved to Switzerland where he became ballet master for the Basel Ballet. One young dancer in the company was Mikko Nissinen, currently artistic director of Boston Ballet. Kurkjian also taught at Dance Theatre of Harlem and staged works for many organizations including Tufts University, The Opera Company of Boston, The Chicago Lyric Opera and The Handel and Haydn Society. During his years at Walnut Hill, he created new ballets and revived works from his repertory for the students, including an annual production of The Nutcracker which he maintained was modeled after E. Virginia Williams’ early productions for the Boston Ballet. 


The opening night performance of Boston Ballet’s 2013 The Nutcracker was dedicated to Mr. Kurkjian’s memory. Choreographic funds in his name have been established at Boston Ballet and the Walnut Hill School for the Arts.  —Iris Fanger


Courtesy of Boston Ballet