Shaun O’Brien (1925–2012)

May 16, 2012

Widely acclaimed as the greatest American acting dancer of our time, Shaun O’Brien, 86, died in February in Saratoga Springs, NY. Joining New York City Ballet in 1949 and retiring in 1991, O’Brien has the distinction of having had the longest career as a performer with NYCB. During his 42 years with that company, he created a gallery of inimitable, meticulously detailed character portraits in ballets by Balanchine, Robbins, Ashton, William Dollar, Lew Christensen, Birgit Cullberg, and Jacques d’Amboise, among others. A contemporary of legendary NYCB artists like Tanaquil LeClercq, Violette Verdy, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Patricia McBride, Jacques d’Amboise, and Edward Villella, O’Brien held his own onstage and off in earning the admiration and respect not only of fellow dancers, but critical praise and audience esteem as well.

Born John Peter O’Brien in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, he made his dance debut at 4. As a teen he moved on to Manhattan to study at the School of American Ballet. Changing his name to Shaun O’Brien early in his professional career, he danced in several Broadway musicals, and with companies led by the Marquis de Cuevas, Serge Lifar, and Alicia Alonso. Unlike Frederic Franklin, perhaps his nearest rival in great character portrayals with a major American ballet company, O’Brien was never a premier danseur. He joined the corps de ballet of New York City Ballet and transitioned early on to match Balanchine’s vision of dramatic roles in both narrative and non-narrative ballets.

While O’Brien brought his own dramatic instinct and refined nuance to every role, his name became nearly synonymous with two of the great character roles in ballet—Herr Drosselmeyer and Dr. Coppélius in the Balanchine versions of The Nutcracker and Coppélia. O’Brien reportedly holds the career record for performances in both roles: three decades as Drosselmeyer and 17 years, including his farewell performance in February 1991, as Coppélius, For many of us who have performed these roles, both with NYCB and in other productions, we continue to aspire to O’Brien’s portrayals as benchmarks of excellence.

Other unforgettable portrayals in Balanchine ballets include the Father in Prodigal Son, Leandre in Harlequinade, the Baron in La Sonnambula, Death’s Servant in La Valse, Peter Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as the meek music lover in Robbins’ The Concert, the Bartender in Fancy Free, and Fanfare. Largely forgotten is one of O’Brien’s personal favorites en travestie as the mother in a revival of Lew Christensen’s Filling Station.

Following his retirement, Shaun O’Brien lived in Saratoga Springs with his companion of 61 years, Cris Alexander, an acclaimed actor, dancer and photographer. They were married in New York State in 2011. On March 7, 2012, less than two weeks after O’Brien’s death, Alexander, age 92, died in Saratoga Springs, NY.

“Shaun was probably the wisest, funniest, sweetest human being I’ve ever known,” says ballet legend Jacques d’Amboise who, with Melissa Hayden, joined New York City Ballet in the same year as O’Brien. D’Amboise soon found a close friend and mentor in the older dancer. “He was constantly aware of the cultural milieu of wherever we went on tour. His amazing, vast library of stored knowledge would reveal itself first as a droplet and wound up a Niagara Falls of information…As an artist, Shaun sits at the peak of the Mt. Everest of character dancers, and any dancers who take on these roles have to compete with the memory of audiences who knew, loved, and remember Shaun.” —Andrew Wentink


Top: As Herr Drosselmeyer in Balanchine’s
The Nutcracker; Bottom: As Dr. Coppélius in Balanchine’s Coppélia. Both photos by Ted Leyson, DM Archives, © Balanchine Trust.