April 27, 2010



Ilona Copen (1940–2010)

Co-founder and director of the New York International Ballet Competition, Ilona Copen died in February. Through her passion for educating young dancers and the advancement of the arts, she left an indelible imprint on the dance world.


Copen studied dance at Juilliard and the Martha Graham School and performed with Jeff Duncan, among other modern choreographers. In 1983 she founded NYIBC with ballet star Igor Youskevitch. The biannual competition provides a three-week, tuition-free intensive training program to promising dancers from all over the world. They receive coaching from such ballet luminaries as Martine van Hamel and Cynthia Gregory, and modern dancers like Rachel Berman and Roxane D’Orléans Juste.


The list of past NYIBC winners includes Gillian Murphy (American Ballet Theatre), Sarah Lamb (Royal Ballet), Carlos Molina (Boston Ballet), and Victoria Jaiani (Joffrey Ballet). Before her death, Copen was working to reunite these alumni through an active Alumni Association.


“She was passionate and indefatigable—a magnificent lady,” says NYICB associate director Marcia De La Garza. “Her capacity to empower people while leading with a firm hand and a kind heart was so inspiring. Many of us have been moved to action, to effect change, because of her example.” —Abbey Stone


Rex Nettleford (1933­–2010)

As choreographer and co-founder of the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica, Rex Nettleford used the probing power of dance to explore a nation’s multiethnic cultural identity. Through his company, he revitalized for the stage such religious rites as the kumina, a Congo-based dance form using a flat-footed shuffle with polyrhythms in the hips, head, ribs, and arms. In the early 1960s, he was among the first to validate reggae and ska, which had been considered politically volatile. He incorporated Rastafari elements in his repertory, such as the low-set, skipping dance that hip hop has adopted as “skanking” and a Caribbean approach to musicality, in which the dancer slips into the rhythm and stresses the upbeat, not the down.


Born in rural Trelawny, Nettleford learned early in life to fuse his academic prowess with his passion for dance. An Oxford Rhodes Scholar in political science, he returned home from England to dance. Katherine Dunham’s technique and her anthropological curiosity about Caribbean traditions influenced his thoughtful approach. Ivy Baxter, a Jamaican choreographer and impresario, brought together Nettleford and Eddy Thomas (the co-founders of NDTC), and a young Garth Fagan, now director of Garth Fagan Dance and choreographer of The Lion King.


Nettleford, who died in January, became a professor, writer, cultural ambassador, and academic administrator, but his love of dance infused all his activities. “Rex’s 2003 Rhodes Centenary award—he was one of only four—debunks forever the ‘just dance, dear’ stereotype and epitomizes the intellectual capabilities of the dancer,” says Fagan. Nettleford’s repertory will be remembered for its subtle political edge, especially the image of what he  called “proud, accomplished, hard-working Caribbean men.” —Margaret Conner Hewitt


Tatiana Stepanova Gardner (1924–2009)

The last ballerina to receive prima status with Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, Tatiana Stepanova died in December. Born in Marseilles to Russian parents who had fled the Revolution, Stepanova was a star pupil of the legendary Olga Preobrajenska. She danced with de Basil’s Ballets Russes from 1937 until its last American performances in New York in the spring of 1947. After retiring from the stage, Stepanova taught ballet in the Boston area for a decade. She appears in the 2005 film Ballets Russes.


Helen Lewis (1916–2009)

Find the Transition for Helen Lewis, a pioneer of modern dance in Northern Ireland who survived the Holocaust, at



Photo of Rex Nettleford by Maria LaYacona, courtesy National Gallery of Jamaica