Zena Rommett (1920–2010)
Zena Rommett, the creator of the popular Floor-Barre technique, died of cancer in November. Counting Melissa Hayden, Tommy Tune, Patrick Swayze, and Judith Jamison among her students, she taught her technique at her own studio and at Steps on Broadway (see “Teacher’s Wisdom,” March 2008). As recently as August, she gave a master class at the Dance Teacher Summit, as well as a Floor-Barre certification seminar, before she was hospitalized.
Born Angelina Buttignol in Orsago, Italy, Rommett immigrated with her family to New York in 1925. She made her professional debut on Broadway in Seven Lively Arts in 1944, with choreography by Anton Dolin, and also performed Balanchine’s choreography in Song of Norway and de Mille’s in Paint Your Wagon.
As the name suggests, during Floor-Barre, the familiar exercises of ballet barre are performed lying on the floor, both turned out and in parallel. The technique aims to develop proper placement without “cheating” through gravity and tension. In 1965, Robert Joffrey invited her to teach at his American Ballet Center. (She adopted the name Rommett at his suggestion.) Three years later, she opened her own school, which remained a hub of activity through the mid-’80s (dancers like Hayden and Jamison have said that her technique was critical to their rehabilitation). She then brought her technique to Steps, where in addition to teaching, she certified Floor-Barre teachers for more than a decade. Her daughter Camille Rommett and others continue to teach her work.
Yvonne Patterson (1910–2010)
An original cast member of Balanchine’s Serenade, Yvonne Patterson died in November. Born in Australia, she moved to NYC in her teens. Along with her husband, the dancer/choreographer William Dollar, she was an early student at the School of American Ballet. The couple joined American Ballet, a predecessor of New York City Ballet, originating roles in works such as Balanchine’s Jeu de Cartes (1937), in which Dollar played the Joker and Patterson the Ten of Hearts. Later they performed with Le Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas and other ensembles and staged Dollar’s ballets around the world. They eventually settled in Flourtown, PA, where Dollar died in 1986. Patterson taught at the Rock School into her late 90s.
Murray Spalding (1944–2010)
A Washington, DC–based choreographer known for her Mandala dances, Murray Spalding died in November after complications from cancer. Her company, Murray Spalding/Mandalas, founded in 1974, has performed across the U.S. and in Mexico. She earned a BA and MFA in dance from Sarah Lawrence College, where Bessie Schönberg became her mentor. Spalding moved to NYC in 1989 and created Dancycle Project, a combination of choreography workshops and concerts that saw performances by Doug Elkins, Doug Varone, and Sally Hess. Her Mandala dances were a series of pieces based on geometric shapes and rooted in meditation. Mandala XIII will be performed in her honor in May at St. Mark’s Church in NYC.
Irine Fokine (1922–2010)
The niece of Michel Fokine, Irine Fokine taught thousands of students the discipline of ballet in Ridgewood, NJ. After a good 60-year run, including 52 annual s, she closed the Irine Fokine School of Ballet last summer (see “Teach– Learn Connection,” Nov.). Her students went on to dance in companies like American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Ballet West, and Boston Ballet.
Photo of Zena Rommett by Colin Fowler