Truman Finney (1944–2012)

June 21, 2012

A private man who lived and breathed classical technique, Truman Finney made his mark onstage with companies including New York City Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, and the Hamburg State Opera Ballet. But he’s most commonly and fondly remembered as a teacher, expert at ushering teenage students from technical proficiency into artistic maturity and professional careers. For more than three decades, Finney taught at prestigious American and European academies, although rarely at any one for more than two years at a time.

Born across the Mississippi River from Missouri in Quincy, Illinois, Finney began serious training relatively late, at the age of 15. Following studies in Chicago at the Stone-Camryn School of Ballet, he entered the School of American Ballet in 1962.

It was in New York that he first worked with English-born, Danish-bred teacher Stanley Williams, a man whose influence on Finney’s pedagogy was unsurpassed. “Stanley changed the way men, in particular, looked at classical technique,” observes Francia Russell, founding artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. “And Truman was a product of that.” At the invitation of George Balanchine, Finney joined NYCB in 1963.


Finney in Dennis Nahat’s
Pas de Dix with the Hartford Ballet in the mid-1950s


He stayed for only a short while after New York State Theater, City Ballet’s new home at Lincoln Center, opened the following year. A company European tour ignited his interest in Germany’s ballet scene; Finney worked first in Stuttgart with John Cranko, then in Frankfurt and Hamburg with fellow Midwesterner John Neumeier. In his late 20s, Finney originated roles in several Neumeier ballets. (Click here for Neumeier’s own remembrance.)

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Finney transitioned from performing to teaching, dividing his time between Hamburg and Hartford, Connecticut. While in Germany, he absorbed the lessons of Vaganova from Irina Jacobson; in Hartford, he aligned her Russian wisdom with Bournonville technique, his Balanchine training, and other influences such as SAB teacher Pierre Vladimiroff.

Finney’s classes became a destination, even for dancers who lived more than two hours away in Manhattan. Summer holidays in the late ’80s and early ’90s brought visitors from overseas; Enid Lynn, then director of the School of the Hartford Ballet, remembers walking into the studio one day to find ballet star Lynn Seymour warming up. New York City Ballet dancers including Nikolaj Hübbe and Wendy Whelan would drop in.

Rather than wear practice clothes, he preferred to teach in pressed pants, a pullover or ironed dress shirt, and sneakers custom re-soled with tan leather. He worked closely with accompanists to instill in his students an instinctual response to music and was uncompromisingly against loud or showy piano playing. He tinkered constantly with his approach to instruction, always seeking to refine it. “In that respect, he was like a scientist,” says Hübbe, 15 when he first met Finney during summer study in Cologne. “At the barre, in the center, we were meeting in the lab.”

These were not experiments in collage, combinations of elements borrowed from various traditions. Finney found fundamental connections between different schools and the legacies of teachers who came before him, and built within those connections a stripped-down classicism relevant to 21st-century eyes. “It was all rooted in technique,” explains Hübbe. “Music, shape, form, aesthetic values. Dynamics.”

“I think he was happiest at Hartford,” Enid Lynn says, “because I let him do whatever he wanted. I was his boss, although Truman… He didn’t have any bosses.” Living in Connecticut also allowed Finney to exercise his lifelong appreciation of horses, and he enjoyed cooking in his free time.

Two years at Pacific Northwest Ballet School in Seattle were followed by two more freelancing in Europe and Texas, and stints at Ballet Austin Academy and the schools at Ballet Arizona and Miami City Ballet. He reconnected with Seymour in Athens, Greece, and guest-taught in Amsterdam, Lausanne, London, Monte Carlo, and Paris.

He attended operas, visited museums, read books on fine art and he became increasingly fascinated by the work of Pina Bausch. During a class, Finney was as likely to mention legendary soprano Maria Callas or abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning as he was to talk about Erik Bruhn, Natalia Makarova, or Peter Schaufuss. “He didn’t just teach ballet,” says Hartford colleague Diane Fleming Brainerd. “He taught life.”

But ballet remained his greatest love. Marjorie Thompson, the current Pacific Northwest Ballet School faculty member who had danced with him in New York (then Marjorie Bresler), remembers Finney traveling to meet her and Mimi Paul in Cannes—not to relax on the French Riviera, but to take Rosella Hightower’s class. An inexhaustible coach, especially of short works and variations by Balanchine, Finney could spend nine months preparing senior students for their graduation performances.

He was known to travel light from city to city. Notes Enid Lynn: “He could just say, ‘This chapter’s over, the next one’s beginning,’ and move on.”

“His greatest joy was to create something out of nothing,” Stephen Mills, artistic director at Ballet Austin, remembers. “I think he was fascinated by every aspect of that process.”

When Hübbe became artistic director at the Royal Danish Ballet in 2008, he immediately invited Finney to Copenhagen, “because I wanted people to understand that in the academic lie simple essences that onstage become very buoyant, theatrical, and multicolored.” In Denmark, Finney again focused on teenage students, coaching them in variations from The Sleeping Beauty and Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15. He retired in 2010 and returned home to his family in Quincy, where he died on June 9, after a short battle with cancer.

Says Russell, who met Finney when he was in his late teens, “When I think of Truman, the first thing that comes to mind is the way he would gesture to his students and they would go cluster around him. He spoke very quietly, and looked them in the eyes. He really, truly cared about each student and worked tirelessly on their behalf. I always picture him like that, in the center of a small group, a little unit.”

“He would lure you near,” says Hübbe, “but he wouldn’t give it away. You had to find out for yourself. You had to connect the dots. He’d say, ‘Don’t ask, just do it. You’ll see. Don’t expect. It’ll come.’ ” —Zachary Whittenburg


Above: Photo by Henrik Stenberg. At top: Photo from DM Archives.