Violette Verdy, the French-born New York City Ballet star and one of the leading ballerinas of the 20th century, who was also the first female director of the Paris Opera Ballet and a distinguished dance professor, died Feb. 8 in Bloomington, Indiana. She was 82.
Indiana University, where Verdy taught for 20 years, confirmed her death but did not disclose the cause.
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Prized for her vivacious charm, instinctive musicality and sparkling, light-footed technique, Verdy danced in the works of more than 50 choreographers. But she is most closely linked with George Balanchine, with whom she worked from 1958 to 1976, in the heyday of his New York City Ballet.
He showcased her joie de vivre in the roles he created for her in a dozen ballets, including the mysterious and playful “Emeralds” section of his full-length production “Jewels,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” “Liebeslieder Walzer” and “Sonatine.”
Verdy inspired other choreographers, including Jerome Robbins, who devised a central character for her in his masterwork “Dances at a Gathering,” and Sweden’s Birgit Cullberg, who created the title role in “Miss Julie” for her in a 1958 production for American Ballet Theatre.
Verdy began her career in 1945 with Roland Petit’s Ballets des Champs-Elysees, later known as the Ballets de Paris. She joined London Festival Ballet in 1954 and then ABT before landing at New York City Ballet. Petite and curvy, she was an improbable hire. Balanchine favored tall, leggy, athletic-looking women.
“He had a company of greyhounds and borzois,” Verdy said in a documentary. “And, you know, I was a little French poodle.”
Yet her boundless appetite for dancing and her pure, direct approach propelled her to become a quintessential Balanchine ballerina. Writing in the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune in 1958, dance critic Walter Terry noted that she “moved into the Balanchine style with no trouble at all and danced her measures with beauty of line and with a pertness of manner which is quite her own.”
She liked to say that it was her feet that hooked the great Balanchine. “He told me, ’You have very eloquent feet,’ “ she said in a film clip, with a hearty laugh. “ ’You speak with your feet, and that’s very French.’”
Inside the company, Verdy’s taste for fun was as famed as her buoyant steps and musical astuteness. “She had the most immaculate phrasing,” said Edward Villella, one of Balanchine’s greatest male stars and Verdy’s frequent partner, speaking to The Washington Post the day she died. “Her musicality was spectacular - and then there was that fabulous sense of humor.”
He recalled waiting for her to make her entrance as he knelt onstage at the beginning of the ultra-virtuosic pas de deux from “Le Corsaire,” in a guest appearance the pair made one year in Chicago. When the bejeweled Verdy stepped into the spotlight, she had a surprise for him: a carnation clamped between her teeth and a blazing look in her eyes.
As Villella tried to keep himself from laughing aloud at the sight of the tutu-clad ballerina with a gypsy’s panache, she seized the flower from her teeth “and flung it into the wings,” he said, chuckling. “That’s what made it that much funnier. I mean, this was ’Corsaire,’ not ’Carmen.’”
“There was no difference between her dancing and the music,” Villella added. “It was all a pure continuity of gesture, musicality, choreography and this sense of effortlessness. Nothing was forced. The phrasing was just emanating from her body.”
Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, a principal dancer of Balanchine’s company who was often paired with Miss Verdy, his compatriot, compared her musical gifts to those of a great pianist “phrasing a concerto, giving her own interpretation,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “That care that she had. Phrasing is the one of the most important things in ballet, and Violette was a natural.”
Verdy was born Nelly Guillerm in Pont-l’Abbe, a medieval town in Brittany famed for its lace, on Dec. 1, 1933. (At 15, she changed her name to Violette Verdy, when she was chosen for the leading role in Ludwig Berger’s 1950 film “Ballerina,” about a country girl who aspires to ballet stardom.)
She was an only child; her father died four months after her birth. She was high-strung and hyperactive, and a doctor recommended that her mother find a way to tire her out. She put her in ballet classes.
Amid the German occupation of France, her mother took her to Paris, where the budding dancer studied with French and Russian teachers. She came with Petit’s company to the United States in 1954.
Various stints in Europe followed before ABT’s leading ballerina Nora Kaye helped bring Verdy on board as a principal dancer. When ABT temporarily disbanded in 1958, Balanchine hired Verdy, who quickly claimed some of the most demanding roles in his repertory with her mix of speed and feathery grace.
Her years at New York City Ballet were marked by injuries, which finally led her to retire in 1976 and take the helm at the Paris Opera Ballet. She stayed three stormy years, describing them later as a “crash landing course” in the job of artistic director.
In 1980, she became associate artistic director of the Boston Ballet. Verdy received the Dance magazine award in 1968. In 1973 she became the first performing dancer to be awarded the Order of Arts and Letters by the government of France.
Verdy was married briefly to British writer and filmmaker Colin Clark, son of esteemed art historian Kenneth Clark. They divorced in 1963. She had no children, and leaves no immediate survivors.
In addition to dancing and teaching, Verdy engaged in a deep spiritual practice, studying the Vedanta form of Hinduism with a guru she met in the 1960s. For many years she made annual trips to his retreat in India.
Reflecting on her craft, Verdy once told an interviewer: “If you do something very, very well ... you are equipped. You have developed that little heart. That filet mignon, if you will. If you have that, you have your little compact to go anywhere.”