To balletomanes of the '50s and '60s, Violette Verdy needs no introduction. Her performances with the American Ballet Theatre, then as a Balanchine ballerina, exuded an aura all her own, as this very individual dancer made a career in America.
Verdy is in Salt Lake City for 10 days, teaching company class at Ballet West, where her innate authority, superior technical knowledge, challenging insights and her unfailing charm and good humor have quickly endeared her to company members.Verdy stopped for a few minutes after class to reminisce about her dancing career and talk a little about her present life as a teacher. She is small and blond, with big gray eyes, the Frenchwoman's typical piquant manner and the warmest of smiles.
Though she was best known in America as a Balanchine ballerina, she said she could not be considered so in the strictest manner. "I was trained in France by Russian teachers and danced with the Ballet des Champs-Elysees and the Ballet de Paris (both Roland Petit's companies), also London's Festival Ballet and Ballet Rambert before coming to America," she said. "Then I appeared with the American Ballet Theatre for two seasons (1957-58) before joining the New York City Ballet in 1958.
"Balanchine liked me for my musicality," she said. "And I came easily to his style for I recognized in it the Russian style I was accustomed to. But his contribution was the extreme contrast, the exact clarification of details, that he put into dances that could have been monotonous. He called me his `little European graft,' and utilized my Gallic approach in many ways. Our temperaments were similar, we both understood the special eloquence, the very Greek sense of form, of sculpture, that characterizes French ballet.
"Working with him was more than a finishing school - he had a way of orchestrating a dancer, of developing him or her from a single instrument into a full orchestra. He didn't make his dancers conform to any one set of requirements. He would take a particular dancer and `get her number,' find what she was capable of, catch her by surprise, develop the best in her. He had a way of making dancers accept what they were and build upon that."
Verdy spent 19 years with Balanchine - years of triumph, yet marked by personal misfortune and pain, because of foot surgeries that interrupted her progress and deprived her of many anticipated roles. Yet to her credit, she is triumphantly remembered as a major Balanchine ballerina.
"There were heartbreaks and disappointments," she noted, "but I learned to recover, I always looked to see how I could turn the negative around and do something positive with it. After my first surgery I studied Russian; after the second I began to teach; and after the third, I began to choreograph, all of which I love. `Sweet are the uses of adversity,' " she said, echoing Shakespeare.
A dancer whose energy level was a legend, Verdy was never able to settle comfortably into one niche. During her Balanchine years her guest appearances included the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Ballet, Miami Ballet, National Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet and Jacob's Pillow, among others.
She stopped dancing in 1975 and went immediately to the Paris Opera Ballet as artistic director. She next served as co-director with founder Virginia Williams at the Boston Ballet, where she was groomed to succeed Williams. But after Williams' death, Verdy concluded that directing big companies with their politics and intrigues was not for her.
"Luckily, Peter Martins (director of NYCB) was scouting, and he invited me to NYCB as a teacher," she said. She continues there part time, with time to travel, choreograph and do a little staging of Balanchine works. She teaches at Goucher College in Maryland, at the North Carolina School of the Arts and at the Pennsylvania Ballet, plus many miscellaneous assignments. And she has already penciled in Ballet West ("a wonderful company," she commented) for a month's attention next January.
"I have to work to exist," she said, "but I love to serve. I think of myself as a midwife, who helps the dancers deliver a precious part of themselves."
"I also try to communicate my own personal love and joy in the dance. Joy is essential to dance, which is really married to the music.
"Nobility in dance is also important, and finding it and submitting to it in the classical style takes away the wrong kind of self-importance. Whoever enters this line of work should accustom himself to courtly manners, and I try to transmit acceptance of form, and discipline.
"But more importantly, everyone should find his own center. If you as a dancer submit yourself, become vulnerable to your teachers, makes yourself teachable, you can find within yourself that special spark, that quality which will be your own excellence.
"Then you will have room in yourself for what people can put into you. And when you clean up your act, correct your faults, you will be more yourself than you ever were before. You can develop the sort of originality that makes you notable as a dancer, like the dancers earlier in the century. Today's dancers are often too regimented by technique." - By Dorothy Stowe