"My whole mission in life is to keep Balanchine's work alive," says former New York City Ballet dancer Karin von Aroldingen in Frances Mason's I Remember Balanchine, a collection of interviews by George Balanchine's friends and colleagues. Her words feel especially potent now—and never more true. On Friday, January 5, news came to light that the German-born dancer, teacher, NYCB ballet master and longtime stager for the Balanchine Trust had died at age 76.
Born in East Germany in 1941, von Aroldingen joined Frankfurt Ballet as a first soloist before George Balanchine invited her to join NYCB in 1962. Trained in the Russian method, she had to adjust her technique to fit NYCB's fast, streamlined style. "It took me years to unwind myself, to be good," she says in Mason's book. She eventually rose to principal dancer in 1972. Her dancing was strong, assertive and passionate. During her 22-year career at NYCB, Balanchine created 20 roles for her, including Kammermusik No. 2, Union Jack, Vienna Waltzes, Who Cares?, Robert Schumann's Davidsbündlertanze and her most well-known, Stravinsky Violin Concerto. (Who hasn't marveled at her elastic backbends in the 1972 "Dance in America" broadcast above?)
In his autobiography, former NYCB star Jacques d'Amboise writes that von Aroldingen, who was married to Morton Gerwitz and—unlike most ballerinas at the time—had a child, enjoyed a special relationship with Balanchine, becoming his closest companion towards the end of his life: "If Balanchine ever had a best friend it was Karin von Aroldingen…Her relationship with Balanchine was the rarest among his multitude of muses—a principal dancer, happily married, and a mother, she was his arm-in-arm confidante." Indeed, upon his death he bequeathed a large share of his estate to her, including shared royalties to 37 of his ballets.
After her retirement in 1984, von Aroldingen became a founding trustee for the Balanchine Trust, staging his ballets all over the world. "I am of the first Balanchine generation, the first after his death," she told the East Hampton Star in 1997. "It is an enormous, important responsibility." She later rejoined NYCB's artistic staff as a ballet master from 2004–2016.
The news of her death last week came at an especially fraught time for NYCB; last Monday, artistic director Peter Martins announced his immediate retirement in the wake of a sexual harassment investigation. Over the weekend, company dancers mourned publicly on social media, thanking von Aroldingen for her generosity, wisdom and zeal for life.
"Karin was someone I would give my all for in rehearsal, even on the hardest of days," says NYCB principal Lauren Lovette in an email. "She taught me how to be a respected woman in the studio and onstage. She noticed everything—every hand, facial expression, emotion, posture, tilt of the head and toe. She loved dancing so much that she often had a hard time letting you actually do the dancing. I will always remember her as a fiery lover of life and an honest, supportive friend."