Last week, I made a special point to see New York City Ballet perform Sonatine, a lively, folksy pas de deux that George Balanchine choreographed for Violette Verdy and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux in 1975. I’ve always loved the playfully musical ballets Balanchine made for Verdy, the most playfully musical of dancers. Her roles were ones I had always aspired to dance, although I never did. But I remember feeling especially honored to simply learn her part in Liebeslieder Walzer as an understudy several years ago. Verdy was a living legend, as both a dancer and a teacher. She was someone I had always hoped to meet.
Yesterday, Verdy died at the age of 82, after a full and rich life devoted to her art. The outpouring of love from her former students and colleagues on social media precluded the official announcement by Indiana University’s Jacob’s School of Music, where Verdy was a distinguished professor. Born Nelly Armande Guillerm in Pont-l’Abbe, France in 1933, she studied ballet in Paris, changing her name to Violette Verdy at age 15. She danced as a principal with Roland Petit Ballets de Champs Elyees, London Festival Ballet and Ballet Rambert before moving to the U.S to join American Ballet Theatre in 1957.
Balanchine spotted her in ABT’s production of Miss Julie and invited her to join NYCB in 1958. Her European training, sprightly footwork and charismatic verve inspired him to create signature roles for her, in ballets including La Source, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Liebeslieder Walzer, Episodes, Sonatine and perhaps most memorably, “Emeralds” from Jewels. After her retirement in 1977, Verdy directed the Paris Opéra Ballet (the first woman to do so) and later the Boston Ballet before ultimately deciding that she belonged in the studio, working with dancers. As she told Marina Harss in The Nation last summer, “I’m interested in the form of humanity that you cannot have as a director.”
As a teacher and coach (she worked with 150 professional schools and companies worldwide), Verdy was renowned for her profound generosity, wit and inspirational analogies. She served as principal guest teacher with the School of American Ballet and joined IU’s dance faculty in 1996, winning its highest honor, the IU President’s Medal of Excellence, in 2013. The university has started a blog in her honor where dancers can share their memories. Verdy offered so much to her audiences and to her students; her passing is a reminder for us to cherish our teachers, to ingest their wisdom and keep its flame alive for future generations.