Ballet Stars
Violette Verdy and Jacques d'Amboise

"The Bell Telephone Hour" TV program broadcasted performances of world-class music, opera and ballet to millions of Americans throughout the 1960s. Many of the dance world's biggest stars frequently appeared on the program. In a 1961 Shakespeare special, New York City Ballet principals Violette Verdy and Jacques d'Amboise danced the title characters in Romeo and Juliet by choreographer Donald Saddler.

Although this version lacks some of the emotional intensity of other renditions, watching these legendary dancers perform together is a treat. Their duet is accompanied by Shakespeare's "Sonnet No. 18," bringing to mind contemporary choreographic endeavors involving spoken word in place of music. Verdy dances with an openness and grace that contrasts d'Amboise's more stoic, commanding presence. At 3:00, he sweeps Verdy off her feet and above his head in one fantastic fell swoop. Their duet is followed by an acrobatic fight scene and a stunt-filled sword fight in which both Mercutio and Tybalt are killed. When Romeo disappears after the fight, Verdy shows us Juliet's despair in a dramatic pantomime ending. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

Ballet Stars
Violette Verdy coaches PNB principal Elizabeth Murphy in "Emeralds." Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of George Balanchine's Jewels, and companies around the world are paying homage. While last summer's Lincoln Center Festival collaboration with New York City Ballet, Paris Opéra Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet was all glamour and excitement, Pacific Northwest Ballet is taking a reverential look back in advance of its opening performances next week.

In 2014, PNB artistic director Peter Boal invited four stars of Balanchine's original 1967 cast—Violette Verdy, Mimi Paul, Edward Villella and Jacques d'Amboise—to coach the company in their signature roles. And, thank heavens, they captured it all on film. This 20-minute promotional documentary offers priceless footage of them in rehearsals, interviews and lecture demonstrations, offering fascinating insights into Balanchine's creative process and original intentions.

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Summer Intensive Survival
Photo by Natalia Figueredo via Unsplash

The summer I turned 16, my head swirled with "what ifs" as I counted down the days until the start of the Chautauqua intensive. I'd attended the program four years earlier, and the experience had been a harrowing one—my first lesson in the competitive nature of ballet. Leaving the temperate waters of my little pond, I'd found myself a very small, uncoordinated fish in a pool deep with talent. Now, I was going back to test myself again, this time in Chautauqua's top level. Would I be as good as the other dancers? Would the teachers like me? Would I make friends?

Summer intensives are aptly titled. Their extreme demands can cause anxiety, nerves, jealousy and stress. But put down the question marks! Don't let a negative state of mind keep you from soaking up everything your summer has to offer.

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Violette Verdy in front of the SPAC sign in 1966. Photo by Martha Swope, Courtesy Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

New York City Ballet's home away from home, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, will reach the half-century landmark on July 8. In 1966, NYCB opened SPAC with a performance of Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the company has returned every summer since. "When I stand onstage at SPAC, I can't help but think of how many people have stood in the exact same spot," says principal dancer Sterling Hyltin. "It adds to the magic that is SPAC."

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Violette Verdy, Courtesy Indiana University

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.

Verdy in "Emeralds," Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives

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.

Verdy as Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Frederika Davis, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives

For more news on all things ballet, don’t miss a single issue.

Sterling Hyltin photographed for Pointe by Nathan Sayers.

Daylight saving time had been in effect only a few hours last November when New York City Ballet principal Sterling Hyltin entered an NYCB rehearsal studio to recapture history. In Classroom 2 on the seventh floor, the clock had been turned back to 1968, when NYCB premiered Balanchine's La Source, a demanding pas de deux with four solos set to a Léo Delibes score and made on Violette Verdy and John Prinz. The George Balanchine Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the choreographer's ballets in a state as close to the original as possible, had arranged to tape Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia in practice clothes performing La Source.

Verdy herself was there as an expert observer and advisor, while Helgi Tomasson, who often performed La Source at New York City Ballet before becoming artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, served as co-critic. Lined up along one mirrored wall of the classroom were an accompanist at a grand piano, a movie cameraman, sound technicians and an assistant responsible for keeping a boom mike hovering out of camera range to catch every word Verdy and Tomasson said to Hyltin and Garcia.

Choosing Hyltin for taping this demanding role would have surprised no one who saw her debut in La Source the last week of the 2010 spring season. She had only one opportunity to achieve its many piquant subtleties, such as the brace of gargouillades that blossom amid a flourish of footwork, and she performed each with the assurance and precision of a veteran. “NYCB ballet master Sally Leland invited me to observe the company rehearse the three casts," Verdy recalls. “Sterling was incredible, with endless arms and legs, and she was always open to criticism. Her dancing has a quality I call 'true from the inside.' "

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