Benjamin Harkarvy

Eclectic dance teacher at the Juilliard
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The Independent Online

Benjamin Harkarvy, ballet teacher, artistic director and choreographer: born New York 16 December 1930; died New York 30 March 2002.

Benjamin Harkarvy, head of the dance division of the Juilliard School of Music in New York since 1992, was above all a dedicated ballet teacher, with an approach that was American in its eclecticism. At Juilliard he continued the dance department's policy of stressing both modern dance and ballet for students as preparation for contemporary repertoires.

Over his career, Harkarvy consciously and with great taste and discernment chose to absorb a vast knowledge of ballet systems and of modern dance. What he had missed by having only brief stage experience of his own, he made up with a sharp eye, keen and inquiring intellect, and enthusiasm for his chosen field – he said he felt he had found the other half of himself – and for its practitioners, from students to mature artists. He could recount with relish the details of a performance that had moved him years earlier. His teaching, beginning at Michel Fokine's New York school, in 1951-55, extended from the United States and Canada to the Netherlands, the Royal Danish Ballet and Israel. He was active for many years as artistic director with a succession of companies, beginning with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in the late 1950s.

After becoming ballet master with the troubled Dutch National Ballet, he broke off from the company along with a group of dancers to form Nederlands Dans Theater (Netherlands Dance Theatre) in 1959, where during 10 years as artistic co-director he instituted what were said to be the first modern dance classes regularly given for a European ballet company, and established the policy of ballet and modern dance fusion that still prevails there.

Two events in the company's history remained rare emotional highlights for him. One was his return for the company's 25th anniversary gala to be greeted by a huge ovation. But another took place in England soon after the company's inception. In an interview, he remembered:

We thought we were sneaking into England at a theatre in Sunderland. I was standing in the lobby talking with our manager, and all of a sudden, in a line, in walked Clive Barnes, Clement Crisp, Mary Clarke, and John Percival! They wrote wonderfully about us.

And then our début in London was splendid, and how the British public took to us. That was very, very exciting. Let's face it, that is an extraordinarily cultured public. They've seen EVERYthing.

He co-directed the Harkness Ballet in the US, and from 1973 to 1982 he was associate director, then director, of the well-regarded Pennsylvania Ballet.

In spite of his eclectic policy, as a choreographer he made ballets that reflected a pure classicism. His favourites, he said, were the abstract Recital for Cello and Eight Dancers to Bach and the Russian-nostalgic Time Passed Summer set to Tchaikovsky. His Madrigalesco to Vivaldi was a charming period dance suite.

Born in New York City, Harkarvy began to study at the age of 13, orienting himself toward the goal of teaching. His principal teachers were two highly regarded Russian expatriates: Edward Caton, whose classes, he remembered, imparted energy and a feel for rhythm and dynamics of movement; and Yelizaveta Anderson-Ivantzova, who built strength in the back and taught large parts of The Sleeping Beauty, the touchstone of classicism.

From the British school, he absorbed the teachings of the choreographer Antony Tudor and the Cecchetti teacher Margaret Craske. "They were teachers for the mind as well as the body," Harkarvy said:

You were taking a class about the science of the body, but it was very clear that the technique was to be used for the art, and not shown off.

George Balanchine's School of American Ballet also drew him, especially to watch the classes of the Maryinsky-trained teachers Anatole Oboukhoff, Pierre Vladimiroff and Felia Doubrovska; Doubrovska made you understand the expression "using the foot like a hand", Harkarvy noted. Later he became interested in the system of Alexandra Vaganova, but eschewed what he felt were the mannerisms often attached to her style. He wanted to produce dancers of unmannered simplicity who could adapt to any style of choreography. This adaptation would then be an important part of the rehearsal process, which also engaged his enthusiasm.

As teacher, Harkarvy was a stickler for detail, saying that each step, not only the big ones, must be cleanly executed. And yet, he expressed both warmth and patience with students in whom he saw some spark. He might say that a student wasn't ready to hear a certain correction yet, recognising that learning must happen at the student's own pace. Part of his stated goal was to develop the dancer's sense of responsibility; it is important, he felt, not to treat students like children, an older practice that "is not suitable for our time". The student is not just learning how to do steps, he said:

You are learning about control, discipline – both the discipline of force and learning to be focused and to concentrate.

He was famously able to articulate his thoughts in class, and he wanted dancers to do the same with their bodies. "My ideal," he said,

is that the dancer's execution comes out like he's speaking a natural language, like it's being SUNG out of the body. A lot of dancers stutter and mumble and scream.

His interests included the teaching of aspects of performance for the young dancer, as well as keeping up with developments in anatomy and kinesiology, especially what happens when the body is in motion. He was interested in developing choreographic talent at an early age, and extended the programme of choreography and performance at the Juilliard School.

The energetic, widely informed Benjamin Harkarvy enjoyed dance, music, friends and food. For him all was connected. He once summed up his view of performing:

Dancing is so joy-providing. It's a spiritual act. It asks everything of you, and if you are willing to give enough to it, it will give you many things back. It is a marvellous way of staying in touch with yourself. You internalise your life experience, and it comes out of you in this external form. Dancing is a metaphor for life – it is about process. You are never finished learning.

Marilyn Hunt