Marie-Jeanne: Early Balanchine ballerina

Marie-Jeanne Pelus, ballet dancer and coach: born New York 12 August 1920; married 1942 Alfonso de Quesada (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1947), 1957 Dwight S. Godwin (died 1983; two sons); died Austin, Texas 28 December 2007

Marie-Jeanne was the most celebrated of the choreographer George Balanchine's first ballerinas in the United States. With her compact build, jazzy accents and speed, she epitomised an era so different from today with its famously long-limbed "Balanchine ballerinas". She was the first of his principal dancers to be trained primarily at his School of American Ballet.

Marie-Jeanne danced much of the Balanchine repertoire of the time, but her renowned virtuosity and versatility have been enshrined in the leading roles that Balanchine made for her in Concerto Barocco and Ballet Imperial (later renamed Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 2). Both ballets have been frequently seen in Britain. Balanchine's New York City Ballet brought Barocco (with its original elegant designs by Eugene Berman) on its first visit to London in 1950, and the ballet is currently in the repertoire of the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Also in 1950, the Sadler's Wells (now Royal) Ballet first performed Ballet Imperial; the ballet suited the company well and became a recurring favourite.

Marie-Jeanne Pelus was born in New York in 1920, the daughter of a milliner and an Italian chef. She saw ballet for the first time only at the age of 13, at Colonel de Basil's Ballets Russes, but she was so entranced that two days later she started classes at the School of American Ballet, shortly after it opened. She must have been a quick learner, because four years later (and without her surname) she was engaged for Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Caravan. With the touring group from 1937 to 1940, she was touted as its star, along with another early figure, Lew Christensen. She created central roles in Eugene Loring's hit Billy the Kid, and in another piece of Americana, Christensen's Filling Station.

Already a favourite of Balanchine's, she was engaged in 1940 at his request as the first American ballerina in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, albeit for only two performances, to dance the lead in his Serenade. She then joined his American Ballet Caravan's 1941 tour of Latin America. It was at this time that Balanchine created Concerto Barocco and Ballet Imperial on her. As noted in the book No Fixed Points (2003) by the Balanchine expert Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, Marie-Jeanne was known for her clarity, quickness, and daring, like "greased lightning" according to a colleague, qualities that came to be recognised as basic elements of the Balanchine style.

It has also been suggested that for these two ballets Marie-Jeanne's talents gave Balanchine the impetus to create his first two major works that were purely abstract (they have latterly been performed in practice clothes). Ballet Imperial tells a great deal about Marie-Jeanne's dancing: The lead is still considered one of the most challenging of Balanchine roles, especially for its fleet kaleidoscope of turns, jumps and beats. In Barocco, she is said to have conveyed both the purity of line and the sensuality of the slow second movement.

On the celebrated opening night of the New York City Ballet in 1948 at City Center in New York, Marie-Jeanne repeated her brilliant dancing of Concerto Barocco. But after the first season, she would only briefly return to the company. She also danced with the companies of the Marquis de Cuevas and Colonel de Basil and with Serge Denham's Ballet Russe. She retired in 1954, but later taught ballet and occasionally coached dancers in her roles.

Her coaching, which has been documented on video by the Balanchine Foundation for its Interpreters' Archive, made interesting points that bring up questions often arising in the later performances of a choreographer's oeuvre: whether and by what criteria can or should style and even steps evolve or change? Her own answer seemed to be "never". After a run-through of the current version of Barocco, she said in her straightforward way, "Very lovely. Lovely dancing. But it's not Barocco."

She gave instructions on the quality and details of the ballet's performance in her time, including the jazzy way of dancing to J.S. Bach that attracted Balanchine. By contrast, the later, predominantly taller dancers have a more lyrical, flowing style; but this too is largely a result of Balanchine's choices. Consequently, it cannot really be said that there is only one way to dance his ballets.

Marilyn Hunt

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