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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...