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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year