Melissa Hayden

Balanchine ballerina with 'formidable strength and attack'


Mildred Herman (Melissa Hayden), dancer and teacher: born Toronto, Ontario 25 April 1923; married 1954 Donald Coleman (one son, one daughter); died Winston-Salem, North Carolina 9 August 2006.

When George Balanchine's New York City Ballet first visited London in 1950, the reaction was famously divided and vocal. The Canadian-American Melissa Hayden, young and expressive, was, however, one of the dancers who won hearts.

Among the ballets she appeared in was William Dollar's The Duel (or The Combat). This story of the Saracen maiden-warrior and the Crusader who fall in love at the instant he mortally wounds her was meet for Hayden's dramatic temperament. Jacques d'Amboise, her frequent partner, recalls the London audience "screaming" its approval. Be that as it may, at one performance she perhaps became carried away with stabbing her pointes as her horse's hooves, because she took a hard fall that knocked her unconscious, and the curtain had to be lowered.

She must also have made an impression in Sir Frederick Ashton's controversial Illuminations, commissioned by the company, to Benjamin Britten's setting of Arthur Rimbaud's raw and rarefied poetry. As the symbolic figure of Profane Love, Hayden had one foot bare and the other in a pointe shoe, thus seeming to hobble about the stage, however adroitly.

Hayden was a dancer of great versatility and energy, strong emotion and superb technique, at a time when NYCB had a more varied repertoire than later in her career. Birgit Cullberg chose Hayden for the company premiere of her Medea (1950). The dedicated dancer was also remarkable in Jerome Robbins' ferocious The Cage (1951).

She left the company once, due to disagreements with Balanchine about how she was being used. But they reconciled, and she returned because she missed the quality of the Balanchine ballets. After that, he made major roles for her - often in abstract ballets - showing her flair, wit and brilliance, in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Among these ballets still prominent in the repertoire are Divertimento No 15 (1956), Agon (the "castanet" solo) (1957), Stars and Stripes (the sassy pas de deux) (1958), Donizetti Variations (1960), Liebeslieder Walzer (1960), A Midsummer Night's Dream (Titania) (1962), and Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet (1966). She was given Balanchine's Swan Lake, which she had long coveted. She also made an emotional impression as Eurydice in the enlarged revival of his Orpheus for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival.

Balanchine, however, had become increasingly occupied with younger ballerinas. Hayden apparently had no roles created for her between 1967 and 1972. Still she remained an audience favourite until her retirement in 1973, at the age of 50.

Perhaps these disappointments were factors in Balanchine's decision - as never before or after - to choreograph a tribute for a retiring ballerina: Cortège Hongrois, to music from Glazunov's Raymonda. Some said the stately classicism of Hayden's role did not properly show her individuality, but at its climax, spotlighted, Hayden accepted with grandeur and grace the homage of the large cast and the audience. Balanchine presented her with flowers. Mayor John Lindsay bestowed the City of New York's highest arts award, the Handel Medallion, which called her an "extraordinary prima ballerina who has filled the hearts of her audience with joy".

Always an individualist and vivid presence off stage as well as on, with a direct way of expressing her decided opinions, in a cigarette-gravelled voice with a New York delivery, she was once described as "barking" at a videotaped version of a dance with which she disagreed.

She was born in 1923 in Toronto as Mildred Herman. She began studying ballet there aged 12 with the influential Moscow-trained teacher Boris Volkoff. At 16 she moved to New York to continue her training. She was a member of Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) from 1945 to 1947, where the British-American choreographer Antony Tudor suggested she change her name to Melissa Hayden. (She returned there briefly in 1953-54 when she became dissatisfied at NYCB.)

Balanchine invited her to join his company soon after its founding in late 1948. With her "formidable strength and attack," its co-founder Lincoln Kirstein later wrote, she quickly became an audience favourite and "our strongest dramatic ballerina".

Always her own person, she made television appearances which added to her following. She had also appeared as dance double for Claire Bloom in Charlie Chaplin's 1952 film Limelight. Furthermore, she married and had two children against Balanchine's policy.

She was featured and interviewed in Anne Belle and Deborah Dickson's television documentary Dancing for Mr B: six Balanchine ballerinas (1989).

Hayden made a whole second career as a distinguished teacher and mentor of dance students. Her "direct" talk could be abrasive: at a time when she was seeking to become head of a Canadian dance program, she filled a dinner conversation with remarks about the students' "lousy" (a Balanchine-ism) fifth positions, which she would fix. (She did not get the position.) She could also be direct and tough in class, but she was generous outside the studio.

After three years as artist-in- residence and head of the dance program at Skidmore College in upstate New York, she directed the School of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle and was briefly artistic director of the company. She also founded her own school in New York City.

But as a teacher she is best known for her 23 years of teaching at the prestigious North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She staged almost 20 ballets for the dance program, many by Balanchine. Her students have gone on to careers in US and European companies, and include the virtuosa current ABT principal dancer, Gillian Murphy. Her guest teaching all over the world included the Royal Ballet School.

The Balanchine Foundation's Interpreters Archive has videotaped Melissa Hayden coaching current dancers in several of her Balanchine roles. She is able to home in on the telling details, and often comments, "It's a matter of the timing."

She wrote the books Melissa Hayden, Off Stage and On (1964), Ballet Exercises (1969) and Dancer to Dancer: advice for today's dancer (1981). A 1967 biography by Rasa Gustaitis is called simply Melissa Hayden, Ballerina.

Marilyn Hunt

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