Nina Fonaroff

Dancer, choreographer and teacher
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The Independent Online

Nina Fonaroff, dancer, teacher and choreographer: born New York 3 March 1914; died London 14 August 2003.

Nina Fonaroff was one of a historic band of American dancers who took part in the shaping of a new art form and, later, as a teacher, passed it on to others.

As a soloist with the Martha Graham Company, joining just a decade after Graham began choreographing, she dedicated her body to a dance technique that was still being fine-tuned by Graham and had several roles created on her. As a choreographer she formed her own group as a showcase for her work. But it was as a teacher that she was to make her biggest impact, first in the United States, then in London when in 1972 she was invited her to become Head of Choreographic Studies at the London Contemporary Dance School. From then on, London was to be her home.

Her upbringing destined her to be a person of several artistic skills. She was born in New York in 1914; her parents were Russian émigrés and professional violinists, which meant that home was a centre of musical activity and close family friends included Sergei Rachmaninov and Pablo Casals. Nina herself played the violin, but later focused more on the piano. She also started studying drawing and painting as a child, an activity which was to remain important to her and inform her dance work. She took art lessons with George Grosz in New York and won a scholarship to the Max Reinhardt School of Theatre and Design in Vienna.

As a child she went with her parents to the Russian Vaudeville and to the leading theatre companies of the time, including the Moscow Art Theatre. Aged 11, she attended her first dance classes, enrolling at the Isadora Duncan School where her teachers were the great Russian choreographer Mikhail Fokine and his wife Vera. The same year she saw Isadora Duncan perform in New York. She herself earned the praise of being a true "Duncan", able to "skip and run with a natural aptitude for jumping". But she was later to disparage those early lessons as examples of what dance should not be.

Nina Fonaroff came to England on three occasions between 1926 and 1933, visiting the dance centre at Dartington Hall in Devon. In her early twenties she enrolled to study acting at the Cornish School in Seattle. And it was there, in 1935, that she was first introduced to two distinguished visitors: Martha Graham and Graham's mentor, the composer, critic and dance theoretician Louis Horst. Graham performed short solos, to Horst's piano accompaniment. Fonaroff felt that the couple's sophistication, intelligence and energy symbolised the future of dance. She rapidly arranged to attend Graham's summer course in New York. "Then Martha offered me a scholarship, and I said, 'Yes'. It was as simple as that. I had no other thoughts . . . After that, all I ever wanted to do was dance with Martha."

She joined the Graham company in October 1936 and was to create roles in Graham's American Document (1938), Every Soul is a Circus (1939), Letter to the World (1940), Punch and the Judy (1941), Deaths and Entrances (1943) and Appalachian Spring (1944). According to another member of the company, Martha Hill, Fonaroff was a valuable dancer. "Her technique was outstanding and she was ideal as an ingénue in the new dances being created. She was imaginative and strong."

In 1937 she was deemed to have a sufficient grasp of the Graham technique to teach it at the Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. She was also, along with Merce Cunningham, one of the first contemporary dancers of her generation to study classical ballet seriously, taking classes with Anatole Oboukhov and Muriel Stuart at the School of American Ballet from 1942 to 1947.

Meanwhile, she had even more quickly become linked with Louis Horst, some 30 years her senior. She became his teaching assistant in 1937, in his rigorous and celebrated classes on dance composition, based on musical forms. She and other members of the Graham company appeared in a 1938 film directed by Horst, Compositions in modern forms, demonstrating his methods. She also replaced Graham as Horst's lover. (Graham had by then turned towards her future husband Erick Hawkins.)

Quiet and even-tempered, blonde and blue-eyed, Fonaroff couldn't have been more different from Graham. Her petite figure contrasting with his stocky one, they were always together. With her cultivated mind, she was able to argue with him and push him to refine his theories. He revelled in her company, amazed at "the clever way she could get people to do whatever she wanted, talking her way into anything, whether with a maître d' in a restaurant or a dancer in a rehearsal studio." At one point he decided she would be a perfect advertising manager for his magazine Dance Observer and sent her to see the head of the Capezio dancewear company. Fonaroff reported the episode:

"Can you tell me why I should buy an ad in this little magazine?" he asked me. "No," I replied, embarrassed. "Well then, I'll run an advertisement for the next five years." I was flabbergasted!

In 1942, at the Bennington College Summer Festival, Fonaroff presented two early works, Four Dances in Five and Yankee Doodle Greets Colombus in a programme alongside pieces by her fellow- Graham dancers Merce Cunningham and Jean Erdman. Resigning from the Graham company to work independently in 1946, she formed Nina Fonaroff and Company, giving concerts at the New York Y and surviving till 1953. Her pieces included The Feast (1946), Mr Puppet (1947) - performed two years later by Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin - and Lazarus (1952).

Horst assisted her occasionally as pianist and composer, but these efforts, although interesting, created little impact. She was meticulous in her preparations and the lack of public enthusiasm began to haunt her sensitive personality. And although Horst was tenderly attached to her, he had no illusions that her choreography matched the greatness of his other pupil Martha Graham.

She became disillusioned with Horst's methods of finding creative inspiration through formal musical structures. She admitted that: "Being with Louis didn't open up any choreographic thing [for me]." Although she still assisted him in his classes, mentally she rejected his teaching philosophy. According to Martha Hill, she plunged herself into an enthusiasm for the theatre "even selling her collection of art books in order to buy tickets". Leaving the modern dance field altogether, she began to teach ballet to actors at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York.

It was in teaching that Fonaroff's real talent lay. She developed her own teaching methods. Ceasing to assist Horst, she opened her own studio in New York (1953-57). She taught in Pittsfield and New York during the 1960s. She was 58 years old when the founder of London Contemporary Dance Theatre Robin Howard invited her to London. She began with 14 students and was to teach many future successful artists, including the film-maker Sally Potter and choreographer Kim Brandstrup. (Fonaroff became a trustee of Brandstrup's Arc Dance Company.) She retired from the London Contemporary Dance School in 1990, but continued teaching stints in Leeds (at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance), in Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen right up to 2002.

Fonaroff had recently been preparing a book on choreography, which will be completed by a former pupil, Philip Johnston, and published posthumously.

Nadine Meisner