OBITUARY: Jurgen Schneider

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Jurgen Schneider was a teacher of ballet with exceptional gifts of musicality, style and powerful projection. His authoritative personality and concentrated drive carried him successfully to participation with some of the world's leading companies. In recent years he was much in demand teaching and coaching at the American Ballet Theatre, New York, at the Hamburg Ballet and as guest teacher with the Royal Ballet in London.

Schneider was born in Berlin in 1936. His first dancing lessons were in the style of Mary Wigman - a modern - but he later studied classical ballet in a government school. His first professional engagement was with the Weimar Ballet, from which he progressed to the Komisch Oper, Berlin. Although he was tall and well built his dancing career was not particularly notable, and from early days his analytical brain was focused on teaching.

When the Bolshoi Ballet made its first post-war appearance in East Berlin in 1958 he was bowled over by the sheer grandeur of the dancing. He lost no time in persuading the management of the Komisch Oper to give him a grant to study at the Bolshoi and GITIS in Moscow. He became greatly influenced by the famous teacher Nicolai Tarasov and after four years he received the Soviet Diploma for teaching; he went on to study for a further year at the Vaganova Choreographic Academy in Leningrad, where he was a classmate of Nureyev.

During this time he became acquainted with a remarkable young Japanese dancer, Hideo Fukagawa. In 1969 he persuaded Fukagawa to train with him and to take part in the Moscow Ballet competition. Arriving in Moscow three weeks before the contest Fukagawa worked slavishly with Schneider and the result was astonishing. With scarcely any professional experience Fukagawa walked away with second prize.

Schneider returned to the Komisch Oper taking Fukagawa with him, and enjoyed a rising career. Fukagawa was awarded the Nijinsky Prize in Paris and in 1970 Schneider prepared him to compete in Varna, where he was first among male dancers but was grudgingly awarded only a silver medal. The pocket-sized Japanese stayed on with Schneider at the Komisch Oper but his ambition was to dance with his fellow competitor Eva Evdokimova. The only trouble was that she was several inches too tall for him.

Schneider built his fame as a teacher on the success of Fukagawa; they became firm friends and their collaboration prospered. Schneider was well placed at the Komisch Oper, where he taught alongside the brilliant Olga Lepeshinskaya. They cultivated a well-selected group of dancers who performed novel and impressive choreographies by Tom Schilling, in the repertoire of Walter Felsenstein, a producer of genius. The company toured Egypt, Bulgaria and Finland with outstanding success. But the ambitious Schneider had set his sights on the West; his quality of life outside the theatre - he lived with his family in a tenement block in East Berlin - was a shabby existence.

From Helsinki Schneider defected, coming first to London with Fukagawa, who danced a sensational Blue Bird in Richard Buckle's Diaghilev Gala Evening at the Coliseum. The friends now parted company, Schneider to take up a teaching appointment with the Stuttgart Ballet while Fukagawa became an idol of Munich Ballet until injuries cut short his dancing days. After a year at Stuttgart, Schneider spent a season at the Munich Opera, made his way to the US and was welcomed with open arms by Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was artistic director of American Ballet Theatre.

For Baryshnikov, Schneider offered the diet of class-work that had developed his stature. Schneider became a very popular teacher who offered strength with style in the true Russian mould. From 1975 to 1991 he was continuously engaged in coaching and perfecting the technique of many of the stars of ABT, as well as appearing with the company in a number of mime and character roles including Lord Montague in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet.

Schneider founded and directed a teacher workshop in Astoria, Queens, in 1989. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Western Michigan University in 1992. Recently he was guest teacher at the Royal Ballet. He also taught in Australia.

In New York he married Victoria Rockwell, who bore him a son. They moved this year to Miami Beach, Florida, where tragically he met his death from drowning.

Jurgen Schneider, dancer, teacher: born Berlin 2 May 1936; married Victoria Rockwell (one son); died Miami, Florida 15 August 1995.