Rosella Hightower: Ballerina who danced with Nureyev and became the first female director of the Paris Opera Ballet

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The Independent Online

Rosella Hightower was an exceptional ballerina who not only had a rare artistic talent, but also lived a rare life.

Born on 10 January, 1920 in Ardmore,Oklahoma, she was proud of her Choctaw identity, which made her one of five Oklahoma-born Native Americans (with Moscelyne Larkin, Yvonne Chouteau and the sisters Mariaand Marjorie Tallchief) to achieve success on the ballet stages of the mid-century.

Like Marjorie Tallchief, she would pursue the greater part of her career in France, reversing the usual custom of European dancers crossing the Atlantic. As the prima ballerina of the glittering Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, she would dance with Rudolf Nureyev shortly after his escape from the USSR. And she would become the first American – and the first woman – to direct the Paris Opera Ballet, the world's oldest company, venerated for its history, tradition and style.

The only child of Charles Edgar and Eula May Flanning Hightower, she was a tomboy who helped her parents in the cotton fields, as was expected. She soon channelled her energies into ballet. After early classes, she began serious training aged 13 with Dorothy Perkins in Kansas City, Missouri. The family had moved there when Rosella was five, after her father had found a new job with the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad.

In the 1930s big ballet companies toured the Midwest, and when, in 1937, Col. W. de Basil's Ballets Russes appeared in Kansas City, a determined Hightower introduced herself to the great choreographer and dancer Leonid Massine after a performance. She persuaded him to give her an audition and he was sufficiently impressed to invite her to join a new company he was starting in Monte Carlo.

She didn't know where Monte Carlo was, but she got there, on a boat that took two weeks, with a ticket bought for her by a circle of kindly Kansas ladies. On arriving, to her shock, she discovered that Massine had merely offered her a further audition, not a guaranteed place. But she was accepted into the company, named, confusingly, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. (During those decades there was a great tussle between companies for the same name).

She made her company debut in Massine's Seventh Symphony in 1938 and first met André Eglevsky. He would often be her ballet partner and shared her gift for effortless virtuosity. She toured with the company until they arrived in New York in 1941. There, she joined Ballet Theater (later American Ballet Theater) where her first role was as Carlotta Grisi in Pas de Quatre in 1941. Five years later, she was on the move again, to de Basil's company, renamed The Original Ballet Russe. Replacing Alicia Markova in Markova's iconic role of Giselle, she won overnight fame; Markova had fallen sick and Hightower had to learn the role (which she had never danced before) in just five hours, earning, despite this, lavish critical praise.

In 1947 she accepted an invitation from the Marquis de Cuevas, a Chilean with vision and money (he had married a rich woman), to become a ballerina in the company he was launching in Europe, first called the Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo, then the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas. A major reason for her decision was that de Cuevas had appointed the choreographer Bronislava Nijinska as ballet mistress. Hightower's admiration for her was boundless: it was from Nijinska, as she explained to the writer Lili Cockerille Livingston in American Indian Ballerinas (1997), that she properly learnt the importance of rhythm in dance.

She would stay 15 years with de Cuevas, touring Europe, Asia and South America and taking time out only to have a daughter in 1955, by her second husband, the French designer Jean Robier. (Her daughter Dominique Monet Robier would become a dancer with Maurice Béjart's ballet company and with the modern-dance groups of Dominique Bagouet and Régine Chopinot.)

Hightower was the uncontested female star of the company, a phenomenal, daring devourer of space. Her vibrancy and ease astounded French audiences from the start; her elegance and piquancy won her the admiration of the most exacting connoisseurs. Nijinska choreographed the dazzling bravura piece Rondo Capriccioso for her. Among the other modern ballets she danced were Nijinska's Brahms Variations, Massine's Gaîté Parisienne and Balanchine's Concerto Barocco.

She made an especially memorable mark in John Taras's atmospheric, fantastical Piège de lumière. Her classical repertoire included La Sylphide and The Sleeping Beauty, the latter in de Cuevas's ruinously lavish 1960 production in which Nureyev, by then the world's newest, most famous exile, caused an uproar in the audience. In 1962, Hightower partnered Nureyev in a Nutcracker pas de deux he mounted for the Cuevas company; she danced the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake with him at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London for a special Royal Academy of Dancing gala; and appeared with him, Erik Bruhn and Sonia Arova in a series of concert performances in Cannes and Paris.

De Cuevas's company folded after his death in 1961. In 1965 she danced with Roland Petit's Ballets des Champs-Elysées, appearing as the company's star in specially made ballets, after which she largely retired from performing.

In 1961 she opened the Centre de Danse Classique in Cannes, which has become one of Europe's best schools, and whose alumni includes many well-known names. Monique Loudières, a former pupil and étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet, succeeded Hightower as the school's director in 2001.

Hightower held a succession of company directorships: the Ballet de Marseille (1969-72), the Ballet de Nancy (1973-4), the La Scala Ballet in Milan (1985-6). From 1980 to 1983 she was also Nureyev's predecessor as director of the Paris Opera Ballet, which she took on with characteristic energy.

The French choreographer François Verret made a documentary film about her, Rosella Hightower, in 1991. The same year, a mural, called Flight of Spirit, was created in tribute to her and her four fellow Native American ballerinas in the Great Rotunda of the State Capitol in Oklahoma City. In 1975 she was made a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur.

Rosella Hightower, dancer, teacher, director: born Ardmore, Oklahoma 10 January 1920; married 1938 Mischa Resnikov, married 1952 Jean Robier (one daughter); died Cannes 4 November 2008.