Obituary: Diana Adams
Monday 25 January 1993
DIANA ADAMS appeared on the American dance scene after the Second World War, when ballet was growing in popularity, and the American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet were becoming established as world-class companies. She brought a ravishing beauty and a radiant dramatic flair to both companies over two decades.
Born in Stanton, Virginia, in 1926, she studied dancing with her stepmother Emily Hadley-Adams in Memphis, Tennessee. As a teenager she ventured to New York to study ballet with Edward Caton, Agnes de Mille and, later, Antony Tudor. Strikingly attractive, and keen to get her foot on the boards, she made her stage debut in the musical Oklahoma]. Agnes de Mille, Oklahoma]'s choreographer, was taken with her scintillating personality and eager talent - much too good for musicals - and guided her to ballet theatre where she herself was also choreographing ballets. Adams joined ABT in 1944, and was soon playing solo roles, among them Helen in Helen of Troy, Queen of the Wilis in Giselle and the enchanted princess in Stravinsky's Firebird, choreographed by Adolph Bolm with decor by Chagall. She also created the role of the mother in de Mille's dramatic ballet Fall River Legend.
During this period she came under the influence of Antony Tudor who, with his friend Hugh Laing from Ballet Rambert, had been engaged by Lucia Chase to extend the international repertoire of her company. Adams danced the part of Caroline in Tudor's Lilac Garden (to the music of Chausson) with such poetic grace and allure that she captivated not only Tudor but her partner Hugh Laing. He was not her ideal partner, since he was lacking in inches when she was on point; despite this they formed a lasting partnership in dance and in private life became Mr and Mrs Laing.
At this time Tudor was the English genius and he contributed a number of ballets to the repertoire that furnished Adams with a string of roles in which her aristocratic finesse and sparkle endeared her to New York ballet-goers and established her as a star.
Among the Tudor ballets in which she shone were Lady of the Camellias (to Verdi's music), Shadow of the Wind (Mahler), Undertow (William Schumann), Romeo and Juliet (Delius) and Pillar of Fire (Schoenberg). She also danced in a number of works by Jerome Robbins.
When her career with ballet theatre was established, there was an exodus of dancers and choreographers from that company including Tudor, Robbins and Laing to the New York City Ballet, and in 1950 she joined the rout to become an outstanding exponent of the Ballanchine style. Because she was young and uninhibited she took to his ways more easily than most, and in fact, became the prototype of the Ballanchine dancers' physique: tall, long legs - a refinement of athleticism and grace.
In a remarkable ensemble of six superlative ballerinas, Melissa Hayden, Tanaquil LeClercq, Maria Tallchief, Patricia Wilde and Yvonne Mounsey, she was perhaps the most beautifully proportioned of the bunch.
During the next decade her career flowered in a huge repertoire of Ballanchine works. She was happy in a variety of roles, some of the most notable being in Liebslieder Walzer (to the music of Brahms), Apollo (Stravinsky), La Valse (Ravel), Western Symphony (Hershy Kay) in the American idiom, Stars and Stripes (Sousa), a balletic parade, and in the part of the harlot in Prodigal Son (Prokofiev), she touched immortality; but most memorable was the Mozart Divertimento No. 15 which under the title Caracole blended the talents of the company in an unforgettable harmony of movement. Edwin Denby wrote: 'A heavenly piece and everyone knows it.'
One of her greatest successes was the Stravinsky ballet Agon in which she danced with Arthur Mitchell, the first black classical dancer in the company. Lincoln Kirstein, the doyen of American ballet, wrote:
The grand pas de deux, one of Ballanchine's most personal constructions, was designed for a white girl and a black boy. When it was shown in Moscow in 1962 attention was drawn to an imagined servility and pathos as a metaphor of inequality in American society.
In the US the reaction had been the reverse. Kirstein went on:
Ballanchine always took notice of the particular talents of dancers, always enlarging his language of dance by their unique particularities and personal endowments.
Moira Shearer in her book on Ballanchine writes enthusiastically of that combination of black and white:
A long and marvellous pas de deux with hardly a lift in the entire duet. As near perfection and one could wish and there was another element involved. Arthur Mitchell, a beautiful dancer with a great stage presence is black. The stage picture formed by those two dancers - he in white shirt and black tights, Diana Adams with white skin and black hair also in black and white - is something I shall never forget.
In 1952 when Frederick Ashton came to produce Picnic at Tintagel to the music of Arnold Bax he made use of Adams's acting abilities. She danced the role of Iseult to the Tristram of Jacques d'Amboise. Walter Terry described the love duet as 'a work of great beauty.', Anatole Chujoy as 'a pas de deux . . . out of the top drawer. Diana Adams dances exquisitely as the young wife transformed into Iseult.' The ballet was considered a useful edition to the repertoire.
Diana Adams made some film and television appearances from time to time. In 1954 she was in Danny Kaye's Knock on Wood and in 1956 in Gene Kelly's film Invitation to the Dance. In 1962 on CBS TV she danced the part of Lucifer in Noah and the Flood, a ballet oratorio by Stravinsky, choreographed by Ballanchine with a decor by Rouben Arutunian.
Adams had a will of her own and a shrewd sense of her capabilities. She always tried to stay within those limits, but Ballanchine was inclined to push her further. She fought shy of the Russian classics, and only danced Swan Lake under protest. Sometimes Ballanchine thought her ungrateful, and was furious when she became pregnant by her second husband, the stage manager Ronald Bates. Ballanchine abandoned the ballet Movements (to Stravinsky's music) which they were working on but John Taras, his collaborator/repetiteur, pressed on and when Adams could no longer rehearse he sent Suzanne Farrell to her home to learn the steps from her.
Farrell became Ballanchine's great love and he lavished much of his creative power in developing her into his leading ballerina. Adams, now a past favourite, once expressed to Ballanchine her astonishment that he made such a wide range of parts for Farrell. Ballanchine's reply was: 'Well you see, dear, Suzanne never resisted.'
Diana Adams belonged to that period of American ballet when everything was fresh and young; she contributed a vivacious charm and glamour and was one of the finest of America's dancers to emerge from an atmosphere of pioneering exuberance and national pride. After a brilliant career she retired to enjoy home life but continued for some years to teach at the School of American Ballet.
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