Long Live the Dancer

Ballerina and teacher Violette Verdy spent the eight decades of her life compiling a source of inspiration for future dancers.

Inside a house in the neighborhood of Saint Remy in south Bloomington, everything is as Violette Verdy left it.

Her bottle of hand lotion and sticky notes are by the computer, LaCroix and Fresca are in the fridge and her white cat, Tashi, sits in his box by the window.

Verdy, who died Feb. 8 at 82, also left behind a legacy of performing and teaching ballet that will be remembered throughout the world. At IU, where she taught for more than 20 years at the end of her life, her coaching was sorely missed in preparation for the Spring Ballet.

Distinguished Professor Violette Verdy smiles during a class. Verdy, who taught at IU, died Feb. 8 at 82 years old.

“She had this energy that made us feel so welcome,” Imani Sailers, junior at IU and dancer in the Spring Ballet, said.

Sailers danced the role of the Russian dance soloist in “Serenade,” the same role Verdy danced 56 years earlier. All four of the pieces in the Spring Ballet, including “Elegie,” “Raymonda Variations,” and “Tarantella” were choreographed by George Balanchine, who co-founded the New York City Ballet 
in 1948.

Ten years after the birth of NYCB, Balanchine plucked Verdy from the American Ballet Theatre to be one of his principal dancers. Balanchine choreographed several pieces for Verdy during her time in his troupe, and they remained lifelong friends.

The Spring Ballet program was picked by the ballet department the previous year, but has become a fitting tribute to Verdy, ballet department chair Michael Vernon said. She danced in all of the original pieces except “Elegie.” Her coaching of the dancers through ballets she performed as they were first choreographed by Balanchine himself would have been invaluable.

“I was hoping she would be able to be involved in it,” Vernon said. “She loved these ballets and she knew the style. She was just very present, even when she wasn’t present.”

Violette Verdy (left) reaches for Melissa Hayden while dancing to “Serenade,” choreographed by George Balanchine, for the New York City Ballet in 1960.
Junior Imani Sailers reaches for junior Raffaella Stroik as junior Colin Ellis holds Sailers while dancing to “Serenade” during rehearsals for the Spring Ballet at the Musical Arts Center. Sailers was cast as the Russian dance soloist, which Verdy danced 56 years ago. “It’s so true that, to our department, (Verdy) was our Sugarplum,” Sailers said. “She gave so much of herself and was really invested in us. Especially during this coaching process, we miss her, because it’s a whole Balanchine program.”

Balanchine choreographed “Serenade” in 1935 and “Elegie” in 1982, and in the following decades the dances have changed naturally with the dancers that perform them. Art mimics fashion, Vernon said, and in New York City, fashion changes quickly.

Vernon wanted to keep the Spring Ballet choreography as close to the original as possible, unchanged by more recent dancers’ interpretations. With Verdy gone, Vernon brought in Melinda Roy, another former NYCB dancer who had worked personally with Balanchine, to coach for the 
Spring Ballet.

Roy’s NYCB career just barely missed Verdy’s, starting in 1978 after Verdy retired in 1975. However, their lives as ballerinas were intertwined. Verdy, working as a scout for the NYCB, discovered Roy and her older sister in Lafayette, Louisiana, and gave them both scholarships to the School of American Ballet in New York. Both sisters went on to become NYCB soloists.

Roy came back to Bloomington last year to guest teach at IU and was able to meet Verdy again.

“She took us out of a podunk little studio and gave us our opportunity,” Roy said. “It was so amazing to reconnect with her after all these years. She was such a beautiful spirit.”

Melinda Roy watches junior Imani Sailers during rehersals for "Serenade."

Roy filled Verdy’s shoes, coaching the dancers through the all-Balanchine program. Like Verdy and Sailers, Roy also danced the role of the Russian dance soloist in “Serenade.” Also like Verdy, Roy has danced in all of the pieces except “Elegie.”

Ballet departments like IU’s and companies worldwide can’t keep hiring dancers who worked with the original composers forever. Throughout her life, Verdy compiled her ballet archive, a priceless resource that stands as an example for the world of dance.

Records of travels and correspondence, teaching materials and notes, photographs and negatives, slides, posters and other promotional material from performances, film and costumes vie for space throughout every room in Verdy’s home and completely fill her garage.

Even before Robin Allen started working as Verdy’s assisant in 2008, she and other helpers took on the huge task of categorizing Verdy’s extensive ballet archive. Now all of the treasures are meticulously organized and labeled alphabetically box by box and shelf by shelf, with an computerized database that allows the user to search a phrase and find the exact location of the item within seconds. The database has more than 10,000 entries.

“(The database) is like the Bible for us for her collection,” Allen said. “There’s so much to look at, so much to connect with the world and what was happening at that time. It’s a very rich resource.”

Allen said she hopes that Violette’s collection will serve as an example for others to catalogue and preserve dance history. Unlike music, the art of dance has not yet developed its fields of theory and technique, but Allen said she thinks it is only a matter of time.

Violette’s collection will go to stay at Harvard’s Theatre Collection at its Houghton Library, joining 50 boxes of her archive she sent before moving from New York to Indiana. The library houses 115 boxes of George Balanchine’s archive as well. A Harvard representative already came to review the materials remaining at her home in Bloomington. Allen said they were interested in all of it, but balked at the costumes.

A costume worn by Violette Verdy, probably for Sleeping Beauty, and was made in the 1960s or 1970s.

The costumes, unrestored since their creation as early as the 1950s, are still in great condition. Each small embroidered rose on her “Sleeping Beauty” tutu made in 1953 by her mother is still in place and each feather on her “Swan Lake” tutu is attached. A closet in Violette’s home, when opened, reveals a cloud of pastel French organza silk, tulle and rhinestones.

If Harvard declines to take the costumes, Allen said she will start looking for a home for them from the top down, starting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the NYCB archive or the Smithsonian.

“They’ve really cultivated this slice of history at Harvard,” Allen said. “They see it as a very important transition of ballet blooming in America.”

While collecting material for her archive, Verdy was a dedicated teacher and dancer. Through her 80s, she would do her floor barre exercises every night before teaching, Allen said. In leg warmers and knit booties, she would sit on a mat in the living room and prepare her muscles for the next day after an active lifetime full of injuries and physical therapy.

“She was one of those people who just could never catch up with herself,” Allen said. “She always had too much to do and never enough time.”

Because of Verdy and Allen and others’ efforts to preserve her archive, even after the last IU ballet students to work with Verdy graduate, her style and musicality will inspire generations of dancers to come. When Balanchine originals are performed in the future, choreographers and dancers alike can look to footage of first performances, often including in the credits Violette Verdy.

“You can still feel her energy in the studios when we’re rehearsing,” Sailers said. “We’re going to try and live up to the Violette Verdy name and do her proud. We know she’s looking at us and watching, saying, ‘Are her feet pointed? Is she turned out?’”