Indiana University mourns loss of distinguished professor, ballet legend Violette Verdy

  • Feb. 8, 2016


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Indiana University Jacobs School of Music is deeply saddened to announce the death of Distinguished Professor Violette Verdy at the age of 82.

Verdy died Monday, Feb. 8, in Bloomington, Ind. She had been on the ballet faculty of the Jacobs School of Music since 1996. The inaugural recipient of the Kathy Ziliak Anderson Chair in Ballet, in 2010, Verdy was elevated to distinguished professor in 2005 and awarded the IU President's Medal for Excellence, the highest honor an IU president can bestow, in 2013.

Verdy was a leading ballerina of the 20th century, principal dancer for New York City Ballet for 20 years and former artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet and Boston Ballet.

In presenting Verdy with the President's Medal for Excellence, IU President Michael A. McRobbie said, "Violette is one of the greatest ballerinas from an era of great dancers and choreographers, and she is an Indiana University treasure. Her remarkable achievements as a dancer and choreographer have garnered her international acclaim and several of the highest honors in her field, and she is equally renowned for her dedication to training future generations of dancers, including many who have launched successful careers at the IU Jacobs School of Music. We are extremely pleased to honor Violette for her vital contributions to the arts as one of the premier ballet dancers of the 20th century and in recognition for all that she has done for IU and for dance education."

"Everyone in the Jacobs School felt a deeply personal connection to Violette, most especially her students," said Jacobs Dean Gwyn Richards. "One can imagine how it must feel as a young dancer to study with such a luminary and to connect to such history, such pedagogy and such wonder. She lit our world, as she did the world of ballet, moving with such joy and imagination, teaching with such passion and living a life in such an engaged way."

"Violette was not just a wonderful person, with a wicked sense of humor, she had been a truly remarkable principal dancer, especially with New York City Ballet," said Michael Vernon, chair of the Jacobs School Ballet Department. "For us here at the Ballet Department at the Jacobs School of Music, the most important contribution she made was with her incredible teaching. She served as a beacon of information for our dancers, not just for the Balanchine ballets that had been created for her, but all of his repertoire, as well as for all of the classical repertoire that she had intimate knowledge of. The generosity in her coaching illuminated all our performances. She will be missed."

Verdy was born on Dec. 1, 1933, in the working-class seacoast town of Pont-l'Abbe in northwest France and christened Nelly Armande Guillerm by her parents. She changed her name to Violette Verdy at age 15.

She was raised by her strict single mother after her father died when she was an infant. She was a very active child, and a doctor once advised her mother to "tire her out harmoniously," which prompted her mother to steer her toward ballet from the age of 6.

In 1942, with Pont-l'Abbe occupied by the Nazis, she moved with her mother to Paris, where she began her ballet training under the tutelage of Carlotta Zambelli and later with Rousanne Sarkissian and Victor Gsovsky.

After rumors of an allied invasion and the city becoming a battleground, Jeanne Guillerm moved her daughter back to Pont-l'Abbe in 1944. At the end of the summer, after the city was liberated, they returned to Paris, and Nelly resumed her training.

Her first engagement, in 1945, was with Roland Petit Ballets des Champs-Elysees, later called Ballets de Paris, with which she toured the United States for the first time in 1953 -- as Violette Verdy.

In 1954, she accepted an invitation from the London Festival Ballet to join the company for a season in London and an American tour. After her return to Europe, she danced the full-length "Cinderella" and "Romeo and Juliet" as guest ballerina with Milan's Teatro alla Scala. She was asked to join American Ballet Theatre in 1957. There, she premiered the title role in Birgit Culberg's "Miss Julie" as well as many other roles.

Upon invitation of George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, Verdy joined New York City Ballet in 1958. She danced more than 25 principal roles in a performance career that extended through 1977.

Verdy performed with over 50 companies on such stages as the Paris Opera, La Scala, Bolshoi Theatre, Mariinsky Theatre, Metropolitan Opera, Convent Garden, David H. Koch Theater and the White House (by invitation of President Gerald Ford). She was a principal dancer with Ballets des Champs-Elysées and Ballets de Paris (1945-56), London Festival Ballet (1954-55), Ballet Rambert (1957), American Ballet Theatre (1957-58) and New York City Ballet (1958-77).

She performed in over 100 different ballets with works by more than 50 choreographers, including those of the classical canon: "Giselle," "Swan Lake," "The Sleeping Beauty," "Les Sylphides," "Don Quixote," "La Sylphide," "Romeo and Juliet," "Cinderella" and "Coppélia." Ballets created especially for Verdy include Roland Petit's "Le Loup"; George Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux," "Jewels," "La Source," "Sonatine," "Liebeslieder Walzer," "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," "Episodes," "The Figure in the Carpet," "Electronics,” "Glinkiana" and "Choral Variations on Bach's 'Vom Himmel Hoch'"; Jerome Robbins' "Dances at a Gathering," "In the Night" and "A Beethoven Pas de Deux"; and Balanchine/Robbins' "Pulcinella."

Verdy worked as a teacher and coach with over 150 professional companies and schools worldwide and visited many more around the United States when she served as a scout for the Ford Foundation and The School of American Ballet. She served as principal guest teacher to The School of American Ballet, New York City, and as artistic advisor to the Académie Américaine de Danse de Paris. She was invited to teach at the Paris Opera Ballet for the past several summers.

Verdy had many firsts to her credit, including the first woman to be artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet (1977-80), the first non-Russian woman to be invited to teach at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow since the Russian Revolution of 1917 (2004, 2005) and the first to hold a university faculty chair position solely for ballet.

She appeared on stage and film, and she was featured on British, French, Canadian and American television. Appearances include the title role in Ludwig Berger’s film "Ballerina" (1950) and Jacqueline Audry's film "Olivia" (1951); Montherlant’s play "Malatesta" with Jean-Louis Barrault (1950); MGM’s film "The Glass Slipper" (1955); NBC's "Bell Telephone Hour," "Dinah Shore Show" and "The Mike Douglas Show"; CBS’ "Carol Burnett Show"; CBC's "The Still Point" and "The Nutcracker" (by Neumeier); BBC's "Music for You" and "Turned Out Proud"; PBS’ tribute to George Balanchine, "Dance in America," and American Masters' "Jerome Robbins -- Something to Dance About"; Dominique Delouche's "Comme les Oiseaux" (2009) and "Balanchine in Paris" (2011); and the documentary "Budding Stars of the Paris Opera Ballet" (2013).

Verdy was a published author of children’s literature, including "Of Swans, Sugarplums and Satin Slippers: Ballet Stories for Children" (1991) and "Giselle: A Role for a Lifetime" (1970). She has been the subject of two biographies: "Ballerina: A Biography of Violette Verdy" by Victoria Huckenpahler (1978) and "Violette Verdy" by Dominique Delouche and Florence Poudru (2008); and of three documentaries: Rebecca Eaton's "Violette: A Life in Dance" (1982), Dominique Delouche’s "Violette & Mr. B" (2001) and the VAI documentary "Violette Verdy: The Artist Teacher at Chautauqua Institution" (2009). She was on the cover of the March 16, 1959, edition of Life magazine.

Verdy was the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions. Most notably, she was awarded two medals from the French Government: the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1971 and Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’honneur in 2009. She holds honorary doctorates from Goucher College, Boston Conservatory and Skidmore College. In 1992, her hometown of Pont-l'Abbé, France, named its new theater auditorium in her honor. In 2000, she was the recipient of Chautauqua Institution's Kay Logan Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 2001, she was awarded the Gala XV Women of Distinction Award from Birmingham-Southern College and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from CORPS de Ballet International. In 2003, The School of American Ballet awarded her its Artistic Achievements Award, and in 2007, she received the Ballet2000 Irène Lidova Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2009, The School of American Ballet honored Verdy with the Mae L. Wien Faculty Award for Distinguished Service, and in 2011, she received the Jerome Robbins Award.

Thoughts and remembrances of Verdy may be left at the blog created in her honor by the Jacobs School of Music.

Related Links

Violette Verdy

Violette Verdy

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Violette Verdy

Violette Verdy in "Emeralds" from "Jewels" by George Balanchine, 1967 | Photo by Martha Swope

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Violette Verdy

Violette Verdy in her prime | Photo by Martha Swope

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Violette Verdy

"Pulcinella" rehearsal with Edward Villella and George Balanchine, 1972

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