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January 17: America’s Ballerina

January 17, 2014

1005961lNora Kaye (Koreff), the first American ballerina to gain international fame, was born in New York on this date in 1920. She began her training at the age of 8, and by 15 was performing in the corps of the Metropolitan Opera. She was the prima ballerina with the Ballet Theater (later the American Ballet Theater) for several years, and also danced in a number of Broadway shows, but it was in her role as Hagar in Antony Tudor’s 1942 ballet, Pillar of Fire, that she made her reputation as a powerfully dramatic dancer. Kaye’s father had been a Stanislavsky-trained actor at the Moscow Art Theater, and Kaye applied "the method" to ballet. "Her sublime acting in Pillar of Fire," wrote Sono Osato, who also danced in the piece, "enlarged the possibilities of balletic expression for all time." Kaye also danced in the New York City Ballet with Jerome Robbins as her choreographer, and after her retirement in 1960 she became a film producer with her second husband (her first was Isaac Stern), Herbert Ross, with whom she created such films as Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), The Last of Sheila (1973), Funny Lady and The Sunshine Boys (both 1975), and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976). Kaye’s other producing credits included The Turning Point (1977), Nijinsky (1980), Pennies from Heaven (1981), and The Secret of My Succe$s (1987). She died at 67 in 1987. To see her dancing with Alicia Alonso, Melissa Hayden, and Mia Slavenska (Kaye is the third in the opening scan), look below.

“As an American ballerina... I question each tradition, each interpretation, each movement. The answers I have found, sometimes right and sometimes wrong, constitute my contribution to the young American dancer of ballet: not to accept until you understand (at least to your own satisfaction), and not to dance any role, ancient or new, until you do understand. This urge to question and to discover is, I think, the trademark of American ballet.” —Nora Kaye