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Dancer Nora Kaye performs the role of Hagar in "Pillar of Fire"

April 8, 1942

Nora Kaye's performance as Hagar in the world premiere of Antony Tudor's Pillar of Fire, on April 8, 1942, was hailed by the New York Times as "superb." The Times reviewer wrote that Kaye danced the role "so beautifully that it is impossible to conceive of anybody else doing it." With that performance, Kaye launched a career as one of the world's prima ballerinas.

Born in 1920 and raised in New York City, Kaye began studying ballet at age five, and made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera's corps de ballet at fifteen. She also studied at the School of American Ballet. After dancing with the American Ballet, a company founded by Balanchine and Lincoln Kerstein, she left ballet for a few years to perform in musical comedies including Virginia (1937) and Stars in Your Eyes (1939). She also spent nine months in the Radio City Music Hall corps de ballet. Kaye returned to the ballet world in 1939, when she became a charter member of Ballet Theater, now called American Ballet Theater. Her first important character role came in 1941, in the Tudor ballet Gala Performance.

But it was her role in Pillar of Fire that catapulted Kaye to fame. Combining technical perfection with the ability to convey complex emotions through a remarkable economy of movement, Kaye gave what a critic called one of "the great examples of tragic acting of its generation." By the next year, she was dancing most of the principal female roles for Ballet Theater. In 1951, Kaye left Ballet Theater for the New York City Ballet, but stayed there only for three years, after which she returned to Ballet Theater. Although she retired from the stage in 1961, she remained involved with the company, serving as its associate artistic director from 1977 to 1983. During her later years, she also worked on film projects, producing or co-producing, among others, The Turning Point, The Seven Percent Solution, and Pennies From Heaven.

During her years on the stage, Kaye was known mainly for her roles in Antony Tudor's psychological dramas. However, she also danced a variety of other roles. Jerome Robbins, John Taras, and Herbert Ross all choreographed ballets specifically for Kaye. After her retirement, dramatic roles like the ones she excelled in became less popular, as American ballet returned to its classical roots. However, when Kaye died on February 28, 1987, she was remembered as a giant in her field. Tudor, whose ballets shaped so much of her career, put it simply, "there can be only one Nora Kaye."

See also: Dance Performance in the United States.

Sources: New York Times, April 9, 1942, March 1, 1987, March 15, 1987.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Dancer Nora Kaye performs the role of Hagar in "Pillar of Fire"." (Viewed on April 20, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/apr/08/1942/nora-kaye>.