Melissa Hayden showed unparalleled versatility and range in her ballet dancing during a successful career that spanned decades. Hayden began her training at fifteen, paying for her own lessons, before moving to New York, and dancing with the Radio Music Ballet Company. Hayden joined the American Ballet Theatre in 1945 and toured with the company before joining the New York City Ballet in 1948, where she remained until 1973. Choreographer George Balanchine began choreographing roles for her, and she rose to every challenge, dancing alone and with her preferred partner, Jacques D’Amboise. When she retired, she was honored with the Handel Medallion, New York’s highest cultural award. She went on to teach at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem for twenty years.
A ballet dancer possessing technical virtuosity and dramatic brilliance, Melissa Hayden thrilled her audiences with consistently excellent performances in a career that spanned four decades. Although her association with the New York City Ballet dominated her career, she performed with other ballet companies, in film, and on Broadway. Critics recognized, early in her career, that she possessed uncommon strength and energy. As her dancing matured, Hayden was able to modulate both qualities into a lyrical mode when appropriate, so that she danced an extraordinary range of roles in the course of her long career.
Early Life and Family
Hayden was born Mildred Herman, April 23, 1923, in Toronto, Canada. Neither of her parents, Kate Weinberg and Jacob Herman, who had immigrated from the region surrounding Kiev in Russia, had any artistic talents. Her father operated a successful wholesale fruit and vegetable business. Her sister Leola was eight years her senior; her sister Annette was three years younger. Hayden started her ballet training fairly late, at age fifteen, with Boris Volkoff, an influential Toronto teacher. After five years of study with Volkoff, for which, when she was out of high school, she paid by working as a bookkeeper, she decided it was necessary to continue her training in New York.
She found a job with the Radio City Music Hall Ballet Company and spent every spare moment taking class. In 1945, she joined the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and spent two and a half years touring with that company, dancing in its first production of Jerome Robbins’s Interplay (1945) as well as other important ballets. While she was with ABT, the choreographer Antony Tudor advised her to change her name. When she asked for suggestions, he chose the name, Melissa Hayden. To family, close friends, and devoted fans, however, she remained Millie.
When ABT disbanded temporarily, in 1948, Hayden joined the company of Cuban ballet dancer Alicia Alonso for a season. In 1949, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein invited Hayden to join their fledgling company, the New York City Ballet (NYCB). She remained there until her retirement in 1973, excluding a brief return to ABT in 1954. Early in the history of the NYCB, Hayden was one of a select group of dancers chosen by Balanchine, ballet master, and chief choreographer, to work on technique on a daily basis for an intense six-week period. Balanchine created a number of significant roles for Hayden. That he recognized the versatility of her dancing is apparent. The stark, rhythmic precision of her dancing in Agon (1957) contrasted with the lush romanticism of Liebeslieder Walzer (1960), her unabashed bravura as Miss Liberty Bell in Stars and Stripes (1958), and her mercurial delicacy as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962).
Hayden also danced key roles in Jerome Robbins’s Age of Anxiety (1950) and In the Night (1970), Frederick Ashton’s Illuminations (1950), and John Taras’s Jeux (1966). Of equal importance, as one of the company’s most dependable and resilient performers, she danced a vast number of roles within the repertory, very often paired with a favorite partner, Jacques D’Amboise. For her retirement gala on May 16, 1973, Balanchine created Cortège Hongrois in her honor. That year she also received the Handel Medallion, New York City’s highest cultural award. Following her retirement from the New York City Ballet in 1973, Hayden became artist-in-residence at Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1976, she went to Seattle to assume the directorship of the Pacific Northwest Ballet. A year later, she returned to New York to start her own school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In 1983, she joined the faculty of the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. The University awarded her its highest faculty honor in 2002, given in recognition of those who have “made the greatest contributions to the welfare of the human race.”
Hayden also maintained a very full family life. She and her husband, lawyer-businessman Don Coleman, whom she married January 29, 1954, had a son, Stuart (b. 1954), and a daughter, Jennifer (b. 1961).
Hayden passed away on August 9, 2006.
Selected Works by Melissa Hayden
Dancer to Dancer (1981).
Offstage and On (1963).
Chujoy, Anatole, and P.W. Manchester. The Dance Encyclopedia (1967).
EJ; Gruen, John. The Private World of Ballet (1970).
Gustaitis, Rasa. Melissa Hayden Ballerina (1967).
Hayden, Melissa. Clippings file, and Interview by Jocklyn Armstrong, tape recording. January 11, 1975. New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
Koegler, Horst. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet (1977).