Death of prima ballerina Melissa Hayden

August 9, 2006

Melissa Hayden.

Photograph by Martha Swope.

Mildred Herman came to ballet late in life.  Though her Russian-trained teacher Boris Volkoff told the 15-year-old that she was not extremely gifted, Mildred made up for a lack of natural talent with determination and a tough work ethic.  Only three months after moving to New York from her native Toronto in 1943, she was dancing in the Radio City Music Hall ballet corps.  Told she would not be able to combine performing four times a day with taking any outside classes, she nonetheless ran seven blocks between the theater and her dance studio to take two ballet classes each day.

She joined the Ballet Theater in 1945, where the choreographer Antony Tudor renamed her Melisa Hayden.  After Ballet Theater disbanded temporarily, she danced on Broadway and joined other dancers from the company in 1948 for a nine-month tour of Cuba and Latin America by the newly organized Ballet Alicia Alonso.  In 1949 acclaimed choreographer George Balanchine invited her to join the New York City Ballet.  Dancing with the company longer than any other ballerina of her generation, Hayden remained with New York City Ballet for 24 years, from 1949 to 1973, with the exception of two interim years at Ballet Theater.

Those interim years revealed how torn Hayden was by conflicting creative impulses: Balanchine would not choreograph a new ballet role for her, where Ballet Theatre offered her featured performances that garnered acclaim from audiences.  But Balanchine’s ballets were unique in their demands for a performer.  She later wrote, “To dance Balanchine’s ballets successfully, we must subordinate our personalities and blend with all the other dancers onstage.  To do this means that the audience will not see us as individuals.  In ballets of other choreographers and especially story ballets, the opposite is true.”

But with the City Ballet, Hayden performed in new work by other choreographers like Frederic Ashton and Jerome Robbins.  She notably appeared as Profane Love, with one foot bare and one in a toeshoe as a turbulent allegorical figure in Illuminations, Ashton’s meditation on the poet Arthur Rimbaud.  And for Balanchine, she was the first and vibrant Titania in his Midsummer Night’s Dream, an especially vivacious Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker and the womanly and emotional Odette in Swan Lake.

At her retirement gala in September 1973, Ms. Hayden was honored with a new ballet that Balanchine created for her.  At the same performance, Mayor John V. Lindsay presented her with New York City’s Handel Medallion, which praised her as an “extraordinary ballerina who has filled the hearts of her audiences with joy.”

After retiring from performing, Ms. Hayden headed the ballet department at Skidmore College and the School of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, where she was briefly artistic director.  Beginning in 1983, she taught at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, where Chancellor John Mauceri said her “astonishing 23 years” as a mentor at the school “speaks to her genius, commitment and passion for the dance.”  During her tenure, Hayden taught more than 6,000 students.

“Blunt honesty and generosity in her life and dancing, that was her name,” said Jacques d’Amboise, her longtime partner.

Watch a video clip of Hayden’s stand-in performance for Claire Bloom in Charlie Chaplin’s film Limelight, which in addition to Hayden’s inspired dancing includes a fierce stage slap of Bloom by Chaplin.

Sources: “Melissa Hayden,” Dance Teacher;Melissa Hayden, a Vibrant Star of New York City Ballet, Dies at 83,” New York Times, August 10, 2006; “August 9: The Prima Ballerina,” Jewish Currents.


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