Last modified: Friday, February 25, 2005
Distinguished Professor -- Founders Day 2005
School of Music
Indiana University Bloomington
Appointed to IU faculty, 1996
The Japanese call them "living treasures."
They are those artists and artisans "who embody the traditions of the past and pass them along to new generations of apprentices," says Eugene O'Brien, executive associate dean of the Indiana University School of Music.
Violette Verdy is one of the premier ballet dancers of the twentieth century and has dedicated her post-performance life to training future generations of dancers. Her remarkable achievements as a dancer, teacher, and administrator in several of the world's foremost dance companies and ballet schools have garnered her international acclaim.
"Violette is truly a 'living treasure,' one of the greatest ballerinas from an era of great dancers and choreographers whose teaching now transmits her skill, her art, and her impeccable style to new generations of young dancers," says School of Music Dean Gwyn Richards.
Born in Pont-L'Abbe, France, Verdy began her dancing career in 1945 as a soloist with Roland Petit's Ballets des Champs Elysée (later called Les Ballets de Paris). She toured the United States for the first time in 1953 and, five years later, was invited by Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine to join the New York City Ballet as principal dancer, a position she held for 18 years until her retirement from the stage in 1976.
While at the New York City Ballet, she danced more than 25 principal roles. Balanchine, the legendary choreographer and director, created many roles especially for her, including roles in such ballets as Liebeslieder Waltzer, Episodes, Jewels, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, and Sonatina. Distinguished American choreographer Jerome Robbins also created roles for her in Dances at a Gathering and In the Night, among other works.
Verdy also appeared as a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and the London Festival Ballet as well as a guest principal dancer with many of the world's leading dance companies. She was a frequent guest at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and appeared internationally with England's Royal Ballet at Covent Garden; the Paris Opera Ballet; and the Stuttgart, Munich, and Hamburg Ballets. Her repertoire of guest engagements included Giselle, Swan Lake, La Sylphide, Sleeping Beauty, and Coppelia.
The ballerina has received a dizzying array of honors, including three honorary doctorates and numerous awards, including the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres, conferred by the president of France. President and Mrs. Gerald Ford invited her to dance at the White House in 1976, Brittany, France honored her in 1992 by naming its new theater auditorium in her honor, and Edward Villella and the Miami City Ballet asked her to coach her original Balanchine roles for the Violette Verdy Festival they staged. In 2003, she received the Artistic Achievement Award of the School of American Ballet in New York City.
In 1949, she had a starring role in the movie Dream Ballerina. Additionally, she has been the subject of a 1978 biography, Ballerina, written by Victoria Huckenpahler, as well as two documentaries, Violette: A Life in Dance (1982), produced by Boston PBS station WGBH, and Violette et Mr. B (2001), created by filmmaker Dominique Delouche for ARTE France.
Verdy also choreographed for several national and international ballet companies over the course of her illustrious career. Choregraphy is close to her heart, and that love is reflected in the two children's books she has written: Gisele: A Role for a Lifetime (1970) and Of Swans, Sugar Plums, and Satin Slippers (1991).
Upon her retirement, Verdy undertook a new career as an administrator and teacher. In 1977, she was the first woman to be appointed Artistic Director of the Paris Opera Ballet. She held this position until 1980, when she was invted to be Co-Artistic Director of the Boston Ballet. In 1984, she began an active teaching career with the New York City Ballet, an association that has continued beyond her appointment to the IU faculty in 1996. Her glittering reputation as a teacher has resulted in a large number of academic institutions, professional companies, and ballet schools requesting her services.
"Being a great ballerina does not necessarily translate into being a good teacher, but Violette brings to the studio not only her broad range of knowledge, but also the same exceptional generosity of spirit that so defines her life," says Peter Martins, Ballet Master-in-Chief of the New York City Ballet Company.
During the celebration of Balanchine's centennial in 2004, ballet companies worldwide asked Verdy to assist them in recreating the choreographer's roles, including several of those written for her. In an extraordinary turn of events, the Bolshoi Ballet, which had been isolated from artistic developments in the West during the Cold War, invited Verdy to Moscow. In accepting the invitation, she became the first non-Russian female teacher to work with the Bolshoi since the 1917 Russian Revolution.
In a letter published as a preface to Victoria Huckenpahler's 1978 biography of Verdy, the legendary Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev writes, "To me she illustrated all the finest qualities of the Kirov school in which I had been trained."