I am currently reading Deborah Jowitt's biography of Jerome Robbins---the third book I have read about him in the past three years. The other two were the Greg Lawrence biography, "Dance With Demons" and Christine Conrad's "That Broadway Man, That Ballet Man".
Whenever I read about Robbins my thoughts go back to Wilma Curley. I knew she had passed away but didn't know when. I found an obituary on the Web and learned that she had died on October 16, 1999; her married name was Harrison; she had two sons and two grand-daughters. She was 62 years old. She was invaluable to Robbins as a dancer and later as an assistant and friend.
I knew Wilma as a child when she studied with George Chaffee in the late 1940's. Wilma's mother, who brought her to class three times a week, was the absolute antithesis of the pushy ballet mama. She was a modest woman, and was friendly and well-liked by the other students. Having known her as a child, the qualities that later made her a favorite of Robbins were very much in evidence. Technically, she could 'do anything' and 'try anything'. Her slim long legs were well proportioned and she could go on pointe with very soft shoes. But what was really unique about her was her matter-of-fact attitude to Dance. Her view of ballet was unsentimental; she was not the little girl who dreamed of a pink tutu with a tiara on her head. As a youngster she could appear to be lackadaisical. I think it was this very quality that enabled her to get along so well with Robbins. Greg Lawrence in his Biography says "...she (Wilma) is one of the few who were never intimidated by him..." This quality of indifference enabled her to cut through the pomp, even as a child.
As can sometimes happen in a small ballet studio, the private life of the teacher can interfere with the stability of the class to the detriment of the students. This was the case at our Studio in late 1948. My friend and fellow student Ben Harkarvy and I were planning to leave and we both approached Mrs. Curley and urged her to take Wilma to the School of American Ballet. Mrs. Curley was reluctant at first; she was fearful of offending the teacher. But we did convince her that Wilma had a great talent that would be wasted if she was not in a more competitive atmosphere---and in a place where her gifts would be ultimately realized. (I, too, went to SAB,---but that's another story which I might tell some day.) Whenever I read of her in a Robbins biography, I smile a little when I think of how I helped bring her to his attention.
Actually, some one in the Robbins family did come in contact with Wilma in January of 1948. Robbins' sister Sonia was at a ballet concert given by George Chaffee in Manhasset, Long Island. She danced under the name of Wilma Frances and performed a solo in a Chaffee ballet to Handel's Alcina Suite, "Vignettes". (One of the dancers in the group was a nanny to Sonia's two children; I also took part in the performance). 09/18/04
Postscript: I was thrilled to receive the following comment on the above:
On a lark today I went and googled my mom's name and this little blog came up. It told a story about my mom that I didn't know. There are many stories of course because she had a rather busy career in dance. And she told me many of them. Anyway thanks for a very nice memory of my mom.