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Ballerinas/danseurs who met tragic ends in real life

93 posts in this topic

I was just reading about Lidia Ivanova in The Great Russian Dancers. I had first read about her tragic fate (everyone in the know in the then-dance world says it was planned) in Tamara Geva's memoir, Split Seconds. I'm sure both Danilova and Balanchine had strong beliefs that Ivanova was taken out.

That made me think of Emma Livry (1842-1862), who died after her skirt caught fire from a gas jet suspended above the stage.

Both were very young, Ivanova being only 21.

What other dancers come to mind as meeting tragic ends while in their prime and already known? If we include those who died by their own hand, the list could be quite expansive and tell a story about the rigors and/or politics of ballet life felling some of ballet's best and brightest.

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What happened exactly to Lidia Ivanova?

Well, there is poor little Giuseppina Bozzachi

(who had premiered the role of Swanilda in "Coppélia" shortly before) who died on Nov 23, 1870, just on the day of her 17th birthday, from "variole" (I don't know the English name of that illness), it was a tragic period as it was during the French-Prussian war, in a hard winter and Paris was besieged by the Prussian army.

Yuri Soloviev died in 1977, when he was 36- Koegler's book says "was found shot in his datcha, in rather mysterious circumstances".

Nijinsky wasn't especially young when he died, but one can consider he really had a tragic end...

(And actually Livry died in 1863- she was burnt in 1862, but the poor creature survived 8 months before dying...)

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Patrick Bissell (ABT) comes immediately to mind when I try to recall tragic deaths, as do Edward Stierle and Maximiliano Zomosa (Joffrey).

(BTW-"variole" is smallpox - an awful way to go.)

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Thanks for the explanation, Major Mel!

How did the dancers you mention die?

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Joseph Duell jumped out a window to his death, I believe in 1988, soon after he had attained stardom at NYCB. It was said he was suffering from depression.

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Patrick Bissell died of a drug overdose one Christmas. Eddie Stierle died of AIDS -- not sure about Zomosa, so I'll let someone else answer that.

There were quite a few dancers who were burned to death by gaslight, although Livry was the most famous (there was an English dancer, too, one of John Weaver's, but I can't think of her name.)

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What a terrible day it was when I came home from work and saw the picture of Joe Duell on the news. He was a handsome, kind person who showed much promise as a choreographer.

Stierle died of AIDS at 23 years of age. He too showed much promise as a choreographer.

I did not know Zomosa, but I believe he stabbed himself to death, seeing no other way out of a love triangle.

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Emma Livry was the first to pop into my mind...probably one of the more well-known.

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Heidi Geunther at Boston Ballet a few years ago. I think official cause of death was listed as a heart attack

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I still miss Joe Duell.

Bobby Blankshine died of a drug overdose, although there were whisperings that it may not have been accidental. I saw him dance only once, but he filled in for one of my teachers once, giving a great, fun class.

Among the New York dancers lost to AIDS were Bill Carter, David Cuevas and Peter Fonseca. Peter was advancing at ABT, having danced a wonderful Frantz and a brilliant Theme before his illness took hold.

Isadora exited prematurely with a characteristically dramatic flourish.

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Just before the summer of 1924, Lidia Ivanova, Alexandra Danilova, Nikolai Efimov, Vera Zorina and George Balanchine (who were very young-marrieds) were slated to do a short tour, starting in Germany, as the Balanchine-formed group "Soviet State Dancers" during the Maryinsky's summer holidays, at the invitation of Vladimir Dmitriev. They were the "cream of the young Maryinsky crop" according to Danilova in Choura.

Ivanova was very popular and quite the party-girl. Unfortunately, those she partied with were Communist bigwigs and after awhile, Lidia just knew too much. She was perhaps too young to be discriminating and politics probably didn't mean too much to her. Her friends warned her not to continue her close relations with the "questionable characters", but she revelled in the admiration and flattery they heaped on her.

The night of Ivanova's "accident", the group was preparing to perform outdoors in Izmailovsky Park in then-Leningrad. Ivanova wasn't there yet. Shortly before the performance, the group was told she had been killed the previous day while out boating on the river.

Danilova tells in Chourathat Ivanova had phoned her the day before asking her to come along with her and her officer friends, and that she would have gladly accepted the invitation, but was not at home when the phone call came. Geva, in Split Seconds tells it differently. She has Danilova telling them that she had been asked to join Ivanova and the 3 men but that the boat only had room for 4 and that Danilova hadn't really felt like going, anyway.

The intrigue is that the men on the motorboat survived -- in fact, ropes were handed down to them from the ferry that hit the little boat. Lidia was presumably sucked under the boat and into the propeller. Her body was never recovered. There was little investigation into her death, and any inquiries were silenced in short order.

The next night the 3 rescued officers were seen having a high old time at dinner, drinking and toasting each other.

The fact that she was a casualty of the Bolshevik Revolution sunk in to the group of young dancers even more strongly over time. When they were summoned back to Russia at the end of the summer, they knew it better not to return. It was during this tour that they met up with Diaghilev, and the rest, you no doubt know.

Geva gives the most heart-rending account of the whole incident. Her descriptions breathe such life into the young Balanchine (he was only 20) and Danilova (21). If you can find a copy of Split Seconds I highly recommend it. I first read my mother's copy a few years ago and am glad to have my own now to reread when I want a taste of the times.

Choura is a brisker read, but also very revelatory of those early years and a must for anyone who wants to piece together the beginnings of the Balanchine era.

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Charles Ward -- a tall attractive dancer who died of AIDS as well. I remember him most vividly as Frantz, charmingly partnering Kirkland in a performance of Coppelia at the Kennedy Center; he was much taller than she and she just drifted down like a feather from their lifts in Act III. I think he danced the premier of ABT's production of Neumeier's Baiser de la Fee, and I'm sure I saw him in some Tetley as well. He also appears for a few minutes in The Turning Point...I recall reading that he spent time towards the end of his life helping care for others with AIDS.

Spessivetzeva also had what might be called a 'tragic' life, though she did not die young. She has been lovingly discussed on other Ballettalk threads...

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That's for remembering Charles Ward, Drew. I remember watching a tape of the Kirkland/Baryshnikov "Nutcracker" years ago and realizing, that nearly every man in that waltz of the flowers was dead -- none over 30.

Peter Fonseca of AIDS (and his brother, Paul, also a dancer, a modern one in DC); Clark Tippet, a very promising choreographer, in my book, of AIDS. Choo-San Goh, of AIDS.

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Greatly mourned by Evelyn Hart (who called him her mentor) and the dance world in Canada, especially the RWB, is Henny Jurriens, who -- along with his wife Judy -- was killed in a 2-car collision on a highway south of Winnipeg on April 9th, 1989. Their 3 year old daughter was injured but survived. They were on their way to the States to pick up their landed immigrant documents.

Jurriens joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet as a principal dancer in 1986 and became Evelyn's partner. He became artistic director of the company in 1988.

Two months later, principal dancer David Peregrine, also of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and one of Evelyn Hart's earlier partners, died in a plane crash. In response to mbjerk below (I am editing this post for clarity), yes, he was at the controls of the plane when it crashed into a mountain.

Louisville Ballet dancer, Patricia Olalde, who "displayed considerable gifts as a choreographer" (quote by Louisville Ballet's Alun Jones), also died in that crash, as did Peregrine's brother.

Just last year, the dance world lost extremely talented William Marrié, who had been principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada before being picked by Twyla Tharp to star in "Movin' Out" (as "Eddie"). On Friday, November 15, 2002, Marrié's beloved 2001 Ducati motorcycle collided with a taxicab in midtown Manhattan. He died early Saturday morning of his injuries.

He was only 33 years old, a native of Montreal. He did everything in the extreme, onstage and off. He had intense energy and joie de vivre. He only started ballet in his late teens and joined the National Ballet in 1990. He also danced with La La La Human Steps in Montreal. He was the one you watched when he was onstage, even when he partnered a wonderful ballerina.

He left behind a lot of mourning dancers on both sides of the border.

Edited for clarity and to add information.

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Darrell Barnett, Greg Huffman, Andrew Levinson, Greg Osborne, Philip Jerry - all dear friends and dancers - contemporaries of Chuck Ward, Peter and David, etc.

Great crop of American Dancers swept away.

David Peregrine from RWB died in a plane that he was flying, I believe.

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Then, of course, there are the saddest of all, those who die a living death, having danced magnificently and crashed before they could reach full potential. The body lives on, the dancer is still there, but the hopes for a long career of magnificent performances is gone. The obvious example is, alas, Gelsey Kirkland. :)

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Alexandra, were you thinking of Clara Webster?

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Mel, what you wrote reminded me of Ghislaine Fallou, a very promising POB première danseuse, who stopped dancing quite abruptly a few years ago when she was in her early 20s and never came back. (But I find it's a bit unfair and morbid to put such dancers with a "broken" career in the same category as those who passed away!)

Jacques Garnier had died of AIDS around 1989 when he was about 47 (he had been a POB sujet in the 1960s, then had left the company with Brigitte Lefèvre to create their own company the Théâtre du Silence, then had come back to the POB in the late 1970s to be the director of the GRCOP. Unfortunately, it seems that only one of his choreographies has survived). His mother had written a small book about him and especially about his last days, it really was heart-breaking.

Jorge Donn (principal dancer of Béjart's company) died from AIDS at 45 in november 1992- shortly before Dominique Bagouet (a prominent French modern dance choreographer) at 41, and Rudolf Nureyev at 54... I remember an issue of "Les Saisons de la Danse" with all those obituaries, and its late director André-Philippe Hersin, who was a close friend of Donn and Bagouet, had only written a few words instead of his usual editorials because it was too hard for him to write more...

The former POB principal Claire Motte died in 1986, when she was 49, from cancer. She had stopped performing, but was one of the POB's ballet masters, and left two young sons.

Well, that's really a depressing thread... :(

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And AIDS claimed the lives of many modern dancers and choreographers as well - Arnie Zane, Chris Gillis and Jeff Waddlington - to name just a few. Alexandra, I can never watch that ABT Nutcracker without mourning Ward, Tippet and the others.

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One of the most tragic I know of, mostly because extremely horrible circumstance was James Dunne, a former Harkness, Joffrey dancer who was murdered in Hawai in 1995. He had retired but was gaining reputation as a teacher. Very sad for me, he was a good friend with a lot more to give.

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I don't mean to belittle the death of anyone, but when a dancer is broken in the course of a career, it is as classically tragic (in the Aristotelean sense) as an actual death. (Œdipus did not die, but blinded himself, and lived out a "living death" in Colonus) Fortunately, Ms. Kirkland is still teaching, and is physically and emotionally well now, but there have been others, like Ivy Clear of an earlier Joffrey era, who retired in her twenties, and could not tolerate to be around or even talk about dancing.

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Treading gently into this thread, I hope we won't get too morbid. The sorts of tragedies described here still in living memory can provoke very emotional reactions.

It's so important to remember these people and to avoid the wasteful loss of other lives, but to take Emma Livry as an example, isn't it sad and ironic for a talented dancer to have her death to be the thing that defined her life? Is that all she is to be remembered for?

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Well, Livry was only 17, and many felt that her death ended the hope of reviving the Romantic ballet (imagine if there were a 17-year-old Farrellova who had an instinctive sense for dancing Balanchine and everyone was imagining her in all those roles, and anticipating the pleasure of watching her for the next 30 years).

So in a sense she's remembered because her death was so horrible (read Guest; he does a lovely blow by blow, right down to the butterfly fluttering over her casket all the way to the cemetery) but also because it was not only a thwarted life and a thwarted career, but a thwarted era, one of the great What Might Have Beens in dance history.

(And, after all, if you start a thread asking for tragic deaths, it's gonna be morbid :( )

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Although I started the thread with historical references, it quickly elicited names of dancers who died too young who are in our current memory.

That it may evoke strong emotions, especially when we knew a dancer, is not a bad thing. It may be therapeutic to be able to have a moment to grieve again.

And, certainly, to talk about a deceased dancer who had so much more to do, allows their star to shine a little again.

I know it does me good to think about Joseph Duell, Patrick Bissell, Christopher Gillis, Jeff Duncan, and many others, from time to time. Just remembering their brilliance makes me happy they graced the dance world when they did and that I was there to see it.

That they died tragically is so very hard to take, but, that's the risk of being alive. Many of us may die tragically as well. It's built into the nature of life that some die sweetly, maybe even painlessly, at a ripe old age, and others have to go through hell, perhaps long before their time.

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