Dear Jacobs School of Music Family,
It is with sadness that I share the news of the death of Violette Verdy, who died today in Bloomington, Ind. Violette had been on the ballet faculty of the Jacobs School of Music since 1996.
The inaugural recipient of the Kathy Ziliak Anderson Chair in Ballet, in 2010, she was elevated to Distinguished Professor in 2005 and awarded the IU President’s Medal for Excellence in 2013.
Violette was born on December 1, 1933, in Pont-l’Abbé, a working-class seacoast town in northwestern France. She was christened Nelly Armande Guillerm by her parents, changing her name to Violette Verdy at age 15.
Nelly was raised by her strict single mother after her father died when she was an infant. A very active child, a doctor once advised her mother to “tire her out harmoniously,” which prompted her mother to steer her toward ballet from the age of six.
With Pont-l’Abbé occupied by the Nazis, in 1942, Nelly moved with her mother to Paris, where she began her ballet training under the tutelage of Carlotta Zambelli and later with Rousane Sarkissian and Victor Gsovsky.
After rumors of an allied invasion and the city becoming a battleground, Jeanne Guillerm moved her daughter back to Pont-l’Abbé in 1944. At the end of the summer, after the city was liberated, they returned to Paris, and Nelly resumed her training.
Her first engagement, in 1945, was with Roland Petis Ballets des Champs-Elysees, later called Ballets de Paris, with which she toured the United States for the first time in 1953—as Violette Verdy.
In 1954, she accepted an invitation from the London Festival Ballet to join the company for a season in London and an American tour. After her return to Europe, she danced the full-length Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet as guest ballerina with Milan’s Teatro Alla Scala. She was asked to join American Ballet Theatre in 1957. There, she premiered the title role in Birgit Culberg’s Miss Julie as well as many other roles.
Upon invitation of George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, Violette joined the New York City Ballet in 1958. She danced more than 25 principal roles in a performance career that extended through 1976. Balanchine created roles for her in such ballets as Liebeslieder Waltzer, Episodes, Jewels, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Glinkaiana, Sonatine, La Source, Pulcinella, and the second act pas de deux in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Jerome Robbins developed roles for her in Dances at a Gathering, In the Night, and Beethoven Pas de Deux.
Violette accepted numerous engagements as a guest ballerina with most of the major American companies and was a frequent guest at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and on tour. Internationally, she appeared with England’s Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, Dame Margot Fonteyn’s RAD Gala in London, Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet Rambert, Stuttgart, Munich, and Hamburg ballets. During her frequent guest engagements, her repertoire encompassed the classics Giselle, Swan Lake, La Sylphide, The Sleeping Beauty, and Coppelia.
Film performances were also accepted during this time, including a starring role in Dream Ballerina, and appearances with the Madeleine Renaud-Jean-Louis Barrault Company. Since 1949, Violette was featured frequently on French, British, Canadian, and American television. The documentary Violette, A Life in Dance, produced by WGBH, Boston, was released in 1982. In 2001, Dominique Delouche’s documentary Violette et Mr. B. premiered in France and the United States.
She is the author of two children’s books, Giselle: A Role for a Lifetime, published in 1970 by McGraw Hill and reissued in 1977 by Marcel Dekker, and Of Swans, Sugar Plums, and Satin Slippers, published in 1991 by Scholastic Books. Both were illustrated by Caldecott award-winning artist Marcia Brown. Violette’s biography, Ballerina, by Victoria Huckenpahler, was published in 1976.
Numerous awards and honors have been presented to Violette, including the Mademoiselle Award in 1958 and the prestigious Dance Magazine Award in 1968. She was named Doctor of Humane Letters at Skidmore College, 1971, and Doctor of Arts at both Goucher College, 1987, and Boston Conservatory, 1997. She was awarded two medals from the French Government—the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1971 and Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’honneur in 2009. On two separate occasions in 1976, President and Mrs. Ford invited Violette to dance at the White House and the Capitol for state functions.
She was active on committees for the National Endowment for the Arts and Fulbright International Scholarships, and participated on many dance panels in the United States as well as seminars for the Arts and Humanities. She also served with the British Arts Council to assist with evaluations and nominations of the Royal Ballet Company. Her hometown in Pont-l’Abbe, France, gave her special recognition in 1992, when it named its new theater auditorium in her honor. Edward Villella and the Miami City Ballet asked her to coach her original Balanchine roles for the Violette Verdy Festival. Kay Logan’s Award for Excellence in Teaching was given to her in 2000 at the Chautauqua Institution. In 2001, Birmingham-Southern College awarded Violette the Gala XV Women of Distinction Award. In the same year, Ballet Teachers in Higher Education CORPS de Ballet, Inc. presented her the Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2003, the School of American Ballet bestowed their Artistic Achievement Award on her.
In 1977, Violette became the first woman appointed artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet; she served in that capacity until 1980. That year, E. Virginia Williams, founder of the Boston Ballet, invited her to join her as the company’s co-artistic director. Violette remained with the Boston Ballet until 1984, serving as the sole artistic director during 1983 and 1984. In 1984, she returned to New York City Ballet, where she was teaching associate.
In addition to teaching at New York City Ballet, she accepted teaching residencies and choreographic commissions at various institutions of higher education, including Harvard University, Boston University, University of Utah, Goucher College, Florida State University at Tallahassee, Skidmore College, Harid Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, Texas Christian University, New Mexico University, New York University, and North Carolina School of the Arts. Violette sat on the jury and has taught girls’ classes at Prix de Lausanne. She judged at various other national and international dance competitions and made appraisals of several international dance companies, schools, and university dance departments.
I invite you to share your memories of Violette on our remembrance website. As we learn of any services or memorial events, we will share that information with you.
Jacobs School of Music