Ballerina Marie-Jeanne dies at 87

Published: Friday, January 4, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 6:46 p.m.

Marie-Jeanne, a George Balanchine ballerina and an original member of the New York City Ballet who later influenced scores of Gainesville dancers, died Dec. 28 in Austin, Tex. She was 87 and had moved to Texas in the mid-'90s after living in Alachua County for a total of about 20 years.

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Marie-Jeanne around 1953. Marie-Jeanne, an American ballerina long associated with George Balanchine and a member of the New York City Ballet during its first season and an instructor with Gainesville's Joni Messler Studio of Dance, died on Dec. 28. She was 87.


The cause was congestive heart failure, said her son, Dwight D. Godwin, of Seymour, Conn.

Marie-Jeanne was acclaimed for the speed of her jumps and beats but could temper her dazzle with other qualities when demanded. Commenting on a 1948 performance of Balanchine's "Serenade," a ballet requiring lyricism as well as brilliance, the critic Walter Terry wrote that "although it is in her dance nature to be quick, staccato, even nervous of movement, she brought a fine fluidity of motion to her assignment."

Marie-Jeanne Pelus - she dropped her surname professionally because she thought balletgoers might find it awkward - was born in Manhattan on her family's kitchen table after her mother, a French milliner, went into labor while her father, an Italian chef, was preparing dinner. She saw ballet for the first time on New Year's Eve 1933, when she attended a performance by Col. W. de Basil's Ballets Russes. It so excited her that two days later she persuaded her parents to enroll her at the School of American Ballet, which had just been founded by Balanchine and the arts patron Lincoln Kirstein.

She danced with Ballet Caravan, a small touring company Kirstein organized to promote American choreography, from 1937 to 1940. In 1941, she joined American Ballet Caravan, an amalgamation of Ballet Caravan and the American Ballet, Balanchine's first American company. These combined forces toured Latin America in 1941, when Marie-Jeanne created ballerina roles in two major plotless works by Balanchine: "Concerto Barocco" and "Ballet Imperial."

In "I Remember Balanchine," an anthology of reminiscences by his dancers edited by Francis Mason (Doubleday, 1991), Marie-Jeanne recalled that she responded to Balanchine almost instinctively: "What he gave me I just did. I did it the way he wanted, of course, and he didn't have to tell me how or why."

She said she briefly lived with Balanchine around 1940. But in her reminiscences she admitted that the relationship ended because "he knew I wanted children and he didn't want children." In 1942 she married Alfonso de Quesada, an Argentine impresario she had met while on tour; they divorced in 1947.

Over the years, Marie-Jeanne danced with many companies including the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the mid-to-late 1940s. In 1948 she appeared with Ballet Society, a forerunner of the New York City Ballet, as it was officially named that year. Then she went to Europe with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, returning briefly to New York City Ballet before retiring in 1954. She also wrote two dance-related novels for young people: "Yankee Ballerina" (1941) and "Opera Ballerina" (1948).

In 1957 she married the photographer and filmmaker Dwight S. Godwin, who died in 1983. In the 1960s, the couple moved to Alachua County where he began a tenure at the University of Florida and she became prominent in the Gainesville.

Marie-Jeanne began teaching at the Joni Messler Studio of Dance in 1967 and also contributed to the Gainesville Ballet Theatre. "She said, 'Joni ... I am giving you what Balanchine taught me and what I teach you, you will give to your students,' " said Messler, founder of the Gainesville Ballet.

Along with many other pieces, Marie-Jeanne choreographed the "Lemon Drop" solo of the "The Little Match Girl" - incorporating a 2-minute piece of Balachine choreography the latter had taught to her in the 1940s. "It's exactly the same," said Messler. Balachine's choreography remains a highlight of "The Little Match Girl," which is produced every December at the Phillips Center.

In the 1970s, Marie-Jeanne enrolled in classes taught by Kim Tuttle, who was director of the ballet program at Santa Fe Community College.

"She hadn't danced in a long time, but just wanted to get into class for the 'feeling,' " Tuttle said. "She stood in first position, with her feet several degrees past first-more turned out than anyone I had ever seen."

Marie-Jeanne also helped Tuttle's Dance Alive National Ballet acquire the rights to Balanchine's "Apollo" in 1995. "We were the first company in Florida to receive that honor," Tuttle said.

"I remember clearly her definition of how Apollo should be interpreted - 'A piss-elegant soccer player,' " Tuttle said. "Marie-Jeanne was succinct and to the point, never flowery or wordy, with a great and bawdy sense of humor."

In 1996, she created a striking impression when she supervised members of the New York City Ballet in a videotaping of "Concerto Barocco" for the George Balanchine Foundation. After watching them perform the ballet as they had learned it, with changes of style and tempo that had crept into the production over the years, she commented: "Very lovely. Lovely dancing. But it's not 'Barocco.'" Then she briskly proceeded to give them meticulous coaching.

In addition to her son Dwight, she is survived by another son from their marriage, Anthony J. Godwin of Austin; a daughter from her first marriage, Marie-Louise Ranelli of Old Bridge, N.J.; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

After being cremated, Marie-Jeanne's ashes will be interred in Alachua, where her husband and parents are buried, Messler said.

Sun entertainment editor Bill Dean and Scene columnist Sarah Ingley contributed to this report.

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