Local dance professionals remember Marie-Jeanne


Published: Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 9, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

Marie-Jeanne, the Balanchine ballerina who taught in Gainesville for many years, died Dec. 28 in Austin, Texas. The original member of the New York City Ballet (and George Balanchine's brief live-in romance) was 87. Marie-Jeanne's ashes will be interred in Alachua, where her husband, a former UF photography professor, is buried. In tribute to her contribution to Gainesville dance, local dance professionals recall their personal memories of the ballet star:

"She was a great friend of mine," says Dance Alive National Ballet Artistic Director Kim Tuttle. "I remember when my parents had visiting artists from American Ballet Theatre at our house, Marie-Jeanne was there too, reminiscing. Another time, when (New York City Ballet principal) Jaues D'Amboise was visiting, he said that no one had ever danced like her.

"She started dancing at age 13 and by 15 was doing lead roles in Balanchine's ballets. She danced all three parts in "Ballet Imperial," a taxing ballet in any one section, but to do all three? Unbelievable."

Marie-Jeanne took classes from Tuttle, who was the director of the ballet program at Santa Fe Community College in the 1970s.

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

Marie-Jeanne was instrumental in helping Dance Alive auire the rights to Balanchine's "Apollo" in 1995.

"We were the first company in Florida to receive that honor," says Tuttle. "And I asked Marie-Jeanne if she would work with us when the repetiteur was here . . . the fact that she would rehearse it was the cherry on top."

Considered a masterpiece, "Apollo" was first staged in 1928, with a Stravinsky score. Marie-Jeanne had herself performed the ballet's role of Terpsichore.

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

Joni Messler, local studio owner and founder of Gainesville Ballet Theatre, employed Marie-Jeanne as a teacher for more than two decades.

"She was really no-nonsense," says Messler. "Even though she was working for me, she would make me take class every single Tuesday," Messler laughs. "If I told her I was tired and would rather take notes, she would bellow, 'No, you must take the class!'

"She was a true Balanchine ballerina," says Messler, who last spoke with Marie-Jeanne on her birthday last year. "Balanchine wanted to marry her, but she wouldn't hear of it. 'Are you kidding?' was her take on it to me. 'I was 16 and he was 60!'

"I loved her," Messler says. "She gave so much to me and to this community, and she more than anyone influenced the way I teach."

On Jan. 1, Tuttle spoke with Marie-Jeanne's son Tony "at a local hospital where a relative was giving birth to a child. The circle of life really does continue, doesn't it?" Tuttle said.

Sarah Ingley is author of the Scene dance column, Turning Points.

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