Nadia Nerina, 80, Royal Ballet dancer acclaimed for her technical virtuosity

Denis de Marneyvia the Royal Ballet/FileNadia Nerina danced in ''Coppelia'' in the mid-1950s. She was born as Nadine Judd in Bloemfontein, in central South Africa. Denis de Marneyvia the Royal Ballet/FileNadia Nerina danced in ''Coppelia'' in the mid-1950s. She was born as Nadine Judd in Bloemfontein, in central South Africa. (Denis de Marneyvia the Royal Ballet/File)
By Bruce Weber
New York Times News Service / October 13, 2008
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NEW YORK - Nadia Nerina, a principal ballerina for the Royal Ballet known for her technical virtuosity, lightness afoot, effortless-seeming jumps, and joyful charm onstage, especially in comedic roles, died Oct. 6 on the French Mediterranean coast west of Nice. She was 80.

Her death was announced by the Royal Ballet. No cause was given.

Ms. Nerina joined the Royal Ballet in 1947, when the company was still known as Sadler's Wells Ballet, and over the next decade and a half became a distinctly bright light within the company's luminous roster of ballerinas, which included Moira Shearer, Margot Fonteyn, Svetlana Beriosova, and Antoinette Sibley.

In 1956, she was cast by Kenneth McMillan in his first ballet, "Noctambules," as an aging woman who is restored, in a sinister narrative, to her youthful beauty; in 1963 she appeared in the title role of Robert Helpmann's "Elektra."

But her gifts were most in evidence in sunnier works like "Cinderella," "The Sleeping Beauty," "Swan Lake," "The Firebird," "Les Sylphides," and "Giselle."

Her star never rose higher than it did in 1960, when she was invited to perform with both the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad and the Bolshoi in Moscow. That same year saw the premiere of her most famous lead role, Lise in "La Fille Mal Gardee," Frederick Ashton's reworking of an 18th-century ballet by Jean Dauberval based on a painting by Pierre Antoine Baodouin.

Its wispy plot notwithstanding - a young girl, Lise, in love with the handsome Colas, defies the wishes of her mother that she marry a wealthy dolt - it was widely viewed as a delight at the time, even a masterpiece, and over the ensuing decades entered the contemporary canon, in no small measure because of its leading lady.

"Ashton's new 'Fille' is an unabashedly lyrical, bravura showcase for pixieish (5 feet 4 inches, 105 pounds) Nadia Nerina," Time magazine declared on its premiere, calling Ms. Nerina "the company's most polished virtuoso."

Nadine Judd was born in Bloemfontein, in central South Africa, on Oct. 21, 1927. Several accounts of her life assert that she took her first dance lessons on the advice of a doctor, who said she had weak feet. She left South Africa at 16 for London, where she studied at both the Rambert School and Sadler's Wells Ballet School. She joined the Sadler's Wells Ballet - it assumed the name Royal Ballet in 1956 - as a soloist in 1947. For her stage name she chose a variation of nerine, a South African flower.

In 1948, in Ashton's "Cinderella," with Fonteyn in the lead role, Ms. Nerina announced her presence in a solo as the spring fairy. She became a favorite of Ashton, who cast her in new works such as "Homage to the Queen," "Variations on a Theme by Purcell," and "Birthday Offering," and eventually as the lead in such existing works as "Ondine," "Cinderella," and "Sylvia." She became a principal dancer for the company in 1952.

By the early 1960s Ms. Nerina was often spoken of as the natural heir to Fonteyn. But her career path was diverted by the defection of Rudolf Nureyev, who joined the Royal Ballet and whose pairing with Fonteyn postponed Fonteyn's expected retirement and revitalized interest in her career.

Ms. Nerina danced successfully with Nureyev, but their relationship was often testy. He discomfited Ms. Nerina's frequent partner Erik Bruhn by aggressively critiquing his performances.

In one famous incident, Nureyev, in a performance of "Giselle" with Fonteyn, created a sensation by inserting 16 entrechats-six - a figure in which, in a single jump, the legs open and close and open and close with the right leg first passing behind and then in front of the left - into the choreography of the second act. Ms. Nerina, feeling this was simply showing off and not artful, rebuked Nureyev when she danced "Swan Lake."

She inserted 32 entrechats-six to replace the 32 continuous fouettees - whiplike turns that are elegant but less muscular - in the ballet's "Black Swan" pas de deux. Nureyev, seated in the hall with Ms. Nerina's husband, Charles Gordon, stormed out.

She leaves Gordon, a banker she married in 1956. They had no children.

In addition to possessing unquestioned gifts as a dancer, Ms. Nerina was known for her physical appeal.

Often described as sexy - a recent article in The Daily Telegraph of London noted that she could not walk down the street without being whistled at - she caught the eye of more than one male dance critic.

"Miss Nerina is completely adorable," the critic for The New York Times, John Martin, wrote after seeing her lead performance in "The Sleeping Beauty" in 1953. "She is pretty as a picture, has great charm, and can dance like a million dollars."

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