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Rosella Hightower, at 88; American Indian ballerina

Rosella Hightower was one of five Oklahoma-born American Indians to emerge as world-class ballerinas. Rosella Hightower was one of five Oklahoma-born American Indians to emerge as world-class ballerinas. (Ecole Superieure de Danse de Cannes via Washington Post)
By Nora Boustany
Washington Post / November 10, 2008
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WASHINGTON - Rosella Hightower, a prominent American Indian ballet dancer who rose to an illustrious career in the 1940s and 1950s and later started one of the premier dance schools in Europe, died Nov. 3 at her home in Cannes, in the south of France. She was 88 and had had several strokes.

Ms. Hightower was one of five Oklahoma-born American Indians to emerge as world-class ballerinas. The others were Yvonne Chouteau, Moscelyne Larkin, and the sisters Maria and Marjorie Tallchief. Their remarkable accomplishments showcased American dance and talent to the world when Russian stars still dominated that scene.

Ms. Hightower was often praised for her virtuosity, versatility, and mastery of a varied repertoire. By the mid-1940s, she had delivered with brio all major classical roles such as Odette in "Swan Lake" and "Gaite Parisienne." New York Times dance critic John Martin raved about her debut at the Met as Myrthe in "Giselle," a role she had to learn in five hours after prima ballerina Alicia Markova fell ill in 1947.

Ms. Hightower performed with ballet's most celebrated partners and had partnered with Rudolph Nureyev in a "Swan Lake" pas de deux in 1961, marking one of his first stage appearances after defecting to the West.

The next year, she founded her Centre de Dance Classique in Cannes and attracted recruiters for the world's top ballet companies. It was later named L'Ecole Superieure de Danse, and its curriculum incorporated classical ballet, jazz, and the modern Martha Graham technique.

Ms. Hightower was born Jan. 10, 1920, in Durwood, Okla. Her father, a railway employee, was of the Choctaw tribe, and her mother was of Irish descent. As a girl, Ms. Hightower went with her family to Kansas City, Mo., and was introduced to a broad cultural life that included stage productions, museums, and the "Charleston" dance craze.

She began serious ballet study, which later continued as a teenager in New York under ballet master Michel Fokine. In 1937, Ballet Russe choreographer Leonide Massine brought his company to Kansas City and invited her to sail to Monte Carlo to join a company he was forming there.

Upon arrival, Ms. Hightower was horrified to discover during those Depression years that she was one of 200 auditioning for 60 openings. The arrival of more Russian dancers made what she thought was a contract opportunity even more remote. She stayed after classes in the arduous pursuit of perfecting her form and learning the troupe's repertoire on her own time.

Massine noticed her in the back of the studio one evening as he was choreographing and asked her to try out certain steps. He kept calling on her to show others arrangements he was developing, and she was hired into the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

During World War II, the company settled in New York, and Ms. Hightower joined what is now American Ballet Theatre. About this time, she met her greatest mentor, Bronislava Nijinska, sister of ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. Reviewers always noted Ms. Hightower's lyrical movement and dramatic intensity, and the dancer credited Nijinska with having the most influence on her stage presence and musicality.

When the Marquis George de Cuevas, a Chilean-born arts patron, invited Ms. Hightower to be part of his Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in 1947, so began the most glittering and triumphant 15-year stretch of her career. Her versatility and skill peaked in exotic and modern roles such as in "Piege de Lumiere" ("Trap of Light"), in which she was a giant blue tropical butterfly leading escaped prisoners astray.

After de Cuevas died in 1961, his company folded and Ms. Hightower started her teaching school and took active interest in the youngest to the oldest students.

Ms. Hightower got her greatest recognition as a dance leader when she became a director of the Paris Opera Ballet from 1980 to 1983. The French government bestowed some of its highest honors on her, and she was the subject of experimental choreographer Francois Verret's documentary film "Rosella Hightower" in 1991.

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