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Anne Wilson Wangh: A ballet story

Posted by Shivaji Mudambi  February 24, 2012 10:10 AM

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If you have been inclined to sneer at mothers who relentlessly trot their young daughters off to dance classes each week with the expectation they will become the world’s next prima ballerina, think again… It can happen…It does happen… It has happened.

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Anne Wilson Wangh, a resident at Lasell Village, the on-campus retirement community at Lasell College in Newton, was one such dance student, her mother one such determined parent. Anne became an intimate part of the dance world as long ago as the 1920’s when her mother, originally from Russia but then living in Northern New Jersey, enrolled her in ballet classes with Michel Fokine. The whole concept of ballet lessons was new and expensive at the time, but the possibility of studying with Michel Fokine, who had for many years been Russia’s most prestigious choreographer, was an opportunity not to be missed.

Although Anne didn’t become the company prima ballerina (no one did; the Company policy was to stress the company rather than individual performers), she did, as a member of the company, have the opportunity to dance with many of the best known and revered performers of the time, including, among others: Alicia Alonso, Nora Kaye, Agnes deMille, Michael Mordkin, Jerome Robbins, Eugene Loring, Anthony Tudor, Karen Conrad.

Additionally, the years Anne was with the American Ballet Theatre were an especially important time in the history of ballet in the U.S. Before Fokine introduced his company, there was no other ballet company in the United States. It was a rare opportunity for new dancers and new choreographers to make their mark, and for American ballet lovers to become acquainted with a fascinating number of variations on traditional ballet that found their way to the States during this time.

Despite Anne’s truly deep love of the ballet world and the extraordinary opportunities it
promised for her, she made a decision that at least temporarily separated her from that world. She got married and left the company to play a real life role—being a wife and ultimately a mother for three children. As she says; “the ballet slippers, the tutus, the special practice clothes my mother had made for me so lovingly went into the basement and I was someone else.”

But she apparently was not really “someone else.” One day, when her children were pretty much grown, she was skating with them at a newly opened ice skating rink in New York’s Central Park and was amazed to find herself caught up once again in the experience of feeling her whole body responding to the “language” of the music. There was no mistaking it. The ballet shoes came out of the basement and off Anne went to serious training classes to catch up on what had been happening in the ballet scene in the artistically burgeoning years she had missed.

Thus began an exciting and gratifying second career for Anne. She studied classical ballet with Anderson, Danilova, Vilzac, modern dance with Martha Graham, Tamiris, Humphrey, Weidman. She choreographed for the New York Shakespeare Festival, the New York Ballet Club, the Trianon Ballet Company of Philadelphia.

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Wangh during her revitalized career.

She developed her own dance company and, along with other performers she had danced with earlier, created a series of programs that told the history of dance from the Renaissance to the present day in a uniquely accessible way.

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Wangh with her own dance company.

The series of programs was called “The Ballet Story” and it included not only Ann’s intimate insights into the world of traditional ballet, but also reflected the wide variety of approaches to dance introduced by the new choreographers emerging at the time. They were often a significant part of Anne’s programs. So too were regional and folk dances from various areas, sometimes even including costumes reflecting the area.

The company’s programs were extremely well received both critically and by audiences all over the country and Europe for a number of years. But Anne had yet another world to conquer. Having visited Israel (which was also just evolving after the 1967 war), she decided to bring her dance insights to that country. No matter that she did not speak Hebrew at the time! She managed to have her talks translated and, with the support of the Israeli government, she began a number of years of presentations in villages and schools throughout that country too.

She subsequently took up residence in Israel, learned Hebrew, and spent several years on yet another project to share the history of the dance with as many people as she could. She founded what is now the highly regarded Dance Library of Israel. The Library is seen as one of the most comprehensive public collections in the world representing all forms of dance: ballet, modern, contemporary, folk, jazz, tap, theatrical and ethnic dance.

Anne actually founded the library by donating her private collection of dance materials. It now includes donations from the private collections of any number of world-renowned dance personalities, histories and biographies in many different languages, a preeminent collection of ethnic and ritual dance materials, rare films and videos from the beginning of artistic dance to the present, valuable historic costumes, and much more.

Now living in the Boston area, Anne is still spreading the message that has guided her whole life, and she does so with the grace and elegance she learned from her first ballet teacher. She moves like a ballet dancer, she talks like a ballet dancer, she has the “soul” of a ballet dancer.

She has been providing her history of dance programs as part of the learning program at various retirement communities in the Boston area, as well as in New York City (Riverside Church, Brooklyn College) She also finds that Boston ballet goers enjoy exploring, in small informal groups with Anne, the ballets they are experiencing with the local Boston Ballet company.

Myril Axelrod has been a writer for newspapers, magazine and professional journals for many years. She was a reporter for the New York newspaper PM and a vice president of Young and Rubicam advertising agency. She was a pioneer in adapting focus groups and in-depth interviewing for the marketing community. For the past four years she has lived at Lasell Village in Newton.

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