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In Memorium, 8-15: Melissa Hayden
Dancing on 'the Acute Edge of Risk'

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

Melissa Hayden, a giant with a gritty work ethic whose hallmark career spanned four decades, most of them with New York City Ballet, passed away Wednesday at the age of 83 after a brief battle with cancer, the North Carolina School of the Arts, where Hayden taught for 23 years, announced. "Melissa Hayden's life perfectly mirrors the responsibilities and privileges of great artists," NCSA chancellor John Mauceri said.

After dancing in the corps of Radio City Music Hall and studying at the School of American Ballet, Hayden joined American Ballet Theatre in 1945, was promoted to soloist a year later, and in 1949 joined NYCB, where she retired in 1973.

Reviewing Balanchine's "Agon" in 1959, Edwin Denby marveled in the Evergreen Review: "Miss Hayden's deadpan humor and her distinctness are perfect.... At one point a quite unexpected flounce of little-girl primness as in silence she walks away from the boys endears her to the house. But her solo is a marvel of dancing at its most transparent. She seems merely to walk forward, to step back and skip, with now and then one arm held high, Spanish style, a gesture that draws attention to the sound of a castanet in the score. As she dances, she keeps calmly 'on top of' two conflicting rhythms (or beats) that coincide once or twice and join on the last note. She stops and the house breaks into a roar of applause. In her calm, the audience has caught the acute edge of risk, the graceful freshness, the brilliance of buoyancy."

25 years later, in "Dance is a Contact Sport" (E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1974; Da Capo, 1976), his landmark inside account of NYCB's 1973 season, Joseph H. Mazo recounted: "The last performance of the regular season comes on the night of Sunday, June 24. Melissa Hayden does a beautifully articulated 'Concerto Barocco,' dominating every measure of music, every foot of the stage and every seat in the house. It is her last appearance in repertory in this theater, and the galleries are filled. Humans are possessed by the desire for firsts and lasts; the period of gradual growth that separates them demands too much work and attention, and therefore lacks magic. Milly takes three solo calls before the curtain, walking along the apron of the stage and bowing like a queen on her balcony. Jenny Coleman, Milly's 'Nutcracker'-aged daughter, stands in the first ring and claps her hands until 'they tingle.' She has a theater full of helpers. Afterwards, the whole company is backstage, telling Milly how fine it was -- and they are right. Now, she will do 'Dream,' Saratoga and the rest of the summer tour and finish at Wolf Trap Park, outside Washington, D.C. There are a lot of final performances required to end a career like Milly's -- and she will get cheers and applause and bravos at every one of them. After dancing for more than twenty-five years, she has earned them."

Mazo also related this anecdote revealing Hayden's relationship with Balanchine: "Milly says that Mr. B. is not as patient as a teacher as he was when she joined the company 24 years ago. 'He's nearly 70 now; he has less time. Once, long ago, he said he wanted me to learn to do entrechat six his way instead of the way I'd been taught. 'If you practice every day, in ten years you will do it,' he said. Of course, he was joking, and I did it in six months anyway, but I notice he doesn't talk about 'in ten years,' as often as he used to."

Denby, chronicling Balanchine's choreographing of "Variants" for Kulchur in 1962, also noted Hayden's grit and determination as Balanchine created a duet on her and Arthur Mitchell: "In the second half of the Hayden-Mitchell pas de deux, Balanchine invented a figure in which the girl, facing front, poised with bent knee on one toe, performed a little 'turned-in' adagio exercise, as she reached back for support to her partner, who was doing a sideways shuffle behind her in 5/8. The dancers caught on after a few tries. Even after they had, the choreographer, calling the counts sharply, made them repeat it -- quite unlike his usual procedure. He did it again at a much later rehearsal after -- though he wasn't aware of it -- Miss Hayden had pulled a calf muscle the night before onstage. As she repeated the figure again and again -- so she told me -- the injury became painful. But as she kept repeating it, angry though she was, and trying to give the rhythm a keener edge, she found the key she had been looking for -- the key to the character of her role."

And Mazo provides this enduring archetypal image: "Around here, Capezio plays second villain to Jerome Robbins. Milly Hayden may try more than twenty shoes before a performance, sitting on stage with them gathered around her like fallen leaves, hunting for one usable pair."

In lieu of flowers, NCSA announced, memorial gifts may be made to the NCSA Foundation, Inc., for the Melissa Hayden Scholarship Fund, 1533 S. Main Street, Winston-Salem, NC 27127.


Denby citations from "Dance Writings," edited by Robert Cornfield and William Mackay. (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1986.)

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