Violette Verdy: A French poodle amongst borzois

Charlotte Kasner

Not many people are alive now who saw Violette Verdy dance. Born Nelly Armande Guillerm in Northern France in 1933, she studied dance from the age of eight during the traumatic years of the German occupation. Her father had died shortly after her birth and her mother poured her energies into supporting her talented daughter, moving to Paris to enable her to study with the best teachers. The young Nelly made her professional debut at the age of twelve, joining the corps de ballet in Roland Petit’s company. She moved to the Ballets des Champs-Élysées, gaining a few small roles, until in 1949, she was chosen to play the eponymous role in a film called The Ballerina.

Director Ludwig Berger changed her name to Violette Verdy in honour of the composer and what he saw as her flower-like qualities and the consequent exposure led to her being offered roles at her old company, the Ballets des Champs-Élysées, and the Ballet de Marigny and Les Ballets de Paris de Roland Petit. In 1953 she toured the United States with Les Ballets de Paris and then spent a year at London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet). She danced leading roles with the La Scala ballet and with Ballet Rambert including Cinderella, Juliet, Swanhilda and Giselle. She was included in a film made while with London Festival Ballet and, as a consequence, was invited to join American Ballet Theatre in 1957.

In New York she danced leading roles for Tudor, Cullberg and Balanchine, although, being comparatively short and curvaceous, she bore little resemblance to the latter’s ideal dancer, describing herself as a French poodle amongst borzois. When American Ballet Theatre was disbanded temporarily in 1958, Verdy joined New York City Ballet and danced in many now classic new productions, including for Jerome Robbins, as well as the classical canon, until her retirement im 1977. She was in demand as a guest across the world and made appearances with the Royal Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet and the Boston Ballet as well as appearing on French, British, Canadian and American television.

Violette Verdy in 1961Photo Carl Van Vechten
Violette Verdy in 1961
Photo Carl Van Vechten

When she stopped dancing, she become the first female artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet but left the notoriously challenging company after just three years, returning to the United States where she took up the position of associate director and later artistic director of Boston Ballet. Four years later, she was invited to head the faculty of the ballet course at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.

Verdy choreographed original work and mounted several productions in Europe and America from 1965 and also taught, undertaking guest residencies at the Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Australian Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, La Scala Ballet, Stuttgart Ballett, Hamburg Ballett, Bayeriches Staatsballett and the Bolshoi Ballet. She was the first non-Russian teacher invited to the Bolshoi since 1917. In 2008, she became the first permanent guest teacher at the School of American Ballet.

She received numerous accolades throughout her career culminating being appointed a Chevalier dans l’Ordre de la Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration.

Violette Verdy died in Bloomington, Indiana on February 8, 2016 following a brief illness.