A personal tribute to dancer, choreographer and teacher Nelle Fisher (1920 - 1994)
by Dean Speer
Published May, 2009
Tributes to friends and colleagues are challenging; one hardly knows where to begin. My first recollections of Nelle were in association with her sister, Dorothy, who was one of the pioneering ballet teachers in Seattle, having taught here since 1940, following her own performing career in vaudeville. Both Dorothy and Nelle (and their younger sister, Claire) were Seattle natives, daughters of an advertising executive. Dorothy and Nelle attended Cornish College of the Arts (then Cornish School).
Nelle first encountered American modern dance pioneer Martha Graham in the summer of 1930 while Miss Graham was giving a residency at Cornish, where Graham gave 12 weeks of classes. (For more detail, Nellie C. Cornish’s autobiography mentions Martha Graham's visit.) Too young at the time to follow her to New York, Nelle moved to New York after graduating from Seattle's Lincoln High School (at her 50th high school reunion, one of her male classmates after finding out about her dancing career, said, "Well, Nelle, you always did have the best looking pair of legs in the class!"). She joined the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1937 and stayed with that group until 1941, officially leaving to work on Broadway, but in reality she was getting married [ed: as recounted to the author].
Nelle once told me that, for her, ballet was "not enough." I once relayed to her the results of a calculation that tallied all of the ballet positions and their respective combinations – which totaled something like 25,000. Her comment was "and that was not enough for me." Hence her foray into modern dance and her own compositions.
Nelle received a scholarship to New York's Neighborhood Playhouse, arranged by Martha Graham. She also danced in the corps de ballet at Radio City Music Hall, where she was a featured dancer, but her Graham experience remained a major influence throughout her career. “One Touch of Venus” was Nelle's first Broadway musical and her first experience working with choreographer Agnes de Mille, with whom she later assisted in the choreography of “Bloomer Girl” [Ms. de Mille mentions Nelle in her biography of Martha Graham]. Nelle appeared in seven hits including “Can Can” and “On the Town.” She worked with choreographers Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd, Hanya Holm, and Lee Sherman.
She was a pioneer in dance on television, appearing in over 600 shows including three years as part of the dance team, Fisher & Ross on the Sid Caesar and Imogine Coca, “Your Show of Shows.” She once told me that Westinghouse Corporation had asked her to do a television commercial as a dancing light bulb when their ovens with a view window first came out. In an aristocratic, superior tone her reply was, “I don't do light bulbs; I'm a Graham dancer!” and then laughed heartily.
In 1961, in collaboration with Wolfgang Roth, she directed and choreographed “The Littlest Circus” which toured the country, performing at the Seattle World's Fair of 1962.
A talented choreographer in her own right, many of Nelle’s ballets reflect an interest in Americana. Works have been commissioned by companies across the country and featured in many regional ballet festivals. For 15 years she directed ballets for the Young People's Concerts of the Hartford (CT) Symphony and for four years directed the Memphis Civic Ballet. She taught in the Netherlands at the Rotterdam Dansacademie and at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Nelle returned to the Seattle area in 1976 after an auto accident ended her teaching at the North Carolina School of the Arts when she became associated with Dorothy Fisher Concert Dancers, choreographing works for Dorothy and other regional dance companies.
An early Board Member of the Olympic Ballet Theatre, she taught an occasional master class and came, without fail to auditions for new dancers, sat in on rehearsals, and offered costuming support. A highlight of Nelle's association with OBT came in 1984 when OBT received a grant from the Skaggs Foundation through the National Association for Regional Ballet for Nelle to stage her ballet, “Songs Along the River,” on the company – first done in 1961 with an original cast that featured a very young Suzanne Farrell (who came to Seattle in November of 1994 to stage George Balanchine's “Mozartiana” for Pacific Northwest Ballet) and Bill Evans.
Nelle told me she continued to do some performing up to the point of the accident, which caused a shoulder injury, dancing one of the maidens in “Firebird” (at North Carolina School of the Arts).
I got to know both of the sisters while Dorothy's company performed [twice] during my tenure as producer and director of the “SPOTLIGHT: Seattle Dance!” series that ran from 1979-1981.
One of my fondest memories is giving her driving lessons. She needed to renew her license and asked me to assist her with parallel parking – a tough assignment with her manual-steering car and a weak shoulder! She hadn't had a lot of success with the Sears Driving School person, and that was $50 a pop.
I got to know Nelle additionally over lunches with her sister Dorothy at a small but charming restaurant in the Firdale Village shopping center where Dorothy's school was located (Edmonds, suburb north of Seattle). In approaching Nelle about commissioning a solo from her (1980), she was immediately engaging. We spent several hours discussing the project, including selection of music and other goals for the piece. Until a recent tribute paid to Nelle by Olympic Ballet Theatre, I'd forgotten that is called “The Awakening.” It is to a sound score by George Crumb and was a difficult and challenging work. Nelle built it on both my ballet and Graham technique training. There were turns with head whips/rolls, a long suspended balance on forced-arch relevé en fondu (while moving the arms in a sea grass wavy-like action), a jump that traveled through the air with my knees pulled up together, a Graham 4th-position standing fall and recovery, and, of course, the opportunity to be very dramatic and emote.
Nelle was also a good teacher. Thank goodness she used demonstration as a part of her teaching technique (her sister at this time had stopped demonstrating any steps except with her hands; Dorothy also used “demonstrators”). I remember Nelle showing a Graham 4th-position exercise that's called “turns around the back” and being very impressed with how well Nelle executed it (neat, clean, strong) and that she remembered it so well after nearly 40 years after leaving the Graham company. She was also proud, that of the Graham ensemble members at the time, she could do what's known as the “standing fall” faster than anyone else!
I also took Nelle to see the work we were doing at the Chehalis Ballet Center in Chehalis, Washington during the early years of the studio and company. We also attended the occasional performance together.
About two or three years after we worked together on “The Awakening,” Nelle and Dorothy collaborated on “Suite of Dances,” their first artistic project together. Dorothy created most of the large group dances, and Nelle created a lovely pas de deux for myself and Randie Baker. Randie had been trained by Dorothy and had later gone on to study in France, London, and New York. The music for “Suite” was an original composition by Northwest composer Dorothy Stock. The pas de deux was a piano and flute sonata. It received its premiere on a concert program given by Olympia Ballet Theatre. “Suite” was also later performed on tour in the region and in British Columbia, including an evening of music given solely to the works of Ms. Stock in Bellingham. Randie and I also performed the pas de deux as a separate work several times with the Seattle Ballet Ensemble and as guest dancers regionally. This is the piece of Nelle's that I staged for two dancers who were guesting from the Pennsylvania Ballet for the Philadelphia Civic Ballet in August of 1983.
Working with Randie and Nelle was both an honor and a privilege. Randie is an excellent technician, and it was a good challenge for me to match that balletically. One of the principle things for me was that up until very shortly before this, I had been performing pretty much exclusively in the modern dance idiom (even though my training had been in the classical ballet, many of my jobs were with modern dance troupes). Not only did I have to whip myself into shape to a fairly high level but also the stylistic change took an effort (as an aside, since then I've only had a couple of modern classes, well, exactly two Graham technique classes, each 10 years apart, and have almost exclusively devoted my class-taking to ballet – due to teaching).
Nelle once invited me to her apartment for lunch with some of "her old cronies." I got to meet Bonnie Bird (who was active in London and had also worked with Graham), among many others. Nelle's apartment was tastefully furnished with memorabilia including a picture of Glen Tetley dancing in one of her pieces (when he still had a full head of hair!), a wall hanging done by P.W. Manchester (co-author of the famous “Dance Encyclopedia”), two cats (one named Mr. Magoo), and a harpsichord that Nelle used to tune herself.
Nelle had character, depth, breeding, a zest for people and life, and an irrepressible sense of humor and joy. While we will miss these qualities coming personally from her, they are embodied and will live on in her work – this is her gift and our legacy.
[Some biographical material generously provided by Olympic Ballet Theatre, Edmonds, Washington; Helen Wilkins, Directors]
Nelle Fisher: b. Dec 10, 1920 Berkeley, CA, USA - d. Oct 19, 1994 Edmonds, WA, USA