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Melissa Hayden & Balanchine Foundation's Interpreters Archive Project
at Pacific Northwest Ballet

A Tribute to Melissa Hayden (1923-2006)

by Dean Speer

Published June 2009

The door to spacious Studio C snapped open with a crack and the atmosphere was immediately charged by the entrance of the authoritative and energetic prima ballerina Melissa Hayden. Hayden, whose most impressive and stellar dancing career spanned three decades, was on hand to coach PNB dancers in roles that Mr. Balanchine had created especially for her.

These included the 2nd Pas de Trois from the astringent Stravinsky ballet of 1957: "Agon." Of the works, this one was probably the most challenging for both Ms. Hayden and the dancers. With complex rhythms that have to be consistently tracked and inserted with both bold and small steps plus athletic choreography, this ballet presents a daring, exciting and exhilarating experience that is at once challenging and rewarding for dancers and the audience. Hayden elicited a most exacting standard for this famous work, making as she called it, "lots of LITTLE changes." Making the shift from allegro to supported adagio, to a solo and the men's duet, and then to the finale, dancers Louise Nadeau, Christophe Maraval, and Oleg Gorboulev, were wonderfully amazing in their ability to make quick changes, adapting to the requirements of this process: a dream team.

I particularly enjoyed observing the Pas de Deux from the 1959 "Episodes." With Lisa Apple and Jeff Stanton, Ms. Hayden re-constructed the piece and coached this impressive pair in a duet that seemed to be simple in design yet filled with partnering and sequences that were expressive, and beautiful, yet so challenging that any lesser dancers might have been reduced to quaking jello. Mr. Balanchine clearly showed his mastery of compositional tools in this dance. Beginning with a simple step and gesture that built and built in complexity to a point that simply SOARED and then he geniusly resolved and "built" the ending by paring it down gradually to conclude as simply and yet profoundly as its opening: the pair makes a simple port de bras gesture to the audience and finishes at their sides. This pas is a visual Haiku and made me feel as if I were in a private chapel watching the epiphany of dance unfold. A very moving experience indeed.

The 1956 "Divertimento No. 15" received the least amount of attention. Of the two variations for female soloists for this coaching session, danced by Carrie Imler and Kaori Nakamura, Hayden made minimal suggestions and seemed most pleased with both the nature and timing of the steps and sequences, and of their respective interpretations.

Hayden is a continuing inspiration to watch, and I wish that my own students could someday be afforded the opportunity of watching one of the genuine legends of ballet at work. The level of coaching was extremely high and sophisticated and was one that demanded the technical and interpretative best of all parties. She is inspirational for this but also as someone who does not have what we might think of as a "typical" ballet body to have made herself into the muse of creative geniuses is truly uplifting and makes us realize that diversity in the dance world is not only accommodated but welcomed.

Having this important project at Pacific Northwest Ballet is also a tribute and reflection of just how strong this company has become in the lexicon of major ballet institutions worldwide. Nurtured by artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, this company clearly deserves the utmost respect and community support. My hope is that this support will be fully realized in tandem with the vision of its directors and the enthusiasm of the PNB "family" and the dance world at-large.

Bravissimo to Nancy Reynolds whose brainchild this archival project is and for her having the courage to take the initiative to oversee this complex task and for giving it the full backing of her personal resources.

Let's also hope PNB is again the future recipient of this artistic largesse.

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