WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. � Prima ballerina and North Carolina School of the Arts faculty member Melissa Hayden, who had a brilliant career as a performer and as a teacher of young dancers, died this morning after a brief illness. She was 83.
“Melissa Hayden’s life perfectly mirrors the responsibilities and privileges of great artists,” said North Carolina School of the Arts Chancellor John Mauceri. “She danced an extraordinary 28 years as one of the world’s greatest ballerinas. She then taught an equally astonishing 23 years at the North Carolina School of Arts.
“Her legacy as a muse to the incomparable choreographer, George Balanchine, and as the mentor to over 6,000 students speaks to her genius, commitment and passion for the dance and its power to communicate the human spirit. That she continued to teach until a month ago speaks to her indomitable willpower. She is irreplaceable and our School pledges to keep her memory alive and carry on her legacy, because Melissa Hayden deserves no less.”
A native of Toronto, she studied with Boris Volkoff at 15 and by age 20 she was in New York City, dancing in the corps de ballet at the Radio City Music Hall so she could study at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet under Oboukhoff and Vladimiroff.
In 1945 she joined American Ballet Theatre and in less than a year, she was a soloist, performing with the company in the States and abroad for two-and-a-half years. There followed an extended tour of Cuba and South America with Alicia Alonso’s company. In 1949, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein invited her to join their newly formed company, the New York City Ballet. For the next 24 years, except for a two-year return to American Ballet Theatre, Melissa Hayden was a leading ballerina of this world-famous company.
Miss Hayden danced early roles in Balanchine�s “Symphony in C” and “Ivesiana,” and in Jerome Robbins’ “Age of Anxiety,” William Dollar’s “The Duel,” and Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Illuminations.” She created roles in many important new ballets, including “Divertimento No. 15,” “Jeux d’Enfants,” “Agon,” “Stars and Stripes,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She was particularly acclaimed for her interpretations in “Swan Lake” and “Firebird.”
On her 20th anniversary with the New York City Ballet, New York Times dance critic Clive Barnes wrote, “She has survived and survived, and, more pertinently, she has gotten better and better. New York City Ballet�s Melissa Hayden is its greatest dancer.”
Miss Hayden’s final season with the New York City Ballet in 1973 was a personal and artistic triumph. In her honor, George Balanchine choreographed a farewell ballet, “Cortege Hongrous,” and the company’s Spring Gala in May 1973 was marked by the presentation to her of the Handel Medallion, New York City’s highest cultural award, by Mayor John Lindsay. The inscription read, “The City of New York to Melissa Hayden, extraordinary prima ballerina who has filled the hearts of her audience with joy.”
Following her retirement from the stage, she spent three years as artist-in-residence and director of ballet at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She then created Melissa Hayden Inc., a dance studio in Manhattan where intermediate and advanced students and young professionals from across the country had the chance to study with one of America’s most distinguished ballerinas.
In 1983, Miss Hayden came to the School of Dance at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, where she firmly established her reputation as a master teacher while continuing her active career as a visiting artist throughout the world. She staged nearly 20 works at the School of the Arts, many of them created by the legendary Balanchine: among them, “Allegro Brillante,” “Donizetti Variations,” “Serenade,” “Western Symphony,” “La Sonnambula,” and “Concerto Barocco.” She also traveled with students from the School of the Arts throughout North Carolina, performing in small towns and large cities. Her NCSA students are dancing or have danced in dance companies around the world, including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, North Carolina Dance Theatre, Carolina Ballet, Boston Ballet, Miami City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Moscow Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater. She coached several of her NCSA students to awards at international competitions, including Gillian Murphy, now a principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre, who won a Prix de Lausanne Hope Prize and a Princess Grace Award.
Miss Hayden’s outside teaching engagements included the National Ballet of Turkey, Santiago Ballet, the Royal Ballet in London, Boston Ballet, National Ballet of Mexico, and Star Dancers in Tokyo. She was featured on two PBS programs, “Balanchine’s Ballerinas” and “The Life of Balanchine,” and performed on numerous television specials including “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Firestone Hour” and “The Kate Smith Show.” She also appeared in the film LIMELIGHT with Charlie Chaplin. She was a guest lecturer at Harvard University, Lincoln Center, Southern Methodist University and the University of Alberta, among others.
Her work with student dancers led her to write two books published by Doubleday, “Melissa Hayden, Off Stage and On” (1964) and “Ballet Exercises” (1969).
Many honors have been awarded to her including the School of American Ballet Artistic Achievement Award, the Dance Magazine Award, the Mademoiselle Magazine Award, the Dance Educators Award, the Albert Einstein Award, and the O. Max Gardner Award for teaching excellence from the University of North Carolina Board of Governors. She held honorary degrees from Skidmore College, Siena College and the University of Western Ontario. She served on the Board of Trustees of Brandeis University.
In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be made to the NCSA Foundation, Inc., for the Melissa Hayden Scholarship Fund, 1533 S. Main St., Winston-Salem, NC 27127-2188. For information, please contact Sarah Turner at email@example.com or 336-770-1371.
Looks like my students will have to take my word for it when I bust out my Melissa Hayden imitation:
She was quite the character. She was nice to me and taught me Who Cares? among other things. I am very sorry my kids won’t get to meet her.