Not the wispy ballerina: Hayden in her heyday at New York City Ballet
At 14, Gillian Murphy remembers walking into her first class with renowned ballerina Melissa Hayden, whose intense demeanor could seem harsh. “She bounded into the room and electrified us with her energy,” says Murphy, now a principal with American Ballet Theatre. “We learned something very important about seizing the moment, pushing ourselves beyond what we thought possible.” Hayden adored students who echoed her own tough focus, and she inspired them to grab movement with both fists.
Dancing with the company longer than any other ballerina of her generation, Hayden’s tenure with New York City Ballet lasted 24 years, from 1949 to 1973 (with the exception of two interim years at Ballet Theatre). She performed the classics and originated roles in some of George Balanchine’s most important ballets, including Divertimento No. 15 (1956), Agon (1957), Liebeslieder Walzer (1960) and Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet (1966). Hayden’s triumphs, however, did not come without relentless work and unwavering stamina.
Born Mildred Herman in 1923, Hayden came to ballet late. In her hometown Toronto, the 15-year-old committed herself to study with the Russian-trained dancer Boris Volkoff. Though Volkoff once remarked that she wasn’t extremely gifted, Hayden’s determination was evident. At 20, she moved to New York City; her first stop was the Ballets Russes–based Vilzak-Shollar School. Three months later, Hayden joined the Radio City Music Hall ballet corps, but she remained steadfast in her training. Warned that she wouldn’t have the time or energy to perform four times a day and study ballet, Hayden proved her naysayers wrong. She took two classes daily and ran the seven blocks between the theater and studio.
Her dedication to training paid off when she landed a job with Ballet Theatre in 1945. And in 1949, at the invitation of Balanchine, Hayden joined New York City Ballet. Her strength and resilience became public record in 1950. A London newspaper wrote of her performance of William Dollar’s The Duel: “Ballerina knocks herself out in spot where she is supposed to die.” Hayden slipped, smashed into the floor face first and jabbed her elbow into her diaphragm. She blacked out—but after receiving mouth-to-mouth in the wings, she finished the lead role.
Despite audience veneration and peer admiration, Hayden’s crown possessed one thorn: Balanchine. As of 1953, she had yet to serve as his muse—unlike the ballerinas for whom he had created leading roles. He also denied her the lead in Swan Lake, implying she wasn’t lyrical enough to dance the Odette/Odile dual role. So she returned to Ballet Theatre that year and proved Balanchine wrong—becoming one of the foremost interpreters of the part. During her years with the company (1945–1947, 1953–1955), she developed into a lyrical and dramatic dancer, applying her athleticism to the diverse styles of Antony Tudor, Agnes de Mille, Alicia Alonso and Frederick Ashton.
Yet Hayden soon missed Balanchine’s dynamic choreography and rehearsal process. She returned to NYCB in 1955 for good, as principal dancer. And in 1961, when Hayden became pregnant with her second child, Balanchine gave her direction of the School of American Ballet’s nationwide auditions. Hayden also helped shape New York City public school dance education, originating the now-popular lecture demonstrations.
In 1973, 50-year-old Hayden retired from NYCB. Balanchine created Cortège Hongrois, granting her the honor, finally, of serving as his muse. That year New York City’s mayor awarded Hayden the Handel Medallion, the city’s highest cultural award.
But she didn’t stop there. She immediately thrust herself into teaching: She taught at Skidmore College, established a ballet school in New York City, and from 1976 to 1977, served as Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ballet mistress and school director. In 1983, she began her tenure at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where, over a 24-year span, she taught more than 6,000 students.
Once, during a particularly grueling rehearsal series in preparation for a six-month tour with Ballet Theatre, the young Hayden unknowingly penned her epitaph. Overwhelmed and exhausted, she said, “I can’t anymore. I’ll collapse. Well, so I’ll die dancing.” She continued to teach classes until just a few weeks before her death in 2006. Dying of cancer at 83, the petite firecracker lived her entire life with ferocious tenacity. DT
Did you know:
* Melissa Hayden performed as a ballerina in Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 film, Limelight.
* In 1945, Antony Tudor gave Mildred Herman her stage name: Melissa Hayden.
* Hayden’s students include: NYCB corps member Megan LeCrone (at University of North Carolina School of the Arts) and former NYCB soloist Susan Pilarre (in Cedarhurst, NY), who now is on faculty at The School of American Ballet.
* Jacques d’Amboise, Hayden’s longtime partner, said that she kept jugs of Gatorade, thermoses of hot tea with lemon and honey, hundreds of pointe shoes and an oxygen tank in the wings.
* According to Gillian Murphy, Hayden would have new students in her UNCSA classes do jumping jacks in order to quell their nerves.
Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas (Seahorse Films, 1981).
Limelight (RKO-Pathé Studios, 1952)
The Art of the Pas de Deux, Vol. 2 (Video Artists International, 2006)
Firestone Dances, Historic Dance Performances (Kultur, 2008)
Books and Articles
Anastos, Peter. “Interview: Melissa Hayden on Ballet, Ballets, Balanchine.” Dance Magazine, August, 1973.
Boal, Peter. “A Conversation with Melissa Hayden.” Ballet Review, Spring 2007, 46-52.
Brauner, Dale. “America’s Ballerina, A Tribute to Melissa Hayden.” DanceView. Vol. 24, No. 1, Winter 2007
Gustaitis, Rasta. Melissa Hayden, Ballerina. New York: Rutledge Books, 1967.
Hayden, Melissa. Dancers to Dancer: Advice for Today’s Dancer. New York: Doubleday, 1981.
Hayden, Melissa. Melissa Hayden, Off Stage and On. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1963.
Kirstein, Lincoln. “A Tribute to Melissa Hayden.” Dance Magazine. August 1973, 32-34.
Lawson, William James. “Hayden, Melissa.” The International Encyclopedia of Dance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Reynolds, Nancy. Repertory in Review: Forty Years of the New York City Ballet. New York, 1967.
Tracy, Robert, and Sharon DeLano. Balanchine’s Ballerinas: Conversations with the Muses. New York, 1983.
Rachel Straus teaches dance history at The Juilliard School.
Photo by Walter E. Owen, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives