The Drama Queen Calls It Quits.

The Drama Queen calls it quits.

Sallie Wilson, Dramatic Ballerina, Dies at 76


“It’s a great vehicle, but so is a subway car!”


Clive Barnes, an Oxford-educated, colorful dance critic writer and broadcaster, said these words once about Agnes de Mille’s famous ballet Fall River Legend.  Considering the fact that Mr. Barnes was the chief Dance, Drama and Opera critic for the New York Post a dance and/or theater critic for the New York Times,  and a senior consulting editor at Dance Magazine, these words were not taken lightly by famous American Ballerina Sallie Wilson  Shall we say…. Them’s fighting words!!!! ? Perhaps? . A statement bound to start a quarrel or fight. – that’s as bad …. Your father’s smarter than mine? … 


Although usually quiet in manner offstage, Ms. Wilson made news in 1976 with a public display of anger directed at Clive Barnes, when she threw a glass of Scotch at him. A funny but true story.. not the least bit characteristic of Ms Wilson it drew media attention for a long week. (Almost unheard of in current events) 


That one unique story is one of many about this famous ballerina I have heard over the years.


The dance world has lost a very unique artist with the passing of Sallie Wilson this weekSallie’s performances with American Ballet Theater during the 1960s and ’70s established her as one of America’s finest dramatic ballerinas.  Wilson was a majestic presence, best known for her interpretations of roles created by Anthony Tudor.   Sallie died on Sunday at her home in Manhattan. She was 76. The cause was cancer.  I feel very lucky that I had the opportunity to see Ms. Wilson dance many times.  In late 70’s, ABT performed long and wonderful 4 week seasons during the month of July..  While Karen Ziemba and I  were training at ABT at that time, we had the lucky opportunity to be handing out season brochures at every performance .  (Our compensation – was the opportunity to watch every performance usually in third row center of the New York State Theatre.)  It was an amazing opportunity and learning experience for us.  Sallie appeared in many Tudor and Agnes de Mille works; 


I bring up Sallie Wilson for two reasons to talk about Agnes DeMille the Great American Choreographer, and the need for dancers to be 100% committed to their roles. I remember seeing Sallie in Fall River Legend. Before the development of fine regional dance company as America boasts today,  NYC was the best place to view ballet.   Sallie Wilson like the Royal Ballet’s Margot Fonteyn, was one of my hero’s.   


According to Jack Anderson’s obit in the NY Times this week


Ms. Wilson made history in a Tudor masterpiece on Jan. 20, 1966, when she portrayed the leading role of Hagar in Tudor’s “Pillar of Fire,” becoming the first dancer with Ballet Theater to do so since the role was created in 1942 by Nora Kaye. Choreographed for Ballet Theater that year, “Pillar,” a brooding drama about a repressed young woman, had not been performed by the company for more than a decade. Ms. Kaye, who had retired by 1966, was so famous in the role that the dance historian Grace Robert wrote in her Borzoi Book of Ballets in 1946 that “the imagination quails at the task of recasting it.” Ms. Wilson was competing with a legend but she achieved enormous success as Hagar, and as her interpretation deepened over the years, it became “extraordinarily powerful,”


Upon reflection, one sees that “Fall River Legend” is certainly the work of an experienced craftswoman, and there are many effective things in it.  De Mille is best known in this country for choreographing for films and the set looks as if it has just stepped out of Oklahoma, her best known work. In Fall River Legend, she created not only a complex tortured character in the lead, in a classic stepmother/stepdaughter tale, but also a portrait of a small, mid-prairie town with no room for misfits and an intense, evangelical church that the main character is briefly, and confusedly, involved with. There is an inevitability to the ballet – it begins after the fact, and her victims seem aware of their impending fate from the beginning. Particularly vivid recently has been the ABT’s revival (Julie Kent danced it this last time).  I remember the scene in which the crowd silently gathers outside the Borden home, and we spot Lizzie moving around dazed inside until everything in the pit and onstage goes haywire with her hysterical run out of the house and confession to her neighbors. Lizzie, the populace, and the landscape all become disordered. With repeated viewings, one can even enjoy the way de Mille reworks other choreographers’ spicy moment, for example the way the ax becomes equivalent to a phallic Noguchi sculptural set piece  on the Graham stage. At first Lizzie approaches the ax almost innocently unaware; later she is drawn unavoidably  to it but tries to resist its magnetism . Finally, on her errand of revenge, she strides over to it with the inevitability of that  long-ago promise  being fulfilled. There is no question, too, that today “Fall River Legend” seems dated as something of a period piece:  But all works bear the imprint of their time, and Always Fall River Legend  proves why it was considered a masterpiece.  Of which Sallie Wilson left her mark.

 Jack Anderson  also writes  

 “Ms. Wilson always believed in total involvement in roles, even if the part was as an extra in a Wagner opera. “At the Met, I once had to stand still for 45 minutes as Tannhäuser’s page,” she once said.  “As far as I’m concerned, if you’re on stage in a ballet, you’re doing dancing,” she said on another occasion. “Any movement or non-movement on stage is dance

The 100% commitment factor— I love the moment when I see the maturity of a human being, the experience as a dancer and the fitness of the body all come together. It creates an amazing freedom for the performer as well as the audience. The memories I have of Sallie will be long remembered.  I wish all of you could have seen her.  She was a drama queen like no other.   The best one …..probably-



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