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January 15, 2009

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Flourtowner, 98, reflects on career as ballet star

Yvonne Patterson, seen today at her Flourtown home with her constant companion, Mitzi. Ms. Patterson is still in good health at the age of 98. (Photo by Erin Vertreace)

When I had a recent opportunity to speak to Yvonne Patterson, an original member of George Balanchine’s American Ballet, who also danced with the Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo, and occasionally with the Rockettes, I dropped my apron and oven mitts and jumped into my car. Those who can’t dance can interview.

Imagine my surprise when a 98-year-old woman, who doesn’t need glasses, drove up in a red car.

I introduced myself, and we went indoors to her home in Flourtown.

I can barely speak to dancers without stammering, especially world-class ones like Miss Patterson. I have tried to do what they do, and I know it’s impossible.

Luckily, I had written down some questions. I didn’t have to speak; I could simply point to the page.

“You’re new at this, aren’t you?” she observed, watching me fumble with my pen, notebook, tongue, lips, brain and vocabulary.

Patterson, born in Australia, is the daughter of a painter, Ambrose Patterson. Her family moved to Honolulu when she was a young girl, and it was there that she started learning ballet. A ballet career just “sort of happened,” she said. “Teenagers don’t really know what they want to do.”

Patterson, who has no children, made her way to New York, where she joined the Radio City Ballet.

In 1934 she and her husband, William Dollar, were “first in line on opening day” to try out for the newly formed School of American Ballet, when young George Balanchine arrived in the U. S. She was accepted and worked for most of her career with Balanchine, who revolutionized dance.

Balanchine chose beautiful slender girls with long legs. He demanded lightning speed from his dancers. Even a casual observer can see that dancer in Miss Patterson.

“I wasn’t that good; some of the other girls were good,” said Miss Patterson, but the world knows that Balanchine didn’t hire unexceptional dancers, ever.

A dancer’s life is grueling. Morning class every day. Rehearsal in the afternoon. Performance at night. Keeping that Balanchine speed. It’s not hard to imagine the determined young Yvonne Patterson in a costume by Chanel or Matisse, in front of a backdrop by Cocteau, Braque, Dali or Picasso, attacking the wonderful music and choreography that Balanchine gave her.

“How did Balanchine put a ballet together?”

“He said he never thought about it at home, but I don’t know about that. It could be true, you know, because he was wonderful. His genius was the music he chose. He started like a painter — a stroke at a time. ‘You, stand there, now advance, now this leg, now that arm…’ etc. Putting a ballet together is very complicated…”

Did Miss Patterson meet any dancers who weren’t very talented but made it by working very hard, or vice-versa?

“Both. I know people who weren’t very gifted but really wanted to succeed. They made it on sheer desperation and became stars. And I know others who were very talented but didn’t want to do the work. Some of them made it, too. The real talent is to work hard. I could name people…” but, tactfully, unfortunately, she didn’t.

How did Miss Patterson wind up living in the Chestnut Hill area? I’m afraid I cannot answer that question because when I asked, she simply replied, “Oh, no one is interested in that!”

She was glad to answer questions about her dance career, however: “Are there any movies of you dancing?”

“None.”

“Any movies that show a dancer’s life the way it really is?

“Not that I know of, but probably.”

“What was the first ballet you danced in?”

“Serenade (music by Tchaikovsky). I loved Serenade.” And, in the pale winter sunlight of her beautiful living room, with her sweet dog, Mizti, sitting beside her, the former ballet dancer moved her arm in a lovely, perfect movement. I imitated her. Living history.

“What was your first solo?”

“Constancia. Bill Dollar made that ballet with me, with music from a Chopin concerto. In fact, that was the ballet that made me. I was very good in that. Sol Hurok (famed music impresario) saw me, and that’s how I got into the Ballet Russe. I was in the corps de ballet, then I got out of the corps. If you’re very good, you can have little solos here and there, and you’re a soloist. Then, if you’re really good, you become a ballerina, and then if you’re absolutely, absolutely great, you become a prima ballerina assoluta, although I don’t know any.”

“Did you get to keep your costumes?” I asked, hoping she had a closet stuffed with tutus, and maybe I could borrow one, take it home and wear it around the house from time to time.

She looked at me like I was nuts.

“No, the company owns them. Costumes go back to them. It’s a business.”

“Do you still practice? Give yourself a barre every morning?”

“No. I was still teaching classes for Pennsylvania Ballet every day until two years ago. I miss that very much, but the traffic was getting too bad. I swim every day and do floor stretching exercises.”

I asked her if her knees hurt. “No, my knees don’t hurt.” she said. “My hips and feet hurt.”

“What do you do nowadays?”

“I swim every day. I garden and read. I was very interested in the last election and followed it on television.”

“Do you feel that your accomplishments are an important part of history?”

“Sometimes I think that if someone knew my history or asked me, and I talked … Well, they’re always very interested and nice to me, but I don’t walk around thinking, ‘Oh, my dear, if you knew…’ It’s a good talking point, though. Most people are impressed … What I’m proudest of is my old age. That’s where I scored a real triumph. People respect and admire me, but it’s not my fault I’m 98,” she said. “I’m ornery, and I plan to stay that way.”

I laughed.

“I love to make people laugh,” she said.

 

 

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