Yvonne Mounsey - A Farewell and an Appreciation
2012 marked the passing of Yvonne Mounsey at the age of 93, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and the founder of the Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica, probably one of the finest dancing institutions in the United States. I have to say that I never saw Ms. Mounsey dance nor have I read her recent interview in Ballet Review, although I'll probably get around to it sooner than later. The only times I have ever seen her were on YouTube and in the many photographs documenting her career. And if pictures could talk I am sure they would impart a story, not of woe and misfortune but of a life well spent and never wanting in her dedication to the art she cherished: Ballet.
In particular most dance enthusiasts know Mounsey from her photograph as the siren in Balanchine's The Prodigal Son. The revival in 1950 did not originally feature Mounsey; Maria Tallchief was given the role and, from what I have read and heard from people who saw her performance, was not particularly successful in the role. She was too short and she did not possess those smoldering looks and limbs that could encircle and destroy a man, not to mention any living creature.
Balanchine needed a dancer who could embody his concept and among his dancers at that time it was only Mounsey who possessed the dancing and dramatic skills needed for the role. Once given the part she was coached by Felia Doubrovska, the originator of the role in the 1929 production and one of the School of American Ballet's most noted teachers. Mounsey embodied the role for the next few years and it became something of a calling card, because The Prodigal Son meant Mounsey. Her interpretation, as visualized in the many photographs we have, present a proud, haughty and limber creature looking as if she didn't give a damn about anything but herself and the lust for money and personal annihilation at another person's expense. It is the appearance of poison incarnate. I have seen many dancers perform this role, and while several were excellent none measure up to that photograph. Why not? It's only a pose caught in time, but the pose speaks many tomes. And that is the reason I find Mounsey so interesting. The photograph is telling us something, yet for some reason it is beyond words. I'm still trying to figure out what it means, but I'm always baffled.
Mounsey was with the New York City Ballet from 1949-1958. She did not originate many roles in Balanchine's ballets. In fact Balanchine rarely used her for his new works. She was given solos in the original La Valse and Balanchine's revitalizations of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, and danced in other Balanchine ballets: Symphony In C, Four Temperaments, Serenade, Caracole, The Firebird, Divertimento and Western Symphony, as well as the New York premiere of Balanchine's revised Caracole, which we now know as Divertimento No. 15. Not much survives on film; I believe there is a CBC production of Serenade with Mounsey as the Dark Angel. There might be other things scattered around.
I was always surprised that Balanchine never used her for leading roles in Apollo, Baiser de la Fee, Orpheus, Ivesiana, Agon, Opus 34 or Bourree Fantasque. I would have assumed that with her height, noble bearing and beauty she would have been a natural fit. Unfortunately we will never know. Perhaps Balanchine did not see her as filling the Balanchine mold, whatever that is-I'm still wondering to this day. But this meant that the public did not always see Mounsey on stage. A critic of the time lamented the fact that he did not see Mounsey enough of the time.
Mounsey danced in works by Tudor, Ashton, Dollar, Christensen, Boris and Bolender. However, her greatest triumphs, besides The Prodigal Son, were in the ballets of for Jerome Robbins, who created many roles on her including the Queen in The Cage, the Harp in Fanfare and the Wife in The Concert. From all accounts theirs was a happy and fruitful working relationship. They understood each other in the way that can never really be understood because it is not only the meeting of minds, but of souls, as inane as that might sound. Robbins could scream and fume but Mounsey knew how to deflect that rage, or else ignore it completely. She became a constant participant in his works until he discontinued his working relationship with the company, a period that was to last for the next thirteen years.
Mounsey's greatest contribution to dance was her founding of the Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica. Here she trained people not only in the foundation of a dance career, but a career in any discipline they chose. By her own admission most of her students did not become professional dancers-instead they became doctors, lawyers, teachers, social workers, community leaders and business people. But people did become professional dancers: Jock Soto, Andrew Veyette and Tiler Peck of the New York City Ballet were her students.
Everyone held Mounsey in high esteem. Why? For the very reason that she always stressed the need to be the best you could be and whatever that was, to excel in it. And whatever it was it required discipline, focus and commitment. The very things you carry with you into your life and professional career.
It was always touching to hear people talk about Mounsey. To many she was Yvonne. To me, someone who never saw her dance or had the fortune of meeting her, she has always remained a mystery. I suppose it's those photographs of The Prodigal Son. What was going on in her mind? There is no doubt that she was a wonderful person, an outstanding dancer and a magnificent teacher. Her standards were high and people responded with enthusiasm. She made "sense," the kind that's practical and can be applied to many facets of life. But to me there is there something that I still don't know about Mounsey. And I wish I did. If only those photographs could talk to me. Unfortunately, they never will, and perhaps that's all for the better. We all need a little mystery.