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BWW Interviews: Hilda Morales: An Extraordinary Career with Pennsylvania Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Antony Tudor and the Hartt School of Dance


Hilda Morales was born in N.Y. City, and grew up in Puerto Rico. Her early training was with Ana Garcia of the Ballet San Juan. At 14 years of age, Ms. Morales received a Ford Foundation Scholarship to study at George Balanchine's School of American Ballet. She danced as a principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet, soloist with American Ballet Theatre, artist-in-residence with the Colorado Ballet and guest appearances with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Albuquerque Ballet and Jacksonville Ballet. During her dancing career, Ms. Morales performed in full-length classic ballets as well as works by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor, John Butler, Alvin Ailey, and Jose Limon. Ms. Morales was featured in the movie The Turning Point, in the role of Sandra, directed by Herbert Ross. She guest teaches and is on the faculty of the Central Pennsylvania summer programs, and joined The Hartt School faculty in 1998.

Broadwayworld Dance recenty sat down to interview Ms. Morales.

Q. Where were you born?

A. New York City! My father came there from Puerto Rico in 1945 to study and work as a dental technician. My mother followed, they got married, and I was born a year later, at which time my parents decided to return to Puerto Rico. Both came from big families and they missed them terribly. And my mother was not a lover of the snow. We returned to Puerto Rico and lived a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean-and 80 degree weather!

Q. Your parents were a big influence on you growing up.

A. I grew up in a family where music, singing, and dancing were very important. My father came from a family of 12 siblings and from my mother's side there were six siblings. My father played the guitar and his mother used to sing and play the flamenco guitar. When she was 15 years old she received a scholarship to study voice in Milan. Unfortunately, her father did not let her go. I think it had to do with the fact that he felt that she was too young--and the lack of money. I often wonder about her and what would have happened if she had gone.

My mother had an uncle who played the piano and a distant cousin, Mary Esther Robles, who was a well-known singer in Puerto Rico. So you can say that I was born with the arts in my blood.

Q. Who was your first dance teacher?

A. My father. As a child he taught me to dance the bolero and la danza, which is like a waltz. It's the typical traditional dance of Puerto Rico. He also taught me the cha-cha-cha, merengue, etc. From my mother I learned to love classical music, poetry, and Spanish/Puerto Rican literature. I spent most of the time dancing all over the house. Finally, when I turned 8 years old, my parents decided that I should start ballet lessons.

I started to study ballet with Ana Garcia and Juan Anduze and flamenco with Gilda Navarra at the Ballet de San Juan in Puerto Rico. Ana had studied at the School of American Ballet (SAB), which was founded by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. She was also one of the original members of Ballet Society, later the New York City Ballet. Juan also studied at the school. Gilda danced flamenco professionally with Jose Greco's Company in Spain. She became famous in Navarra Spain, and she later changed her last name from Garcia to Navarra. I was fortunate in having a very good basic dance training because of them; I came out with a strong background that included both classical ballet and flamenco dancing.

Q. How did you get to New York to study?

A. I always dreamed of coming back to the city where I was born. That wish came true when, in 1960, I was awarded a Ford Foundation Scholarship to study at SAB. Ana Garcia made that possible for me through her relationship with George Balanchine. I was the youngest of about 15 students to be accepted-- I was only 14 years old, and they were not accepting students any younger than 16. So luck was on my side. I loved the five years that I spent there.t was an incredible time. I was studying not only with the best, but with most of the original teachers of the school: Anatole Oboukhoff, Pierre Vladimiroff, Muriel Stuart, Helene Dudin, Felia Doubrovska, Andre Eglevsky, Antonina Tumkovsky, and the Danish dancer/teacher, Stanley Williams. They all brought to the school their own unique training and artistic qualities, not breaking away from the classical ballet pedagogical traditions. They incorporated these into the neo-classical Balanchine style of dancing. Now the school is teaching what is called the Balanchine technique, which is actually a style of dancing.

Q. What about any other teachers?

A. Through the years I've studied with other teachers and mentors who influenced my dancing: David Howard, Stanley Holden, Bobby Rodham, and Edward Caton. I have to say that I loved Stanley Holden's classes. Unfortunately, his school was in Los Angeles, so whenever American Ballet Theater, which I later joined, toured the west coast, I made sure I went right to Stanley.

His classes were technically and musically challenging. The ballet exercises were constructed so that one step flowed into the other. There was an obvious step progression and theme to his classes. Some exercises were slow and others fast to warm up the different muscles and address different movement qualities like adagio and allegro movements. We were constantly moving with beautiful port de bras (arm movements.) We did lots of turns combined with jumps covering a great deal of floor space.

Stanley's classes remind me of David Howard's. Both had been at the Royal Ballet. You could see the Frederick Ashton and Kenneth McMillan choreographic influence. Not that their classes were choreographed, but that the intricate allegro work of the English School was apparent. Stanley's classes were accompanied by pianist Michael Roberts, who played his original music compositions. A win-win situation.

Q. What was the first company you danced with?

A. The Joffrey Ballet, right after Rebekah Harkness withdrew her financial support from the company. Mr. Joffrey received a grant from the Ford Foundation, and Mr. Balanchine sent a group of students from SAB to audition for him. I was one of those students and was accepted into the company. I did not stay for very long because the company was doing a lot of contemporary work, so I left and joined the Pennsylvania Ballet.

Q. What about your experience with Pennsylvania Ballet? Tell me about the roles you danced, working with different choreographers?

A. At the Pennsylvania Ballet I was able to perform a lot of the Balanchine ballets that I had dreamed of doing while I was a student at SAB. Barbara Weisberg, founder of the company, had a close relationship with Balanchine. She had been the first child student at SAB. Years later she founded the Pennsylvania Ballet. Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein were responsible for her receiving a Ford Foundation Grant so that she could start this wonderful company.

I performed in Nutcracker (Dew Drop, Sugar Plum Fairy), Concerto Barocco (second lead), Symphony in C (3rd and 4th movement leads), Allegro Brillante (Ballerina and corps), Four Temperaments (Choleric and Sanguinic), Donizetti Variations (Ballerina and corps), Raymonda Variations (Ballerina), Pas de Dix (Ballerina and soloist), Serenade (Russian girl) and Scotch Symphony (Soloist.)

I appeared in Anna Sokolow's Time Plus. Working with Sokolow was very interesting in regards to the collaboration between the choreographer and dancer. Her dance pieces dealt, for the most part, with contemporary subjects of social criticism. She would start with a thought, and we would begin improvising on the spot. She would pick and choose movements that were interesting and appropriate for the piece. I learned a lot about not being inhibited.

I also danced Desdemona in José Limón's The Moore's Pavane and the leads in William Dollar's The Duel, Mary Anthony's Threnody and John Taras' Designs with Strings.

I first worked with Antony Tudor at the Pennsylvania Ballet in his ballet Lilac Garden. I started in the ensemble and later performed the role of Caroline. We also performed a ballet called Cereus that Mr. Tudor had originally choreographed for the students at the Juilliard School.

Tudor was one of the most important people in my career, and I am thankful that I had the opportunity to experience his extraordinary personality; very proper English mixed with a sharp cutting wit. His choreography has very intricate steps and gestural movements that convey real inner feelings dealing with human nature and behavior.

I truly have to thank Barbara Weisberger for giving me such great opportunities. A wonderful person in every way.

Q. Tudor has always been a subject of controversy. How would you describe him?

This is a very deep question, and I hope I do justice to Mr. Tudor. I can only talk from personal experience, having spent so many hours in a dance studio with him. His ballets have their roots in the classical danse d'ecole. He took all those steps and arm movements and changed them. He would take a story and, by studying the emotions that dominated the characters in the story, convey with a subtle or big movement a walk or a run, a turn of the head, or a look that expressed conflict--the human emotion. I loved the way he weaved entrances and exits of the characters by using musical changes in the composition. His movements were intricate and so was the musical timing of the steps. He brought drama and truly human conflict to dance. The movement had to come from deep in your psyche and you had to embrace that emotion. You truly had to forget who you were and become the character. As a dancer in his ballets I would practice an arm movement or a walk over and over again until it was that character doing the movement.

Q. You left Pennsylvania Ballet to become a soloist with American Ballet Theater (ABT). Was that a difficult move?

A. I would have to say yes to that. At the Pennsylvania Ballet I was coached in all my roles by Robert Rodham, who was our ballet master.

He was, without a doubt, one of the best ballet masters I have ever worked with. When I joined ABT I did not have someone constantly guiding me. ABT had 89 dancers when I joined. Mr. Tudor and Patricia Wilde, former ballerina of New York City Ballet and former director of the ABT School, recommended me to Lucia Chase, the company's founder/director. That's how I began. Ms. Wilde remembered me from my student days at SAB. It was very difficult at the beginning. I spent many hours on my own in a studio going over steps to make sure that they were executed correctly. I would have imaginary conversations with Robert Rodham on how he thought I should do a certain role or step. He kept me company. I truly missed those days with him. Emotionally, it was a difficult move for me. I missed the intimacy of working in a small company. Slowly I made friends and, in rehearsals, we would help each other. This is when I started being extensively coached by Mr. Tudor in his wonderful ballets. I would look forward to those rehearsals.

Q. During your tenure at ABT you danced a wide range of roles. Can you tell me about these roles, any favorites, any you wish you had danced?

A. When I joined ABT it had a diverse repertoire. We went from rehearsing and performing Swan Lake to choreography by Antony Tudor, Agnes de Mille, Glenn Tetley, and Alvin Ailey. Sometimes our week was packed with all of their ballets.

I enjoyed doing all these different ballets. But again, it was with Mr. Tudor that I had my best experiences. I would describe him as the beautiful red thread running throughout my dancing career. I was cast in his Undertow (Ate), Romeo and Juliet (Juliet), Shadow Play (Celestial), The Leaves are Fading (Spring and Winter pas de deux), Lilac Garden (Caroline), and I understudied the ballet Dark Elegies.

I was in the original cast of The Leaves are Fading. Mr. Tudor had not choreographed a major ballet for about 25 years! This was my understanding when, one day in the summer of 1974, Mr. Tudor called me at home with a request to come and work with him because he was doing a new ballet. He just wanted two dancers so that he could figure out certain steps. So he asked who I wanted to dance with and I said Chuck Ward. So we both showed up and that was the beginning of The Leaves are Fading. I want to say again that I learned from Tudor how to convey feelings and develop a character through movement. Many dancers don't have that anymore.

One ballet that I regret not being able to do was Interplay by Jerome Robbins. I always wanted to perform in that ballet and finally ABT was doing it. I was cast to learn it, but unfortunately I needed to do cartwheels, and I could not do them! I tried so hard. I had everyone helping me with them, but it was a no-go. I was totally afraid of flipping over. I had to gracefully bow out and resign myself to not ever performing this ballet.

Q. You worked under two artistic directors, Lucia Chase and Mikhail Baryshnikov. How would you describe them?

A. Lucia Chase and Oliver Smith were the co-founder/directors of ABT from 1940-1980. This company was her life and family. She was with us every day, traveled with us and performed with us. She very successfully raised funds all those years to build this incredible American institution. She provided great inspiration and confidence in all of us. I feel very honored to have worked for her and Oliver Smith.

Baryshnikov was a wonderful dancer. He was still dancing when he took over as director of ABT. Even though he brought a lot of excitement as director, directing this company was a full time job, as well as maintaining a full dancing career. He should have waited to retire to take such a big responsibility and gain mature experience.

Right now I see ABT as the American classical company, meaning continuing the ballet classical tradition, performing ballets like Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Les Sylphides, as well as maintaining the repertory of Antony Tudor, Agnes de Mille, Glenn Tetley and Eugene Loring, all of whom played such a great part in the history of this company, as well as giving the opportunity to new choreographers to develop their craft. I am still looking for the new descendants of Tudor, McMillan, Ashton, and Cranko. Hopefully there are some truly unique talents out there. Yes, there is talent, but uniqueness is hard to come by.

Also, very important, ABT needs to spend more time developing American talent.

Q. How did you come to the Hartt School?

A. After ABT I joined the Colorado Ballet, and spent four years dancing with them. At the same time I also did a lot of guest appearances with other small companies. I had already been teaching during my Pennsylvania Ballet Company and ABT breaks. It was just natural for me to teach and pass on what I had learned.

When I came to Hartford I was teaching for both the Hartford Ballet company, as well as the Hartt BFA Dance Division. The ballet company brought in a lot of students to the organization. During the Nutcracker season they performed together.

Q. You staged both Fokine and Tudor ballets. I know it sounds funny, but are all the steps in your mind and how do you impart the style to your students?

A. I was very lucky that at ABT I worked with Dimitri Romanoff, a former dancer who had studied and was coached by Fokine. Dimitri coached me in Les Sylphides and Petrushka. I remember the style very well, but I use videos or CDs to stage the choreography. I do remember certain steps, but not all of them. The same goes with Tudor ballets. The way I impart the style to my students is by analyzing each movement and paying close attention to musicality, step timing, and dynamics.

Q. What would you say makes the Hartt program unique?

A. The Hartt School Dance Division has always had a strong foundation in modern, contemporary and ballet. Dancers need to have a strong background in all of these disciplines, especially today. We are a conservatory within a university setting. I think what makes our program unique is our faculty and what they bring to the program. Our faculty's expertise ranges from Limon/Doris Humphrey style and choreography to contemporary dance forms and classical/neo-classical and romantic ballet. We license works from the Jose Limon Foundation, Balanchine Trust, Martha Graham Foundation, Antony Tudor Trust, and Doris Humphrey's work from the Dance Notation Bureau. We also expose our students to the choreography of current contemporary choreographers. In our Ballet Pedagogy program, our students have the opportunity to study dance pedagogical theories and are able to participate in internships where they teach in pre-professional and community settings. Our students during the summer have the opportunity to attend the Julidans Festival in Amsterdam.

Q. You teach ballet pedagogy. Could you explain what that is?

A. Simple: it's teaching how to teach ballet, which is not always so simple. The history of ballet pedagogy goes back to the days before the court of King Louis the XIV of France. There are three schools: the Italian, the French, and the Russian. The Danish school is based on the old French school brought to Denmark by August Bournonville. When Cecchetti (Italian school) came to Russia as a dancer and teacher he worked with Marius Petipa. At that point the Russian school was influenced by the French and Danish teachers.

Agrippina Vaganova (Russian school/dancer with the Mariinsky Ballet) was one of Cecchetti's students. She took the pedagogical principles of the Italian and French school and developed her own so-called Soviet system. She took all the ballet steps and divided them into a 9 year ballet training program with one year of preparatory movements that includes conditioning exercises. All the steps are divided from the simplest to the more complex according to the age (step progression), talent and strength of the students.

The ballet syllabus that we use at the Hartt School is a combination of the Italian, French and Russian pedagogical principles. The reason for this is to address the different styles of classical dance in America and that there are a lot of students that come to us from very different ballet backgrounds. In the BFA Ballet Pedagogy program students do four semesters in class where we discuss ballet pedagogical principles and how all the ballet steps are taught. Then they do four semesters of internships, mentored by the teachers of the Hartt School Community Dance Division, teaching the children. A lot of this syllabus is also incorporated into their regular ballet classes at the college by the teachers.

Q. What can we expect from you in the future?

A. I see myself teaching for some time to come.

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