Native American dancer Rosella Hightower (born 1920) was an internationally renowned ballerina from the 1940s through the 1960s.
Dancing with such companies as the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, and the American Ballet Theatre, and with other luminaries such as Rudolf Nureyev, her strength and lyricism delighted critics and audiences alike. In addition to a stellar career as a dancer, Hightower was noted for founding a distinguished dance academy in the South of France and being the first American to direct the famed Paris Opera Ballet.
Hightower was born on January 30, 1920, in Ardmore, Oklahoma, to Choctaw Native American parents. When she was still in infancy, the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where Hightower was reared. It was during the time of Prohibition, dance crazes such as the Charleston, and little tolerance or acceptance of Native American culture or rituals.
Hightower's early years were an unusual combination of hardscrabble existence and highbrow ambition. On the one hand, she worked the fields with her family, as was expected. Lili Cockerville Livingston, author of Native American Ballerinas, told Lyndy Franklin of Dance Spirit, "When (Hightower) brought in her first bag of cotton that she picked, she earned her place in the family. She was always a tomboy." On the other hand, she developed an interest in ballet at a very young age—an interest that must have been at least partly encouraged by her parents.
Referring to Hightower and four other famous Native American dancers that hailed from Oklahoma (Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, Moscelyne Larkin, and Yvonne Chouteau), Livingston told Franklin, "They were exposed to the old dance companies that were touring the Midwest in the 1930s and they saw something magical. They were bitten by the bug." But surely that bug could have come nowhere near Hightower in her youth without her parent's approval—else, how could a youngster have witnessed the performances? Similarly, it is unlikely that Hightower could have studied with ballet teacher Dorothy Perkins in Kansas City without parental support. Study she did, and the die was cast.
Early Professional Years
In 1938 famous ballet master Leonid Massine's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was performing in St. Louis, Missouri. The then-18-year-old Hightower tracked him down after a performance and convinced him to allow her to audition. Her powers of persuasion must have been formidable, as the master reportedly missed his train to accommodate the aspiring ballerina's request. And against the odds a second time, he was sufficiently impressed with her talent to ask her to join his troupe in southern France. Years later, Hightower recalled that time to Karyn Bauer of Dance. "I didn't even know where Monte Carlo was. But I got there, on a boat. It [took] two weeks!"
Hightower made her debut with Massine's company in Seventh Symphony in 1938. She continued to dance under him until 1941, learning the troupe's repertoire while performing on tour at American military bases during World War II. Among her other early roles with the company were parts in Swan Lake (1940) and in Carnaval (1941). Hightower would return to work with the ensemble as a soloist after it became the Original Ballet Russe, but 1941 saw her back in New York to make her mark with the Ballet Theatre (later the famed American Ballet Theatre).
Hightower's technical gifts and effortless lyricism on the stage came into the spotlight when she performed as a soloist with the Ballet Theatre under Lucia Chase. She debuted as Carlotta Grisi in Pas de quatre in 1941, and subsequently performed such roles as the Lover-in-Experience in Pillar of Fire (1942), Calliope in George Balanchine's Apollo (1943), the White Witch in Fair at Sorochinsk (1943), Odette in Swan Lake (1944), and the title role in Giselle (1944). It was Hightower's rendition of Giselle that brought her first major praise, and secured her a place as a ranking ballerina. But she was destined to soar to still greater heights.
Hightower joined the Original Ballet Russe in 1946, and went on to tour North and South America. Her notable ballets, now as principal dancer, for that company included the Don Quixote Pas de deux in 1946, the classic Black Swan Pas de deux (from Swan Lake) in 1946, and Jerome Robbins's Pas de trois in 1947. In 1947 she became principal dancer and then prima ballerina with the Marquis de Cuevas's Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo (later the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas). It was with this company that Hightower had her longest affiliation as a dancer (until 1962), and that brought her unequivocal international acclaim.
Other than taking time out to marry Jean Robier in 1952 and have a child three years later, Hightower concentrated on her art. As de Cuevas's favorite dancer, she toured Europe, Asia, and South America with his company for 15 years. She began with Brahms Variations in 1947, and moved through a repertoire that included Concerto Barocco (1948), Persephone (1950), Le Prisonnier du Caucase (1951), Scherzo (1952), La Sylphide (1953), Corrida (1957), Gaite Parisienne (1958), and The Sleeping Beauty (1960). Hightower was hailed as one of the finest dancers of her generation, and once received a remarkable 15-minute standing ovation for a performance with the troupe. She also began to attract notice as a choreographer with the production of such concert works as Salome and Scaramouche. In 1962, however, the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas disbanded. And while an immensely successful chapter of Hightower's life had certainly ended, she wasted little time resting on her many laurels.
Educated the Provinces
After the dissolution of the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, Hightower founded a dance school in Cannes, France, in 1962. Originally called Le Centre de Danse Classique and eventually known as l'Ecole Superieure de Danse, one of its prime designs was to raise the quality of dance by expanding its center outward from the major cities. Hightower told Bauer, "It was a challenge to open a school in Cannes at the time, because dance was London, New York, or Paris; it wasn't Cannes!" With an eye toward exposing both students and audiences to a variety of styles, the school's curriculum included ballet, jazz, and contemporary dance, and students were encouraged to become adept at all three. Monet Robier, Hightower's daughter and an instructor at the school, explained the philosophy to Caitlin Sims of Dance in this way: "The good thing about the school is that when students are trained early in different styles, it is similar to being raised speaking two languages. Without even thinking, you can speak both languages."
By promoting such variety and quality in the provinces, Hightower believed she could help raise the level of dance in general. Also toward that end, she was a firm proponent of regional dance companies, directing the Nouveau Ballet Opera de Marseille from 1969 to 1972 and the Ballet de Nancy from 1975 to 1978. Yet, even these other significant pursuits were not the sum total of Hightower's career.
Beyond de Cuevas
Hightower continued to perform after 1962, often sharing the stage with such fellow stars as Sonia Arova, Erik Bruhn, and Rudolf Nureyev. She appeared on television and in films, and was the principal dancer for the Theatre of the Champs-Elysees in 1965. Ballets she danced with that company included La Robe de plumes and Profile de silence. In 1967 Hightower returned to Oklahoma to take the stage in the world premier of The Four Moons, a production honoring the state's 60th year of statehood and featuring three of the other acclaimed Oklahoman ballerinas. Even long after she officially hung up her shoes in 1977, Hightower appeared as the lead in Harold and Maude in 1991, at age 71.
After her retirement, Hightower concentrated on directing, teaching, and choreography. Those efforts included the staging of The Sleeping Beauty for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1977 and assistance in the staging of film director Franco Zeffirelli's updated version of Swan Lake at La Scala in Milan (1985). But undoubtedly the most noteworthy of Hightower's post-dancing pursuits was her turn as the first American director of the Paris Opera Ballet. During her tenure there from 1981 to 1983, the former prima ballerina took pains to shake up the venerable institution's status quo. Always a champion of the dance, Hightower attempted to build a company that had room for the nurturing and development of all its performers, not merely its principals. Many of her innovations were controversial, including the initiation of a programming system in which the troupe was divided into three groups: one to perform at the opera house, one to tour, and a third to perform modern works. Another was her staging of Hommage au ballet, which featured a rare on-stage appearance of the entire company at one time. The performance was designed to drive home the idea of a unified ballet company. Describing the Paris Opera Ballet as the "company of the decade" in 1989, John Percival of the London Times wrote, "The company's ascendancy began with the arrival of Rosella Hightower as director…. Her opening (program) was a manifesto and a survey of the company's history and achievements…. Hightower's skill lay in choosing established successes from elsewhere which (sic) would show off the dancers and develop their flair." In short, she was a dancer's director.
Hightower's long and impressive career was filled with variety, determination, and talent. The French government recognized her contributions with some of its highest honors. Among those were the Grand Prix des critiques de danse in 1949, the Medaille Universitaire de la danse in 1967, the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur in 1975, the Officier de la Legion d'Honneur in 1988, the Grand Prix national de danse in 1990, and the Officier de l'Ordre National du merite. Nor did her birth state forget her, as she was honored with the Oklahoma Cultural Treasure Award in 1997.
In December of 2001 the then-81-year-old Hightower passed on the directorship of her beloved l'Ecole Superieure de Danse to her hand-picked successor, Monique Loudieres. The move coincided with the school's 40th year in operation and its relocation to spacious new quarters in a former hotel on the outskirts of Mas de Campane in 2002. It was hard to imagine the renowned institution without its founder, but Hightower appeared to be content with her decision. Nonetheless, as Robier told Sims in 1996, "She is really the spirit of the school." Even without its physical manifestation, that spirit was bound to endure.
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