(b. 24 March 1922 in Inverness, Nova Scotia, Canada; d. 8 April 2005 in West Hollywood, California), dancer and choreographer whose career on Broadway and in Hollywood spanned over forty years, during which she received eight Tony Award nominations and an Academy Award.
White was born in Nova Scotia in 1922 to a housewife and a barber. When she was one year old, the family, including an older and a younger brother, moved to Powell River, a paper mill town in British Columbia. Because of White’s poor health, a doctor prescribed ballet lessons when she was twelve. She started classes with Frieda Marie Shaw, whom she later remembered as pushing her because she was never ambitious.
After her graduation from high school, White went to San Francisco at the urging of Shaw, who had a friend who knew William Christensen, the founder of the San Francisco Ballet. White auditioned and was accepted into the company, with which she danced from 1940 to 1947, rising from corps to soloist in ballets such as Swan Lake. She later said that although she danced all the classical roles, she truly wanted the character parts; eventually, tired of the rigidity of ballet, she left.
After a brief attempt at teaching, White moved to New York City in 1947. There, a friend arranged an audition with Michael Kidd, the choreographer of Finian’s Rainbow (1947). She was accepted into this show, her first on Broadway, and also became the dance captain and Kidd’s assistant. She loved this musical dancing because, to her, it was “free,” as opposed to ballet, and Kidd took her to London to assist in staging work there. She appeared in Regina (1949), Arms and the Girl (1950), and Guys and Dolls (1950) before the choreographer Herbert Ross asked her to work with him on Milton Berle’s television show; however, she did not like the medium. She was on the road dancing in Silk Stockings (1955) when she was asked to recreate Kidd’s choreography, at his suggestion, for both Finian’s Rainbow and Guys and Dolls at New York City Center.
At this, White ended her career as a performer and became a stager and choreographer. Although grounded in and influenced by Kidd’s approach to the musical-comedy stage, she could not remember all of his choreography for Finian’s Rainbow, so she had to devise her own. When asked to choreograph Carmen Jones at City Center in 1956, she was free to create dance patterns that were uniquely her own. Her first Broadway musical as choreographer was The Music Man (1957). This was followed by Whoop-Up (1958), Take Me Along (1959), Irma La Douce (1960), Let It Ride (1961), I Had a Ball (1964), Half a Sixpence (1965), Mame (1966), Illya Darling (1967), and 1776 (1969), for which she did the musical staging.
In Gantry (1970), White was both director and choreographer. This was followed by 70, Girls, 70 (1971), Gigi (1974), Goodtime Charley (1975), I Love My Wife (1979), and Working (1978); she was credited with musical staging for the last two. Her Hollywood films were The Music Man (1962), Bye Bye Birdie (1963), Oliver! (1968), 1776 (1972), The Great Waltz (1972), Mame (1974), and Pete’s Dragon (1977). She was awarded a special Academy Award, the second ever presented for choreography, for her work on Oliver!. After Music Man, one critic wrote, “The bubbling vitality, élan and humor that Onna White brings... is something that Hollywood needs today.... We hope she will stay a while.”
White once said that what she really enjoyed about choreographing musicals was bringing order out of chaos. She had an intuitive sense of design and movement and with her fast-paced approach created explosions of moving bodies. Her work was not obvious choreography but rather an integration of dance into the story. Her numbers were big and busy, and she was able to condense the story line into moving images, all of which shared a pervasive vitality. She would take individuals and, with consideration for timing, entrances, and dynamics, set them against a moving mass. In the movie version of Oliver! she worked with almost 300 performers, most of them nondancers. Likewise, the stars of many of her shows were not dancers, but she was able to skillfully hide this fact and focus attention on the professional dancers.
White synthesized all dance forms—including folk, social, vaudevillian, and classical—and in one number could transition from soft-shoe steps to acrobatic dancing to ballet. For Mame, she researched the steps of the period, employing dances from the tango to the jitterbug. In Illya Darling, White used only men, as in the tavern dances she had seen in Greece on the preparatory trip she made prior to the musical. White could also be a satirist. In I Love My Wife, a story about four people involved in wife swapping, she included a trio that suggested kinky sex and a solo in which a housewife becomes a “bump and grind” tigress. Her two most successful shows were The Music Man and Mame. In the former, the “Marian the Librarian” number, with its portrayal of a hushed, tip-toe atmosphere and its elderly ladies gesturing in pantomime in the style of the French dramatist François Delsarte, was especially comical; the latter contained several tongue-in-cheek setups.
A New Yorker article described White as “modest, direct, strong, attractive, slim, unflabby, sensible and sure of what she is doing.” She was forceful and well prepared in her working mode. At the Gantry rehearsals someone described her as acting like a drill sergeant, wearing a blue blazer with epaulets and gold buttons. Illya Darling was a tremendous challenge, as it brought about a confrontation between the free, cavorting, fun-loving star Melina Mercouri and the calm, organized White, who had to get Mercouri in shape to dance.
White’s marriage to the actor Larry Douglas, which took place in 1948, ended in divorce in 1959. They had two children. White married and divorced a second time and was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease before her death in 2005. Her sense of organizational unity and her desire to show the striking sense of freedom that can be expressed through dance in so many different ways left a lasting influence on the characteristically American art form of the musical comedy.
Biographical and professional material on White can be found in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. A feature on White entitled “New Directions” was presented in the Talk of the Town section of the New Yorker (27 Dec. 1969). Obituaries are in the New York Times (11 Apr. 2005) and Dance Magazine (July 2005).