Kaye, Nora (1920–1987)

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Kaye, Nora (1920–1987)

American ballerina who achieved the rank of prima ballerina following her portrayal of Hagar in Pillar of Fire. Born Nora Koreff in New York, New York, on January 17, 1920; died in Los Angeles, California, on April 30, 1987; daughter of Gregory Koreff (an actor) and Lisa Koreff; studied at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, New York City, and under Russian dancer and choreographer Michel Fokine; studied at the School of American Ballet, New York City; married Michael Van Buren, on January 2, 1943 (divorced); married Isaac Stern (a violinist), on November 10, 1948 (divorced); married Herbert Ross (a director and choreographer), in 1959.

Of Russian parentage, Nora Kaye was born in Manhattan in 1920, named after the heroine of Ibsen's play A Doll's House. She changed her surname (Koreff) early in her career because she thought "an American dancer should have an American name." It was her mother Lisa Koreff 's wish that she become a dancer, and at age four she had her first dance lesson. At eight, Nora was enrolled at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School where she studied for seven years, graduating to the Metropolitan's corps de ballet at the age of 15. Kaye joined George Balanchine's American Ballet in 1935, when it became the resident company of the Metropolitan. Meanwhile, she continued to study, taking two lessons a week with choreographer, Michel Fokine.

During the late 1930s, Kaye abandoned the ballet for Broadway, wanting to be part of what she considered to be a more exciting medium. She began to view ballet as "something dragged up from three hundred years ago that didn't make any sense and wasn't going any place," she told an interviewer for Time (May 2, 1949). Kaye danced in the musical productions Virginia (1937), Great Lady (1938), and Stars in Your Eyes (1939), and spent nine months in the corps de ballet of the Radio City Music Hall. Her period of rebellion also included a job dancing at the International Casino and an unsuccessful attempt at a night-club act.

It was choreographer and teacher Anthony Tudor who brought Kaye back into the fold. In the fall of 1939, she accompanied her roommate to an audition with the newly formed Ballet Theater (later American Ballet Theater) and was accepted into the company's corps de ballet. "I

joined only because most of my friends were joining," she explained. But her experience working with Tudor changed her outlook and made ballet exciting for her once again. Her first important character role with the company was as the haughty Russian ballerina in Tudor's Gala Performance (February 1941), after which she performed small roles in a number of other works, including Peter and the Wolf, Pas de Quatre, Giselle, and Princess Aurora. Kaye achieved the rank of prima ballerina following her portrayal of the tortured heroine Hagar in Pillar of Fire (1942), a role Tudor choreographed especially for her. John Martin of The New York Times, called the work's premiere a "distinguished event," and Kaye's characterization among "the great examples of tragic acting of its generation." Kaye subsequently danced new and classic roles in a variety of ballets, including Tudor's Dark Elegies, Lilac Garden, and Dim Lustre, Fokine's Bluebeard and Apollo, Massine's Mademoiselle Angot and Romeo and Juliet, Balachine's Waltz Academy (premiere, October 1944), Kidd's On Stage! (premiere, October 1945), Semenoff's Gift of the Magi (premiere, October 1945), Taras' Graziana (premiere, October 1945), and Jerome Robbins' Facsimile (premiere, October 1946). In the spring of 1948, Kaye scored a great success as the Accused in Agnes de Mille 's Fall River Legend (based on the story of Lizzie Borden ), although she missed the world premiere due to illness and assumed the role later in the engagement. In 1950, during the tenth anniversary season of the Ballet Theater, Kaye danced the leading roles in Tudor's Nimbus and William Dollar's version of Jeux, prompting the critic of Dancing Times to hail her as "the greatest actress of the dance today." During her period with the Ballet Theater, the term "dramatic ballerina" came into popular use.

In 1951, Kaye left the Ballet Theater to join the New York City Ballet, where she performed in Robbins' The Cage (premiere, June 1951), and Tudor's La Gloire (premiere, February 1952), among other works. In 1952, she appeared as the principal dancer in the Bette Davis revue, Two's Company, choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Ultimately, the style of the New York City Ballet proved unsuited to Kaye's talents, and she returned to the Ballet Theater in 1954, creating the role of Blanche in Valerie Bettis ' A Streetcar Named Desire in her first season back. She subsequently danced in Winter's Eve, Journey, and in Paean, choreographed by Herbert Ross, who would become the dancer's third husband. (Kaye was previously married and divorced from Michael Van Buren and the noted violinist Isaac Stern. She was also briefly engaged to Jerome Robbins in 1951.)

In August of 1959, shortly after their marriage, Kaye and Ross formed the Ballet of Two Worlds, a group which performed at the Spoleto Festival in 1959 and 1960, and subsequently toured for a season in Europe. The troupe presented Ross' Angel Head, and The Dybbuk, as well as Within the Grove, based on the play Rashomon.

Nora Kaye, described as "sad-eyed and mobile-faced," retired from performing in 1961, after which she worked with her husband on several musicals he choreographed. In 1964, she was named assistant to the director of the American Ballet Theater, and in 1977, she became associate director. Kaye was also the executive producer of the movie The Turning Point (1977), the story of an aging ballerina which starred Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine and was directed by her husband. Kaye, who died in April 1987, once spoke to an interviewer for Cue magazine about the total commitment required of a dancer. "Unless you feel that ballet is a religion with you," she said, "nothing could compensate for the enormous amount of time and work put in it."


Candee, Marjorie Dent, ed. Current Biography 1953. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1953.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1987. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1987.

Teachout, Terry. "A 'Made in the U.S.A.' Genius," in Time. August 10, 1998, p. 82.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts