Yvonne Mounsey, a principal dancer with
Her daughter, Allegra Clegg of Pacific Palisades, confirmed her death.
The South African-born Mounsey took over Academy West on Westwood Boulevard in 1967 with her close friend and former Royal Ballet soloist, the late Rosemary Valaire; the name was later changed to Westside School of Ballet and they moved to Santa Monica. Mounsey was one of the first alumni of New York City Ballet to establish roots in Southern California, teaching in the neo-classical style of choreographer George Balanchine.
Mounsey maintained her close connections with New York City Ballet, helping to open doors for her students there and at prestigious companies around the world, including American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet. At New York City Ballet alone, current and former students include Tiler Peck, Andrew Veyette, Jock Soto, Monique Meunier and Melissa Barak.
Another former pupil, Joy Womack, who was recently the first American woman invited into the Bolshoi Ballet, said: "Her most important lesson was to perform at all times, no matter what. That tiny correction formed the key to the opportunities God has blessed me with."
The majority of Mounsey's students, however, were not bound for the stage. She focused as much on the joy of dancing as on technique, and tried to bring out the artist in every boy and girl.
"I think she just got so much joy out of teaching, and she never stopped thinking about how she could make things better or help someone," her daughter said Tuesday. Mounsey continued working at the studio until June.
Born Yvonne Leibbrandt in 1919 to dairy farmers outside Pretoria,
She begged her parents to send her to England for serious training. They scraped together the money for the weeks-long ocean voyage and she left home at 16. She trained with a Russian emigre, Igor Schwezoff, in London and was spotted there by Leonide Massine, choreographer and director of the celebrated Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It was a heady time, with artists such as Pablo Picasso collaborating with the company.
In 1939 she toured Italy, Paris and Nice, changing her name, as was the custom then, to the Russified Irina Zarova. The outbreak of
While on tour in
"She came from such a poor family and so she was just a survivor and appreciated everything," Clegg said. "She said, 'I'm in Cuba, what do I do?' So she walked into a nightclub and got a job."
Her breakthrough came when she moved to New York City in 1948. By the next year Balanchine had invited her to join his newly created New York City Ballet, and she quickly rose from soloist to principal dancer. Among her most notable roles were as the Queen in "The Cage" and the Harp in "Fanfare," both by
She achieved her greatest acclaim as the bewitching Siren in Balanchine's "Prodigal Son." Reviewing her in May 1953,
Mounsey retired from New York City Ballet in 1958. She returned to South
Westside Ballet Company's annual production of "The Nutcracker" began in 1972 and has continued every year, as it will this December.
Mounsey received the Jerome Robbins Award in 2011 and a Lester Horton Dance Award for lifetime achievement in 2002.
Mounsey was married previously to Duncan Mounsey and
In addition to her daughter, Mounsey is survived by her sister Roshild Collard of Cape Town, South Africa; stepsons Christopher Clegg of Los Angeles and Stephen Clegg of Lincoln, Neb.; and grandson Marcus Spellman of Pacific Palisades.
A public memorial will be held at 3 p.m. Oct. 14 at the Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.