Yvonne Mounsey, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet and the longtime director of one of Southern California's most prominent ballet schools, died Saturday from cancer at her Los Angeles home. She was 93.
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, South Africa, she was the middle of three children and started lessons at age 7 with a former member of Anna Pavlova's company.
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 World War II briefly forced her home, but she was soon on the road again, this time with the Original Ballet Russe, from 1940 to 1941. It was then that she met Balanchine and he created a demi-soloist part for her in "Balustrade" (1941). She had other leading roles in Serge Lifar's "Pavane" and Michael Fokine's "Le Coq d'Or."
While on tour in Cuba in 1941, the dancers went on strike, stranding everyone. Mounsey, however, was unperturbed and stayed in Cuba for a year.
"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 Jerome Robbins, and in Antony Tudor's "Lilac Garden" (The Woman From His Past).
She achieved her greatest acclaim as the bewitching Siren in Balanchine's "Prodigal Son." Reviewing her in May 1953, New York Times dance critic John Martin wrote: "She finds in it quite her best role in the repertoire. She dances it with a studied voluptuousness that makes it mockingly cold."
Mounsey retired from New York City Ballet in 1958. She returned to South Africa, where she married childhood friend Kelvin Clegg in 1960, and co-founded a ballet company, Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal. Mounsey wanted to return to the United States, so the family moved to Los Angeles in 1966.
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 Albert Hall Hughey. Her third husband, Clegg, who was an engineer, died in 1993.
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.