National Ballet of Canada Choreographer : Dancer Erik Bruhn Dies of Cancer at 57

Times Staff Writer

Erik Bruhn, long the epitome of the danseur noble and more recently choreographer for and character dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, died Tuesday in a Toronto hospital.

He was 57, and the lung cancer that claimed his life was diagnosed only two weeks ago.

Known throughout the world as a performer of refined elegance, Bruhn had been a living link to the classic Danish ballet tradition established in the 19th Century by August Bournonville.

With American Ballet Theatre


Bruhn brought that tradition to the United States through his performances with the American Ballet Theatre and has been credited by such better-known, crowd-pleasing performers as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev with being an early and profound influence on their careers.

Baryshnikov on Wednesday remembered Bruhn as “indisputably one of the greatest dancers we have ever seen. . . .” But Bruhn often said that he never lived up to his own aspirations.

“If I had an extra 20 or 50 years physically, I could have been the dancer of my dreams,” New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff quoted him as saying a few years ago. “But I never became that dancer. And it is to young dancers (in his Canada troupe) I now say, ‘You are going to be the extension of my dreams.’ ”

Over the years he partnered ballerinas Nora Kaye, Natalia Makarova, Cynthia Gregory and Carla Fracci, the delicate danseuse who Bruhn said set the definitive criteria for Bournonville sylphs.


‘A Love Affair’

He once told a critic that their pairing was “a love affair without scars, one consummated on the stage.”

Bruhn nominally retired in 1972, plagued with chronic stomach ulcers and a body that no longer responded to the criteria that he had set for it as a boy.

But he re-emerged in recent years dancing with profound grace the evil witch Madge in “La Sylphide” and the tormented “Petrouchka.”


These significant if abbreviated character appearances in semi-retirement followed his critically acclaimed performances with the world’s leading ballet ensembles. He had danced nearly every male lead in the classical repository. Erik Belton Evers Bruhn was born in Copenhagen, where the Royal Theatre dominates the city’s cultural life. He was one of 11 children chosen from a group of 300 to study at the Royal Theatre, an arm of the Royal Ballet where he trained in the Bournonville style.

Bournonville’s Last Pupil

He recalled once performing before Bournonville’s last pupil, Hans Beck. Beck was 86 and Bruhn 19, and the old man told Bruhn of the time that Bournonville had watched him and predicted a bright future for the then-young dancer.

Beck echoed and rededicated those words, telling Bruhn that he--with proper development--could be the new bridge over which the famed choreographer’s works would pass.


It was then, Bruhn said, that he began to ignore the criticism that had surrounded his traditional approach to dance.

His James in “La Sylphide,” Albrecht in “Giselle” and Don Jose in Roland Petit’s “Carmen” became paradigmatic interpretations.

Bruhn joined American Ballet Theatre in 1949, taking a brief leave from the Royal Danish Ballet. It was the first of many leaves he would take as he sought to establish a reputation outside his homeland and led, in 1953, to his resignation from the Danish company. (He did return often as a guest artist, however.)

He filled in for an ailing Igor Youskevitch at the Hollywood Bowl in 1952, and the notices established him as a rising star.


Appeared in Film

For the next 20 years he toured with ABT, appeared with Renee (Zizi) Jeanmaire in the film “Hans Christian Andersen,” was guest premier danseur with Britain’s Royal Ballet and choreographed works for companies in Italy, Germany, Sweden and Canada.

He became artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada in 1983 and--remembering how he had been discouraged from touring as a young dancer--encouraged the dancers in his charge to appear with other companies around the world.

Martin Bernheimer, the Los Angeles Times critic writing in 1972 of Bruhn’s retirement from the more demanding roles in his repertoire, called him “the noblest dancer of them all.”


“He invariably was an actor while he was a dancer . . . and something of a poet, too.”