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J. Rickard; Created First Black Ballet Group in U.S.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joseph Rickard, a white dance teacher who created and ran the nation’s First Negro Classic Ballet in Los Angeles from 1946 to 1959, has died. He was 75.

Rickard died Wednesday at Glendale Adventist Hospital of heart failure after several bouts of pneumonia, said his friend and former student, Sunny Asch.

The innovative Rickard was moved to organize an African American dance group when he watched a receptionist turn away a little black girl who had sought ballet lessons.

The child and her mother both signed up for Rickard’s classes. He went to African American communities, literally walking the streets to recruit more people who wanted to learn ballet.

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Rickard’s motives, he told The Times years later, were professional as well as social.

“I had this drive to create,” he said. “I wanted to be a choreographer, not just a dancer.”

He first showcased his troupe in the Hollywood High School Auditorium and, as they gained a following, in Los Angeles’ old 2,000-seat Philharmonic Auditorium. An early review in the Los Angeles Herald & Express applauded:

“The Negro troupe struck the enthusiasts with originality of material, first-class dancing, competent staging, music, costumes and sets.”

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Rickard took his company to Santa Barbara and San Francisco, earning more rave reviews. National magazines, including Look, Ebony and Dance magazine, hailed the unique troupe.

But impresario Sol Hurok discouraged hopes of broader touring, Rickard recalled in 1992, saying “the country was not ready for a Negro ballet.”

Rickard, however, credited publicity about his dancers for encouraging other African Americans to aspire to ballet across the country. He continued to work with African American dancers even as they gained professional ground elsewhere. He was proud to train dancers who went into the American Ballet Theater, San Francisco Ballet and National Ballet of Canada.

“The leading American ballet companies all have a Negro or two as a gesture,” he joked in 1968. “I’ve been thinking of adding a token Caucasian or two.”

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Rickard was an unusual dancer and teacher. A native of Ann Arbor, Mich., he spent some time in Chicago working for an insurance company before moving to Los Angeles, where he found work in the mail room at Paramount.

One night he chanced to go to a performance of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at the Philharmonic Auditorium. He was hooked.

Rickard was well into his 20s, a very old age for a beginning ballet student. But Irina and Bronislava Nijinska were willing to teach him, and, with their encouragement, he soon set about developing his own studio, finding students and creating his special company.

Rickard is survived by a sister, Gretchen Berlew of Glendale; a brother, Thomas Rickard of Ann Arbor, Mich., and nieces and nephews.

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Services are pending.


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