Leading dancer with American Ballet Theatre

Times Staff Writer

Sallie Wilson, a leading dancer with American Ballet Theatre best known as a protegee of master psychological- ballet choreographer Antony Tudor, died Sunday at her home in New York City. She was 76.

Wilson died of lung and brain cancer, according to Diana Byer, artistic director of the New York Theatre Ballet, where Wilson had served as ballet mistress for the last 20 years.

Wilson’s nearly four-decade association with Tudor was by any measure tumultuous. He routinely insulted her and belittled her abilities but also asked her to continue to teach other dancers his works after she left American Ballet Theatre in 1980.

Her first heralded connection to Tudor came in 1966, when she re-created the leading role of Hagar in Tudor’s landmark ballet about sexual repression, “Pillar of Fire,” created for Ballet Theatre in 1942. She was the first company member to dance the role since it was created for Nora Kaye, and the revival was fraught with trauma for all involved.


Wilson told dance critic and author Donna Perlmutter that at the final dress rehearsal, Tudor ran to her, whispered furiously, “You’re a dancer who has no sense of dynamics,” and then ran out the door.

“I stood rooted to the spot,” Wilson said. “Everyone knew he had just torn me to shreds, even without hearing the actual words. And then they left, silently, trying to slip away unnoticed so that I would not be further mortified. I stayed.”

The revival was hailed by critics and audiences, but Tudor said nothing. He voiced approval only of another performance that took place two years later, kissing her and saying, “That was your first ‘Pillar,’ ” Wilson recalled.

“You adored him; yet you hated him,” Wilson told Perlmutter. “He tinkered with people. He liked to get into their hearts and break them, thinking that’s how to make a better person or a better dancer. With some people it doesn’t work [but] he could have told me to jump off a cliff and I would have done it.”


Wilson was born April 18, 1932, in Fort Worth. After studying ballet locally, she went to New York, where she continued her studies with Margaret Craske, Tudor and others.

In 1949, she joined Ballet Theatre (which changed its name to American Ballet Theatre in 1957) but was soon dismissed because of shyness and a lack of stage experience.

After a period with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet (1950-55), which Tudor directed, she returned to ABT, becoming a soloist in 1957 and a principal in 1961. She appeared frequently with the company in Los Angeles and stayed with the group until 1980, except for a period with New York City Ballet (1958-60) when financial problems caused ABT to disband temporarily.

At City Ballet, she created the role of Queen Elizabeth in Martha Graham’s section of “Episodes” (1959) -- a two-part work created by Graham and company artistic director George Balanchine -- and was assigned roles in Jerome Robbins’ “The Cage,” “Fanfare” and “The Pied Piper.”


Back at ABT, in addition to “Pillar of Fire,” Wilson danced other Tudor works, including “Jardin aux Lilas” (Lilac Garden), “Dim Lustre,” “Dark Elegies,” “Judgment of Paris” and “Gala Performance.”

Her classical roles included Myrtha in “Giselle,” the Lilac Fairy in “Princess Aurora” (an abridged version of “The Sleeping Beauty”) and the Waltz and Mazurka in “Les Sylphides.”

She created roles in Robbins’ “Les Noces,” Alvin Ailey’s “The River” and three works by Herbert Ross -- “Concerto,” “Metamorphoses” and “Paean.” She also appeared in Jose Limon’s “The Moor’s Pavane” and as the lead in Agnes de Mille’s “Fall River Legend,” based on the story of Lizzie Borden.

Usually mild-mannered, Wilson made news in 1976 when she reportedly threw a glass of Scotch at Clive Barnes, then the New York Times’ chief dance critic, over a review of “Fall River Legend.” The De Mille work had been danced by ABT with Marcia Haydee of the Stuttgart Ballet in the leading role. Wilson thought that Barnes had insufficiently recognized her own achievements in the work.


Wilson also choreographed a handful of modest works, including “Piazza San Marco,” “Idyll,” “Liederspiel” and “Cheri.”

But it was as an exemplar of Tudor heroines that she received her greatest fame.

“Sallie Wilson is a softer, perhaps more vulnerable Hagar than her celebrated predecessor Nora Kaye,” former Times music and dance critic Martin Bernheimer wrote of an ABT performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1970, “but a dancing actress of intense communicative power.”

To excel in Tudor’s ballets, “a dancer must have a face and eyes, as well as a beautiful body,” Wilson told the New York Times in 1992. “And that dancer must be a person behind those eyes and know how to look at someone else in the eye while dancing.”


“At first, dancers don’t consider the details important,” she added. “But if you accidentally shift a gesture even slightly, you may significantly shift meaning as well.”

It was to avoid significant shifts in meaning that she was known as a meticulous, even scolding coach in setting Tudor works for other companies.

“This is not about how pretty your feet are,” she admonished dancers of the Washington Ballet in 2001 who were more concerned about arched feet than probing psychological meanings.

“You really have to peel away the habits of the dancers and have them learn a new form,” Wilson said about teaching Tudor works to members of the Milwaukee Ballet in 1998. “You have to fit yourself to his ideas he choreographed down to the last fingernail.”


Tudor died in 1987.

Wilson taught her last class for New York Theatre Ballet in January, according to Byer.

“She was a wonderful coach and mentor to the dancers,” the director said.

Wilson married dancer Ali Pourfarrokh in 1960. The couple later divorced. They had no children. Wilson is survived by her sister, Octavia Labarthe, who lives in England.


A memorial service will be announced, Byer said.