Rosella Hightower, a prominent American Indian ballet dancer who rose to an illustrious career in the 1940s and 1950s and later started one of the premier dance schools in Europe, died overnight Nov. 3 at her home in Cannes, in the south of France. She was 88 and had had several strokes.
Hightower was one of five Oklahoma-born American Indians to emerge as world-class ballerinas. The others were Yvonne Chouteau, Moscelyne Larkin and the sisters Maria and Marjorie Tallchief. Their remarkable accomplishments showcased American dance and talent to the world when Russian stars still dominated that scene.
Hightower was often praised for her virtuosity, versatility and mastery of a varied repertoire. By the mid-1940s, she had delivered with brio such major classical roles as Odette in “Swan Lake” and “Gaite Parisienne.” New York Times dance critic John Martin raved about her debut at the Met as Myrtha in “Giselle,” a role she had to learn in five hours after prima ballerina Alicia Markova fell ill in 1947.
Hightower performed with ballet’s most celebrated partners, including Eric Bruhn and Andre Eglevsky, and had partnered with Rudolf Nureyev in a “Swan Lake” pas de deux in 1961, marking one of his first stage appearances after defecting to the West.
The next year, she founded her Centre de Danse Classique in Cannes and attracted recruiters for the world’s top ballet companies. It was later named L’Ecole Superieure de Danse, and its curriculum incorporated classical ballet, jazz and the modern Martha Graham technique. She ran the school while guiding major ballet companies in Europe.
Hightower was born Jan. 10, 1920, in Durwood, Okla. Her father, a railway employee, was of the Choctaw tribe, and her mother was of Irish descent. As a girl, Hightower went with her family to Kansas City, Mo., and was introduced to a broad cultural life that included stage productions, museums and the Charleston dance craze.
She began serious ballet study, which later continued as a teenager in New York under ballet master Michel Fokine. In 1937, Ballet Russe choreographer Leonide Massine brought his company to Kansas City and invited Hightower to sail to Monte Carlo to join a company he was forming there.
Upon her arrival, Hightower was horrified to discover during those Depression years that she was one of 200 auditioning for 60 openings. The arrival of more Russian dancers made what she thought was a contract opportunity seem even more remote. She stayed after classes in the arduous pursuit of perfecting her form and learning the troupe’s repertoire on her own time.
Massine noticed her in the back of the studio one evening as he was choreographing and asked her to try out certain steps. He kept calling on her to show others arrangements he was developing, and she was hired into the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
During World War II, the company settled in New York and Hightower joined what is now the American Ballet Theatre. About this time, she met her greatest mentor, Bronislava Nijinska, the sister of ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. Reviewers always noted Hightower’s lyrical movement and dramatic intensity, and the dancer credited Nijinska with having the most influence on her stage presence and musicality.
“She would always touch me on the shoulder with a little rhythmic tapping of the fingers or the flick of a wrist, and I could figure out what she was getting at,” Hightower told Lili Cockerille Livingston for the book “American Indian Ballerinas.”
When the Marquis George de Cuevas, a Chilean-born arts patron, invited Hightower to be part of his Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in 1947, so began the most glittering and triumphant 15-year stretch of her career. Her versatility and skill peaked in exotic and modern roles such as in “Piege de Lumiere” (Trap of Light), in which she was a giant blue tropical butterfly leading escaped prisoners astray.
After De Cuevas died in 1961, his company folded and Hightower started her teaching school and took active interest in the youngest to the oldest students.
“She could size up dancers in just a couple of seconds to tell them if they actually had any future as professionals,” said Sylvia Fawlofski, one of her former students. “Once in a blue moon, she would appear and give us a fun class with high kicks, jazzy arrangements and spirited footwork. At the end she would tell us: ‘Now you are ready to go dance on Broadway.’ ”
Hightower got her greatest recognition as a dance leader when she became a director of the Paris Opera Ballet from 1980 to 1983. The rich tradition and history of that company, its extremely polished dancers and its entrenched bureaucracy gave High- tower a challenge and opportunity to seal her unquestioned adoration in France and Europe.
The French government bestowed some of its highest honors on High- tower, and she was the subject of experimental choreographer Francois Verret’s documentary film “Rosella Hightower” in 1991.
Her brief marriage to dancer Mischa Resnikov ended in divorce. She later married Jean Robier, a former theater artist in the De Cuevas company. Survivors include a daughter from her second marriage, dancer Dominique Monet Robier.
Boustany writes for the Washington Post.