Hightower, an Oklahoma-born ballerina of enormous flair and virtuosity
who followed up a celebrated international career by founding the
Centre de Danse Classique in Cannes, France, one of the world’s
leading ballet schools, has died at her home in Cannes, her daughter
said Tuesday. Miss Hightower was 88.
daughter, Dominique Monet Robier, told Agence France-Presse that
her mother died overnight, late Monday or early Tuesday, after suffering
Hightower was adored in Europe. After winning praise in the United
States during the 1940s for her performances with the Ballet Russe
de Monte Carlo, Ballet Theater (as American Ballet Theater was known
then) and Col. W. de Basil’s Ballets Russes, she went to Europe
with the Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo (later called the Grand Ballet
du Marquis de Cuevas), and became the first 20th-century American
ballerina to hold a leading place on the European stage.
she remained proud of being not only an American ballerina but also
a Native American ballerina, of Choctaw descent. She was one of
five Oklahoma-born American Indian ballerinas whose careers began
in the 1940s, the others being Yvonne Chouteau, Moscelyne Larkin
and the sisters Maria Tallchief and Marjorie Tallchief.
1991 the State of Oklahoma honored the five dancers when it dedicated
a mural depicting them, titled “Flight of Spirit,” in the Great
Rotunda of the State Capitol in Oklahoma City.
Hightower won acclaim as early as 1943, when her dancing in the
“Nutcracker” pas de deux with Ballet Theater caused John Martin,
the dance critic of The New York Times, to declare, “Here, assuredly,
is an American ballerina in the full sense of the term.”
1947, as a member of the de Basil company, a theatrical emergency
made Miss Hightower an overnight sensation. Alicia Markova had been
scheduled to portray the title role in “Giselle” at the troupe’s
opening performance on March 20 at the Metropolitan Opera House.
But when Miss Markova fell ill, Miss Hightower, who had never danced
the part before, learned it in only five hours. Her performance,
Mr. Martin wrote, “exhibited not only the assurance of the fine
trouper but also the quality of the genuine artist.” (Miss Markova
died in 2004.)
Hightower was born on Jan. 10, 1920 in Ardmore, Okla., the only
child of Charles Edgar and Eula May Flanning Hightower. A few years
later, when her father found a job with the Missouri, Kansas and
Texas Railway, the family moved to Kansas City, Mo., where Miss
Hightower received her early dance training with Dorothy Perkins.
the great choreographer and character dancer Léonide Massine appeared
with the de Basil company in Kansas City in 1937, he invited Miss
Hightower to Monte Carlo to join a new company he was organizing
there. Arriving in Monte Carlo at her own expense, she found to
her horror that she had no firm contract and that Massine was merely
inviting people for further auditions.
Hightower was eventually accepted into the new Ballet Russe de Monte
Carlo. A hard worker and a quick learner, she soon received Massine’s
encouragement. It was also with the Ballet Russe that she first
met André Eglevsky, who was to be her partner with several companies.
World War II broke out, the Ballet Russe moved to New York. There,
Miss Hightower became interested in the newly established Ballet
Theater, joining it in 1941. In 1946 she joined the de Basil Ballet,
which was then billing itself as Original Ballet Russe.
Massine, Miss Hightower worked with choreographers like Antony Tudor,
Agnes de Mille and Bronislava Nijinska as she developed a remarkable
versatility. But the greatest influence on her was Nijinska. Miss
Hightower told the dance writer Lili Cockerille Livingston in “American
Indian Ballerinas” (University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) that it
was from Nijinska that she had truly learned the importance of rhythm
1947 Miss Hightower made what was perhaps the most significant decision
in her career. She accepted an invitation to become ballerina of
a company being formed in Europe by the Marquis George de Cuevas,
a Chilean-born patron of the arts. The Marquis kept renaming his
troupe, at various times calling it Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo
and Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas. But most dancegoers referred
to it simply as the de Cuevas Ballet.
reason for joining de Cuevas was the fact that Miss Hightower’s
mentor, Nijinska, was working with the company. For Miss Hightower,
Nijinska choreographed the glitteringly virtuosic “Rondo Capriccioso.”
de Cuevas, Miss Hightower triumphantly danced the classics as well
as many new ballets. Her greatest success in the modern repertory
was John Taras’s “Piège de Lumière,” in which she portrayed an exotic
butterfly who bewitches escaped convicts in a tropical forest.
Miss Hightower kept so busy in Europe, America saw little of her
at the height of her powers. When the de Cuevas Ballet gave its
only New York season in 1950, its leading dancers, Miss Hightower
among them, were cheered. But the engagement as a whole was considered
disorganized. Miss Hightower made a successful return to Ballet
Theater as a guest artist during the 1955-56 season.
de Cuevas died in 1961 and his company disbanded, Miss Hightower
gradually retired from the stage, although she gave a series of
successful gala performances with Sonia Arova, Erik Bruhn and Rudolf
Nureyev in 1962.
settled in Cannes, where in 1962 she opened the Centre de Danse
Classique, soon recognized as one of Europe’s leading ballet schools.
Miss Hightower also directed major companies, including the Marseilles
Ballet (1969-72), the Ballet of the Grand Théâtre of Nancy (1973-74)
in France and La Scala Ballet (1985-86) in Milan.
greatest challenge came as director of the Paris Opéra Ballet (1980-83),
a huge company celebrated for its glorious history, unique style
and bureaucratic red tape. Yet she successfully reorganized it before
turning it over to her successor, Nureyev.
1991 the French experimental choreographer François Verret made
a documentary film in homage to her, titled “Rosella Hightower.”
Hightower married the French designer and artist Jean Robier in
Paris in 1952. Their only child, Dominique Robier, was born in 1955.
Ms. Robier, also a dancer, has performed with Maurice Béjart’s ballet
company and the modern-dance groups of Régine Chopinot and Dominique
Bagouet. No other information about survivors was available.
1975, the French government named Miss Hightower a Chevalier de
la Légion d’Honneur, the country’s premier honor.