Even those who never saw Nora Kaye dance have reason to appreciate her artistry and to mourn her recent death.
Kaye retired from dancing in 1961 and her performances in the most enduring of the ballets created for her--Antony Tudor's "Pillar of Fire" (1942), Agnes de Mille's "Fall River Legend" (1948) and Jerome Robbins' "The Cage" (1951)--have long since passed into legend. But the ballets themselves continue to bear her imprint, confirming her reputation for unmatched emotional power.
The unbearable tension concealing Hagar's yearning for love in Tudor's masterpiece, the transition from deep vulnerability to murderous force that De Mille built into the character of The Accused, the inhuman ferocity that Robbins required of his seductive predator: What kind of woman inspired these unprecedented ballet roles?
"Undeniably a great woman of the theater and a symbol to any dancer of tenacity, vigor and what it means to be a great star," commented Mikhail Baryshnikov after Kaye's death.
"Unfortunately, I never saw Nora Kaye dance," he continued, "but she had an extraordinary magic in life which she must have had as a performer. Being with her, she transformed her milieu; she had a drive towards the positive that was impossible to ignore.
"When times were good, Nora had a unique gift: She made you believe they would happen again and again. Anyone lucky enough to have fallen under her smile and her spell was fortunate. Nora Kaye made the quality of our lives better."
Dancer Leslie Browne was only 4 when Kaye retired, but knew her as a friend of the family, a motion picture executive producer (on Browne's films "The Turning Point" and "Nijinksy") and as an associate artistic director at American Ballet Theatre. She was Kaye's protegee and has danced several of her roles in the Tudor repertory.
"Nora Kaye was the most important influence and inspiration in my whole life, and I loved her," she said last week.
Published accounts of Kaye on stage agree about her quality of belief. To the late Walter Terry, dance critic of the New York Herald-Tribune, she was, simply, "the greatest dramatic ballerina of our era." The late New York Times dance critic John Martin also ranked her "among the first artists of the contemporary ballet."
"She was by no means limited to the grim realism of 'Pillar of Fire,' " Martin wrote, "for in (Tudor's) 'Jardin aux Lilas,' she was the thwarted romantic heroine, in his 'Gala Performance' she was a broadly comic Russian ballerina, in his 'Dim Lustre' she captured the very essence of his wit, and in his 'Romeo and Juliet' she was able to follow (Alicia) Markova, for whom the role was created, with her own superb authority."
Lincoln Kirstein, who could be highly acidic about any form of dancing other than the house style at New York City Ballet (which he co-founded), called Kaye "the most intense and melodramatically effective dancer-mime of her generation."
From Edwin Denby's collected reviews, we can glimpse something of her achievement in conventional repertory. He found her "the truest, sweetest (and most brilliant) of the young dancers" in George Balanchine's "Waltz Academy," "vividly temperamental" in Leonide Massine's "Capriccio Espagnol," and, in Petipa's "Princess Aurora" (a suite from "Sleeping Beauty"), even mistook her for Markova, his classical icon:
"A magnificent performance. She has added to her rendering those subtle back bends of the neck that intensify the plastic line of the body and that the great Russian ballerinas seem to have discovered. They give warmth to the severity of the pure classic line, and (she) does them to perfection."
But the clearest, most comprehensive and most unsparing portrait of Kaye in her prime can be found in De Mille's book, "Lizzie Borden, a Dance of Death":
"She was a dark, spare New York Jewess, with wry New York wit, a flat Bronx voice, a hard, driving plastique, great force and brilliance, and a beauty of phrasing, an ability to suggest more with sparser means than anyone in our time.
"She could be brilliant in the virtuoso classic parade numbers, although a gross foot and hard releve barred her from the feather fragility that the romantic heroines demand. Comedy was not for her--she was not sufficiently gentle; she burlesqued. But lyric tragedy she took to heights very few of us have ever seen.
"She wore suffering like a flower, and when her arms lifted on a breath, her dark head turned, and her eyes opened, it was with the wonder of a stricken animal.
"There was never an iota of sentimentality in her portrayal because she practiced economy like a nun. Not one single irrelevant or frivolous gesture was permitted in her idiom. Her dancing laced about a steel scale. She used just what was necessary, exactly what was necessary--nothing else--nothing for show, nothing for vanity, and against this basic minimum her life beat and throbbed like a musician's hand on a single string."
Obviously, nobody today dances like that. Nearly every major candidate for "Duse of the Dance" is too insistently florid, too relentlessly glamorous, too preoccupied with using emotional fireworks to camouflage substandard technique.
Indeed, at a time when expressive content in ballet is regarded suspiciously and the achievements of the Tudor era are in eclipse, the very term dramatic dancer has come to mean "ballerina-in-decline."
That is why Nora Kaye's example is so important to those who never saw her dance. Her career proved that American dancers needn't waste their time fitting Franco-Russian stereotypes, that technical prowess can serve a deeper function than merely re-animating the 19th-Century repertory, and that serving an original creative vision, body and soul, can represent the highest priority of our greatest ballet artists.