A grande dame of dance steps out of the spotlight Dance

May 24, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,special to the sun

Washington - Mary Day, grande dame of dance here, has stepped down as director of Washington Ballet, and now the task of packing up has begun.

Her office is crowded with photographs and gilded, beribboned award certificates; stuffed with dance books - historical artifacts in themselves; and piled with memorabilia, from programs to dried flowers. Just outside the door, a coat rack holds dirndls and peasant skirts from some 19th-century ballet.

"I start reading, and I get so interested in everyone," Day says, sounding helpless and nostalgic. She plans to spend the summer cleaning out the office and reorganizing a half-century of ballet history at her home.

The repertory programs of last week were her final ones as the company's artistic leader.

As is her custom, she attended every performance. She'll probably continue to do so after the next artistic director is chosen. (A national search is now in process.) And she remains titular head of the Washington School of Ballet, the academy she founded 44 years ago.

Day is in her 80s - no one is quite sure how far. Her birth date is not given in any of the world's dance reference books. Her hair remains a calm brown, her skin lined but not crinkled. There's no meandering in her memories.

But she walks slowly, with a cane, her shoulders hunched. And, with the privilege of her seniority, her Bedlington terrier, Jasmine, comes to the office every day and sleeps on a dog bed in back of Day's desk. Day has lived through more than eight decades of Washington's struggle to define itself, evolving from a sleepy Southern town to an international capital. Segregation has come and gone, theaters have flourished and been demolished.

There have been riots - and rivalries. At one time, Washington Ballet and the now-defunct National Ballet joined forces; then they divorced. Then the Kennedy Center, with enough money and clout to bid for national status, dumped them both for imported dance. Washington Ballet still performs there, but in the Terrace Theater, a rooftop venue with a stage too small even for its chamber ballets.

"If I'd been a little smarter, I'd have moved somewhere else - anywhere else. I regret very much that it was in this city," Day says of her efforts. "All I knew was how to work hard and pay the bills. ... But it's been a fight all the time. I don't think I've been aware of its being a fight until recently, but it's foolish to battle it any longer.

"Dance is always fighting, wherever it is. It's always at the end of the line."

From the beginning, in 1944, the school she founded with her former teacher, Lisa Gardiner, was known for excellence. Its graduates have gone to the world's great dance companies: Mimi Paul to New York City Ballet, Virginia Johnson to Dance Theater of Harlem, Amanda McKerrow to American Ballet Theater, Patrick Corbin to Joffrey Ballet and Paul Taylor Dance Company, Katita Waldo to San Francisco Ballet.

"Mary's special gift from a higher power was recognizing talent, sometimes where no one else could see it," says Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of American Ballet Theater, one of the two largest companies in the United States. "And when she spotted talent, she knew how to mold it."

He should know. As a gangly 13-year-old kid from Vermont, he came to the academy in 1968. When he left in 1972, he was a polished dancer.

The company Day founded 20 years ago as a small experimental troupe has an unparalleled repertory of works by young, visionary choreographers. It is also the repository for the brilliant ballets of Choo-San Goh, the Singapore-born artist who was its resident choreographer for 13 years, until his death in 1987 from AIDS, at the age of 39. There is a photograph of him in Day's office: smiling and handsome. Day talks about him in the tone of a mother who has seen her child die - the only time in the interview that her voice saddens.

The difficulty for arts groups in Washington has always been its transient population. While parents - most recently, President and Mrs. Clinton - have been happy to send their children to Day's first-class dance school, long-term support for her company has been harder to come by.

"They always think of us as just a school," she says, so calmly that it hides the bitterness.

Long before regionalism became the watchword of mid-size arts groups who outgrew their population (and funding) base, Day looked north to Baltimore, where she tried twice to grow a branch of her company and school. In the '80s, she offered dance classes in an old Catholic school on Mount Royal Avenue and presented a "Nutcracker" in the Lyric Theater. In the '90s, she tried again with a three-year residency by the company at Goucher College.

But growing a dance com-pany in Baltimore has been like planting a cantaloupe seed on the sidewalk. "For a while, it seemed as though it was going to work, and then it didn't work," Day says. "And I was all ready to take an apartment on Mount Vernon Place."

Still, there's at least one girl from Baltimore who makes the trip almost every day to Day's school in Chevy Chase. "We'll see in another year if she looks like company material," Day says confidently.

With the establishment of the Kirov Academy of Ballet in the late jTC '80s, a Russian-based institution subsidized by revenues from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, Washington School of Ballet had another rival.

But though its recent graduates have not equaled the stable of Kirov Academy prize-winners (in competitions heavily weighted toward Russian ballet technique), Day has no regrets. Her dancers fill the ranks of good American companies.

As she says: "I've enjoyed every minute of it. I'm some kind of a nut, I guess."

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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