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ExploreDance.com's Mindy Aloff Remembers Barbara Milberg Fisher, Sally Banes and Russell Lee who the World Lost Recently

by Mindy Aloff
June 18, 2020
Between mid-April and mid-June, America lost a group of individuals in the arts whom I happened to know—for two decades at least and nearly six decades at most. Below I bring several of these artists to your attention. None succumbed to COVID-19. All were enchanted by theatrical dancing, and one of them was a practitioner.

Barbara Milberg Fisher (1934-2020)
The dance world knows her as Barbara Milberg, a charter member of the George Balanchine-Lincoln Kirstein Ballet Society, which Balanchine invited her (then a student at the School of American Ballet) to join; she was fourteen years old. She performed with Ballet Society for the two years of its existence (1946-48) and then with the New York City Ballet until 1958, rising to the position of soloist and capping her career as a member of the original cast of Balanchine's 1957 Agon, performing the Galliard duet with Barbara Walczak. In 1955, she also became one of the very few women whom Balanchine invited to be one of his co-choreographers (Bizet's Jeux d'Enfants). Following her marriage to Howard Shreve Fisher III, in 1958, Jerome Robbins (who had cast her in his works from the late 1940s) invited Barbara to join his newly founded Ballets: USA as a principal dancer. The company's 1962 performance for President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, the first ballet company to perform at the White House, was the last performance of Barbara's dance career. She chronicled that career in a beautifully written and thoughtful book, In Balanchine's Company: A Dancer's Memoir.

But she had several acts to go once she retired from the stage. In the 1970s, she went back to school, earning a B.A. (Phi Beta Kappa), master's, and, in 1980, a doctorate in The City University of New York, all the while rearing three children as a single mother and teaching as an adjunct. In 2003, she retired from the CUNY system as a full professor English. Her books of academic scholarship comprise the heralded Noble Numbers, Subtle Words: The Art of Mathematics in the Science of Storytelling and Wallace Stevens: The Intensest Rendezvous, which confirmed her status as one of the leading scholars of Stevens in the country. She also published a number of esteemed individual essays on George Bernard Shaw and John Milton, among other subjects, and including one comparing the Romeo-and-Juliet versions of Shakespeare, Kenneth MacMillan, and Robbins.

I knew Barbara for much of the last two decades of her life. I was honored that she gave me some of her writings to look over before she published them and to be able to include a chapter from her ballet memoir in my Library of America anthology, Dance in America. I heard her deliver her marvelous essay-lecture on Wallace Stevens and the dance (“Stevens Dancing”) at a conference on Stevens and Modernism at New York University; and I went with her to a couple of meetings of the Columbia Shakespeare Society, where she was an Associate Member. She was a star at such meetings, a figure of great personal warmth and charm whose ranging brilliance lit up conversation. And she was a haunting, Slavic beauty into her late eighties, with a trim dancer's figure and electrifying hazel eyes. Sometimes we went together to NYCB performances or to Alastair Macaulay's ballet seminars at Lincoln Center's Library for the Performing Arts; or we'd go to the movies on the Upper East Side, followed by a meal at one of her favorite restaurants, Wok 88. It was at one of those meals that I met the wonderful Janice Adelson, one of Barbara's friends of longstanding from NYCB. One year, Barbara decided to celebrate her birthday with a splurge of a lunch at Sarabeth's Kitchen, and the third member of the party was the legendary and indefatigable Vida Brown, still the authoritative ballet mistress in her tailored suit that showed off her formidably exacting posture. In her nineties at that point, Vida took the bus from her Edgewater, New Jersey apartment house, where, I learned, she was playing bridge nightly with none other than my Aunt Shirley, who also lived there.

The most moving performance that Barbara ever took me to was Peter Serkin's concert of two Mozart works and Bach's Goldberg Variations in the Kaufmann Concert Hall of the 92nd Street Y, on December 1st, 2018. Serkin's first recording, at age eighteen, was the Goldberg, and Barbara expected great things from his December performance of it. I had no expectations, but I was bowled over. I've heard a passel of piano virtuosos address this work, but never have I heard it played as if it were a novella, now dramatic, now adventuresome, now meditative, and yet, from first notes to last, retaining its through line. Serkin was signing DVDs after the concert, and Barbara wanted to meet him. I thought about standing in line with her, but then it seemed to me that she might have a better time on her own, and I bowed out. For, although I studied the piano a little as a kid, Barbara had studied piano for real, with the pedagogue Dorothy Taubman in her native Brooklyn, learning Taubman's theories (still taught, it seems) about coordinating muscles and tendons in specific ways as a kind of behavioral route into technique. It was Taubman who prepared Barbara as a pianist for her successful audition for the High School of Music and Art, which she only attended for a year. At that point, Barbara's mother insisted she choose between the piano and ballet; she chose ballet and transferred to a general academic program at Midwood High, in Brooklyn (though when she had time to attend classes there, given the intensity of her studies at S.A.B., I have no idea). Barbara's musicality was advanced—one of the reasons that Balanchine enjoyed discussing music with her and invited her to choreograph part of the Bizet ballet. When I picked up the paper early this year and found that Serkin had perished, at the age of 72, from cancer, it was Barbara's prescience and first-rate taste that immediately came to mind. To spend time with her was a gift in itself.

Sally Banes (1950-2020)
Sally's writings, her teaching and lecturing, her leadership of scholarly organizations, her wide-ranging influence as a scholar of the American avant-garde and vernacular dancing of her own time, her editing of Elizabeth Souritz's landmark history of avant-garde dance in the early years of the U.S.S.R., and much more work in dance history and philosophy, have made her one of the most influential dance writers and historians of her age, especially in college and university programs where postmodern dance and the history of the avant-garde are significant subjects. A full account of her heralded career can be found elsewhere. What follows are snapshot reflections.

I met Sally in the summer of 1977, when she was the assistant to Deborah Jowitt, then directing the Dance Critics Institute at the American Dance Festival (still located at Connecticut College then). That was quite a cohort at the Institute: Janice Ross was in it, for instance (like Sally, she eventually became the president of the Society for Dance Historians and a distinguished teacher and author), and Christine Temin (the Boston critic). The faculty included, besides Deborah, the historian and critic Marcia B. Siegel, the critic and esteemed Balanchine essayist Nancy Goldner, the dance-film expert John Mueller, the Danish Bournonville historian and ballet critic Eric Aschengreen, and other leading figures. Sally—her blonde ringlets framing her face flushed with amusement, her scarlet hot pants ever-ready for an impromptu moment of salsa, her active hands holding a schedule that was invariably shipshape in its organization—was always optimistic and seemed unfazed by the wilting temperatures of New London.

We had many reviewing assignments, and I well remember her review of a performance (by New York City Ballet, at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center) of Balanchine's 1967 version of Valse-Fantaisie, with its ballerina and danseur jumping and jumping across one another's path until, finally, they exit as solitaries into opposite wings; they are not fated to meet, Sally wrote. Never again have I been able to look at the ballet without recalling her view of it. Sally went on to publish some speculative writings on Balanchine a dozen or so years later, notably an essay in which she considered his references to jazz dancing in some of his apparently classical works and his employment of black tap specialists for various projects during the 1930s. Although Balanchine's interest in jazz and his collaboration with African American dancers is well-known in scholarly circles today, it wasn't when she published her article. When I had occasion to speak with her in the theater or at conferences in subsequent decades, though, the article I remember her mentioning several times as the one of which she was especially proud was her journalistic profile of Hip-Hop dancers in a 1981 issue of The Village Voice—an article that served as kind of a discovery of Hip-Hop for general audiences and a chronicle of the dance as a competitive substitute for fighting, not yet an art form.

Sally was, by inclination and intuition, usually one beat ahead of the Zeitgeist, but her vision was backed up by solid research. What may have seemed like intellectual risk-taking at the moment of publication proves in retrospect to have been simply far-seeing. One of her last interests was in smell as an attribute of some dance. In ten years, that may not seem outlandish at all. Another aspect I strongly associate with her was her pragmatism about what was needed. Were it not for Sally—who produced the now-landmark film of Yvonne Rainer performing her game-changing, uninflected Trio A (directed by the film theorist Noel Carroll and photographed by Robert Alexander)—several generations of dancers who missed the Judson Dance Theater would have to take it on faith that Rainer's performance was.

Sally suffered a debilitating stroke at the turn of the twenty-first century, when she was at the very top of her game. Up to that time, though, she accomplished twice as much in half a career as many scholars achieve in a full one.

Russell Lee (1939-2020)
Russell had already enjoyed several careers by the time I met him, at the end of the 1990s, in the company of the Balanchine ballerina and illustrious School of American Ballet professor Suki Schorer. Russell, a very good writer and a remarkable listener, was working with Suki on the manuscript that became Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique. But Russell's experience of ballet went much further back. The child of an American military family, he moved around a lot in his youth, including to London, where he enjoyed attendance at the ballet group that brought, among its guest lecturers, erstwhile Diaghilev ballerina Tamara Karsavina, who spoke on aspects of technique and pantomime in the classics. Decades later, when Russell worked in Saudi Arabia as a financial consultant and assistant to a contracting firm, he studied ballet seriously for several years and also, at one point, choreographed and performed.

And before the theater there were books. Russell was the master of many skills, some learned from hands-on experience and some from reading. His standard in most endeavors was connoisseurship. When he set himself to learn to cook, he began immediately with the cooking of classic French cuisine, which he learned from the two how-to volumes on the subject by Julia Childs—and only from her books—during several years when he worked in administration in Antioch College, in Ohio, a place he considered a food desert. Russell's father was strict; he wasn't allowed even to have a television when he was growing up, and, to the end of his life, he told time in military terms (instead of, say, “one p.m.,” he'd speak of “thirteen hours”) and would disparage t.v. He wouldn't even see the Julia Childs movie. Although, when he worked in Paris (where he was instrumental in the founding of The American University), Russell would lead groups of students to cultural events, including the ballet, he would take them to films; later in life, though, he thought that cinema was not good for the brain. Perhaps less beneficial to brain health were Russell's occasional flights of extreme risk-taking, as when he visited Saudi Arabia in the midst of the Iraq War. But, regardless of whether he was under armed protection or ensconced in an armchair, he remained a reader of range and tremendous intellect, and the lessons he gave to himself in the liberal arts far surpassed the education that individuals I know with earned doctorates acquired.

Russell didn't take well to most formal education; apart from a brief stint at Columbia University, he was his own professor of the liberal arts. Better to learn by doing, as when he traveled and simply struck up conversations with anyone he saw engaged in an activity he wanted to learn more about. Among the places he visited was Slavic Georgia, where he saw Balanchine's ballets performed by the Tblisi Ballet. He delighted in visiting Austria, for the countryside, for the opera (he was an avid Wagnerite but also a lover of Mozart, J.S. Bach, and Berg), and for the ballroom dancing, especially the New Year's Eve ball at the Hofburg Imperial Palace, one of the “trail” of grands fêtes that take place in Vienna that night. At this Silvester ball, the women wear floor-length formal gowns and the men attend in white tie and tails. Russell was not a professional dancer by any means, but he was an enthusiastic amateur and a very strong partner, too—as I discovered when he invited me to accompany him as his dancing partner at a seminar, arranged by him, that the ballerina Karin von Aroldingen conducted as a one-off for ballroom enthusiasts at Sandra Cameron's dance studio, then in lower Manhattan. We learned the first section of the choreography for the principal couple in the opening movement of Balanchine's Vienna Waltzes, which von Aroldingen had originated on stage with Sean Lavery. That choreography contained one or two tour jeté lifts, and Russell, who stood about 5'10,” made me feel as if I were flying in them. Over his life, he danced happily with many partners, but the person he seemed most joyous dancing with was Suki, who accompanied him to the Viennese Imperial New Year's Eve ball many times. What I didn't realize until quite recently, when I spoke with Judith Deegan Anthony—a dancer with Germany's Mannheim Ballet Company, a founder of a ballet school in New Jersey, and someone who knew Russell and his magic going back to the 1960s—is that he himself studied ballet seriously in Saudi Arabia for about five years (Judith doesn't remember the name of his teacher) and choreographed a pas de deux there to Debussy's “L'après-midi d'un faune,” with his teacher and himself cast in the work. Later, he staged it as a pas de trois for students of Judith's school. As she explained, “He didn't have the body for ballet, but he had the head knowledge.”

It was difficult for me, a middle-distance friend, to puzzle out Russell's life in any chronological way. An unsung donor to The School of American Ballet, the New York City Ballet, and other art institutions that he treasured, he never spoke money; I learned indirectly about his donor's status because he once let slip that Lincoln Kirstein used to invite him to dinner in his Murray Hill home, and I later found that the reason was that if one donated to NYCB at a certain level then dinner at Lincoln's was a perk. Russell's generosity and sensitivity permeated his friendships, from his friends of longest standing (such as Nancy Reynolds, former Balanchine dancer and currently Research Director of The George Balanchine Foundation, as well as a fellow Wagnerite; they met some sixty years ago) to the young ballet dancers and balletgoers who continually made their way into Russell's purview. When he alone chose to attend Met operas he would buy a ticket to the lighted musical-reading desks at the very top of the house, so he could follow the score. His obsession with opera at the Met was primarily musical; sometimes, he wouldn't even glance at the stage. He liked to make operas available to friends who couldn't afford them, though, and when he bought tickets for one of us it would be in a central position in the Family Circle, so we could see and hear equally well.

Several weeks before he died, he insisted that I see the Met's reasonably new William Kentridge-designed production of Wozzeck, a powerful and tumultuous presentation that, as it happens, incorporates film projections and deracinated clips—elements that Russell had inveighed against for years yet, here, let his admiration get the better of his principles. Later, when I went back through Russell's several years of E-mails to me, I found one where he called himself “Büchner-brain'd,” adding that he was forgetting little day-to-day things, like his keys, and wished he could trade the names and years of theatrical productions that he vividly remembered in exchange for not locking himself out of his apartment. I hadn't realized that he identified so strongly with Wozzeck's protagonist, and I began to wonder at all the identifications he could have made with the figures in ballet as well. But when did he have the time to transform his love of the outdoors into becoming a valuable volunteer as a secretary to Austrian botanists conducting field work, accompanying them and writing down their observations about plants so that they could comment spontaneously and continue to practice their scientific inquiry on the go? As I write, I look at one of the souvenirs he brought back to me from Austria: a little glass jar filled to the brim with what looks like the bodies of bees among fluffy thistles. A flower-patterned fabric, anchored by a wooden ladybug, covers the jar, and the label reads “Huflattich. Husten. Atemwegserkrankungen,” followed by English: “cough/respiratory sickness.” It's tea! I keep it next to another of his souvenirs, a little jar of golden jelly, teased (if I remember right) from evergreen trees.

Apart from Balanchine, da Vinci, Wagner, and a few other artists of live theater, the heroes of Russell's pantheon were mostly idea men: the cultural historian Jacques Barzun, the philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler, the philosopher and political scientist Raymond Aron, the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, the art historian Kenneth Clark, the historian of French history Elizabeth Eisenstein, the anthropologist and historian David Kertzer. When he wrote to me, he would expound upon their books and would try to draw me into conversation about their thoughts. Russell loved ideas as if they were so real and individual as to have names and Social Security numbers. “My greatest enthusiasm is the theater,” he once wrote to me. “But some of the great nights have been fine minds talking, just words, no images.”

When people speak about Balanchine's “old audience,” they mean, at least in part, devotees who came to ballet from deep intellectual curiosity about the rest of the world, as exemplified by Russell Lee. More than that, perhaps, these were intellectuals of a certain quality, outsiders in some way, for whom the ballet supplied something critical to the psyche. “I sometimes didn't think that Russell was always understood,” Judith Anthony told me, after relating how Russell had given her many educational and professional opportunities from the time she met him, in her mother's company, at the age of eighteen, at the American University in Paris, where Russell was the Registrar. For decades, he stayed close to her and her family. Eventually, he was a kind of self-appointed guardian angel to her husband and child as well. She related one of his first amazing gifts to her, in the early '60s, shortly after Rudolf Nureyev had defected from the U.S.S.R. Nureyev was performing with Margot Fonteyn in London, and Russell had arranged to take Judith to the performance. That was exciting enough; but then, being Russell, he went the distance and somehow arranged for them to go backstage afterwards and be introduced to Nureyev, who spoke little English yet was very polite and shook Judith's hand. Thinking back to that, she still can't quite believe it happened.

Russell not only drank deep of the magic of literature and the arts: He learned how to recreate it for others. In Judith's words, “He just made things happen.”
Barbara Milberg Fisher.

Barbara Milberg Fisher.

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown


Sally Banes.

Sally Banes.

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown


Suki Schorer and Russell Lee.

Suki Schorer and Russell Lee.

Photo © & courtesy of Sean Zann

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