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Patricia Wilde, ballerina showcased by Balanchine, dies at 93
Patricia Wilde, then director of the American Ballet Theater School, demonstrates a step for students in New York on Oct. 6, 1981. Wilde, a principal dancer known for her speed and daring as a member of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet in its early years, and later an influential teacher and artistic director, died on July 17, 2021 in Stephens City, Va. She was 93. Vic DeLucia/The New York Times.

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Patricia Wilde, a principal dancer known for her speed and daring as a member of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet in its early years, and later an influential teacher and artistic director, died July 17 in Stephens City, Virginia. She was 93.

Her daughter, Anya Davis, said the cause was complications of a stroke.

Wilde performed more than 40 roles with City Ballet from 1950-65, and Balanchine, the head of the company, often liked to throw her into a part with little rehearsal.

“He loved that I would just go!” she said in “Wilde Times,” Joel Lobenthal’s 2016 biography of her. Balanchine once said of her, “I can ask her to do anything.”

Balanchine created many important roles for her, including the kilt-wearing, quick-stepping lassie who opens his “Scotch Symphony” (1952), and the final, Hungarian-tinged variation of his “Raymonda Variations” (1961). She triumphed in more lyrical and dramatic parts as well, like Odette in “Swan Lake.”

But the role most closely associated with Wilde was as the lead ballerina in “Square Dance” (1957). This was a Balanchine ballet, set to music by Vivaldi and Corelli, with a highly unusual feature: a square-dance caller who at one point would say, “Now keep your eyes on Pat” as “her feet go wickety whack.”

“Wickety whack” may have referred to a particularly tricky step — gargouillades, a jump during which the feet trace circles in the air. But the phrase, more generally, might have also caught the uncommon speed, brilliant technique and daring for which Wilde was known and that Balanchine intended “Square Dance” to showcase. It was “a compendium of everything he expected of me,” Wilde said.

Of her first performances with the company, during its London debut season in 1950, a writer for Ballet Today noted that she “seems to typify what we are already beginning to think of as a ‘Balanchine dancer.’” Near the end of her time there, critic Winthrop Sargeant described her in The New Yorker as the “company’s great female trouper,” the one who “would take on anything, no matter how difficult, and do it to perfection.”

After retiring from City Ballet in 1965, Wilde taught and coached for the Harkness Ballet School, City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. She was the artistic director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theater from 1982-96.

Wilde was born Patricia White on July 16, 1928, in Ottawa, Canada. Her father, John White, was an engineer. Her mother, Eileen Simpson, farmed her family’s large estate. The youngest of five children, Patricia grew up doing chores on the estate, skiing to school in the winter and leaping among the stones of an abandoned quarry.

At 3 she followed her 6-year-old sister, Nora, into ballet class. At 14, in 1943, she followed Nora to New York City to study at the School of American Ballet, which Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein had founded nine years earlier. And at 16 she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where Nora was a member and Balanchine was briefly the chief choreographer.

Serge Denham, director of the Ballet Russe, was against having more than one dancer on the roster with the same family name. Patricia needed a stage name but wanted to keep her monogrammed luggage. It was Balanchine, thinking of Oscar Wilde, who came up with the solution.

Balanchine thought of Wilde again in 1950, two years after he and Kirstein had started New York City Ballet. Wilde — following her sister again — had in the meantime moved to Paris, where she studied with Russian ballerinas like Olga Preobajenska and danced with Roland Petit’s Ballets de Paris. While in London, Balanchine asked her to join his young troupe.

Robert Barnett, who danced with City Ballet then, remembers Wilde as one of its strongest technicians. “All the boys loved her because she was so easy to partner,” he said in a recent interview. “She was probably the quietest of the whole group, but maybe the most respected.”

In 1953, Wilde married George Bardyguine, a production stage manager. On the day of the wedding, she rehearsed until late, angrily meeting every challenge Balanchine threw at her.

Dancer Suki Schorer, who joined City Ballet in 1959, recalled marveling at how Wilde “could dance at lightning speed, devouring space, while her upper body moved with a calm, classical beauty.” This control, combined with her daring, made Wilde ideal for Balanchine’s continual experimentation and his extensions of classical technique. “You didn’t see any strain,” Schorer said.

As she moved into teaching and coaching, Wilde gave birth to her daughter, Anya, and her son, Youri. Both children survive her, along with her sister and three grandchildren.

Not long after Wilde left City Ballet, Schorer asked her to coach her in roles that Wilde had danced. The sessions were hard, but “she was so generous,” Schorer said. “She didn’t want me to pay her or anything. She wanted to pass on what she knew.”

And so she did. As director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, Wilde was one of very few women to run a ballet company. With her high standards and encouragement, she nurtured many dancers.

She also expanded the troupe’s repertory, and not only with the Balanchine works she knew so well. In 1986, she commissioned “Tabula Rasa,” the first piece for a ballet company by Ohad Naharin, well before he became one of the world’s most influential dancemakers.

“I used to call her the Lady of Grace,” Janet Campbell, who was and still is the company’s costume director, said of Wilde. “She was so graceful and gracious, calm as a cucumber. She was humble, but she always knew what she wanted.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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