December 20, 2014

Yvonne Mounsey: 1919 — 2012

 

PHOTO BY TODD LECHTIK ©

Yvonne Mounsey: 1919 — 2012

Yvonne Mounsey, former head of Westside Academy of Dance, taught ballet to many Topanga students.

Yvonne Mounsey, whose ballet career as dancer, choreographer and teacher spanned eight decades, died September 29 in Los Angeles after a long illness.

She was perhaps best known for her roles as principal dancer for New York City Ballet (NYCB) under George Balanchine and was among the first dancers invited to join the company. Her most notable roles were the Queen in “The Cage” (Robbins), the Siren in “Prodigal Son” (Balanchine), the Harp in “Fanfare” (Robbins), and The Woman from His Past in “Lilac Garden” (Tudor).

Mounsey was born Yvonne Leibbrandt in South Africa, the second of three children. Her career began at 16 with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and subsequently performed with Massine’s Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo (under the name Irina Zarova) and Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballet Russes. While on tour in New York City in 1941, she met Balanchine who choreographed a demi-solo role for her in “Balustrade,” one of his oldest ballets still performed today.

In 1941, due to financial pressures during the outbreak of World War II, De Basil’s company abruptly disbanded while on tour in Cuba , leaving dancers unpaid. Stranded in Havana, Mounsey found work performing throughout Latin America. She again encountered Balanchine in Mexico City, where she danced in his production of “Les Sylphides” at the Palacio de Belles d’Artes in Mexico.

Yvonne Mounsey: 1919 — 2012

Yvonne Mounsey was a principal dancer for New York City Ballet (NYCB) under George Balanchine; photographed in on of her most notable roles as the Siren in “Prodigal Son” (Balanchine).

Following the war, Mounsey returned to South Africa, but compelled by the lure of ballet at its highest level, Mounsey returned to New York City in 1948, taking classes at the School of American Ballet. That same year, Balanchine formed New York City Ballet and, in 1949, invited Mounsey to join as a soloist. In less than a year, she was named principal dancer.

In 1958, she retired from NYCB, returned to South Africa, and married childhood friend Kelvin Clegg in 1960. She had two previous marriages to Duncan Mounsey and Albert Hall Hughey. While in South Africa, she co-founded South Africa's leading ballet company, The Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (P.A.C.T. Ballet).

In 1965, Mounsey and her family moved to Los Angeles where she began teaching ballet took over the school which she renamed Westside Academy of Dance. While there, she formed a decades-long partnership and friendship with Rosemary Valaire (deceased 1998).

The school’s resident ballet company, Westside Ballet of Santa Monica, began performances of “The Nutcracker” in 1972, which with the company’s spring performances, has delighted audiences for decades for the past 12 years at the Wadsworth Theater.

The complementary styles of Mounsey and Valaire, Balanchine and Royal Academy of Dancing, provided young dancers with a high degree of discipline and precise training.

The Westside Academy became one of the nation’s leading pre-professional dance companies with dozens of its alumni appearing with prominent ballet companies around the world, among them the NYCB, American Ballet Theater, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Houston Ballet, and international companies such as the Bolshoi.

Actress Elisabeth Moss, whose career includes starring roles in “Mad Men” and “The West Wing” is a Westside alumna.

Mounsey received the 2002 Lester Horton Dance Award for Lifetime Achievement and the 2008 Gabriella Axelrod Education Foundation's Award for the Advancement of the Arts.

Mounsey is survived by her sister, Roshild Collard of Cape Town, South Africa; daughter, Allegra, and grandson, Marcus, of Los Angeles; and by stepsons Christopher Clegg of Los Angeles and Stephen Clegg of Lincoln, Nebraska.

A public memorial service for Mounsey was held on Oct. 14 at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood. n