Dancer, Teacher Rebecca Wright; Led Washington School of Ballet

Rebecca Wright, 58, danced with the Joffrey Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre before beginning a prolific teaching career in the mid-1980s.
Rebecca Wright, 58, danced with the Joffrey Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre before beginning a prolific teaching career in the mid-1980s. (By Rosalie O'conner -- Washington Ballet)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Rebecca Wright, 58, a featured dancer with the Joffrey Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre who taught and choreographed extensively before becoming director of the Washington School of Ballet in 2004, died Jan. 29 at her home in Chevy Chase. She had cancer.

Comfortable in contemporary and classical works, Ms. Wright danced with some of the finest ballet interpreters of her generation, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, Alexander Godunov and George de la Pena, who became her husband.

In a populist vein, she universally charmed critics as Philomena, a balletic unicorn, in "Merlin" (1983), a Broadway show starring magician Doug Henning. Years later, she called herself "the eternal soubrette" who was typecast in spry but highly technical roles.

Starting in the mid-1980s, she began a prolific teaching career. She held a dance professorship at the University of California at Los Angeles and was director of dance programs at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. She also spent several years as director of dance programs at the private St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H.

She maintained valuable connections, from 2000 to 2001 chairing the Joffrey/New School University bachelor of fine arts dance program and from 1997 to 2003 directing the American Ballet Theatre's Summer Intensive program, which offers classes in New York as well as satellite classes in Detroit, Tuscaloosa, Ala., and other cities.

In 2004, Ms. Wright succeeded Washington School of Ballet founder Mary Day, who had led the institution since 1944. Historically the school turned out notable dancers, including Amanda McKerrow and ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, the second playing a major role in recommending Ms. Wright for the Washington school.

Ms. Wright's mandate was a sensitive one: primarily to retain Day's emphasis on rigorous classical training while remaining mindful that Day, in her nineties, was watching from a distance. The school's artistic director, Septime Webre, said Ms. Wright also amplified recruitment drives and helped bring enrollment to 450, up from 350 when she arrived.

Rebecca Diane Wright was born Dec. 5, 1947, in Springfield, Ohio. From an interest in gymnastics and tap dance, she began pivotal early training under Josephine Schwarz at the Dayton Ballet, which had a reputation as a key grooming center in the American regional ballet movement. In 1964, she received a Ford Foundation scholarship to study dance.

Two weeks after her high school graduation, she began work as a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, a prominent but smaller company known for contemporary works.

She was praised for her work in Jerome Robbins's ballet without music, "Moves" (1969), and as Titania in Frederick Ashton's "The Dream" (1973), based on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." In the second, New York Times dance critic Clive Barnes singled out her "entrancingly delicate footwork" and wrote that she gave "a performance of gossamer and thistledown."

Other Joffrey productions were memorable for different reasons. "We were dancing 'Valentine' in the middle of an electrical storm when the lights went out and music from the amplifiers was so loud I became disoriented," she told the Times. "I can remember crying and asking Christian Holder, 'Where are we? What is going on?'

"The following year in Ravinia [near Chicago] it got so cold we nearly went on strike. Many in the audience were dressed in fur coats, mufflers and gloves. Quite a switch from the Blossom Theater in Cleveland, where they have a heating system in front that separates dancers from audience with a shield of heat."

She danced with the American Ballet Theatre from 1975 to 1982, followed by stage offers to work in "Merlin" and to understudy Leslie Caron in the national touring company of "On Your Toes." She also was ballet mistress for Twyla Tharp, coaching and teaching Tharp's works.

Her marriage to Charles Spaeth ended in divorce. She was separated from her second husband, George de la Pena, of Iowa City.

Survivors include two sons from her second marriage, Matthew de la Pena of Iowa City and Alexander de la Pena of Chevy Chase; her parents, Bill and Diane Wright of Dayton; and a brother.

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