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Ballet School Founder With an Eye for Talent

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006; A01

Mary Day, co-founder of the Washington School of Ballet, one of the nation's finest training grounds for classical dancers, and the grande dame of Washington ballet for six decades, died of complications from heart disease yesterday at her home in Washington. She was 96.

Her school's performances of "The Nutcracker," starting in 1961 at DAR Constitution Hall, became a Washington holiday tradition for three generations of dancers and vast audiences. She also created the internationally recognized Washington Ballet company.

Day identified and developed so much world-class talent at the ballet school that her former students dance in virtually every sizable company in the nation. Among the alumni are Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre; Amanda McKerrow, the first American to win a gold medal in a Moscow International Ballet Competition; and Virginia Johnson, a former principal at the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Day danced, too, but her main talent was as a teacher who could spot an improperly pointed toe or overly arched spine, dismissing applicants to her company with a glance at their photographs.

"She is famous for those eyes," a 1993 Washington Post Magazine profile said. "Not because they are big and dark and planted under high, penciled-in brows. Not because she can focus them with an intensity so ferocious that former pupil Shirley MacLaine told her she 'could frighten a Cossack' with her stare. Not because they rarely offer clues as to what this most private of women is thinking. Because they have always been able to see things nobody else's could see."

She saw that Washington, her home town, could become the nursery, elementary and graduate school for the lean, long-stemmed and lively artists who, in adulthood, could wow worldwide audiences. She taught thousands over the years, not just pre-professional dancers, but also daughters of presidents, future architects and attorneys and actresses.

"We know that not all of them are going to be professional dancers," Day said. "All we ask is that they have the ability to learn."

A native of Foggy Bottom, she corralled her playmates into her first shows when she was a schoolgirl. Day began her formal ballet training at age 11. She studied in New York and Europe, but her most influential schooling came from former Anna Pavlova company dancer Lisa Gardiner.

She taught ballet individually until 1944, when she and Gardiner began the Washington School of Ballet, instructing anyone older than 6. By partnering with the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington National Cathedral, various chorales and even the D.C. recreation department, she plugged away at her goal of turning the provincial nation's capital into a center for arts in general and dance specifically.

Day brought world-famous dancers to the District and found ways to promote and showcase their performances, even as she built local support for her school. She became the sole director of the school in 1958, when Gardiner died.

In the early years, the lithe, dark-haired impresario would descend from her apartment above the ballet school on Wisconsin Avenue NW and dance in the dark, creating the steps that would guide her students the next day. As the daughter of a seamstress, she knew how to handle a needle and thread, and alone in her sitting room, she would put finishing touches on ballet costumes.

Nothing escaped her eagle eye, friends and colleagues said, especially regarding the "Nutcracker" performances, which became so financially successful that they supported her other enterprises.

"From the back of an auditorium, she could see a pointe shoe that wasn't tied properly," said Judith Keyserling, the ballet's former director of marketing.

Inspired by a State Department-sponsored visit to the Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow, Day in 1962 started a high school that offered academics and dance training. The Academy of the Washington Ballet lasted 15 years.

In 1976, she launched the Washington Ballet, a chamber-size troupe intended to perform experimental works. It was "the best-kept secret in Washington," she observed, attracting far more notice in cities across the country and abroad than at home.

"It was never my vision to have a big international company," she said five months ago. "My vision was to find new works and new choreographers. I never had big classic ballets in the repertoire. . . . In order to do ballets like that, you have to have a large company. You can't do it with 20 dancers."

Under innovative choreographer and associate artistic director Choo-San Goh, who died in 1987, the ballet company earned an international reputation and became a launching pad for many dancers. But it struggled financially for years, even as Day collected national and local awards for her role in making Washington a hot spot for tutus and tights.

She shepherded students to an international ballet competition in Varna, Bulgaria, in 1971, and they emerged with silver and bronze medals. Ten years later, when McKerrow took the gold medal in the fourth Moscow International Ballet Competition, fame burst over her and the school, in the form of international media attention and months of applications from dancers seeking the training and attention that McKerrow had received.

Day, who had three knee operations, cut back on teaching as time took its toll on her physique. But she retained the presence of a grande dame.

"She is just such a vibrant woman, and she instills in all her students that passion. You know why you're there -- you're there for the love of dance," ballerina Marianna Tcherkassky said in 1995.

"She really taught me to enjoy dancing . . . to just trust in myself and go for it and enjoy it," said McKerrow, who went on to become a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre.

Day formally retired, as did her close friend, Elvi Moore, the ballet's general director for 16 years, when Septime Webre became the ballet's artist director in 1999. Day turned the school over to Rebecca Wright in 2004; she died in January.

Never married, and without children or siblings, Day devoted her life to dance. For years, she resisted entreaties to reveal her age. "Dancers are ageless," she insisted.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company