Sara Leland, Ballerina of Ardour and Abandon, Dies at 79

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Sara Leland, Ballerina of Passion and Abandon, Dies at 79

Sara Leland, a principal dancer for the New York Ballet who had staged George Balanchine’s ballets around the world during her career and later became a popular ballet master for the company, died on November 28th in Westwood, New Jersey when she was 79.

The cause of her death in a hospital was heart failure, said her niece Mary-Sue O’Donnell.

Ms. Leland, known to friends and colleagues by her maiden name Sally, was a young dancer with the Joffrey Ballet in New York when Balanchine, the ballet master of the City Ballet, saw her dancing in a class and invited her to join his company.

In 1960, her first year with the city ballet, she got a leading role in “Les Biches”, a new ballet by Francisco Moncion; She was promoted to soloist three years later and began playing lead voices in a variety of ballets, including Balanchine’s “Agon,” “Symphony in C,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Jerome Robbins “Interplay”; and Frederick Ashton’s “Illuminations”.

Balanchine created a role for her in the “Emeralds” section of his full-length “Jewels” (1967) and in the short-lived “PAMTGG”, which is based on a commercial jingle for Pan American World Airways (1971). Robbins created roles for her in “Dances at a Gathering” (1969) and “Goldberg Variations” (1971). Her ability to quickly pick up and remember choreographic sequences led Robbins to ask her to help him with rehearsals, and they worked closely together in creating these two ballets.

Ms. Leland was promoted to solo dancer in 1972 shortly before the Stravinsky Festival of the City Ballet, which opened with “Lost Sonata,” a pas de deux created by Balanchine for Ms. Leland and John Clifford. That same evening she played the second movement with Edward Villella in the premiere of Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements,” a ballet with which she would be associated throughout her career and which she later taught generations of city ballet dancers.

“Sally was a quick learner and Balanchine was really struggling with ‘Symphony’ in terms of tempo, so he gave Sally lots of steps to demonstrate the Corps de Ballet,” said Barbara Horgan, Balanchine’s longtime assistant.

These steps stayed with Mrs. Leland. “When I first directed ‘Symphony’ I remember writing down the intricate counts of Sally that kept it all in mind,” said Christine Redpath, repertoire director at City Ballet. “I still remember her abandoned mercury dancing in this work.”

Balanchine choreographed roles for Ms. Leland in “Union Jack” (1976) and “Vienna Waltzes” (1977), and her steely technique and versatility enabled her to perform in an exceptionally wide range of the company’s repertoire, including abstract ballets such as Balanchines ” Serenade “and” Agon “; romantic, expressive pieces such as “La Valse” and “Davidsbündlertänze”; and conventional story ballets like “The Nutcracker” (as Dewdrop and the Sugar Plum Fairy) and “Don Quixote” (as Dulcinea).

“It was fun to see because you didn’t have to hold your breath,” said Ms. Horgan. “She was strong enough to take risks – but they weren’t risks to her. Some dancers are alike in everything, but she wasn’t. “

Ms. Leland began staging works by Balanchine and Robbins in the mid-1970s while she was still performing. She traveled to Amsterdam, Havana and Copenhagen to teach her ballets and work on it with companies in the United States, including the Joffrey Ballet, the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Boston Ballet. She was appointed deputy ballet master of the company in 1981, two years before she retired from the stage.

“I watch Mr. Balanchine as closely and closely as possible these days,” she said in a 1982 interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “I appreciate every minute of every rehearsal he conducts. I try to study his ballets so closely that I will never forget them and that in the future I can stage them exactly as he intended.

Sally Harrington was born on August 2, 1941, in Melrose, Massachusetts, to Ruth (Gibbons) Harrington and Leland Kitteridge Harrington, known as Hago, a former Boston Bruins player of the National Hockey League. She later took the stage name Sara Leland.

An older sister, Leeta, was born with spina bifida and a doctor suggested taking ballet into physical therapy. The family lived near the school of E. Virginia Williams, a noted teacher who had admired Balanchine’s work and studied his teaching methods. Mrs. Leland went to study with her sister.

Her talent was immediately evident and she began to train intensively with Mrs. Williams, who founded the New England Civic Ballet in 1958, the forerunner of the Boston Ballet. Ms. Leland’s mother and Ms. Williams became close friends, and Ruth Harrington ran the company’s reception, brought dancers into the family home, and made costumes for the troupe.

“It became her life,” said Mrs. O’Donnell, Mrs. Leland’s niece.

Robert Joffrey saw Ms. Leland perform with the company in 1959 and invited her to join the Joffrey Ballet. On vacation in Boston the next year, she attended ballet classes with Mrs. Williams and was discovered by Balanchine, who was an artistic advisor to the New England Ballet.

“Balanchine adored Sally,” said Richard Tanner, a former ballet master with City Ballet. “She was such an unusual dancer with so much freedom of movement and lack of inhibition. She danced really big and he loved that. He liked her personality too, everything about her. “

Shortly after Ms. Leland started doing rehearsals, Balanchine asked her to practice the main ballerina roles in his ballets. Her unusual ability to maintain and teach the choreography of all parts of a ballet meant that she could work on more than 30 works in the repertoire. She also frequently staged Balanchine’s works abroad, notably “Jewels” at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1998.

Mrs. Leland married Arthur Kevorkian in 1975; They divorced in 1993. In later years, Mrs. Leland, an avid gardener, lived in New City, NY. Mrs. O’Donnell, her niece, is her only survivor.

Wendy Whelan, the city ballet’s associate artistic director, said Ms. Leland has made an indelible mark on several generations of dancers.

“It was bigger than life; She had that huge, big smile and so many things that I imagined a balanchine dancer would radiate when I joined the company, ”said Ms. Whelan. “Passion, freedom, individuality – that was all. When she was teaching it was always’ More! Greater! Do it!’ She embodied all the qualities that we wanted to incorporate into the dance. “