Remembering Carolyn Clark, NJ Ballet’s co-founder and tireless artistic director

Carolyn Clark obit

CAROLYN CLARK, 1938-2023

The blizzard began that afternoon, a massive snowfall that continued relentlessly for hours after the sun went down, glittering treacherously in a car’s headlights. Yet on a night, some 20 years ago, when it seemed that only emergency vehicles could brave the frozen wastes of the New Jersey Turnpike, it was useless to think of turning back. “The Nutcracker” was opening at the Community Theatre (now the Mayo Performing Arts Center) in Morristown that night, and Carolyn Clark, New Jersey Ballet’s unflappable artistic director, would be there without fail.

As the dancers prepared backstage, resignedly applying their makeup and stretching, Clark surveyed the nearly empty lobby with a flashing eye. Ramrod straight in her tailored, tweed jacket, she defied the winter storm (still descending in pitiless gusts), determined not to cancel the show. A handful of ticket-holders staggered in, and she smiled at them graciously. The respect was mutual.

The show did go on, against all odds, and was it my imagination? Or was “The Nutcracker” especially beautiful that night? Waltzing gaily amid fairy-tale colors, the spectacle melted our fears with its warmth, and a little bit of Clark’s valor rubbed off on each of us.

Clark, who died this year after a long struggle with illness, had received a vision of beauty in her childhood. Her parents, who were immigrants from Britain, had encouraged their children to study the arts; and while her brother learned to play the trumpet, the little girl enrolled in dance classes in her hometown of Livingston. Initially, these studies included tap and acrobatics, but at the age of 9, she had an epiphany. Her mother took her to see a performance at The Mosque Theater (now Symphony Hall) in Newark; and one look at Mary Ellen Moylan as the Swan Queen in “Swan Lake,” performing with the fledgling Ballet Theatre, convinced Clark that ballet was her calling.

Clark began commuting to New York to study, focusing on body placement and musicality with the softspoken British teacher Margaret Craske, at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School. She also studied at the Ballet Theatre School with Soviet firebrand Valentina Pereyaslavec, and with the aristocratic couple Ludmilla Schollar and Anatole Vilzak — celebrated pedagogues all. She had her first professional experience at Radio City Music Hall, where she danced “The Waltz of the Flowers” 28 times a week all summer, sleeping in the music hall’s “Infirmary” so she would be on time for the first rehearsal, at 7:30 a.m.

Carolyn Clark in her performing days, with her New Jersey Ballet co-founder George Tomal.

Then her dream came true. Choreographer Antony Tudor recommended her to Ballet Theatre director Lucia Chase, who took Clark into the company. Here she danced in Tudor’s “Gala Performance”; and was able to observe, close-up, Alicia Alonso’s riveting performances with Igor Youskevitch in “Giselle,” among many thrilling experiences. Young dancers whom she befriended then included Joseph Carow and Paul Sutherland, both of whom would later work with New Jersey Ballet, Carow serving for a time as assistant director.

The idyll didn’t last, however. An injury that Clark sustained while dancing with an inexperienced partner on Broadway put an end to her career at Ballet Theatre, where she had danced from 1956 to 1959. She was able to continue performing in musicals, however, and to give concerts; and she scored a job on television as assistant to the choreographer of “The Bell Telephone Hour.”

Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, Clark’s father died, and her mother, Elizabeth, went into partnership with Mavis Ray, a British dancer who had performed in “Oklahoma!” on Broadway, and was choreographer Agnes de Mille’s assistant. With Elizabeth Clark working as administrator, Ray founded the New Jersey School of Ballet in 1953. Within a few years, she and a succession of guest teachers, including Barbara McCutcheon, had produced a crop of skilled young dancers in need of performing opportunities.

This was the origin of New Jersey Ballet, which Carolyn Clark launched in 1958 together with her dancing partner George Tomal, another Ballet Theatre veteran who had also danced in Paris with Roland Petit’s Ballets des Champs-Elysées. Clark succeeded Tomal as artistic director in 1968, while he continued as the troupe’s resident choreographer. In 1971, Tomal co-choreographed, with Carow, New Jersey Ballet’s beloved production of “The Nutcracker.”

New Jersey Ballet was an offshoot of the regional ballet movement, which gained footholds across the United States during the second half of the 20th century. Like American Ballet Theatre itself, these new institutions sprang from seeds of inspiration dropped by touring Ballets Russes artists. Unlike many of these groups, however, New Jersey Ballet was not based in a great city, and did not enjoy the advantages of full-time residency in a theater (a catastrophic fire cut short a promising relationship with the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn).

New Jersey Ballet’s is an annual tradition at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown and elsewhere.

Like other dance organizations in New Jersey, the company maintains an uneasy relationship with the overweening New York dance scene. It has benefited from the availability of dancers and the presence of an educated audience eager to see dance, but has suffered from the indifference of local presenters to the artists in their own community.

Clark’s answer to the problem of decentralization was to tour locally, as extensively as possible, eventually bringing New Jersey Ballet to every county in the state. An intrepid trouper, she didn’t care how large a venue was, or how well equipped. New Jersey Ballet performed on open-air platforms, and under tents. It performed on tiny stages where the only backdrop was a brick wall and a radiator. It performed in theaters without curtains and without hot water in the dressing rooms, hanging its own lights and bringing a touch of theatrical glamor to the dreariest locales.

Clark was a pioneer.

Her winning personality also made her an effective fundraiser, and she credited her management skills to having studied psychology at Rutgers University. She was tactful, sensitive to political intrigues, and determined to overcome all obstacles.

“The arts make us a civilized people,” she said. “They lift our spirits in difficult times.”

When faced with adversity, quitting was never an option. After the Paper Mill Playhouse burned down, Clark took New Jersey Ballet on a string of international tours, visiting Russia, Italy, Bermuda and Taiwan, and she recalled with special satisfaction the enthusiastic reception that her company received in Moscow. Later, she took the company to India.

While the company’s budget might wax or wane, Clark never lost her optimism, or her presence of mind. Reflecting on the years when Gov. James Florio slashed the state arts budget in the early 1990s, and the troupe was forced to lay off administrative staff and dancers, Clark obdurately said, “If I had to do 10 jobs, I was not going to let the place go.”

And she didn’t. Her tenacity, coupled with her ability to attract loyalty, gave New Jersey Ballet unwonted stability. Perhaps the most loyal of her associates was Paul Hilliard McRae, a dancer with the company from 1973 to 1989, who went on to become a talented ballet master and Clark’s indispensable assistant director. Continuity of leadership allowed the company to develop an artistic profile, to pursue long-range goals, and to accumulate a wonderful repertoire over the years.

New Jersey performed “Carmina Burana” with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the Mendelssohn Choir in the ’80s.

This extensive repertoire was based in the classics, especially the pieces that Clark had admired during her tenure at Ballet Theatre. Presenting the evening-length “Giselle” was a long-held goal that Clark eventually realized, along with an evening-length “Sleeping Beauty” and “Coppélia.” One-act gems included Michel Fokine’s poetic reverie “Les Sylphides,” David Lichine’s effervescent “Graduation Ball,” de Mille’s cowgirl comedy “Rodeo”; and Tudor’s dramatic masterpiece “Jardin aux Lilas.” Clark drew on the expertise of distinguished advisers and coaches, including Edward Villella, Eleanor D’Antuono, and Leonid Kozlov, the latter staging “La Vivandière” and “Paquita” for the company.

She had no reservations about displays of virtuosity, and New Jersey Ballet became known for its mixed bills featuring razzle-dazzle concert numbers like “Diana and Acteon,” and “The Flames of Paris.” The troupe also presented neo-classical pieces by George Balanchine, including “Allegro Brillante,” “Concerto Barocco,” “Donizetti Variations” and “Who Cares?”

Clark’s passion for ballet led her to pack these mixed bills with as many items as possible, giving audiences their money’s worth and making sure that every dancer in the company had the opportunity to shine. The word “exhaustion” was not in her vocabulary. Too much ballet? Nonsense! There could never be enough. In the event that audiences were too sluggish to applaud, Clark prompted them from her seat at the rear of the theater.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union brought an influx of Russian artists to America, New Jersey Ballet acquired more classics, including “Fairy Doll,” “Walpurgisnacht,” excerpts from “Le Corsaire,” and true rarities like Pierre Lacotte’s “Le Papillon,” staged by Irina Kolpakova. The company’s evening-length staging of Vladimir Bourmeister’s “Esmeralda,” presented at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark in 2004, proved to be a revelation. New Jersey Ballet even danced a contemporary pas de deux from Boris Eifman’s “Red Giselle.”

Evidently, the repertoire was not entirely historical, including the inevitable forays into rock ‘n’ roll music and electronica. The award-winning “Belong,” by Norbert Vesak, typified the modern era of sexual exploration. Later, Clark cultivated a relationship with neo-classical choreographer Ali Pourfarrokh, who supplied the company with his lovely “Facets,” “Journey,” and an exciting premiere, “Ariel,” to music by Poulenc. Another contemporary choreographer whom Clark courted was Robert North, who created “The City” for a triple bill of his works including the rousing “Entre Dos Aguas,” and whose poignant “Death and the Maiden” became a New Jersey Ballet staple.

Aside from classical ballet, Clark had an interest in jazz that dated from her early years, when she studied with Matt Mattox. Clark liked to commission jazz ballets and, notably, in 2014, New Jersey Ballet produced an ambitious series highlighting the contributions of local composers, with choreography by Fredrick Earl Mosley and Matthew Rushing, among others. That effort fed into celebrations of New Jersey’s 350th anniversary. Pedro Ruíz staged his “Guajira”; and Nai-Ni Chen created “The Three Riddles of Turandot,” using music from Puccini’s opera.

The dancers whom Clark nurtured — both home-grown and imported, over several generations — form a list too long to print. The number of people whom she benefited during the course of her long working life — including the millions who viewed performances of “The Nutcracker” — is incalculable. Clark loved to teach and share her knowledge with young people; and, under her direction, New Jersey Ballet was a company of all-stars.


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