- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Mary Day, founder of the Washington Ballet and a leading figure in the cultural life of Washington for more than six decades, died yesterday of heart failure. She was 96.

Miss Day studied ballet with Lisa Gardiner, who had danced with Anna Pavlova’s company in the 1920s. In 1944, Miss Day and Miss Gardiner founded the Washington School of Ballet. Later, Miss Day and Frederic Franklin were co-directors of a company formed with students in the school that featured famous stars — Alicia Alonso, Igor Youskevitch and Maria Tallchief — as guest artists and toured extensively.

As a world-renowned teacher of ballet, Miss Day was instrumental in the careers of numerous important dancers, including Kevin McKenzie, a principal at American Ballet Theatre (ABT) who now directs that company. Other students of hers went on to major careers, including Mimi Paul at the New York City Ballet, Marianna Tcherkassky at ABT and Virginia Johnson at Dance Theater of Harlem.

A high point for Miss Day was taking her pupil Amanda McKerrow to the international ballet competition in Moscow in 1981, coaching her and choosing her repertoire for the performance, and then seeing her win a gold medal, the first American to do so.

Two pupils at Miss Day’s school were the daughters of presidents — Caroline Kennedy and Chelsea Clinton. Another student, Shirley MacLaine, went on to fame as a movie actress.

Miss Day made an impression on generations of children, dancers and non-dancers alike, with her charming production of “The Nutcracker,” which had its first years of performances with the National Symphony in the orchestra pit. Miss Day’s “Nutcracker” was a Washington institution for more than 40 years. She choreographed it, directed it and could even be found sewing costumes for it.

She had a close collaboration with Howard Mitchell, director of the National Symphony, and together they produced programs regularly at Christmas and Easter.

She had a passion for teaching. “I know I have an eye to spot talent that’s rather rare,” she once said. “But I’ve always given each student the same mothering and nurturing, not just the very big talents.”

She was a woman of clear vision with the strength to carry her ideas through to fruition.

In 1962, the Academy of the Washington Ballet became the first in the country to offer a combined curriculum of dance and academics. The school continued until 1977, when Miss Day decided to put all her energy and resources into founding a chamber-sized company that would have an original repertoire.

That dream became the Washington Ballet, and its goal was realized when she brought in choreographer Choo San Goh, who invigorated the company with works tailored to the dancers, giving it a distinctive profile. After Mr. Goh’s death, Miss Day continued to direct the company until Septime Webre was chosen as her successor in 1999.

After that, she remained head of the school for three years.

The recipient of numerous honors and honorary degrees, Miss Day was named “Washingtonian of the Year.” She leaves a legacy of an admired school, a vibrant company and generations of children whom she inspired to learn the art form she loved so much.

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