Before Nora Kaye quit dancing in 1961 and literally threw her ballet shoes out of a car window, she was, according to John Martin, “an artist of unique gifts and virtually limitless powers.”1 In establishing herself as a new type of dancer, the “dramatic ballerina,” Kaye was the first American ballerina to be internationally acclaimed and to have a profound affect on ballet history.
Born Nora Koreff in New York City to Russian immigrant parents, Kaye changed her name because she felt that an American dancer should have an American name. After dancing with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, she appeared in several Broadway musicals, including Stars in Your Eyes with Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante in 1939. Kaye planned to pursue a theatrical career and only auditioned for Ballet Theater at a friend’s urging.
After dancing with Ballet Theater for several years, Kaye was chosen for the lead in Antony Tudor’s new ballet Pillar of Fire. Sometimes called a “play without words,” it was a psychological exploration of Hagar, a sexually frustrated young woman who fears she will lose her lover to her attractive and enticing younger sister. Kaye’s father had been an actor at the Moscow Art Theatre with Stanislavsky, so she was familiar with method acting and immediately understood its application to dance: each of the dancer’s movements was made to express Hagar’s mental state. At its premiere in 1942, Pillar of Fire was recognized as an artistic phenomenon, setting the standard and establishing Kaye as a major artist. Sono Osato, who danced in Pillar of Fire, wrote, “After years of effort, years of classes and corps work and tiny solo roles, Nora Kaye’s incomparable artistry made her a ballerina in thirty minutes. Her sublime acting in Pillar of Fire enlarged the possibilities of balletic expression for all time.”2
Kaye danced particularly well in dramatic roles such as Hagar in Pillar of Fire or Lizzie Borden in Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend (1948). However, she also showed her wide range as the light-hearted sophisticate in Dim Lustre (1944) and the overbearing prima ballerina in On Stage! (1946) with Janet Reed. Van Vechten captured Kaye in these and several other roles, photographing her from her earliest appearances in Peter and the Wolf (1941) and Gala Performance (1941). In 1946, Kaye wrote to Van Vechten that a portrait he had taken of her in profile was one of her best ever.
After she stopped dancing, Kaye produced several films, including The Turning Point (1977), Pennies from Heaven (1981), and The Secret of My Success (1987). However, her enduring legacy remains with dance. In 1950, she wrote, “As an American ballerina, then, I never take anything for granted. I question each tradition, each interpretation, each movement. The answers I have found, sometimes right and sometimes wrong, constitute my contribution to the young American dancer of ballet: not to accept until you understand (at least to your own satisfaction), and not to dance any role, ancient or new, until you do understand. This urge to question and to discover is, I think, the trademark of American ballet.”3