NEW YORK — Lawrence Rhodes, one of American ballet’s greatest male dancers, who won high praise in the 1960s and 1970s in both classical showpieces and dramatic dance studies of modern angst, died March 27 in New York. He was 79.
His son, Mark, said the cause was heart failure.
Often described as a dancer’s dancer by critics and fellow dancers because of the excellence of his classical technique, Mr. Rhodes was also an outstanding and internationally known teacher who headed the dance divisions at the Juilliard School and New York University.
“He was my hero when I was a 17-year-old ballet student,” said Kevin McKenzie, now artistic director of American Ballet Theater.
In 1972, his teacher Mary Day, director of the Washington Ballet, invited Mr. Rhodes to coach McKenzie for the international ballet competition in Varna, Bulgaria. As McKenzie recalled, Mr. Rhodes proved “astounding, demonstrating the movement himself, with his technique responding to the music.” At Varna, McKenzie won the silver medal.
McKenzie returned the favor over the years, inviting Mr. Rhodes to teach company class to Ballet Theater’s dancers. Mr. Rhodes was teaching these classes last month. “They were packed,” McKenzie said. “There was the technique he taught and always his joy. It was a special class, teaching at this level.”
Unlike today’s dancers, who are usually identified with a single company, Mr. Rhodes was a member at various times of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the Joffrey Ballet, the Harkness Ballet, the Dutch National Ballet, and the Pennsylvania Ballet. He was a regular guest with the Eliot Feld Ballet and Dennis Wayne’s Dancers and also a guest artist abroad. He ended his performing career in 1978 after touring in Europe with Italian ballerina Carla Fracci.
Along the way, he was artistic director of the Harkness Ballet, codirector of the Milwaukee Ballet, and finally artistic director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, where his choice of new choreographers and bravura dancers from 1989 to 1999 brought new attention to the company and had a huge impact on ballet in Canada.
Lawrence Rhodes was born Nov. 24, 1939, in Mount Hope, W.V., and moved with his family to Detroit when he was 2. When he was 9, a classmate introduced him to tap dance lessons. But after seeing Ballet Theater on tour, he decided to study ballet with a well-known Detroit teacher, Violette Armand. Dorothy Hild, another teacher, took him on a tour of state fairs in 1956.
As Mr. Rhodes often recalled, his father was willing to finance his college education in Michigan, but told him that he would be on his own if he was determined to study ballet in New York.
According to Chava Lansky, a writer who began collaborating with Mr. Rhodes on his autobiography, Mr. Rhodes then worked in the Chicago Theatrical Shoe Company and arrived in New York on July 4, 1957. As a declaration of independence, he enrolled immediately in the school affiliated with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. A year later, he began studying with Robert Joffrey, who had recently formed his own company. Mr. Rhodes would credit Armand, Joffrey, and New York teacher Maggie Black as his main influences.
Mr. Rhodes danced in the corps of the Ballet Russe from 1958 to 1960, when he joined the Joffrey Ballet. After Rebekah Harkness, that company’s chief financial backer, tried to assert artistic control, Joffrey broke with her in 1964 to form a new Joffrey Ballet.
Most of the dancers from the old Joffrey, including Mr. Rhodes and his future wife, Danish ballerina Lone Isaksen, remained under contract to Harkness and became part of her new troupe, the Harkness Ballet.
That Mr. Rhodes performed with so many companies was symptomatic of the financial turmoil that the American dance world faced in the 1960s. Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo closed in 1962. Joffrey’s new company needed to stabilize. Ballet Theater was saved from closing by a grant from the newly established National Endowment for the Arts. Citing her own financial problems, Harkness closed the Harkness Ballet in 1970.
That was the year Mr. Rhodes and Isaksen were married.
Isaksen died in 2010 at 68. In addition to their son, Mark, Mr. Rhodes leaves a granddaughter and his brother, Mark.