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Joey Harris and Lois Ellyn. (Photo by Constantine)
Joey Harris and Lois Ellyn. (Photo by Constantine)

Obituary: Joey Harris was a dramatic dancer and an exacting teacher Add to ...

Joey Harris had the right talent for ballet. He just had the wrong name.

The great Léonide Massine, one of the select few to have danced with the famed Ballets Russes, personally set out to change that when he rebaptized Mr. Harris as Ivan Demidoff, a moniker reflecting the fascination with all things Russian in ballet at the time.

As Ivan Demidoff, he performed internationally as a protégé of Mr. Massine, who prominently cast the gifted Canadian in his own ballets. He soon developed a reputation as a dramatic dancer with a vivacious stage presence.

In the U.S., influential dance critic Edwin Denby wrote in The New York Herald Tribune in the 1940s (not long before the dancer’s name change) that “Joseph A. Harris is the most promising dancer in the world.” High praise, indeed, especially when other leading male dancers of the era included the Royal Ballet’s Michael Somes, and the hoofer of Hollywood, Gene Kelly.

Though he went on to distinguish himself as a dynamic soloist and an attentive partner to some of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century, Mr. Harris, who died in Palm Springs, Calif., on March 30 at the age of 86, is remembered most as a highly gifted ballet teacher who helped nurture the next generation of ballet luminaries.

Born in Windsor, Ont., on Oct. 23, 1927, Joseph Anthony Harris learned all he knew from the best of the best, starting with his mother, Lilias Harris, a professional dancer who had trained him in all matters of dance since childhood.

Aware that dance instruction was limited in Windsor, she drove her teenage son to dance studios in Detroit and later New York. There, she got him an apartment in the same building as the Gershwins, with an eye to advancing her son’s career. While in New York, Mr. Harris came under the tutelage of the great British dancer Sir Anton Dolin (whose name was likewise Russified after being born Sydney Francis Patrick Chippendall Healey-Kay in 1904), whom he met at the studio of Vincenzo Celli. Sir Anton became Mr. Harris’s self-appointed guardian and he introduced the Canadian dancer to some of the brightest lights of the international ballet world, including his partner, the ballerina Alicia Markova and Mr. Massine, who soon after took Mr. Harris to London to star in his choreographed murder-mystery A Bullet in the Ballet.

“[He] proved his prowess as a dancer at a pretty young age,” says Donald Hewitt, Mr. Harris’s former partner.

Besides Mr. Massine’s troupe in Europe, he performed with leading ballet companies in his native Canada and in the U.S. His stellar list of dance partners included the Russian-born Irina Baronova and Tatiana Riabouchinska, the Americans Rosella Hightower and Nana Gollner and the celebrated Parisian dancer/choreographer Janine Charrat, a frequent collaborator of French poet and playwright Jean Cocteau.

During the National Ballet of Canada’s tour of Washington, D.C., in 1955, Mr. Harris also danced alongside Canadian ballerina Angela Leigh. Artistic director Celia Franca had invited them to dance the Bluebird Variation from The Sleeping Beauty. It was so successful that the two formed a lasting dance partnership, which saw Mr. Harris frequently returning to Toronto to perform with Ms. Leigh at summer ballet programs.

Mr. Hewitt, who saw them onstage together, says “Joey was a good partner in the sense that he elongated and enhanced the ballerina’s line; he lifted strongly.”

Lois Ellyn, formerly of the New York City Ballet, recalls that as a partner Mr. Harris made ballet pleasurable. She first formed a professional relationship with him while both were members of Ballet Variante, the Hollywood-based company of Croatia-born virtuoso ballerina Mia Slavenska, in the early 1950s. Ms. Slavenska had also been one of Mr. Harris’s partners, dancing opposite him in Coppélia.

“He was very creative,” remembers Ms. Ellyn, who now runs her own dance studio near her hometown of Anaheim, Calif. “He was a very good partner, enjoyable to dance with. He always had such a positive energy, a joie de vivre, which made things fun.”

Mr. Harris channelled some of his creative energy into choreography, creating Dark of the Moon to an original score by Louis Applebaum for the National Ballet of Canada in 1953. He also did work for Radio-Canada, CBC Television, and The Denny Vaughan Show (Canada’s version of The Ed Sullivan Show). Critic Anatole Chujoy, writing in Dance News, said that as a choreographer “Mr. Joey Harris is more imaginative than [groundbreaking Russian choreographer Mikhail] Fokine.”

In 1956, Mr. Harris co-founded the short-lived Montreal Theatre Ballet with Canadian choreographer Brian McDonald and the German-born expressionist dancer Elizabeth Leese.

Mr. Harris moved to California in the 1960s, establishing a respected ballet school in Santa Monica with Mr. Hewitt, a fellow dancer who had been introduced to him by the National Ballet’s Ms. Franca and Betty Oliphant.

Mr. Harris went on to form a performing ensemble in Los Angeles called, simply, The Group. When it came to creating works for the company, Mr. Harris eschewed pyrotechnics, putting the focus more on dramatic dancing.

During the same period, Mr. Harris served as choreographer on a new TV show called Shower of Stars and later staged numbers for entertainment world A-listers such as Peggy Lee, Neil Diamond, Eartha Kitt, Joel Grey, Robert Goulet and the great Mahalia Jackson.

Rubbing shoulders with some of the great stage artists and entertainers of the day left a lasting impression on Mr. Harris, colouring his highly theatrical approach to life. Several of his former students paint a portrait of a ballet teacher who would routinely arrive for class late by an hour or more, but no one would ever think of leaving the barre or studio, fearing the consequences. When Mr. Harris did show up, wearing sunglasses so students wouldn’t know where he was looking, he was followed by a procession of four beloved dogs (poodles and shih tzus), plus a little monkey named Alfie scampering after them.

“Sometimes Alfie would get loose and climb into the rafters, and we would have to stop class and try to catch him before returning to a very complicated dance combination without losing a beat,” recalls Thaïs Leavitt, who studied at Mr. Harris’s Santa Monica studios before becoming a principal dancer in 1977 with the Dusseldorf Opera Ballet. “He was an explosive teacher. He could scare the living daylights out of you. He would use profane language, not to demean you, but to get what he needed out of you.”

Many of his students who went on to have international careers of their own recall Mr. Harris as strict, flamboyant and passionate to a fault, often using the same type of long wooden sticks used by legendary ballet master Enrico Cecchetti in the paintings of Edgar Degas, to prod, if not whack, a young dancer needing to jump higher, turn faster and emote with the kind of show-stopping conviction that early on had set apart Mr. Harris himself.

“Without him, I know I wouldn’t have had my career,” says Terry Neil Edlefsen, another American-born dancer, who trained with Mr. Harris and then went on to become a top soloist at Germany’s Stuttgart Ballet, also during the dance boom years of the 1970s.

“Joey taught me to be a force of nature in dance,” continues Ms. Leavitt, who today runs her own school in Santa Monica, close to where Mr. Harris’s used to be.

“I always say that studying with him was my first job in dance. He trained me so well that when I actually joined a professional ballet company I felt I had already experienced it.”

Mr. Edlefsen also found inspiration in his teacher’s eccentricities. He says Mr. Harris was dyslexic, often doing things backward, “which really used to frustrate him. But after he found out what it was that was making him act the way he did, he relaxed a bit.”

Mr. Harris might have had his personal demons, Mr. Edlefsen adds, “but I don’t regret a day I was with him. He gave me so much.”

Mr. Harris is continuing to give. His legacy lives on in his students who, in turn, are now teaching the next generation. Mr. Hewitt says that is how Mr. Harris should be remembered: “Joey brought a sense of immediacy, passion and the perfection of an idea in his mind into being in such a remarkable way. He had the resources, the intellect, the tools to make you believe and work with him to make his vision happen. In that sense, he was a role model.”

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