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Lawrence Rhodes.Courtesy of Juilliard

As a young man Lawrence Rhodes received an ultimatum from his father. As he often told the story, his father said, “If you go to college, I’ll help you. If you go to New York, you’re on your own.” He did go to New York. And before the end of the year he landed a job with the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo. So began Mr. Rhodes’s prolific 60-year career in dance, which led him to Amsterdam, Montreal and eventually back to New York.

On March 27, at age 79, Mr. Rhodes died unexpectedly of a heart attack at Lenox Hill Hospital emergency room in New York.

Known as Larry to those in the ballet milieu, he had a reputation as a hardworking yet unconventional dancer who was an instinctive spinner. “Lawrence didn’t have a natural dancer’s body,” friend and colleague Lar Lubovitch says. “But he trained his body through a very scientific application of ballet principles.” Shorter than the average leading male ballet dancer, Mr. Rhodes was often cast in character roles as opposed to princely ones.

The late Clive Barnes, The New York Times dance critic for 13 years, was quick to praise Mr. Rhodes’s underrated virtues in his reviews and his ability to be “both joyous and melancholy” through his movement.

“Lawrence Rhodes was one of the foremost performers among an exceptional generation of American dancers,” friend and colleague Rachel Strauss explains in a Juilliard article commemorating his life. “He came of age during the U.S. dance boom, a time when ballet achieved a formative American identity by drawing inspiration from tap’s musicality, jazz dance’s jagged sensuality, and modern dance’s imploring expressionism.”

It was as a teacher and director that Mr. Rhodes focused his energy later in life. “Watching him teach dance class was like a spiritual experience,” says friend and colleague Irene Dowd, of the Juilliard School. “He was very clear, very selective, very precise in his suggestions to students. He would never interrupt them while dancing. He would make his comments before or after … always framing them in positive terms.”

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Lawrence Rhodes in Barcelona, Spain.Courtesy of Juilliard

Mr. Rhodes also had a major impact on dance in Canada as artistic director for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal. He had a particular fondness for the city. Here he provided a platform for choreographers who incorporated American dance forms in ballet. He fit right in with the company, pushing it even further toward the experimentation for which it was known.

Lawrence Emory Rhodes was born in Port Hope, W.Va., on Nov. 24, 1939. His family soon moved to Detroit, where he was raised. His father worked for most of his life as dispatcher for a trucking company, at times taking on additional jobs in coal mining and in the auto industry. His mother owned a small restaurant in Detroit. Mr. Rhodes’s older sister, Evelyn Louise Johnson, is now deceased.

He made his first foray into dance at age 9, when his classmate Glenda Ann Bush introduced him to tap. Known as Buddy and Glenda, they would perform as a duo around Detroit. At 14, he began ballet training with Violette Armand and, in the summer of 1956 he toured with Chicago-based teacher Dorothy Hild through a state fair circuit in the American Midwest.

With New York City as his goal, Mr. Rhodes finished high school early, working to raise money to get there. He arrived with US$400 and began taking classes at the Ballet Russe School. At the same time, he was supporting himself by working at a spring-water company.

The following year, he was accepted into the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo as a member of the corps de ballet, studying under Leon Danielian and Frederic Franklin, and touring on an arduous circuit for the next two years.

Mr. Rhodes was invited to join the Joffrey Ballet in 1960, and danced there until 1964. Creative differences between Robert Joffrey and Rebekah Harkness led to the renaming of the company to Harkness Ballet, where Mr. Rhodes rose through the ranks. Still known by his childhood nickname “Buddy” during his time at Harkness, in 1967, at age 28, he was named director of the company.

“Larry was the de facto moral voice of the company because of his integrity,” recalls Mr. Lubovitch, who was a new member of Harkness when Mr. Rhodes was a “leading light” there.

In 1966, choreographer John Butler made his work After Eden – about the fall of Adam and Eve – for Mr. Rhodes and the Danish ballerina Lone Isaksen (1941-2010). The pair, both founding members of Harkness Ballet, married four years later.

“Lone and Larry were both idealists,” Mr. Lubovitch explains. “Together and separately, they were both committed to an ideal pursuit – the idea that art had at its centre a philosophical idealism.”

Mr. Rhodes continued to perform with the company while serving as its director until it closed in 1970.

The couple then danced for the 1970-71 season at the Dutch National Ballet, returning to New York City for the birth of their son, Mark Alan Rhodes.

Professionally, Mr. Rhodes began to moonlight as a guest artist for several ballet companies – Pennsylvania Ballet, Dennis Wayne Dancers and the Feld Ballet – often balancing work between them. “He would take the train after his matinee in Philly, narrowly making the curtain time in New York,” says Chava Lansky, a writer who was working with Mr. Rhodes on his autobiography. During this time he was also touring with artists such as Carla Fracci and Naomi Sorkin.

Mr. Rhodes retired from dancing in 1978 after his final performance of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. “He wanted to end at his peak,” explains Ms. Dowd of his young retirement age. “He went right on to other activities. He didn’t really want to choreograph. He wanted to support choreographers.”

In the next phase of his career, Mr. Rhodes joined New York University, initially as a teacher and then as chair of the dance department. Working closely with dance writer Deborah Jowitt, he revamped the MFA program and worked to bring in new choreographic talent to work with students.

After a decade at NYU, Mr. Rhodes became the artistic director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, a position he would stay in for a decade from 1989 to 1999. “Larry was generous and fair,” principal ballet master Pierre Lapointe recalls in a press release from the dance company. “He had a teaching and dance style that allowed for great freedom.” As always, Mr. Rhodes focused on developing innovative works for the company from renowned choreographers such as Jiri Kylian, James Kudelka, William Forsythe and Édouard Lock, all while maintaining an international teaching career.

Mr. Rhodes’s last professional home was at the Juilliard School, as head of the dance division – a position he held from 2002 until his retirement in 2017. When he started there he immediately identified a problem: not all of the students were getting performance opportunities. By streamlining the curriculum and introducing the New Dances program, he ensured that each student would work with up-and-coming choreographers. The choreographers, such as Ohad Naharin, to whom he became a mentor, also benefited by using the program as a platform for the creation of new works.

During his time at Juilliard, the dance division was awarded the 64th Capezio Award. He also received Dance Teacher magazine’s Lifetime Career Achievement Award in 2009.

Mark Rhodes says that New Dances was a vital part of his father’s legacy. “It was emblematic of so much of what he valued,” he explained. “I attended that show almost every year and loved seeing the program of world premieres and discussing them with my father afterwards.”

“He went to concerts almost every night,” Ms. Dowd says. “I don’t know how he did it. He saw ballet, modern, performance art. He was curious about it all.”

On these nights out, legendary American choreographer William Forsythe was sometimes tasked with babysitting Mr. Rhodes’s son and, Ms. Lansky recounts, it was not uncommon for him to come home to find Mr. Forsythe and his son dancing around the living room to a record.

Mr. Rhodes’s connection to the dance community was also felt by his family. “Whenever we would be walking around New York together, he would almost invariably meet someone from the dance world and would stop to talk to them,” Mark Rhodes recalls. “As a child, this used to annoy me. … As an adult, however, I recognize that this occurred because of the respect for him in the community, as well as his talent for forming connections with people and remembering them.”

Mark Rhodes also remembers his father’s sense of fun and adventure, and his love of taking him on roller coasters.

Mr. Rhodes leaves his son and granddaughter, Tamsin Rhodes, both of Swarthmore, Pa.

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