National News

Karin von Aroldingen, a Major Dancer for Balanchine, Dies at 76

Posted January 9, 2018 6:37 p.m. EST

Karin von Aroldingen, one of New York City Ballet’s most distinctive ballerinas, who left an enduring impact on landmark experimental roles that George Balanchine choreographed for her, died on Friday at her home in Manhattan. She was 76.

Her daughter, jewelry designer Margo Manhattan, confirmed the death without giving a cause.

Trained in ballet in her native Germany, von Aroldingen admitted that she had to unlearn much of what she knew when adapting to City Ballet’s fleet, streamlined style. Yet after Balanchine’s death in 1983, she became an expert stager of his works for other companies in the United States and abroad, and performed a wide Balanchine repertoire herself before she retired from dancing in 1984. She served as a ballet mistress in the company from 2004 to 2016.

Although she appeared in “Symphony in C,” the company’s signature tutu ballet, she made her mark in leotards in Balanchine’s plotless avant-garde works, notably “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” and “Kammermusik No. 2,” and in neo-Romantic masterpieces like “Robert Schumann’s ‘Davidsbündlertänze.'”

When his experiments were at their most unpredictable, Balanchine knew he could turn to von Aroldingen.

He virtually immobilized her in a Chagall-inspired costume with huge wings and a burdensome long train in his 1974 “Firebird.” In “La Porte et Le Soupir,” to musique concrete that represented the creaks of a door and the sound of sighing, she was the femme fatale attached to a huge cape that spanned the stage and with which she swallowed up a writhing male dancer. Erotic, highly romantic or gimmicky, the piece never left a viewer indifferent.

By contrast, a brilliant novelty of a different kind, Balanchine’s “Union Jack,” exploited von Aroldingen’s bravura. Here, at an imaginary gathering of Scottish clans, she stunned viewers in the “MacDonald of Sleat” section as the leader of a turbulent, leaping, hard-driving female ensemble in kilts and toe shoes. And all to the thunderous beat of unaccompanied drums.

Essentially, von Aroldingen saw herself as an allegro dancer. “I’m used to dancing very open, very big,” she said.

Balanchine used her strong technique in “Who Cares?,” his foray into George Gershwin’s music of big-city romance. The dance writer Don McDonagh suggested in The New York Times in 1970 that von Aroldingen’s solo had captured the energy of “a career girl who seems to know exactly where she is going.”

She later described the difficulties behind the number: “My variation is a killer — lots of high jumps.”

Karin Anny Hannelore Reinbold von Aroldingen was born in Griez, Germany, on Sept. 9, 1941. Originally from Berlin, her family had been evacuated to Griez, in eastern Germany, during the first years of World War II.

Von Aroldingen told an interviewer in 1997 that her father, a scientist, had gone to a meeting in Czechoslovakia toward the end of the war and never returned.

After the war, her mother moved with her three daughters to what by then was West Berlin, where Karin studied ballet as a child.

At 17, she joined the Frankfurt Opera Ballet, where her Russian émigré teacher, Tatjana Gsovsky, choreographed a new version of Kurt Weill’s “Seven Deadly Sins.” (It was originally choreographed by Balanchine in 1933.) She cast von Aroldingen as the dancing double to Lotte Lenya, who had the major singing role.

Lenya soon wrote a letter to Balanchine recommending von Aroldingen, who auditioned for him in 1962 in Hamburg, where he was staging an opera. The audition went badly by von Aroldingen’s account, but two months later she was invited to join City Ballet’s corps in New York.

She was promoted to soloist in 1967 and to principal dancer in 1972. By that time she had danced a large variety of roles.

Jerome Robbins cast her only once in a premiere, the 1971 “Goldberg Variations,” in which she and Peter Martins performed an eccentric puppetlike duet. But over the years she also appeared in Frederick Ashton’s “Illuminations” and Antony Tudor’s “Dim Lustre.”

Von Aroldingen gave viewers a new look at familiar roles. In Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son,” her Siren was not aloof but a cruel temptress who threatened to devour Mikhail Baryshnikov methodically with every acrobatic embrace.

Initially, for some in the audience, von Aroldingen was a dancer outside the City Ballet fold. Her broad-shouldered physique and muscular legs — traditional among European dancers but no longer so at City Ballet — made her controversial. Yet she retrained her body and her style, taking classes at the School of American Ballet.

“It took me years to unwind myself, to be good,” she once said.

That Balanchine had spotted her potential was obvious: He created 18 roles for her. Along the way she married Morton Gewirtz, a real estate broker and architectural consultant. He died in 2011.

In addition to their daughter, Margo, von Aroldingen is survived by two grandsons and a sister, Elga Weininger.

As Balanchine, who was divorced four times, grew older in the 1970s, he began to spend more time with von Aroldingen and her husband, even becoming Margo’s godfather. Von Aroldingen and her husband had a home on Long Island, in Southampton, and Balanchine acquired a condominium nearby. They celebrated and cooked together for Russian Christmas and Easter.

Many who knew Balanchine said that von Aroldingen had provided him with a family, and that she had played a major role in caring for him in his final illness, a progressive neurological disorder. He died in a Manhattan hospital. While Balanchine insisted that music was the springboard for his ballets, he often captured a dancer’s personality in unexpected ways. The Karin von Aroldingen who athletically executed a rotating backbend in a tension-filled duet with Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux in the model Balanchine leotard ballet, “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” was also the passionate, elusive feminine ideal in “Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3” and the equally elusive aristocrat in “Vienna Waltzes.”

The tenderness audiences sensed in these roles burst into the open in “Robert Schumann’s ‘Davidsbündlertänze,'” the most emotional of Balanchine’s rare neo-Romantic works. Von Aroldingen was cast as the unnamed woman representing Clara Schumann, who, with warmth and caresses, finally bids her husband a poignant farewell.

Balanchine did not tell her whom she was depicting when he was choreographing the ballet, she said. In keeping with his general approach to dancers, he told her: “I can tell you certain things, but in the end, it’s you who has to do it. I can chew for you, but you have to swallow it.”