I was greatly saddened to read yesterday of the passing of Yvonne Mounsey, the founder of Westside Ballet and one of Los Angeles’ most influential ballet teachers for almost 50 years. (She ran the studio with Rosemary Valaire, a Royal Ballet soloist who died in 1999). I was one of the fortunate thousands who studied with Yvonne. Born in South Africa, she traveled the world with several post-Diaghilev incarnations of the Ballet Russe and then became a principal dancer with New York City Ballet. Yvonne trained many young women and men who became professional dancers at first-rank companies; students spent many hours driving on the freeways from all over Southern California to study with her.
Most of us, however, did not become professional dancers. We knew we never would, but we were serious about ballet and we wanted to be at a studio that taught it right and with special care. When I started there in the 1970s, the school was on Westwood Boulevard, just south of Olympic. Yvonne created a relaxed, but dedicated atmosphere in the studio, even though it was a dingy old space. We were performing, even in class. She taught in a 3/4-sleeve, pale-blue leotard, pink tights and always a diaphanous knee-length skirt. She demonstrated most combinations, with a developee at close to 90 degrees. The arch of her foot was higher than that of most of her students. She cued the music with an introductory, “Right, now…”. She smiled a lot. She watched us intently, and corrected everyone, no matter how good we were. She never bullied or threatened. Yvonne could seem a little scattered, but it only made her more endearing to us know-it-all teenagers. In hindsight, I believe she treated us like adults — and with respect.
Perhaps 10 years ago, I interviewed Yvonne for the Orange County Register, where I was the dance critic. She was so encouraging and pleased that I had become a dance writer. What struck me then, especially, was Yvonne’s good-hearted spirit. A beautiful and elegant woman, she was utterly gorgeous in her teens and 20s: Tall and long-legged with a milky complexion and blond curls. She told me how during one tour, the company broke apart and she got stranded in Cuba. Every resourceful, she found a job performing in a nightclub. She didn’t make it sound dreadful or scary — she described it as an adventure of pure fun, something liberating. In a not-so-very-different way, she wanted us to find the fun and love in ballet, too. She wanted us to feel free and happy as we danced, even if it was a grand allegro across the floor. In that sense, it was a life lesson as well, of course. It is only one of many ways in which I am grateful to Yvonne. She shall be sorely missed.