It is a rare teacher who develops a loyal following among ballet and modern dancers, but such was the case with Maggie Black (1930-2015) who died at age 85 in May on Long Island. This fiercely independent ballet teacher’s transformative effect on dancers’ abilities was famously dubbed “Black Magic” by none other than George Balanchine. And while she taught independently for most of her career, her first full-time teaching work was at Juilliard (1960 to 1965), where modern dance and ballet were unconventionally being taught side by side. Yet despite Balanchine’s moniker, the petite Rhode Island-born dancer was hardly a necromancer. Through the shrewdness of her intelligence, she stripped away aspects of ballet technique she found overly baroque. “She spoke plainly about the mechanics of the body,” explained Zvi Gotheiner, who will create a work for New Dances: Edition 2015. “Maggie was the one with the structure, clarity, and simplicity,” noted Lawrence Rhodes, the artistic director of Juilliard’s Dance Division. He studied with her from 1972 until his retirement from performing, in 1978, and was coached by her in preparation for performing principal roles.
Black’s anatomically based methodology signaled an important historic shift, one in which ballet students began focusing on the inner workings of the body instead of its outer visual effects. As a result her students, many of whom became or already were stars, did seem to improve magically. Many have had strong connections to Juilliard, among them Gary Chryst, Charla Genn, Laura Glenn, Eliot Feld, Lar Lubovitch, Ohad Naharin, Rhodes, Risa Steinberg, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp.
Black’s own professional dancing career included performing in the corps of companies including London’s Rambert Ballet and the forerunner of American Ballet Theatre. She found a mentor in Antony Tudor, a founding member of Juilliard’s dance faculty, and he employed her as his teaching assistant at Juilliard and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Yet after seven years with Tudor, Black went into a self-imposed exile and developed her independent teaching style while keeping his sensibility that no two dancers can or should dance alike.
When Black retired from teaching in 1995, she turned down offers to teach master classes or market her work through ballet videos, arguing that what benefited dancers was a teacher who was readily available and hands-on. Always a pugnacious spirit, Black helped demystify ballet during a period in which dance in America experienced exponential growth. Her legacy is not about the magical; it’s about the highly concrete. She simplified the ballet class in order for dance art to grow.