Donald Saddler, Dancer, and a Choreographer on Broadway, Dies at 96
by Bruce Weber New York Times 11/5/2014
Donald Saddler, a dancer and choreographer whose career lasted more than 60 years and embraced opera, television, movies, ballet and Broadway, where he won two Tony Awards, died on Saturday in Englewood, N.J. He was 96.
His death, at the Lillian Booth Actors Home of the Actors Fund, was confirmed by Kate Irving, a family friend and daughter of the dancer and actress Maria Karnilova, who in the 1940s, along with Mr. Saddler, was an original member of Ballet Theater, the company that became American Ballet Theater.
From early in his dancing life, when he joined Ballet Theater and became lifelong friends with Ms. Karnilova, Jerome Robbins and others, and into his 80s and 90s, when he and Marge Champion danced together weekly in a Manhattan studio, Mr. Saddler occupied a place among the leading figures in American dance.
A dancer who eschewed gaudiness of movement and who, like Fred Astaire, put his height and slim build to elegant use, he rose to become a soloist for Ballet Theater and made his Broadway musical theater debut in 1947 in "High Button Shoes," performing a tango with Helen Gallagher.
More than half a century later, in 2001, he appeared in a revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies," playing a retired vaudevillian and doing a ballroom dance, "Danse d'Amour," with Ms. Champion.
"I would see him on the street, in his 80s, and I once asked him, 'How do you stand so straight?' " Donna McKechnie, the dancer, choreographer and Tony-winning actress, said in an interview on Tuesday. "He said, 'I do Pilates three times a week.' So I signed up."
Mr. Saddler had a résumé of remarkable breadth. On the opera stage, he directed and choreographed "Die Fledermaus" for the Washington Opera in 1989. He choreographed "Aida" in Dallas, "La Périchole" for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and "The Student Prince" and "The Merry Widow" for the New York City Opera. He created ballets for the Harkness Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet and the Cincinnati Ballet.
In 1958, he adapted Sherwood Anderson's classic collection of connected tales, "Winesburg, Ohio," melding movement, music by Genevieve Pitot and spoken dialogue into a so-called dance drama that was performed -- he was part of the cast -- at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts.
"I feel that what I ought to dance about is what is different about being an American," he said of the project in an interview with Time magazine.
Mr. Saddler choreographed movies including "April in Paris" and "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," with Doris Day, and "The Happy Hooker," starring Lynn Redgrave. He choreographed multiple Tony Awards broadcasts. And he worked in theater on and off Broadway, at the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park, in London, at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario (now simply the Stratford Festival) and in American regional theaters.
Among his more than a dozen Broadway credits are "Milk and Honey" (1961), "The Robber Bridegroom" (1975) and a 1983 revival of the Rodgers and Hart musical "On Your Toes."
As such a varied list of credits indicates, he was known for his adaptability, as well as his attention to detail, especially in presenting period dance, as exemplified by his Tony-winning work in the 1971 revival of the frothy 1920s musical "No, No, Nanette."
"I don't have a set vocabulary of movement," Mr. Saddler told The Toronto Star in 1991. "I do new research for every show because I believe you must recreate a period with respect and love. Nothing makes me angrier than people who camp things up or make fun of an era for sheer effect. Just as we take popular dancing seriously today, it was taken equally seriously by the people who danced it then. Each show is like taking a journey to another time and place."
Mr. Saddler's first Tony came in 1953 in his debut as a Broadway choreographer. The show, which opened in February 1953 and ran for more than a year and won a Tony for best musical, was "Wonderful Town," with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
The book was based on the play "My Sister Eileen," which was itself adapted from New Yorker sketches by Ruth McKenney about a pair of Ohio sisters who move to Greenwich Village in the mid-1930s. Eileen is a charming innocent who wants to be an actress; Ruth is an aspiring writer who is more savvy and hard-boiled and baffled by her younger sister's ability to attract attention. Mr. Saddler's coaching helped the film star Rosalind Russell deliver a performance as Ruth that earned her a Tony.
"His ballets capture perfectly the raffish individualism of life in the Village and strengthen the performance in a number of ways," the critic Brooks Atkinson wrote of Mr. Saddler in The New York Times. "Although the ballets are animated pieces of theater in their own right, the best thing about them is the skill with which they help to portray the ragtag and bobtail street life of the old Village and satirize the bizarre forms of revelry that manage to destroy the sobriety of Manhattan. Like the authors, composer and lyric writers, Mr. Saddler is a full-fledged collaborator."
Donald Edward Saddler was born in Van Nuys, Calif., on July 24, 1918. His father, Elmer, was a landscape designer. His mother, the former Mary Elizabeth Roberts, was of Cherokee descent. The youngest of 12 children, Donald started dancing to regain strength after a bout of scarlet fever, and as teenager danced in the chorus of MGM musicals.
He recalled that it was his first dance teacher, Nico Charisse, who pointed him toward ballet; in his first class, Mr. Saddler met Tula Ellice Finklea, who would later marry their teacher and become the dancer and actress Cyd Charisse. He was in New York and a member of Ballet Theater, by 1939. He served in the Army in Alaska during World War II.
Mr. Saddler, who has no immediate survivors, was a favorite choreographer for generations of hoofers and director or choreographer of numerous tributes and memorials to show business figures, including Jule Styne, Richard Rodgers and George Abbott.
"He had a great sense of showmanship, but he was never a show-off," Ms. McKechnie said. "He believed in all that show business stuff, that you've got to go out there and kill 'em, that you've got to have a plot, that you've got to build the number. But he was someone who had great respect for the music, and he was story driven.
"Too many people over-choreograph, but he had no ego that way. He would always go for the simple gesture that best expressed the character in the moment or the heightened moment in the music. I really felt when I worked with him that he was someone I could trust, that he was there to help you do the work."
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