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Harvey Hysell

Harvey Hysell was a ballet dancer, choreographer, and instructor whose expertise in technique, lyricism, and design elevated the state of ballet in New Orleans for over forty years.

Harvey Hysell

Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection

Harvey Hysell in Carmina Burana as the Roasted Swan. Unidentified

Harvey Hysell was a ballet dancer, choreographer, and instructor whose expertise in technique, lyricism, and design elevated the state of ballet in New Orleans for more than forty years. He was a student, and later instructor of the Cecchetti method, a rigorous method of ballet technique that focuses on repetitive training to build strength and proper alignment within the confines of classical ballet. Hysell became a professional ballet dancer in the 1960s and performed, among other things, the principal male roles in Swan Lake and Giselle on national tours with the Allegro American Ballet. In 1966, he returned to New Orleans and provided costumes and choreography for various local productions before starting his own successful dance company, Ballet Hysell, as well as the Hysell Ballet School in 1969. Ballet Hysell was restructured in 1976 to become the New Orleans Ballet and enjoyed continued success until it was dissolved in 1982, allowing Hysell to focus his attention on the Hysell Ballet School. Before retiring the school in 1998, Hysell, his partner Diane Carney, and their staff trained many students who became professional dancers with national and international ballet companies.

Education and Early Career

Hysell was born in New Orleans to a Methodist minister and a church pianist. As a young boy, he occasionally observed the ballet classes his mother accompanied at Newcomb College and immediately developed an interest in the art form. When Hysell was eleven, his mother enrolled him with Lelia Haller, a prominent New Orleans ballet instructor and the first American dancer appointed première danseuse of the Paris Opera Ballet. Hysell was a natural and soon began performing with Haller’s Crescent City Ballet. He went to high school in Shreveport, where he continued to be active in the performing arts. He attended Texas Christian University (TCU) on full scholarship and, in 1960, became the first male in the United States to receive a BFA degree in ballet.

In addition to dance classes, Hysell’s TCU curriculum included coursework in choreography and costume design. He excelled in both, making him particularly desirable in the world of professional ballet. Hysell moved to New York after graduation to refine his technique under the tutelage of Vincenzo Celli, one of the most respected Cecchetti ballet instructors in the United States and a former dancer at La Scala Opera House in Milan. At this time, Hysell also designed costumes for such ballet luminaries as Paula Tennyson, soloist with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and Maria Tallchief, the first Native American prima ballerina who was then with the New York City Ballet. In 1962 Hysell was signed as the premier danseur for the newly formed Allegro American Ballet. Shortly thereafter, he became the company’s principal costume designer.

Return to New Orleans

Hysell toured with Ruth Page’s Chicago Opera Ballet in 1965, then returned to New Orleans and turned his focus to costume design. There, with friend and colleague Lewis “Jamie” Greenleaf, he founded Greenleaf-Hysell Associates, Inc., a costume-design firm specializing in work for local theater productions. The firm’s work in New Orleans quickly won acclaim. In the review of the Gallery Circle Theatre’s 1966 production of Once Upon a Mattress, Times-Picayune critic Frank Gagnard noted, “Greenleaf and Hysell … have realized their ideas with wit, consistency of style, and a professionalism that announces two classy designers have just settled in New Orleans.”

In 1969 Hysell collaborated with the New Orleans Concert Choir on a production of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, performing as well as providing the choreography and costume design. Later that year, he formed his own semiprofessional company, Ballet Hysell; in 1971 he opened Ballet Hysell School on Magazine Street. In 1978 the school moved to a renovated church just off St. Charles Avenue.

Ballet Hysell garnered immediate attention and praise for its sumptuous productions. It was the first company in New Orleans to stage Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in its entirety, and two of its early productions—A Day for Flower Children and King David—aired on regional PBS affiliates. Hysell’s reputation grew enough to bring such luminaries as Fernando Bujones and Natalia Makarova (both with the American Ballet Theatre) to perform with his company. In 1976 Ballet Hysell became the New Orleans Ballet, which garnered stronger financial support and recognition throughout the city. In 1978 cosmetics company Elizabeth Arden commissioned Hysell to stage a ballet named after its newest perfume, Cabriole. The company toured this ballet along with other pieces in Guatemala in September 1982.

Later in 1982 the New Orleans Ballet was dissolved, and Hysell created the nonprofit organization Hysell Ballet Arts, under which he could focus on his very successful Ballet Hysell School. With the help of longtime associate Diane Carney, Hysell intensified the curriculum. They instituted summer workshops that attracted students from across the country to study with Hysell, Carney, and a roster of important performers and instructors including Hysell’s former teacher, Vincenzo Celli. Hysell closed the school in 1998, but he continued to teach until 2008. Throughout its nearly forty-year history, Ballet Hysell School trained hundreds of ballet students, many of whom became professional dancers, including Rosalie O’Connor (former dancer, American Ballet Theatre), Mireille Hassenboehler (principal dancer, Houston Ballet), and Devon Carney (former ballet master, Boston Ballet; associate artistic director, Cincinnati Ballet).

In 1988 Hysell and Diane Carney reestablished Ballet Hysell, which became the recipient of numerous Big Easy Awards for best ballet production. Hysell was honored in 1995 with the Big Easy Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award and again in 1996 with the Mayor’s Arts Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award. Harvey Hysell died on December 27, 2008, but his legacy, Ballet Hysell, can still be seen in its annual production of The Nutcracker and in various other performances throughout the year.