At her tribute yesterday, many speakers spoke eloquently, often with great stories and wit about Gwenn's life and career. Some of these included Broadway star Ann Reinking who, while growing up in Bellevue, Washington, had been a student of Barker, plus, Barker's dear friend Barbara McGinnis Arms with whom she had driven to NY in the early '50s to audition for companies and launch their careers.
What follows are some of my remarks:
A Tribute to Gwenn Barker [1929-2009]
Celebration of Her Life and Career
by Dean Speer
Gwenn was my ballet teacher when I was 17, 18, and 19. I don’t know about you, but Gwenn used to terrify me. It didn’t help that while I was devouring everything I could get my hands on at the local public library about dance, I came across Agnes de Mille’s books – one where she famously intones about the importance of time in rehearsal and of dancers not making mistakes. Then too I was so eager and anxious to improve and, knowing that my serious ballet training was just now truly taking off at age 17, that I didn’t have time to waste either and so, was doubly afraid – of making a mistake and of “Miss Barker.”
In my first class with her – where I stood meekly about a third of the way down the barre – her first correction to me was to come over and very firmly take my hips in hand and quickly pull my hips around into alignment. I knew she meant business...and I that my mom and I had found a good successor teacher for me.
Then one day as class was beginning, perfectly dressed and groomed for teaching as she always was, she went over to the barre, planted her feet in first position, tilted way over like the Tin Woodman, and with this big, wicked grin on her face, said, “Shall we get started?” as she made the first port de bras. This is when I realized that she actually was very funny with a wonderfully acerbic and dry wit.
I first spotted Gwenn while my mother and I were checking out — and stalking stealthfully – area teachers, having gone over to Bellevue’s Main Street and observed her letting out a class and leaving. We didn’t know that we could have requested observing or trying out a class.
I just knew the tall, regal looking woman on the sidewalk with her hair up in a bun had to be her.
After joining Bellevue Civic Ballet, in my first year as an apprentice, I tried to observe and learn – sometimes also stealthfully my classmates and my surroundings, learning from each. During my first orchestra dress rehearsal with the company is when I first espied Roy – practicing his perfect relevé attitude pirouettes over on the side. I was very impressed. I didn’t know then he wasn’t “Mr.” Barker.
Gwenn liked neat, tidy and clean. In technique for sure but you could also see this in other aspects of her life. How she’d clean up dressing rooms after the Ballet Russe had concluded a run, concerned for the reputation of not only the company but of dancers in general. One of the things that impressed me the most was how organized she was – at the time we were chatting about an upcoming Regional Dance American event...and out of her purse she deftly pulls a brochure. Of course, I went! How could I not!? I later made sure that each faculty member of the schools I directed had a brochure too in their dance bags, ready to hand out in line at the supermarket or where ever.
Also, a very quick mind with a grasp for numbers and math. She’d tally up her studio’s bank deposits the old-fashioned way, by hand and check the figures just by eye-balling them – no calculator or computer. Gwenn also told me of how when she first went with her good friend to New York, determined to audition for companies, how they dropped off their bags at the local YWCA and walked up to take class at SAB (School of American Ballet). Someone asked them directions and she was able to tell them how to get to their location – not bad for not having been in Manhattan less than an hour!
While I was in Europe, she's write encouraging notes to me...and she is the one who suggested I study with her former Ballet Russe friend, Tatiana Grantzeva in Paris, which I did at Josette Amiel's school and from which I benefitted so greatly.
In fact, at one point in Tania's class, I guess I was being too precious with the movement and trying too hard to be perfect and to do it perfectly that she said, "Dean, move out...or I'll write Gwenn to tell her your not moving!" That sure got me going.
I sometimes use this today when my students are moving enough and I'll say to jokingly to them: "Dance is about moving...what a concept!"
In later years, it was so nice to get to know Gwenn better as we sat down and conducted interviews for my book. Her responses were thoughtful, meaningful, often sprinkled with great stories, and fun. Her insights into teaching filled with depth and passion. And what joy leapt in my heart when she told me how she felt after her own dance dream came true – when she was accepted into the Ballet Russe: “I was so happy that at class later that night, I felt I could do anything.”
And I never knew where Gwenn might show up. When I went to Orange County to see and review London’s Royal Ballet, imagine my pleasant surprise to hear a familiar voice calling from behind me in the auditorium...”Dean! Dean!” I was so happy and delighted to see Gwenn there and to be able to introduce her to my on-line dance colleagues who also happened to be there.
We also had fun when we had a couple of days that crossed each other at the USA International Ballet Competition 2006 in Jackson, Mississippi. We adored comparing notes about the dancers and the whole process. It probably won’t shock anyone that Gwenn expressed her opinions with no holds barred. After having lunch with Gwenn, myself, Susan, Francis, and Nina Novak, Nina took me aside and in a hushed tone that was both somewhat conspiratorial and conciliatory felt impelled to tell me, “Gwenn has very strong opinions!” Like this was a deep, dark state secret.
I’ll miss seeing Gwenn at PNB in company of her dear friend and colleague Susan Valencia, but have already seen her legacy in action. When teaching for a studio in Woodinville a few years ago, one of the faculty members, who had also been a Barker product, had trained the students so well, so cleanly, and neatly, I had to call Gwenn and excitedly report, “Gwenn, it’s like seeing your “grandchildren!” You really could tell, just by looking and how they moved, that these students were the heirs of Gwenn’s teaching.
I last spoke with Gwenn about three weeks before her passing. She had left me a typical, cryptic “Gwenn” message...["Hi, Dean, it's Gwenn. I've turned 80, I'm on oxygen...and you don't have to call me back!] and I felt compelled to return her call and I’m so glad I did. After wishing her happy birthday, we chatted about the progress of the book, she tersely asking, “Did they cut me?” “Of course not, Gwenn!” being my reply. A friend put it so well: one reason she was looking forward to seeing it in print was that it’s just one validation of her long, lasting career and of her continuing legacy.
Thank you, Gwenn.