Amer­i­can Bal­let Theatre bal­le­rina

Chicago Sun-Times - - NATIONBEAT STATEBEAT - BY MAU­REEN O’ DON­NELL Staff Re­porter Email: mod­on­nell@sun­ Twit­ter: @sun­time­so­bits

When Ruth Ann Koe­sun emerged from her Lake Shore Drive apart­ment to head to work as an as­sis­tant at Cham­ber Opera Chicago, peo­ple saw a woman whose car­riage and poise were as im­pec­ca­ble as her size 2 Chanel suits.

That’s be­cause she had danced all over the world with the pow­er­house Amer­i­can Bal­let Theatre, in­clud­ing a tri­umphant tour that gave a lift to Lon­don au­di­ences who’d been worn down by war.

On July 4, 1946, the troupe be­came the first Amer­i­can bal­let com­pany to ap­pear in Lon­don af­ter World War II and the first to ap­pear at the Royal Oper­aHouse in Covent Gar­den. On open­ing night, Bal­let Theatre re­ceived 12 rap­tur­ous cur­tain calls.

Ms. Koe­sun, who grewup in Chicago’s Chi­na­town, be­came the toast of Lon­don for her per­for­mance in “Fancy Free,” a bal­let about Amer­i­can sailors liv­ing it up on leave.

She died of nat­u­ral causes at her Lake ShoreDrive apart­ment at 89, ac­cord­ing to her god­daugh­ter Ellen Cogh­lan.

“She was beau­ti­ful,” Cogh­lan said. “She was very clas­sic.”

When she danced, “It was mag­nif­i­cent,” said Mary Jane Fu­dacz, a friend. “She just kind of floated . . . she never ex­ceeded 93 pounds in her life.”

Ms. Koe­sun per­formed on bills with some of the world’s finest clas­si­cally trained dancers, among them Ali­cia Alonso, Erik Bruhn, Nora Kaye, Maria Tallchief and Vi­o­lette Verdy.

She also ap­peared on a 1947 cover of Life mag­a­zine and danced in “Billy the Kid” at the White House in 1962 for Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy and first lady Jac­que­line Kennedy.

She had scin­til­lat­ing mem­o­ries of her tours, in­clud­ing the time ac­tor Yul Bryn­ner spilled cham­pagne down bal­le­rina Norma Vance’s dress at a party in San Fran­cisco, where he was per­form­ing in “Lute Song.”

Af­ter re­tir­ing from ABT in 1969, she was a co- di­rec­tor of the dance depart­ment at Hull House As­so­ci­a­tion, toured as a bal­le­rina with the First Cham­ber Dance Com­pany of New York and was ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the As­so­ci­a­tion for Illi­nois Dance Com­pa­nies.

“Ruth Ann Koe­sun pi­o­neered with ABT in its early tour­ing days, trav­el­ing ev­ery­where with the com­pany to cities and towns across the globe,” said Kevin McKen­zie, the com­pany’s artis­tic di­rec­tor. “As an early mem­ber of Bal­let Theatre, she set an ex­am­ple of dig­nity and per­se­ver­ance for many gen­er­a­tions of ABT artists.”

Young Ruth Ann grew up in the 2300 block of Went­worth Av­enue, the daugh­ter of Dr. Paul Z. Koe­sun, a Chi­nese-Amer­i­can physi­cian, and Mary Mon­dulick, who was of Rus­sian de­scent.

“She was very proud of her Asian back­ground,” her god­daugh­ter said.

At 6, she started train­ing with in­struc­tor Edna Lu­cille Baum. Ms. Koe­sun also stud­ied with the Stone- Cam­ryn School of Chicago, which fun­neled many tal­ented per­form­ers to ABT. And she danced with the Swo­boda School corps de bal­let. She grad­u­ated from Mercy High School.

When she be­gan danc­ing in the 1940s and 1950s, crit­ics and arts edi­tors of­ten men­tioned her eth­nic­ity as some­thing ex­otic, calling her “a young Chi­nese- Amer­i­can girl” or “the 19- year- old Chi­nese-Amer­i­can baby bal­le­rina.” A 1947 ar­ti­cle in the Min­neapo­lis Star said her per­for­mance meant “The Ori­en­tal in­flu­ence will be in the bal­let at Lyceum theater next week.”

Ms. Koe­sun’s roles in­cluded per­form­ing in Agnes de Mille’s “Fall River Le­gend,” “Les Syl­phides,” “Grad­u­a­tion Ball,” “La Fille Mal Gardee,” the ti­tle role in “Giselle” and the Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker.”

“She was lyri­cal,” said Richard Covello, a writer and per­form­ing arts critic. “You could call her neo- Ro­man­tic.”

Af­ter re­tir­ing from dance, she worked as an ar­chiv­ist at the New­berry Li­brary and at a Chanel bou­tique and the Happy Hanger up­scale re­sale store at 3559 N. Broad­way.

Ms. Koe­sun loved Chanel No. 5, grew up with boxer dogs and also loved fe­lines. She had a cat named Isis for 20 years. Last Oc­to­ber, she took in a new cat, Ne­fer­titi, a res­cue from Hur­ri­cane Har­vey who’s now be­ing cared for by a friend.

A mar­riage to fel­low ABT prin­ci­pal Eric Braun ended in di­vorce. Her fre­quent dance part­ner and fi­ance, for­mer ABT prin­ci­pal John Kriza, died in 1975. The Ber­wyn na­tive drowned in the Gulf of Mex­ico while on va­ca­tion.

In her wal­let, she kept a photo of Odette, a fa­vorite dog, with an in­scrip­tion Kriza wrote on the back: “From Johnny, With all my love.”

Vis­i­ta­tion will be from 9 a. m. Satur­day un­til a 10: 30 a. m. fu­neral Mass at Holy Name Cathe­dral.


Bal­le­rina Ruth Ann Koe­sun grew up in Chicago’s Chi­na­town and went on to com­mand world stages with her grace.

Bal­leri­nas Ruth Ann Koe­sun ( seen in pro­file) and Melissa Hay­den on the cover of Life in Novem­ber 1947.

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