Richard S. Thomas, City Ballet Soloist and Teacher, Dies at 87
Published: August 3, 2013
Richard S. Thomas, a prominent ballet teacher and a former soloist with the New York City Ballet, died on July 27 in a hospital near his home in Paintsville, Ky. He was 87.
The cause was a stroke during treatment for a pulmonary embolism at the hospital, in Prestonsburg, Ky., his son, the actor Richard Thomas, said.
Mr. Thomas achieved wide influence teaching at the New York School of Ballet, which he and his wife, the ballerina Barbara Fallis, founded in 1958 in Manhattan. Both he and Ms. Fallis, who died in 1980, had danced with the Ballet Theater in New York as well as with Alicia Alonso in Cuba.
Soon after opening their school, they moved it to the former studios of the City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet, where George Balanchine had choreographed some of his major works.
Mr. Thomas and Ms. Fallis brought fresh energy to the studios, on Broadway between 82nd and 83rd Streets, where dance history was virtually embedded in their comfortably worn floors and walls and ratty dressing rooms. The school was a family affair. Before his success as John-Boy in the television series “The Waltons,” their son was sometimes seen registering students for class.
Already-famous dancers like Cynthia Gregory studied there. And many of the school’s other students went on to achieve renown, among them Twyla Tharp and Sean Lavery. Mr. Thomas was in particular a lasting mentor to the choreographer Eliot Feld and the choreographer and director Daniel Levans.
Mr. Thomas and Ms. Fallis imbued their teaching with old-school classicism, a quality that shone in the performances of their school-affiliated U.S. Terpsichore troupe.
Their teaching styles were complementary. Where Ms. Fallis was serene and quietly authoritative, Mr. Thomas was exuberant and mercurial with a teasing wit.
He was also plain-spoken. His advice to a young dancer auditioning for Mr. Feld’s first company in 1969 was just “keep your nose over your left foot.”
Both Mr. Thomas and Ms. Fallis encouraged innovation in choreography and dancing, but for Mr. Thomas, the ideal was the Ballet Theater of the 1940s, whose dancers “could create drama on stage” but “also get in line,” as he told The New York Times in 1983.
Mr. Thomas valued expansive, full-out dancing and urged students to let the music guide them. “You cheat, you cheat!” he roared amiably in a class in 1991 at a child slacking off at Mr. Feld’s New Ballet School, which was created to bring classical ballet training to minority children in New York City’s public schools. “Plié and see what happens.”
Richard Scott Thomas was born on Dec. 3, 1925, in Paintsville and grew up in Muddy Branch, Ky. His father was a coal miner and his mother a nurse. As a boy, Richard wanted to join the circus and be a trapeze artist, but his father wanted him to be an engineer. So he enrolled at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, but lasted only a semester.
He traced his interest in ballet to a performance of the Ballet Russe he attended as a young man in Seattle, where he was visiting relatives.
He later moved to California to study ballet with Bronislava Nijinska, a Russian ballet dancer and choreographer who had settled in Los Angeles to teach. He also trained with Vincenzo Celli, a noted ballet teacher in New York City. His early dancing career included stints with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Ballet Theater, where he met Ms. Fallis.
They married in 1950 while performing with Ms. Alonso in Cuba. Their son, Richard, was born in 1951 and their daughter, Bronwyn, who is also a dancer, in 1960. In addition to his son and daughter, he is survived by 11 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren.
Mr. Thomas danced with Ms. Fallis at City Ballet from 1953 to 1958, performing several roles in Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” as well as in the premieres of Todd Bolender’s “Souvenirs” (1955), Balanchine’s “Jeux d’Enfants” (1955) and Jerome Robbins’s “Concert.” (1956).
Mr. Thomas, whose father had shared with him a love of foxhounds, had a second career breeding dogs and later horses at his farm in Kentucky. His wife and daughter helped to show Great Danes and later Brussels griffons, the latter breed favored by their friend Mr. Robbins. Showing dogs, Mr. Thomas once said, was at least as unnerving as performing dance.