When Barbara Carson staged Texas’ first full-length production of “The Nutcracker” in 1960, she had to dance the role of Sugar Plum Fairy herself.
Though Carson— once a soloist with the New York City Ballet — had started a classical ballet school in 1953, and by 1956 had founded what would eventually become Ballet Austin, there were no professional adult male ballet dancers in Austin capable of dancing the role of the Nutcracker prince.
So Carson hired one from out of state — Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer George Zoritch, one of many impressive ballet world connections Carson had. But when Zoritch refused to dance with any student, Carson donned her pointe shoes.
After all, she wasn’t ready for any one in Austin to see less-than-accurately performed ballet dancing.
“I was very particular about not doing something we (as a company) weren’t ready to do,” Carson said in 2012 interview.
Carson, 87, died Tuesday in Austin of complications from Alzheimer’s and pneumonia, her daughter, Laurel Carson Lacy, said.
Ballet Austin is currently staging its 52nd annual production of “The Nutcracker” at the Long Center. And at Friday’s performance, artistic director Stephen Mills will take a moment before the show to dedicate the performance to Carson.
“When Barbara Carson came to Austin the artistic landscape was bare,” said Mills.
“Imagine how tenacious one would have to be to decide to found a ballet company in a place that had no history of or context for dance. Barbara had the kind of will it would take to develop dancers and teach an audience to appreciate this art form.”
Born March 18, 1927, Barbara Dame Carson grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, one of four children to a widowed mother. Money was tight. But Carson showed such talent for classical ballet technique — with its combination of rigor and grace — that she was granted classes for free. Her first instructor was with a former member of the Russia’s famed Maryinksy Ballet.
While still a teenager, Carson lit out for New York, where she studied with the now-legendary choreographer George Balanchine, soon netting the prestigious rank of soloist in Balanchine’s New York City Ballet.
After marrying David Costley Carson, a psychologist and fifth-generation Texan, in 1946, the young ballerina moved to Austin.
With no place to take proper ballet classes in Austin, Carson, by now a young mother, started her Carson School of Ballet in the living room of her West Campus house.
The pristine discipline of classical ballet wasn’t all that popular in America at the time with public tastes more fond of exuberant theatrical show dancing.
But in 1958 when CBS beamed Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” live across the nation on Christmas Eve, not only was a new holiday tradition was born, but a new taste for classical ballet began to percolate.
By 1960, Carson and her all-volunteer Austin Ballet Society staged “The Nutcracker” in then-new Plamer Auditorium, now the Long Center for the Performing Arts, Ballet Austin’s regular venue.
She continued to develop Austin’s taste for and knowledge of ballet with a segment on a local television show on which she talked about fitness and exercise for women.
“I used to talk about the benefits of classic ballet training, and how classes that just offered tap or acrobatics were not the best places to get really serious dance training,” recalled Carson in 2012. “In fact, I probably irritated a lot of people by talking about (ballet) all the time!”
Carson left Austin in 1967 as her husband’s career took the family first to Washington state, then to Wisconsin. The family returned to Texas in 1979, and Carson resumed her involvement with Ballet Austin, this time as a supporter of the fully professional company.
In addition to her daughter Laurel Carson Lacy of Austin, Carson is survived by son Jonathan David Carson, also of Austin, and granddaughter Meredyth Carson Lacy of San Francisco.
A memorial service is planned for on Jan. 3 at First Unitarian Universalist Church.
The family asked that contributions be made to the Barbara Carson Scholarship, which covers tuition costs for Ballet Austin Academy students.
“Ballet Austin has always been a community-focused organization because of the love and respect Barbara Carson had for ballet,” said Mills.
“While she will be missed, Barbara will always be the heart and soul of our company.”