Janet Reed Erskine was leader in Northwest ballet
Seattle Times staff reporter
Janet Reed Erskine, the first American-born ballerina to dance the Swan Queen in a U.S. production of "Swan Lake" and the first director of Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), brought a fiery determination and earthy humor to stage and studio.
From 1939, when she starred in the San Francisco Opera Ballet's "Swan Lake," through her dancing for the legendary George Balanchine at New York City Ballet, to recent years as ballet mistress at PNB School, the tiny redhead with the piercing blue eyes leaves a huge legacy.
Former pupils have become performers and teachers throughout the U.S. Critics worldwide have praised her many roles, including the courtesan in "Con Amore" and the dance-hall girl in "Western Symphony."
Miss Reed, as she was known professionally, died Monday (Feb. 28) of a stroke in Seattle. She was 83. PNB is dedicating its March performances to her memory.
"She was a great dancer but an outstanding dancing actress," said PNB co-artistic director Francia Russell, who studied with Miss Reed. "Her timing and expression were impeccable. She made everything look easy and spontaneous, but she had planned everything out beforehand. Like Fred Astaire."
Born in Medford, Ore., Miss Reed studied dance as a girl. After graduating from high school in Portland, she went to San Francisco to dance for William Christensen's newly formed San Francisco Opera Ballet, now the San Francisco Ballet. The company toured the U.S., visiting Seattle's Moore Theatre in 1939.
Miss Reed appeared in Act II of "Swan Lake" in San Francisco as well as in other ballets in San Francisco and with American Ballet Theatre. One of her early comedic successes was "Jinx."
She danced with New York City Ballet in the early 1950s. She subsequently became its ballet mistress, coaching such stars as Edward Villella, Allegra Kent and Patricia McBride.
Miss Reed moved to Seattle in 1974 to become artistic director of Pacific Northwest Dance company, a spinoff from Seattle Opera and the precursor to Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Miss Reed resigned in 1976. She cited failing health because of overwork. However, she returned to teach to the company several years later, when Kent Stowell and Francia Russell had retooled it to professional standing using some of her ideas. She taught class until four years ago.
"She was demanding and uncompromising with herself and others," Russell said. "Janet could never understand why others didn't have either her energy or determination. But she was responsible for getting this place started. She absolutely would not give up on her dream."
No services are planned, but there will be a memorial gathering in April. Details are pending.
Survivors include her children Reed Erskine of Woodstock, N.Y., and Jane Erskine of Seattle. Miss Reed's husband of 48 years, Branson Erskine, died in 1994.
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