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Thursday, March 28, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ivan Novikoff, premier ballet master, dies at 102

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The expression was printed on ballet master Ivan F. Novikoff's stationery and dance-recital programs: "Correct foundation ensures future success."

"It was his philosophy," said his daughter, Bellevue resident Anna Novikoff. "If you have proper training from the start, you can do anything."

Mr. Novikoff made it his life's mission to give thousands of people — from famed dancer Robert Joffrey to basketball players and young children — the correct foundation in ballet.

His career spanned 75 years, and he never stopped teaching, traveling by Greyhound bus to give lessons around the Northwest well into his 90s.

"He never would retire," his daughter said. "Till the day he died, he had one or two students."

One of Mr. Novikoff's goals was to live to be 100. When he died March 20 of pneumonia, he was 102.

A Russian native, he came to the United States in 1923 and quickly established himself as one of the great teachers of the original Russian Imperial Ballet classical style of dance.

After settling in Seattle, he founded the Novikoff School of Russian-American Ballet and eventually opened more than 20 schools in Washington and Oregon. In 1989, he was given the Governor's Heritage Award, which honors people and organizations who make significant cultural contributions to the state.

"He was just the most incredible man. ... He would take anyone who wanted to dance," said Salem, Ore., resident Barbara Edge, who was 58 when she began taking lessons with him.

"I had a bad back when I started with him. I'd been to a billion chiropractors; I've exercised all my life. He fixed my back. He'd say, 'Tighten your stomach, darling. Lift your rib cage.'

"This is the thing Novikoff gives you: eternal youth."

Born in Kazan, Russia, in 1899, Mr. Novikoff studied at the Imperial Ballet School in Russia along with Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova. Like many Russians, he fled to China because of the 1917 Russian Revolution, leaving his homeland on a train by himself at age 17. In Harbin, China, he taught dance to children of Russian soldiers.

In Seattle, he set up a makeshift dormitory on the second floor of his Montlake home for students to stay in as they trained. His lessons weren't just in dance.

"If he saw you sitting at the table eating your salmon with even less than ideal posture, he would just wiggle his fingers, so you knew what to do," Edge said. "Till the very end of his life, I mean the very end, he was sitting straight."

He married his longtime companion, Beuhal Kirberger Novikoff, in 1990. Known as Mrs. K to his students, she had taught and helped run his schools since the 1940s. Mr. Novikoff stopped traveling to give lessons at age 97 to care for her when she became ill. She died at age 92.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Novikoff is survived by his son-in-law, Hal Itzkovics, and grandchildren, Sara and Spencer Itzkovics, all of Bellevue, and a sister, Tanya Weise of Hollywood, Calif.

Funeral services have been held.

Janet Burkitt can be reached at 206-515-5689 or jburkitt@seattletimes.com.

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