Sunday, November 28, 1999

Dance company her legacy


Dayton mourns artistic director

BY CAROL NORRIS
Enquirer contributor

        It was Jeraldyne Blunden's dream that Dayton Contemporary Dance Company would rate among the leading dance companies of the world.

        Since forming the company in 1968, she worked tirelessly to see that happen. Today, the company is sought after for national and international tours and lovingly received wherever they go.

        “She was a real artistic director. She had an eye for developing dancers and repertory. She had a great love of dance and wanted other people to love it, too,” says Donald McKayle, one of the most recent choreographers to work with her company.

        Mrs. Blunden died Monday of renal failure. She had been hospitalized at Dayton's Franciscan Medical Center since Oct. 27. Mrs. Blunden was 58.

        “It was a shock to all of us,” company executive director Phyllis Brzozowska says.

        “Looking back now, we realize she was showing signs of illness in early September,” Ms. Brzozowska says. “She was more tired than usual. She complained of aches and pains, but it wasn't until she couldn't keep food down that we realized she was seriously ill. By the time she entered the hospital, her kidneys were already failing.”

Started as a youngster
        Mrs. Blunden was a well-known artistic presence in Dayton and around the world.

        As a youngster she took dance classes with Dayton's Josephine and Hermene Schwarz. In her teens she left to study with emerging and established dance figures, such as Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Jose Limon and James Truitte. During these formative years she established friendships and working relationships with choreographers who would later create works for her company.

        She established Jeraldyne's School of the Dance in Dayton in 1961.

        The school has trained dancers who have gone on to successful international careers. Her company is known and admired worldwide.

        In the earliest days of developing her company and with no money to build a repertory quickly, she began to buy dance works one at a time in a process that has developed one of the broadest repertories of any modern dance company. The most recent acquisition was Children of the Passage, with choreography by Mr. McKayle and Ronald K. Brown.

        Mr. McKayle, reached at his California home, says her reputation in the international dance community was “very strong.

        “She was continually asked back (to perform), a testament to her ability to develop a wonderful repertory. And dancers. Sherry Williams (Blun den trained) is one of the best dancers in the country,” he says.

        Mrs. Blunden “was always ahead of her time in her plans for her company. She had a real understanding of what dance meant to her and to her community.”

        Dave Barger, director of Dayton's Cityfolk, recently worked with Mrs. Blunden on a Duke Ellington piece the company was staging. He talked about her impact locally and abroad. “She created this enormous opportunity in the Dayton area and at the same time she created a world-class company,” he said.

        Mrs. Blunden received many awards in her long career, including the Dance Magazine Award in 1998 and the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 1995.

Financial stability
        The award she is said to have been most proud of is the Ford Foundation working capital fund for minority cultural institutions, which has paved the way for financial stability for her dancers. In most of the years of its existence, her company has struggled to juggle the expenses of running a first-rate operation with the actuality of very little money to make that happen. For the first time, the company is on solid financial footing.

        “She wanted more than anything that the company would go on without her,” Ms. Brzozowska says. “She was really pleased how stable the company had become.”

        Ironically, right before she became ill, Mrs. Blunden had begun to talk about taking six weeks off to finally enjoy an extended vacation.

Setting up a transition
        Ten years ago she set in motion the steps to secure an easy transition to new leadership.

        Kevin Ward has served as resident choreographer and assistant artistic director. He will be named artistic director. Mrs. Blunden's daughter, Debbie Blunden-Diggs, will continue working as associate artistic director.

        Mrs. Blunden is survived by her husband, Charles Blunden, daughter Debbie and son Derek. There will be a viewing from 4-7 p.m. today in Dayton. The funeral is 11 a.m. Monday. Both events are at Phillips Temple CME church, 2050 Germantown Road, (937) 263-8135.

        In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to “The First 200 Fund” for Jeraldyne's School of the Dance, 2100 Kettering Tower, Dayton, OH 45423.

       



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