Remembering Milly

New York City Ballet honored the late dancer Melissa Hayden in an unannounced tribute at the New York State Theater on Tuesday night. (Just why the occasion, which warranted flowers on the stage, was a surprise is a mystery.) Before the curtain rose for Liebeslieder Walzer and Stars and Stripes—two ballets in which George Balanchine created lead roles for Hayden—Peter Martins, NYCB's ballet master-in-chief, spoke briefly, which was merciful. For whatever reason, it is incredibly difficult for him to be generous about former dancers (even when their family members are sitting in the audience). Gillian Murphy, Hayden's former student at North Carolina School of the Arts, was there too, accompanied by her boyfriend, Ethan Stiefel, and probably feeling some sense of inner peace with her decision, a few years back, to join American Ballet Theatre.

It was a relief when Martins introduced the evening's real speaker, Jacques d'Amboise, Hayden's former partner, who began a stream of witty and tender stories with, "Milly, I'm going to talk about you!" Tearfully, he related the story of their last visit, which took place in her hospital room in North Carolina. Imitating the way she pulled her oxygen mask on and off in order to speak, he recalled Hayden's two comments:

"Oh, Jacques, you came for my last dance!"
[To her family]: "If he stays overnight, there's a pot roast in the freezer."

When it was time for D'Amboise to say his final good-bye, Hayden spoke about how she used to think that the notion of an afterlife was hooey; now, she wasn't so sure. As D'Amboise recalled, Hayden told him that she thought that afterlife is what you leave after you're gone. She said, "We did a great job."