Dennis Wayne, 72, Charismatic Dancer With Leading Troupes, Is Dead

Dennis Wayne, 72, Charismatic Dancer With Leading Troupes, Is Dead


Mr. Wayne, whose display of virtuosic talent that night occurred about midway through a career spent performing with elite ballet companies and leading his own, died on Oct. 18 in West Palm Beach, Fla. He was 72.

The cause was respiratory failure, his nephew Richard Wendelken said.

Brash and charismatic, Mr. Wayne had matinee idol looks that made teenage girls scream and a rebellious streak that earned him the nickname the Bad Lad of Ballet. Starting in the 1960s, he danced with the Harkness Ballet, then became a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theater.

He preferred contemporary ballet, and modern dance, to classical ballet.

“He wanted to get away from princes and being the male support for a ballerina; he wanted equal time, if not more time,” Norman Walker, a longtime mentor who taught Mr. Wayne modern dance at the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, said in a telephone interview. “He didn’t have beautiful feet, so he didn’t have the best lines for strictly classical ballet works.”

When Mr. Wayne danced the lead in Eugene Loring’s “Billy the Kid” for Ballet Theater in 1975, he portrayed him as the boy next door as well as a pathological gangster. Reviewing his performance in The New York Times, Clive Barnes wrote that Mr. Wayne was “perfectly cast” and that he was a “very strong dancer but also a very fine actor who always moves with intent.”

Mr. Wayne, who did not especially like working for others, formed Dancers in late 1975. He was still under contract to Ballet Theater, as were six of the eight members who joined his new troupe. He said he wanted to provide dancers with work when they were idle. But Ballet Theater demanded that Mr. Wayne disband his new company or leave.

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Mr. Wayne danced with the Harkness Ballet, became a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theater, and started his own troupe.

He relented and stayed with Ballet Theater until the next year, when he reformed Dancers, with substantial financial support from Joanne Woodward, the actress and balletomane. They had been friends since Mr. Wayne, while still dancing with the Joffrey, had a small role in the film “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams” (1973), which starred Ms. Woodward. It was his only movie credit.

Ms. Woodward, with whom he had one scene, encouraged his desire to form Dancers (originally called Dennis Wayne’s Dancers). She invested at least $400,000 to start the company and keep it going, and served on its board.

In 1980, after Dancers had completed a successful two-week season in Paris — Le Monde declared that Mr. Wayne’s dancing was the equal of Rudolf Nureyev’s and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s — he was traveling from Paris to Basel, Switzerland, when his limousine braked suddenly, flipped over three times and rolled down a nine-foot embankment.

With serious injuries to his back and a hip, he was told that he would never dance again. During his recovery, he turned to choreography. And in 1986, with his injuries healed, he danced in one of his ballets, “Moments Passing … ” He also teamed up with Helene Roux, a French dancer and his wife at the time, in “Fantasy of a Wayfarer,” a piece by Mr. Walker.

“The two danced the piece’s central duet with a fluid, sculptural grace made even more arresting by the genuine delight each appeared to have in the other,” Carolyn Jack wrote in The Palm Beach Post. “Though in his 40s, Wayne still possessed a control and expressive strength younger dancers might well envy.”

Dennis Wayne Wendelken was born on July 19, 1945, in St. Petersburg, Fla., and moved to Brooklyn with his family as an infant. Shortly after, he won a crawling contest in Palisades Park, N.J., defeating 29 other babies over a 100-foot course.

His parents, Walter and Barbara, were dancers who formed an acrobatic act, Taffy ’n’ Terry and Trio, with Dennis and his older siblings, Sandra and Roger. As The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described their routine in 1952, the elder Wendelkens lifted each other in the air and did contortions. Roger did handstands on his father’s upraised feet, Sandra stood erect on his father’s outstretched hand, and Dennis, then 7 years old, did exercises while his father held him on his hands, feet or back.

Mr. Wayne, who lived in West Palm Beach, is survived by his brother and sister.

In high school, Mr. Wayne pulled pranks and could be obstreperous, Mr. Walker said. He recalled once telling Mr. Wayne that he would kick him out of the dance class if he did not give it his full attention.

“He was boiling mad,” Mr. Walker said. “He was clenching his fist and wanted to hit me. Tensely, he said, ‘Mr. Walker, may I be excused for a moment?’ The boys’ dressing room was in the studio, and the entire class got hysterical listening to him punching the lockers, kicking and cursing and yelling at himself while we all waited.”

When the door opened, Mr. Wayne walked out, his anger dissipated, and the class continued.

“At rehearsals and performances,” Mr. Walker added, “he was a hard worker and brilliant partner. He was totally committed to dance.”

When Mr. Wayne joined the Harkness Ballet in 1964, Lawrence Rhodes was already there.

“He was always aggressive and ready to pay the price,” Mr. Rhodes, the artistic director emeritus of the dance division at the Juilliard School, said in an interview. “He had a huge amount of passion and a very intense engagement in all that he did.”

That passion led him to wonder why ballet was not as popular as rock music.

“People can go to rock concerts and get stoned,” Mr. Wayne told The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., in 1979. “Why can’t they go to the ballet and get stoned?”



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