Shaun O’Brien, who for 42 years gained legions of New York City Ballet fans for his acting as much as his dancing, died last week in Saratoga Springs at the age of 86.
O’Brien was a character dancer, which meant he seldom got the opportunity to dance with the prima ballerina. He did, however, enjoy an amazingly long professional career for a dancer, getting his start with the New York City Ballet in 1949, the year after its creation by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein.
O’Brien retired from the troupe in 1991 and moved full time to Saratoga Springs with his longtime partner, Cris Alexander. He danced in more than 100 ballets, but was synonymous with the roles of Herr Drosselmeyer in “The Nutcracker” and Dr. Coppélius in “Coppelia.”
“Shaun was the most amazing of character dancers I’ve seen,” said Leslie Roy-Heck, a former soloist with the company who now owns and operates Saratoga Dance in Saratoga Springs. “He captivated the audience in ‘Nutcracker’ as Herr Drosselmeyer and was most memorable as Dr. Coppélius in ‘Coppelia.’ I adored watching him on stage, and although many other dancers did these roles, in my opinion, no one’s performances equaled the brilliance of Shaun’s interpretations.”
“He was just a natural at the character roles,” said Bill Otto, a Glens Falls resident and retired New York City Ballet dancer who danced many of O’Brien’s roles after joining the company in 1983.
“He was past his prime when I saw him, but he was a wonderful dancer and a great actor. He was always very believable. Never a false moment. It was like he was doing pantomime for the ballet.”
Robert Maiorano worked with O’Brien for more than 20 years, and said it was his stage presence that made him such a vital part of the company.
“He played the unbendable father in ‘Prodigal Son,’ who finally gives in, and while he’s known for Drosselmeyer and Dr. Coppélius, it was actually that performance that brought me to tears. That was when I realized he was such a great actor,” said Maiorano.
“In that scene, he has very little to do yet he had such command of the stage,” continued Maiorano. “He just stood there while the prodigal son is going through gyrations and everyone else is dancing and slipping around. Shaun just stood there stoically with this great presence and authority.”
O’Brien was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 28, 1925. He first danced in public at the age of 4 with his older sister and never stopped for more than 60 years. As a youth he studied in Manhattan at the School of American Ballet, the official school of the New York City Ballet.
He changed his first name from John to Shaun during those years, and in 1945, before he was 20, he made his Broadway debut as a member of the dance ensemble in “Hollywood Pinafore.”
He was on Broadway again in “Polonaise” in 1945 and “Sleepy Hollow” in 1948 before beginning his long career with the New York City Ballet in 1949.
O’Brien first moved to Saratoga around 1975 and split his time between there and New York City until his retirement in 1991. He and Alexander, a photographer, actor and dancer who performed on Broadway in the 1940s, had been living together for 61 years and, according to the New York Times, they were married in a private ceremony soon after New York passed its same-sex marriage act.
“They’d been together since 1949, which is longer than any married couple I know,” said Maiorano, who saw O’Brien since last fall. “I was so happy for him, and [Cris] was no slouch, either. He was an actor and a great photographer, and while they were very private, they were a lot of fun to be around. You could call them up at 1 in the morning, but you dare not call them before 3 in the afternoon.”
Although he was retired, O’Brien would occasionally provide pre-performance talks at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center for SPAC’s education director, Siobhan Dunham.
“He was an absolutely great storyteller,” Dunham said, “and they were never told at someone else’s expense. They were just very funny, personal stories, and it was a thrill for me to not only invite him but to have him say yes. You knew the pre-performance talk would be a success if Shaun did it.”
O’Brien’s failing health had kept him out of the public eye for the past few years, according to Dunham.
“I hadn’t seen him in about four or five years, but I’ll always remember that great warm smile he had,” she said. “He was really warm, and there was no sense of elitism about him. He had this elegance about him, but he was always approachable. He was very generous with his conversation.”
Honored by museum
In July 2009, O’Brien was honored by the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs.
“We had a special program for him when the [New York City] Ballet was here doing ‘Coppelia,’ ” said Susan Edwards, program director at the museum. “I didn’t know him personally that well, but you could tell he was a very elegant man, very gracious. He had been very active in the Saratoga arts community for a long time right up until three or four years ago.”
“He always had a lot of great stories to tell,” said Otto. “I was just a few seats away from him in the dressing room for years. I had known him and his partner for years and had been out to their house, although it’d been a few years. Shaun was just a great guy.”
The William J. Burke & Sons Funeral Home in Saratoga Springs confirmed O’Brien’s death last Thursday, and at this time there are no services scheduled.
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