- In 1940, his military career was over. He had no dance training, but turned to ballet.
- He passed all the exams in 18 months at the Royal Academy of Dancing.
- He performed alongside well-known dancers in what is now known as the Royal Ballet.
- He learned Pilates with Joseph Pilates at a gym in New York.
He was born on another continent, in another century — barely three months before the signing of the The Treaty of Versailles officially ended the First World War.
But Henry Danton, who turns 100 on Saturday, is still working – and still relevant.
He taught Katya Orohovsky when she was 9 years old.
Now 37, Orohovsky had just started ballet lessons, so she was a bit intimidated by Danton, but mustered enough courage to talk to him.
“I went up to him and told him I wanted to be a ballerina and asked for his help, and we’ve been incredibly close ever since,” she said.
Danton lived in Miami and was a visiting professor, but the two became pen pals.
“He would write me little notes and encourage me,” Orohovsky said.
Orohovsky began working with Danton again when she was around 11 years old. He had moved to the Pine Belt and started teaching full-time in Mississippi.
She continued her studies in ballet and became the ballerina of her childhood dreams.
Orohovsky continues to perform and teaches ballet herself. She and her husband, Arkadiy Orohovsky, who often dance together professionally, are the owners of the South Mississippi Ballet Company in Oak Grove.
Now Danton teaches his son, 11-year-old Alexei Orohovsky. Alexei also started learning from Danton when he was 9 years old.
“I guess you can say we’ve come full circle,” she said.
Danton taught ballet at Hattiesburg, Petal, Columbia and Laurel and occasionally at Jackson at Belhaven College. He prepares these courses a few hours a day. He trains regularly.
“He is one of the healthiest human beings I have ever known in my life,” Orohovsky said.
“After swimming, dancing is the best exercise,” Danton said.
He always drives to his classes, except when he goes to Laurel, he said.
“She’s a pretty independent person,” said Jill Day, former owner of Laurel Ballet Academy.
Danton celebrated his birthday earlier with a trip to London for a week of sightseeing and a party that brought together friends and colleagues from around the world.
A video of the party, which includes tributes from those who were unable to attend, is posted on YouTube.
Yvonne Bergeron, who is widely credited with influencing Danton to move to Mississippi, attended the party with him.
She owned a ballet school in Mississippi and took continuing education classes during the summer. This is how she meets Danton. He would come to Mississippi to teach.
“Each time he visited, he expressed how much he appreciated the slower pace of life, the open friendliness of the people and especially the work ethic of the students,” Bergeron said. “He regretted having to leave. My goodbyes eventually included, ‘Maybe one day you won’t have to leave.'”
And one day he didn’t.
“He moved to Columbia in 1996 and with his expertise in the classical repertoire, we staged many full ballets two to three times a year,” Bergeron said.
Danton lives in Petal, but is originally from Bedford, England. His father, a British soldier, was killed at the end of the First World War.
The young Danton received a royal cadet to pay for his studies, all in military schools, before joining the army.
He graduated from the military academy in 1938 as a second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery and served briefly before falling from a truck, injuring his back. He received a medical discharge.
In 1940, he was 21 years old and his military career was over. Instead, he turned to something he loved: ballet.
He had no dance training, but had been an avid skater. He said he fell in love with ballet when he saw a Russian company’s last performance before the war at Covent Garden in London.
Putting the two together, Danton did something almost unheard of: “I passed all the exams in 18 months (at the Royal Academy of Dancing). That must be a record.”
Danton took lessons from very famous Russian professors, Bergeron said.
He quickly gained fame in the 1940s, not only because of his talent, but also because ballet was not a very popular art at the time and there were very few male dancers.
He was in the original production of Frederick Ashton’s “Symphonic Variations”, performed at Covent Garden in 1946. He performed alongside well-known dancers Margot Fonteyn, Moira Shearer, Pamela May, Michael Somes and Brian Shaw of what is now known as the Royal Ballet.
As a ballet dancer, he worked in Paris and toured Europe. He then traveled to the Americas, where he taught in Colombia – where he helped establish the national ballet – in Venezuela and the United States, living in places like New York and Miami before settling in Mississippi. .
During World War II, professional dancers stranded in London started the small Allied ballet with few resources, which lasted only a few weeks, Danton said.
Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet) and the International Ballet were also starting. The scarcity of men in ballet worked for and against him.
“It was absolutely ridiculous. I had 18 months of training behind me and I was dancing lead roles with a top ballerina,” Danton said.
After the liberation of France, they go on tour. In Paris, Danton lands in the middle of “that marvelous and magical moment” where and where all the best ballet teachers, all Russians fleeing communism, had settled.
“The training was so much better than what I had had.”
Danton’s career as a professional dancer included the Metropolitan Ballet in London, the Ballets des Champs-Elysées in Paris, a European recital tour in partnership with the Paris Opera’s Lycette Darsonval, Roland Petit’s Ballets de Paris, a American tour in partnership with Mia Slavenska (main ballerina of the famous Ballets Russes), and guest artist with national companies in Australia and Venezuela.
The “beautifully trained legs and feet” of a male dancer led Danton to the United States to undergo similar training – with George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet.
Danton’s professional teaching experience spans decades and continents, including the Fokine School of Ballet, ballet companies in Australia, Venezuela, Colombia and Canada and America, Sarah Lawrence College, the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, The Juilliard School and more.
Ballet has changed over the decades, but Danton says what strikes him most is ballet’s evolution from an elite art form into the mainstream.
“My first job in England was a medium-sized company and a small company,” he said. “The ballet was really not known at all.”
In Europe, people went to the theater during World War II to forget their troubles.
“After the war, it just blossomed, blossomed,” he said. “Now every little town has a ballet company and they all do classical ballet,” he said. “It’s amazing how completely he burst.”
Danton is often consulted by authors as one of the few sources who can give first-hand information about the world of ballet in the mid-twentieth century, Day said. He is one of the last living members of the founders of the Royal Ballet.
He works on his computer, writes about ballet and the little things he’s experienced in his life, he said.
“I don’t have a lot of free time,” Danton said. “And I want it that way. I don’t want to retire.”
Danton speaks several languages, including French, German and Spanish. He doesn’t just do pilates as an exercise. He learned the techniques of creator Joseph Pilates at a gym in New York.
Day and Orohovsky said that when Danton was younger he even owned a vegetarian restaurant in Venezuela.
“He’s the most unique and individual person I’ve met in my entire life,” Orohovsky said.
Tender and lasting friendships
Many of Danton’s former students have become professional dancers or teachers themselves.
They love and respect the man who taught them so much about ballet – and about life.
“He’s not just a colleague, he’s a friend,” Day said. “He is very well loved. He has no family around, but with all his students he still continues a relationship.”
“Many of our dancers who have gone on to successful dance careers, when they return home or communicate with us, always express their love and gratitude for what Henry was able to bring to their lives,” said Bergeron.
“He shaped the careers of many incredible dancers,” Orohovsky acknowledged.
Orohovsky said Danton was not just Alexei’s teacher, he was his godfather. She and her family traveled to London two years ago to celebrate Danton’s 98th birthday.
“He helped and guided me in all aspects of my life, not just ballet,” she said.