Harvey Hysell: A Life of Beauty in Motion

Reflecting in 1994 on a 25-year career in New Orleans, choreographer, teacher, and costume designer Harvey Hysell wrote, “What has this shy little preacher’s boy accomplished?…I sigh and ponder and finally say, ‘You did your best, and you succeeded in producing Beauty, on stage and occasionally by helping people dance to find the Beauty in themselves.’”

Harvey Hysell in Carmina Burana as the Roasted Swan, 1969. (2009.0142.4) All images in this story are the gift of the estate of Harvey Benson Hysell III, Diane L. Carney, and Ian W.O. Carney.

Harvey Benson Hysell was born in New Orleans in 1936 to a Methodist minister and a church pianist. As a young boy he occasionally observed the ballet classes his mother accompanied at Newcomb College and immediately developed an interest in the art form. When Hysell was 11, his mother enrolled him with Lelia Haller, a prominent New Orleans ballet instructor and the first American dancer appointed première danseuse of the Paris Opera Ballet. Hysell was a natural and soon began performing with Haller’s Crescent City Ballet before attending high school in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he continued to be active in the performing arts. He attended Texas Christian University on full scholarship and, in 1960, became the first male in the country to receive a bachelor of fine arts degree in ballet.

In addition to dance classes, Hysell’s TCU curriculum included coursework in choreography and costume design. He excelled in both, making him particularly desirable in the world of professional dance. Upon graduation, Hysell moved to New York where he refined his technique under the tutelage of Vincenzo Celli, one of the most respected ballet instructors in the world. While in New York, Hysell designed costumes for such ballet luminaries as Royes Fernandez, the New Orleans–born principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre; Paula Tennyson, soloist with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; and Maria Tallchief, the first Native American prima ballerina who was then with the New York City Ballet. In 1962 Hysell was signed as the premier danseur for the new company Allegro American Ballet, and within a few months he was performing the lead male roles for Swan Lake and Giselle. Shortly thereafter he became the company’s principal costume designer. After touring nationally with Ruth Page’s Chicago Opera Ballet in 1965, Hysell turned his focus solely to costume design.

Two students posing in Ballet Hysell School studio (2009.0142.2)

He moved back to New Orleans with friend and business partner Lewis “Jamie” Greenleaf in 1966 and set up Greenleaf-Hysell Associates Inc., a costume design firm specializing in work for Mardi Gras krewes and local theater groups. The firm’s work in New Orleans quickly won acclaim. While reviewing the Gallery Circle Theatre’s 1966 production of Once Upon a Mattress, Times-Picayune critic Frank Gagnard noted, “Greenleaf and Hysell…have realized their ideas with wit, consistency of style and a professionalism that announces two classy designers have just settled in New Orleans.”

Hysell never lost his love of ballet, and he made occasional appearances in local dance performances. In 1969 he collaborated with the New Orleans Concert Choir on a production of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, performing as well as providing the choreography and costume design. Later that year he formed the semiprofessional company Ballet Hysell, and in 1971 he opened Ballet Hysell School, located on Magazine Street until 1978, when it was moved to a renovated church just off St. Charles Avenue.

Sketch of Waltz of Flowers costume by Harvey Hysell (2009.0142.1)

Ballet Hysell garnered immediate attention and praise for its sumptuous productions. It was the first company in New Orleans to stage Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in its entirety, and two of its early productions, A Day for Flower Children and King David, were aired on regional PBS-affiliated television stations. As momentum grew, Hysell’s reputation became great enough to bring ballet luminaries such as Fernando Bujones and Natalia Makarova (both with the American Ballet Theatre) to perform with his company. In 1976 Ballet Hysell became the New Orleans Ballet, with more professional personnel and stronger financial support. One of the company’s highlights was receiving a  commission from Elizabeth Arden to stage a ballet named after its latest perfume, Cabriole. The company toured this ballet along with other pieces in Guatemala in September 1982.

The New Orleans Ballet was dissolved in 1982, but Hysell remained busy as guest choreographer for various local and national companies and as the director of the very successful Ballet Hysell School. With the help of longtime associate Diane Carney, Hysell intensified the school’s class schedule. They instituted summer workshops that attracted students from Alaska to Maine to study with Hysell, Carney, and a roster of important instructors and performers. Throughout the years, Ballet Hysell School trained many leading artists, including Rosalie O’Connor (American Ballet Theatre), Mireille Hassenboehler (Houston Ballet), and Devon Carney (associate artistic director, Cincinnati Ballet).

Hysell was clearly not alone in thinking he succeeded in producing beauty both on stage and within his dancers. In 1988 he and Carney reestablished Ballet Hysell, which became the recipient of numerous awards. Hysell was honored in 1995 with the Big Easy Awards Lifetime Achievement Award and again in 1996 with the Mayor’s Arts Awards Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1998 he and Carney closed the Hysell Ballet School and later began teaching at the New Orleans Dance Academy, which since 1990 had been operating out of the Magazine Street building that originally housed Hysell’s school. Though Hysell passed away in 2008, his legacy is kept alive in his dancers and in Ballet Hysell, which can still be seen in its annual production of The Nutcracker and various other performances throughout the year.

Natalia Makarova and Ivan Nagy in rehearsal for Ballet Hysell production of Coppelia, 1975 (2009.0142.3)

Diane Carney generously donated the Harvey Benson Hysell Papers (MSS 608; 2009.0142) to The Historic New Orleans Collection in 2009. Through the papers, one can discover more about this New Orleans legend. Some of the highlights include Hysell’s Royes Fernandez tunic pattern, correspondence between Hysell and his guest stars, and photographs of the more than 100 ballets produced by Ballet Hysell and the New Orleans Ballet.

—Nina Bozak


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