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Wilhelm Burmann, teacher of ballet's brightest, dies at 80
Wilhelm Burmann teaches a ballet class in New York, April 1, 2004. Burmann, a revered ballet master and teacher who trained generations of dancers, including Alessandra Ferri, Julio Bocca, Maria Kowroski and Wendy Whelan, died on March 30, 2020, in Manhattan. He was 80. Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Wilhelm Burmann, a revered ballet master and teacher who trained generations of dancers — including Alessandra Ferri, Julio Bocca, Maria Kowroski and Wendy Whelan — died March 30 in New York. He was 80.

Jane Haugh, his friend and health care proxy, said the cause was renal failure. He had also recently tested positive for the coronavirus.

With a sharp wit and a dry, sometimes withering delivery, Burmann could get to the essence of a dancer, ballet or otherwise. His advanced professional ballet class, which he started teaching in 1984 at Steps on Broadway, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, drew dancers from the modern dance world, too.

Burmann was a part of “so many of our histories — across the world and across disciplines,” recalled Whelan, the former New York City Ballet principal who is now the company’s associate artistic director.

“It didn’t matter if you were a Merce Cunningham dancer,” she said. “It wasn’t about ballet. It was bigger than that. It was about form and practice and focus and discipline and excellence.”

In a 2004 New York Times profile, Burmann, who was known as Willy, said, “I am known for giving a very strong and demanding class. Most professionals need and appreciate it. But there’s a whole group of dancers that I never see — people who don’t really want to do that or who wake up lazy. People show up to my class when they are in shape.”

His classes were seen as intimidating. Ferri, a former American Ballet Theater principal who started working with Burmann more than 30 years ago, said, “You had to leave everything you knew outside of the door of the studio. You had to go in completely ready to rebuild in your technique. You had to make not being comfortable your new comfort.”

Burmann was born in Oberhausen, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany — he called it “the hinterlands,” his friend and student Jackie Parrott said — on April 3, 1939. He spent his early childhood, during World War II, on a farm outside Ulm.

As part of a video project about Burmann’s teaching philosophy on which Parrott began working two years ago with Dimitri Kleioris, he spoke about his upbringing.

“I was always into making things more attractive,” he said. “At home, it was great. We always danced, and my mother was a widow, and she had three children, and we always danced and we always sang. We closed the doors, and we were in our little world.”

As he told The Times, he began studying dance late, as a teenager. His first teacher was, he said, “a fat little Italian man who really taught us a love for movement and dancing.”

Burmann was a principal dancer at Frankfurt Ballet, Grand Théâtre du Genève and Stuttgart Ballet and also danced with City Ballet for four years. He was a ballet master for the Washington Ballet and the Ballet du Nord. His longtime partner, Alfonso Cata, who was artistic director of the Ballet du Nord, died in 1990.

At Steps, Burmann, with his regal posture, seemed not so much to walk among the rows of dancers as to glide. “He looked like a real king or something,” Ferri said.

His exercises were brisk, and he explained them only once. “You had no time to think,” Ferri said. “You had to learn to trust your body.”

Whelan compared his class to being in a performance. “Part of the goal was handling your nerves under pressure,” she said.

And the connection she experienced still reverberates. “It’s been amazing to feel this loss physically,” she said. “I feel it deep in my body because that’s where he went with us.”

When Burmann’s health started to decline two years ago, Haugh said, she tried to talk him into cutting back to three days a week. She told him, she recalled, “I’ll get someone to help you clean your apartment, and we’ll get you a meal, and you’ll go on for another 10 or 15 years.” His response, she said, was, “I’d rather sit in the median on Broadway and smoke myself to death.”

To the straightforward, defiant Burmann, who is survived by his sister, Chrystal Weideman, training was work, and class needed to happen in the morning. At one point he taught an afternoon class at Steps, but, he said, “It was just too depressing to be at the studio. Everything changes there in the afternoon. The people are sloppy, hanging around in the hallway like bums, and most of the classes are jazz.”

Although he had a wicked sense of humor, Ferri said, he was also sweet and loving: “We all felt he cared. But he really cared through dance. It wasn’t so much that you would stay there and tell him all your problems. You could be broken or sad or exhausted or worried about something, and he would just say, ‘Good morning, face the barre.’ One, two, three, the music started, and that was healing. You found your strength again.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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