Tribute to Dance Director Emerita Claire Mallardi

Remembering Dance Director Emerita Claire Mallardi  

Published October 26, 2020 

a candid photo of Claire Mallardi sitting in the studio. She is looking off camera in profile and smiling. Her hair is gray.

Image Description: a candid photo of Claire Mallardi sitting in the studio, looking off camera in profile and smiling. Her hair is gray and pulled off her face with a black headband. She is wearing a navy blue long-sleeved blouse with a square neckline.

Claire Mallardi, Dance Director Emerita, who founded and developed the Harvard Dance Program at Radcliffe College and Harvard University, died on October 2, 2020. She was 91.  

Mallardi was appointed by Radcliffe College in 1964 to create a dance program. In 1973, she oversaw the dance program’s incorporation into Harvard under the newly formed Office for the Arts at Harvard. Under Mallardi’s direction, the vision of the dance program shifted from a focus on physical fitness to one that emphasized artistry, creative thinking, and a connection to knowledge from other disciplines. She grew a more comprehensive program that saw an increase in the course roster offerings and dance teachers who taught classes in varying levels of ballet, composition, flamenco, jazz, tap, West African traditions, amongst other offerings. 

As a Lecturer in Dramatic Arts at Harvard, Mallardi was also part of developing dance in the curriculum; she and Walter W. Naumberg Professor of Music Luise Vosgerchian co-taught a course that incorporated dance into the curriculum for the first time, and in 1986 she created the first full dance course "Movement for Actors" (Dramatic Arts 15). In 1994, she was appointed Artistic Director and Distinguished Artist in Dance, while she continued to serve as the Artistic Director Emerita of Radcliffe. In 1999, the Dance Program became a part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.   

“Claire was a force of nature. Simply irrepressible. She put Dance on the map at Harvard with the first practice-based curricular courses and the seeding of a large extracurricular dance community. Hers is a lasting legacy that Liz Bergmann and Jill Johnson have nurtured and built upon so beautifully. We are forever grateful to Claire.  She showed the way.” –Jack Megan, Director, Office for the Arts at Harvard  

“An artist to the core, she had vision—of what she could realize artistically and of what her students could be and do. Claire had a clear eye for what worked on stage, and a fierce insistence on making her students see and move beyond their own expectations. She turned the old Radcliffe Gym into a dance studio and stage where space and time were the materials for creative thinking and expression and imaginations could soar.” –Myra Mayman, Former Director, Office for the Arts at Harvard  

A native of the Bronx, New York, Mallardi completed her major training under modern dance icons Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, José Limon, Alvin Ailey, and Merce Cunningham, and was a cast member in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate during the show’s first post-Broadway tour. In the 1950’s and 60’s, Mallardi danced with New York-based companies Donald McKayle Company, Eve Gentry Company, Jack Moore Company, and Martha Baird’s Dance Makers Company. She also danced and choreographed for the Washington D.C.-based Dance Theater Company, directed by Erika Thimey whom she considered a mentor and central to her development.  

Prior to her arrival at Radcliffe College (Harvard University) in 1964, Mallardi taught at prestigious institutions, schools, and university dance departments including Ballet Nacional de Cuba, New England Conservatory of Music, New Dance Group Studio, Bard College, Connecticut College, and Dartmouth College among many others. As a choreographer, Mallardi premiered works at Harvard and Radcliffe, Jacob’s Pillow, The Yard, and the Dance Circle Company and received a Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities grant.  

"Claire Mallardi was an essential teacher and mentor to generations of Radcliffe and Harvard students. When she arrived in the 1960s, dance was part of gym at Radcliffe. Over the years she successfully integrated a course into the FAS curriculum, co-taught with Professor Luise Vosgerchian. Claire was a beacon for many alumni/ae at a time when the arts were not a strong priority for undergraduate education. For decades—as the sole dance specialist, never given faculty status—she pushed the art form and its pedagogy forward. She will forever be a Harvard-Radciffe arts hero for this lasting contribution. " –Cathy McCormick, Former Director of Programs, Office for the Arts at Harvard, and FAS Council on the Arts member 

“In her time as Director of Dance, Claire created the Radcliffe Gym as a temple for dance and paved the way for the strong dance programs that Harvard offers its students. She was zany and eclectic and one of a kind, the kind that you never forget. Claire was beloved by her students and was dedicated to sharing her love for dance with the Radcliffe/Harvard community. She supported dance at Harvard for many decades and was always at every performance even after she retired. Her presence was very powerful and it is hard to imagine that she has left us.” –Elizabeth Bergmann, Former Dance Director, Harvard Dance Program, Office for the Arts at Harvard  

“Ms. Mallardi was such a beautiful and powerful force for good and for dance education. Her legacy of dance and arts education lives on at Harvard and beyond, and all at the Dance Center are eternally grateful. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t thank her for all of her incredible, frontier work and advocacy for dance at Harvard; for her support of students. It is because of her courageous work and teaching that we continue to be able to grow dance education. It was an honor and privilege to know and learn from Ms. Mallardi’s exceptional wisdom.” –Jill Johnson, Dance Director, Harvard Dance Center, Office for the Arts at Harvard; Senior Lecturer and Head of Dance for Theater, Dance & Media at Harvard University.  

Hers is a profoundly human art form, born out of imagination, dreams, storytelling, history, and base human action and emotion,” –former student Alan D. Zackheim ’06 

“Her dedication to students was never ending. She never sugarcoated her comments on performances or productions, but the students valued her comments and were ever at the ready to listen to her and what she had to say, and the joy on their faces when they saw her at productions and the support she provided them was amazing to see. I’ll forever treasure the conversations we had together.”  –Stephanie Troisi, Student Services Coordinator, Office for the Arts at Harvard 

Mallardi brought dance luminaries to campus in ways that opened Harvard’s thinking about the art form. About one such artist she said: “I will never forget the day Merce Cunningham taught his master class at the Radcliffe Gym. He was in awe of the space with its endless possibilities. Personally, I feel as if I left my soul there; creating some of my best work. It was truly an honor to call the Radcliffe Gym our home. Not only was it inspiringly beautiful, but it spurred movement from dancers, academics and athletes alike. The gym was, without a doubt, the most important space I have ever worked in.” 

The Harvard Dance Center, the Office for the Arts, and all students who knew Ms. Mallardi, pay tribute to her. Amidst the cross-currents of introducing change and expanding understanding of dance and dancers, she was an indefatigable collaborator and community organizer whose legacy of arts and dance education we honor today and for decades to come.  

Every artist, of any importance or ability, they’ll all say the same thing: craft, craft, craft. That’s all you can rely on when all else fails. You have to honor the profession, and yourself.” –Claire Mallardi 

The New York Times Obituary for Claire Mallardi offers information on contributions and an invitation to leave memories and condolences. 

A black and white portrait photo of Claire Mallardi from the 1950's. Her shoulders are angled slightly and she is looking just past the camera with a touch of a wry smile and a glimmer in her eyes. Her hair is down and wavy but off her face.

Image description: A black and white portrait photo of Claire Mallardi from the 1950's. Her shoulders are angled slightly and she is looking just past the camera with a soft smile and a glimmer in her eyes. Her hair is down and wavy but off her face. Photo courtesy of Tania Maxwell. 

A black and white performance photo of Claire Mallardi. Her full body is in view and she is in mid-movement, her upper body poised over her bare foot that is peaking out from underneath her long flowing dress with fringe around the shoulders.
Claire Mallardi in "Regina" by Jack Moore, Dance Theater Workshop, NYC, 1972

Image description: A black and white performance photo of Claire Mallardi. Her upper body is bent over at 90 degrees in mid-movement; her bare foot is peaking out from under a long flowing dress with fringe around the shoulders. Her arms are bent at the elbows by her waist at 90 degrees and her gaze is focused on one of her hands. Photo courtesy of Tania Maxwell. 

A black and white photo of a Claire Mallardi teaching a dance class in the former Radcliffe Gym.

Image Description: A black and white photo of Claire Mallardi in mid-movement teaching a dance class in the former Radcliffe Gym. She's on one leg with the other leg bent at the knee about to take the next step and both of her arms are raised to her side and slightly bent at the elbow like wings. Her gaze is slightly down towards the floor and she is facing the camera with students following her example behind her. She is barefoot and wearing tights and a leotard with an open cardigan sweater; her brunette hair is tied loosely back in a pony tail. Photo courtesy of Tania Maxwell. 

Black and white of Claire Mallardi in the old Radcliffe Gym. She is standing and pointing to the floor in mid-speech.

Image Description: A black and white photo of Claire Mallardi in the former Radcliffe Gym. She is standing with both index fingers pointing down towards the floor and she is looking off to the side as if speaking to someone. There are long strips of butcher paper rolled out on the floor parallel to each other. Photo courtesy of Tania Maxwell. 

Black and white portrait of Claire Mallardi in her 60's, looking directly into the camera. Her hair is cropped to the base of her neck and she is wearing a white blouse.

Image Description: Black and white portrait of Claire Mallardi in her 60's, looking directly into the camera with a soft expression. Her hair is cropped to the base of her neck and she is wearing a light-colored blouse, a necklace, and dangly earings. Photo circa 1980's and courtesy of Tania Maxwell. 

A black and white photo of Claire Mallardi sitting on a stage in conversation with another woman. Claire is on the left.

Image Description: Black and white photo of Claire Mallardi sitting casually on a stage in conversation with someone. Claire is on the left and has her back to the camera, looking over her right shoulder, and leaning back on her left arm. She is wearing a t-shirt over a long-sleeve leotard and dangly earings. The person on her right she is speaking with is holding a note and has short hair and wearing glasses. Photo courtesy of Harvard Dance Center. 

A black and white photo of a group of student dancers in the former Radcliffe Gym circa 1970s. All the dancers are standing with

Image Description: A black and white photo of rows of student dancers in the former Radcliffe Gym during a dance class. All the dancers are standing with their feet turned out and their arms up over their heads. A teacher is demonstrating at the front of the class. Photo circa 1970s and courtesy of Harvard Dance Center. 

A black and white photo of Merce Cunningham in demonstration at the front of a dance class in the former Radcliffe Gym.

Image Description: A blurry black and white photo of Merce Cunningham demonstrating a hinge (dance move) in profile in the middle of teaching a master class in the former Radcliffe Gym. Students in the class are watching him; they are all wearing tights, leggings, and leotards. Photo is from a 1982 Harvard Dance Program masterclass with choreographer Merce Cunningham and is courtesy of Harvard Dance Center.

Black and white photo of Judith Jamison leading a dance class. She is wearing an Alvin Ailey sweatshirt and Harvard University sweatpants.

Image Description: Black and white photo of Judith Jamison leading a dance class. She is wearing an Alvin Ailey sweatshirt and Harvard University sweatpants; her hair is pulled back and she is wearing glasses. She is barefoot in mid-movement demonstration with a class of student dancers watching behind her; they are also barefoot and wearing various dance clothing. Photo is from a 1992 Harvard Dance Program masterclass with Judith Jamison, Artistic Director Emirita of Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, and is courtesy of Harvard Dance Center.