NEW YORK — Lois Bewley, a dancer with the New York City Ballet and other companies who expanded into choreography, costume and stage design, opera direction, and art, died on Nov. 21 in Manhattan, where she had lived since moving from Louisville, Ky., as a teenager. She was 78.
The cause was a stroke, her niece Alice Tucker said.
Dark-haired and lithe, self-confident, opinionated, and witty — ‘‘Above all, Miss Bewley might be regarded as one of dance’s finest comediennes,’’ Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times in 1976 — she became a soloist with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the mid-1950s and subsequently toured Europe with the American Ballet Theater.
In 1959 she appeared on Broadway in a short-lived musical, ‘‘First Impressions,’’ with a book by Abe Burrows based on ‘‘Pride and Prejudice,’’ and then joined the New York City Ballet.
‘‘She was a lyric dancer, and she had extraordinary technique, an extension beyond belief,’’ Laila Robins, a friend who also danced with the Ballet Russe, said. ‘‘But what she had that a lot of dancers didn’t was the ability to create comic roles without having you laugh at the dancer.’’
By the early 1960s, Ms. Bewley and three other City Ballet dancers had founded a company, the First Chamber Dance Quartet, which focused on dances created by its own members, Ms. Bewley perhaps foremost among them. One of her earliest works, a parody of George Balanchine’s choreographic mannerisms, became a signature. The dancers, Allen Hughes wrote in The Times, ‘‘went through a nonstop succession of braiding, climbing, slithering, sliding, and crawling movements that could scarcely be believed even when seen.’’
In 1972 Ms. Bewley debuted as an opera director — ‘‘thoroughly successful,’’ Hughes wrote — in the St. Paul Opera production of ‘‘Maskarade,’’ a comic opera by Danish composer Carl Nielsen that was receiving its American premiere. Ms. Bewley also choreographed the production, designed the costumes, and danced.
Her other choreographic works included ‘‘Visions Fugitives,’’ brief skits set to music by Prokofiev, and ‘‘Children of Darkness,’’ a ballet based on ‘‘Wuthering Heights,’’ for which Ms. Bewley designed the costumes and the set (consisting of her own photographs of the Yorkshire moors, projected on front and rear scrims) and played the lead role of Catherine. It had its premiere with the Pennsylvania Ballet in 1973.
Lois Eleanor Bewley was born in Louisville. She graduated from Atherton High School and first moved to New York at 17, though she decided the move was premature and returned home.
After a year at the University of Louisville she landed in New York for good. She studied at the School of American Ballet. Beyond her work as a performer, Ms. Bewley was also an artist known for pastel portraits of animals who was often commissioned by pet owners.
In addition to her niece, she leaves a nephew, Michael Tucker, and two sisters, Frances Tucker and Leah McKinley.
In the mid-1970s, Ms. Bewley created a solo dance concert, ‘‘The Return of Lois Bewley,’’ that she performed at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, including music by Corelli, Frederick Jacobi, and Leon Kirchner. Asked in an interview whether the unusual format of a solo show might be hubristic or try the patience of the audience, she responded, ‘‘I can honestly say I have never been accused of being boring.’’