Merrill Brockway, 90; producer introduced dance artists on PBS

Merrill Brockway (left) worked with choreographer George Balanchine in the late 1970s.

“Surprise Was My Teacher”

Merrill Brockway (left) worked with choreographer George Balanchine in the late 1970s.

NEW YORK — Merrill Brockway, a director and producer who brought high art to millions of Americans by presenting many of the 20th century’s greatest dancers and choreographers on the PBS television series ‘‘Dance in America,’’ died May 2 in Santa Fe.

He was 90.


His death was confirmed by his partner of 17 years, John Eric Roybal, his only immediate survivor.

Mr. Brockway’s work introduced many people to George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, and other giants of dance.

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Modeled after the dance numbers in Fred Astaire movies, ‘‘Dance in America’’ became known for showing dancers’ bodies mostly in full. Mr. Brockway said his collaboration with Balanchine influenced that approach.

‘‘If you notice, all Fred Astaire movies are full figure, and Balanchine ballets are like that,’’ he said in an interview in The New York Times in 2011. ‘‘So we devised acceptable shots, and we came up with those together.’’

He added: ‘‘If you watch TV now, it’s like they’re taking pictures. In dancing you can’t just take pictures, you’re telling a story.’’


Mr. Brockway was nominated for seven Primetime Emmy Awards and received two for ‘‘Dance in America,’’ which had its premiere in 1976, beginning with the Joffrey Ballet, and later became part of the PBS series ‘‘Great Performances.’’ He was the original series producer for ‘‘Dance in America’’ and directed and produced the series along with Emile Ardolino and Judy Kinberg through 1980.

He also won two awards for directorial achievement from the Directors Guild of America for ‘‘Great Performances.’’

From 1967 to 1975 Mr. Brockway produced ‘‘Camera 3,’’ a half-hour program devoted to culture on Sunday mornings on CBS that he called ‘‘a walk through the marketplace of ideas.’’

Merrill La Monte Brockway was born in New Carlisle, Ind., and began studying piano at age 7. He served in the US Army in Europe in World War II as a driver for a chaplain and provided music for the chaplain’s services.

He went on to earn a master of arts in musicology from Columbia University while finding summer employment as music and drama director at Brant Lake Camp, a boys’ camp in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State.

After graduating, he worked as an accompanist for singers, including the soprano Patricia Neway.

In the 2011 interview, Mr. Brockway said he had realized he would never be a professional classical pianist. But he recognized the potential of television, he said, and in 1953 took a $45-a-week position at WCAU, the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia. His first job was moving scenery for ‘‘Action in the Afternoon,’’ a daily half-hour Western.

Within a year, he was promoted to director and worked on educational and children’s programs.

He became interested in dance, he said, after a Columbia classmate took him to see Martha Graham. In his 2010 memoir, ‘‘Surprise Was My Teacher,’’ Mr. Brockway wrote: ‘‘I saw a tiny lady dancing a solo. She grabbed my gut, swung it around, tossed it in the air, slammed it to the ground, then tenderly picked it up and cradled it. I would be, forever, Martha Graham’s disciple.’’

Mr. Brockway went on to work with Graham, one of the many artists who saw television as a way to reach a larger audience. She saw Mr. Brockway as a collaborator who would safeguard an artist’s exacting standards when translating dance from stage to screen.

Mr. Brockway returned to CBS in 1980 to be executive producer of arts programming for the newly formed CBS Cable cultural channel, which was discontinued in 1982.

In the early 1990s, he produced two independent projects for television, ‘‘Les Ballet de Monte Carlo in Monte Carlo’’ and ‘‘The Romantic Era in Guanajuato, Mexico,’’ and was the coordinating producer for the 1993 film version of ‘‘George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.’’ That same year he retired to Santa Fe.

In 2011 he donated his archive, which includes about 130 tapes, as well as additional documentaries, to the National Dance Institute of New Mexico.

Mr. Brockway once said of ‘‘Dance in America’’ that “it became clear from the beginning that we were making history.’’ He added, ‘‘If you want to see the story, you go to television; it’s a very personal way of watching dance.’’

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