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Janet Panetta, 74, dies; admired dancer, choreographer, and teacher

Janet Panetta, right, at the Panetta Movement Center in New York, Nov. 11, 2010.ANDREA MOHIN/NYT

NEW YORK — Janet Panetta, who overcame childhood polio to become a dancer with American Ballet Theater, a performer in New York’s thriving downtown modern dance scene and a revered ballet teacher, died Dec. 2 in Brooklyn. She was 74.

Her husband, Jeffrey Roth, said the cause of death, at a hospice facility, was brain cancer.

At the peak of her five-decade teaching career, which began in 1973 and lasted until a few months before her death, Panetta, who lived in Manhattan, spent half of each year in Europe teaching her signature method, which she called Ballet for Contemporary Dancers.

She taught at prestigious institutions like P.A.R.T.S. (Performing Arts Research and Training Studios) in Brussels and at Vienna’s ImPulsTanz festival. And for two decades she was a vital presence in Pina Bausch’s company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, where she taught daily ballet classes at the company’s studio in Wuppertal, in western Germany, and on its worldwide tours.

“Pina held Janet in high regard,” Barbara Kaufmann, a Tanztheater dancer and rehearsal director, wrote in an email. “Her ballet technique was outstanding, and she observed profoundly what every individual needed as a dancer and artist.” (Bausch died in 2009.)

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Dancers also flocked to Panetta Movement Center, the studio Panetta opened in 2003 in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. On any given day her class might include members of the Merce Cunningham and Jose Limón companies, independent artists seeking ballet lessons free of traditional formality, and neo-burlesque performers helping to revive that genre.

Her classes adapted the rigor of classical ballet to promote healthy alignment rather than forcing the body into balletic extremes.

“She’s not teaching a style, but actual mechanics,” dancer and teacher Chrysa Parkinson told The New York Times in 2010. “She used an existing technique and reinvented it from the inside.”

While Panetta had an eye for technical detail, she made ballet accessible to contemporary dancers and framed it as a tool for expressing individuality.

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“Ballet is an art form, a major study, and we are all supplicants,” she said in an interview with the Times. “I try to stay away from esoteric language in the studio, but I know the experience is happening on profound levels.”

French choreographer Jérôme Bel, also interviewed by the Times in 2010, said of Panetta, “If a dancer would be a rocket, she would be a launchpad.” He was her student at the National Center of Contemporary Dance in France, where she was the founding ballet teacher in the early 1980s.

“Not telling you where to go, just giving you confidence in the universe,” he said.

In 2008, Panetta received a Martha Hill Dance Fund Mid-Career Award in recognition of her growing influence in the field.

As a performer in New York’s modern dance world, she was an original member of dancer and choreographer Paul Sanasardo’s company. She also danced with avant-garde choreographers like Neil Greenberg and Susan Salinger and performed her own original works.

Times critic Jennifer Dunning wrote in 1989 that Panetta “is quietly indelible onstage, intense and sharply focused, with a smoky, smoldering aura.” That was equally true offstage; stories abound of Panetta entering the studio wearing black leather and puffing on a cigarette.

Janet Elizabeth Panetta was born on Dec. 12, 1948, in Brooklyn, where she grew up with two older sisters, Celia and Carol. She graduated from New Utrecht High School. Her father, Vincent, was a Wall Street accountant, and her mother, Mary (Esposito) Panetta, sold cosmetics at the Wanamaker’s department store in Manhattan.

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Panetta contracted polio in early childhood, and it was severe enough to require an iron lung. When a doctor prescribed exercise to strengthen her weakened left side, the Panettas enrolled her, at 6 years old, in a local dance studio. Janet thrived, and her talent led her to the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, where her teachers included British ballet luminaries Antony Tudor and Margaret Craske, a disciple of Italian dance master Enrico Cecchetti, whose students included Margot Fonteyn.

In a 2008 interview with Dance Enthusiast, Panetta recalled that when students made mistakes, the strict Craske would throw them out of the classroom, a punishment Panetta received “all the time,” she said.

Those brief expulsions fueled her determination to improve, and she spent her timeouts diligently practicing in a dressing room.

By age 14, she was such a strong technician that Craske hired her as a teaching assistant, planting the seed of her future career.

“I realized,” Panetta said, “that teaching was an opportunity to learn.”

She immediately aspired to be a leading ballerina, however, and joined the corps of American Ballet Theater in 1968. But she soon found herself at odds with the company’s cofounding director, Lucia Chase, who placed Panetta on leave a year and a half into her contract, on the eve of a company tour.

“She just told me I was not pretty enough to be the representative of the United States in Russia,” Panetta recalled to the Times. “She reneged three weeks later, but I found some kind of inner pride and told her, ‘Nothing has changed with my face, so I’m not going to come back.’”

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After a few years performing freelance with small ballet companies, she found a home in modern dance. “What was so nice about coming downtown,” she said, “was that they liked you for your personality, not in spite of it.”

She married Roth, a businessman, in 1975. In addition to him, her survivors include their son, Niles, and a grandson.

Ballet was Panetta’s passion, but teaching gave her a profound sense of purpose that sustained her through her final classes this year at the Gibney Dance Center in lower Manhattan.

“She’d do a small class with people she really knew,” Roth said in a phone call. “When she would feel well after not feeling well, she would say, ‘I think I’ll start teaching again.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.