NEW YORK — Sean Lavery, one of New York City Ballet’s busiest and most acclaimed dancers until a spinal tumor sidelined him in 1986, died Monday in Palm Springs, Calif., where he had lived in recent years. He was 61.
After his dancing career and an arduous rehabilitation, Mr. Lavery became a teacher and administrator at City Ballet, serving as a top assistant to Peter Martins, the company’s longtime ballet master in chief.
In the recent controversy that led Martins to retire abruptly amid allegations that he had harassed and abused some company members, Mr. Lavery was not spared. An article in The New York Times on Jan. 3, exploring how Martins’s behavior had gone unchecked over the years, said that in 2013 a corps member received a payment as part of a confidential departure agreement after reporting unspecified inappropriate behavior by Mr. Lavery.
Whatever his later transgressions, there was no denying his ability onstage. As a principal dancer with City Ballet in the late 1970s and ’80s, Mr. Lavery was described as a workhorse and, in his best performances, a wonder.
“It was a performance filled with clarity and projection, dramatic inflection and intelligence,” Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The Times the first time Mr. Lavery danced the title role of George Balanchine’s “Apollo” in New York, in November 1985. “How incredible that a dancer could assume a new role so burdened with baggage about its historic importance and make it so naturally his own.”
Almost exactly one year later, Mr. Lavery was dancing Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” on opening night of City Ballet’s season when he knew something was not right.
“I started to walk and, just walking, kind of stumbled,” he recalled later. “I finished the performance, but I was scared. My left leg was stupid, lazy. I really had to concentrate to use it.”
It was an early inkling of the tumor and the end of his dancing career. He was 30.
Owen Sean Lavery was born on Aug. 16, 1956, in Harrisburg, Pa. His father, Eugene, was a supervisor at Bell Telephone, and his mother, the former Rose A. Flood, was a homemaker. He began his ballet training at 10. He studied at the Pennsylvania Ballet School and, in 1973, joined the San Francisco Ballet. In 1975, he joined the Frankfurt Opera Ballet in Germany. The next year, he began taking classes at City Ballet’s School of American Ballet. He was invited to join the company in 1977 and quickly became a reliable presence with his suave, solid partnering.
“Mr. Lavery continues to impress with his forthright virtuosity,” dance writer Don McDonagh wrote in The Times in June that year, and two days later, reviewing another performance for the paper, Clive Barnes said of him, “A newcomer this season, he seems a very sound cavalier.”
Mr. Lavery was promoted to soloist in early 1978 and later that year made a principal dancer. Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Martins all created roles for him.
“His size, his proportions, are quite wonderful,” Robbins once said of him, adding that “he has a very elegant line, but it is a very human line — never so aesthetic that the ability, strength, and the vigor of the man are ever lost.”
The company put his abilities to good use; sometimes he was featured in all eight performances a week. The spinal tumor, though, cut his career short. In January 1987, he underwent an eight-hour surgery to remove it.
Many fans had not known why he suddenly disappeared from City Ballet’s programs, but in November 1987 The New York Times Magazine chronicled his operation and slow rehabilitation. “A Dancer’s Nightmare,” the article was titled.
After the surgery, Mr. Lavery said, he could not feel his leg at first. “I didn’t know where it was unless I looked at it,” he said.
He began intensive therapy and, barely a month after his surgery, insisted on attending a matinee at City Ballet, using a walker and accompanied by Marika Molnar, the company’s physical therapist.
“Marika and I forgot that I hadn’t learned how to do stairs on the walker yet,” he recalled. “We took a car to the theater, went in backstage, got to the stairs, looked at each other and burst out laughing. But she just told me what to do, step by step, and I did it.”
He eventually recovered enough that he could teach dance, which he did at City Ballet and at Barnard College.
In addition to Alsedek, Mr. Lavery leaves another sister, Patrice Lavery, and a brother, Michael.
Mr. Lavery retired from City Ballet several years ago. As Martins’s right-hand man, his duties had included scheduling the company’s seasons.
“It is very difficult,” he told The Times in 1996, describing the challenges of balancing ballet types, dancers’ availability, audience expectations, and more. “Maddening! When I started doing this eight years ago, I’d think, ‘Great program!’ Then, ‘Oh, my God, three ballets with black and white costumes, a gala performance for the colorblind!’ ”