Thalia Mara left an indelible mark on both Jackson, Mississippi, and the world of dance. The International Ballet Competition honors that legacy.
With the USA International Ballet Competition scheduled for June 10 through 24 in Jackson, it may be interesting to some to learn that the founder of the event was Thalia Mara. The venue where the event is held, Thalia Mara Hall, is named after the famed dancer, educator and person who knew how to make things happen. While Thalia Mara wrote twelve books about ballet throughout her career, a new book about her life has recently been published.
To Dance, to Live: A Biography of Thalia Mara by author Carolyn J. Brown, in collaboration with Carla S. Wall, was recently published by University Press of Mississippi. Brown has written biographies of Eudora Welty, Margaret Walker, Kate Freeman Clark and she edited A de Grummond Primer, highlighting the children’s Literature Collection housed on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi. Wall was one of Mara’s closest friends and caretaker of the photo archives in the book.
Brown and Wall spoke about the book recently at Mississippi Archives and History’s History is Lunch series at Mississippi’s Two Museums. Brown said that much credit is to be given to both Wall and to Leeanne Mahoney, Thalia Mara’s niece.
The story of Thalia Mara and Jackson begins when she moved to Jackson on her own at the age of 65. She knew no one, yet she never met a stranger. “I recognized a kindred spirit when I met Thalia Mara. I knew her for 28 years,” said Wall. “Thalia was a creative thinker, a visionary and she demanded excellence. When you worked with Thalia, you had to buckle up. But when you got to know her, she was also warm and compassionate. She had an extraordinary ability to get others to see her vision and she believed the arts were for everyone. On reflection, I see Thalia Mara as a role model for a full, productive life.”
A Life of Dance
Long before she came to Jackson, Mara made a name for herself in the world of dance. She was born in Chicago on June 28, 1911, to parents who immigrated to the United States from Russia. Her birth name was Elizabeth Simons, but she later chose Thalia Mara to be her stage name. When she was a child, Mara’s mother signed her up for piano and dance lessons to keep her occupied after school. On weekends they went to arts events in Chicago. Mara saw famed ballerina Anna Pavlova perform The Dying Swan, and it was a turning point in her life.
Adolph Bolm introduced Mara to the Russian School of Ballet. Bolm moved to Chicago in 1919 and opened the School of Dance in 1923. At the age of 16, Mara traveled to Paris alone to study with Olga Preobrajenska. Mara’s mother joined her six months later. During her time in Paris, Mara traveled and performed with several dance companies. She met her husband, Arthur Mahoney, while in Paris. The couple danced together at Radio City Music Hall with the corps de ballet in 1932 and toured the United States throughout the 1930s. They got married in 1939. On a trip to Buenos Aires, they got a parrot they named Pepo the Parrot, who traveled with them everywhere, and lived for 65 years.
Mara and Mahoney were named co-directors of Jacob’s Pillow in 1947, and that same year they were featured on the cover of Life magazine. They started two schools of dance in New York. The School of Ballet Repertory was founded in 1947 with high standards of dance instruction aimed at dance teachers but closed in 1963 due to lack of funds. They started another school, National Academy of Ballet, an academic ballet school, in 1963. Upon graduation from the school, students were prepared for college or as principal dancers in a world class dance company. The school closed in 1973.
Thalia Mara Put Jackson on the Dance World Map
In 1975, separated from Mahoney, Mara was offered a job as the artistic director of the Jackson Ballet Guild. As a teacher, Mara was demanding and expected excellence from her students, including appearance. She was elegant and stylish and expected her students to be so as well. Mara quickly recognized that she had a different set of obstacles in Jackson. “The girls here all aspired to be cheerleaders, not dancers,” said Brown.
Another obstacle Mara had to overcome was a lack of audience for ballet in Jackson. “Jackson was a sports town,” Brown said. “She recognized that and knew if she had a sort of competition, that would be something men could relate to.”
Mara resigned from the Jackson Ballet Guild in 1981. In the 1980s Thalia Mara formed the Thalia Mara Arts International Foundation, advancing understanding and appreciation of the arts. She was a patron of all the arts. She created a world performance series that brought world class artists to the state, including Mikhail Baryshnikov and Peter Martin.
A judge with the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria, Mara worked with Robert Joffrey, the artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, and dance writer Walter Terry to add Jackson to the competition circuit. The IBC originated in Varna, Bulgaria in 1964 and expanded to rotating events in Moscow and Helsinki, Finland. Thanks to Mara, Jackson was added to the rotation and the competition is held here every four years. The first USA International Ballet Competition was held in Jackson in the summer of 1979.
The USA IBC was so significant to the city that the Jackson Municipal Auditorium was renamed Thalia Mara Hall in 1994. A portrait by the late Jackson artist Lynn Green Root hangs in the auditorium. Thalia Mara was commended by the Mississippi Legislature in 1998 for her “monumental contributions to education and arts in Mississippi and the development of dance worldwide.”
Wall said that Mara was a teacher whose influence lasted long after class was over. She died in October 2003 at the age of 92. To Dance, to Live: A Biography of Thalia Mara gives the first full account of a life devoted to the arts.