Prince of the Dance
Now 92, ballet master Vergiu Cornea brought European professionalism to the IC theater program.
When you ask retiree Vergiu Cornea exactly when he stopped dancing, he responds adamantly, “Never!”—and extends one long leg up in a développé. The gesture is all the more striking because this dancer, who for 22 years (1957–79) was the first and only dance instructor at Ithaca College, turned 92 in December.
“You couldn’t take your eyes off him when he moved,” remembers actor Sal Mistretta ’66. “His turning was spot on, his kicks were wonderful—and when he’d demonstrate stuff it was so clean you’d understand by his example.”
Tall and distinguished, with a Basil Rathbone profile and an accent “that forced you to concentrate doubly hard” is how English teacher Paul Keane ’68 describes Cornea. “He was a little old-fashioned—his dances were very narrative. But 40 years later, whenever I hear Ravel’s Pavanne for a Dead Princess, I remember Professor Cornea’s choreography; it was absolutely exquisite.”
Back when the combined Department of Speech and Drama had eight faculty total and only four in theater, Cornea taught dance and stage movement and choreographed a half-dozen theatrical pieces each year. He personally designed and made all the costumes for the annual dance concert. “For Lady Precious Stream, he must have sewn 10 billion sequins,” Keane recalls.
As a classically trained professional coming from a European tradition, Cornea worked his students much like a corps master, remembers retired theater professor J. Fred Pritt, who was one of Cornea’s colleagues in the early 1960s, along with George Hoerner and Robert Bardwell. “This was my first experience with a personally independent artist,” says Pritt. “It showed me what was possible.”
Cornea, vigorous in his 50s, often performed with his students. “His solos were spectacular,” Keane recalls. Alan Orloff ’75 vividly remembers Cornea’s “incredibly unique” solo to Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. “He played multiple roles, and with just a change of costume, a mask, a slight gesture, he captured the stage and made you believe he was all of these different characters in the life of Christ.”
After graduating, he followed his friend Iris Barbua, an expressionistic dancer, to
As a young man, Cornea studied ballet with Vera Karalli and modern dance with Harold Kreutzberg, Max Terpis, and Mary Wigman. “I studied a bit with everyone,” he says, “but they all seemed to say ‘Be yourself, don’t try to copy us. We give you the technique, but you have your head: Think and feel!’”
This is exactly what Cornea’s own students remember him teaching them, decades later.
War broke out soon after Cornea arrived in
In fact Cornea was conscripted into forced labor, sewing Nazi uniforms. He doesn’t speak much about the hunger, the freezing cold, the bombings, the sudden arrests, or sneaking through the rubble to perform illegally. He does tell a wry story about Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels coming onstage in Posen to congratulate the performers. “I lived in
Despite adversity, Cornea shaped a distinguished career as first dancer of the Berlin Comic Opera and ballet master of the Hamburg State Opera. He also danced in films, such as The Red Shoes, his feet often stand-ins for Robert Helpmann’s.
He worked with Conrad Veidt in an unfinished film on Rasputin and gave Jean Cocteau the idea of the arms holding candelabra for Beauty and the Beast. Speaking German and French, he translated for Josephine Baker when she came to
When a kindly American captain helped Cornea file papers to visit the
Seeking to continue performing, he contacted George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Hannah Holm; all had suggestions, yet he was unable to find a place in American dance. Then
Today, Cornea lives quietly in downtown