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IC Retirees

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.”

The many faces of the dancer: Vergiu Cornea exuberant and brooding

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.”

Born in Romania in 1914, Cornea knew from childhood that he wanted to dance but was discouraged by his family. So he studied more broadly at the Royal Academy of Art, where his training led to the creation of original costumes, masks, and elab­orate appliqué paintings, which he makes to this day.

Some of his own handmade costumes

After graduating, he followed his friend Iris Barbua, an expressionistic dancer, to Berlin, the European center for everything new in dance.

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 Germany. “He managed to get himself through the war, going from one dance opportunity to another,” Pritt says, “surviving in a world where a dancer could have just as easily been sent to a concentration camp.”

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 Germany much longer than I wanted to,” he says tersely.

Photos courtesy of the Ithaca College Archives and Vergiu Cornea

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 Berlin—and performed the Charleston with her.

When a kindly American captain helped Cornea file papers to visit the United States in 1956, he was happy to join his friend Barbua, who was already at Cornell University teaching Romanian to pilots. His visit to the small city in central New York lasted the rest of his life. “I came to Ithaca; it became my whole America,” he says.

Still strong at 92, in his back-
yard this fall

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 Ithaca College asked him to choreograph The Merry Wives of Windsor and The King and I, and the rest is IC dance history. He also became the founding artistic director of the Ithaca Ballet.

Hollywood writer Marty Nadler ’67 recalls Cornea as “a true artist and a terrific and fair teacher, very kind and understanding,” even to those like himself who were “horrible” at dance. Dedicated, hardworking, and demanding of his students, Cornea was an inspiration—one of the school of European artists who lived for their art.

Today, Cornea lives quietly in downtown Ithaca, surrounded by his own paintings, costumes, costume designs, and masks, plus dozens of photographs of performances and friends. It has been a full life, Cornea says: “No alcohol, no cigarettes, no marriage—just dancing, dancing, dancing.”

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