Donald Mahler, Prolific Ballet Choreographer, Dies at 88

Donald Mahler, a ballet dancer and prolific choreographer for the Metropolitan Opera who was the director of the company’s own dance troupe, and who was also known internationally for his stagings of ballets by Antony Tudor, died on Jan. 25 in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 88.

His sisters and only immediate survivors, Judith Dickinson and Johanna Loeb, confirmed the death. They said he had been in failing health and died at Ms. Loeb’s home, where he had moved last year.

In a decidedly unconventional career, Mr. Mahler was as apt to choreograph an abbreviated version of “Cinderella” for children as to restage “Echoing of Trumpets,” a 1963 work by Mr. Tudor about the brutalities of war.

One of the 20th century’s greatest ballet choreographers and a founding member of American Ballet Theater, Mr. Tudor was not one to cater to those seeking upbeat entertainment. Yet his dark ballets were of vital importance, as Clive Barnes noted in a Dance Magazine review of Mr. Mahler’s staging of “Echoing of Trumpets” for Ballet West in Salt Lake City in 2006.

“Mahler has done a great job in not merely reproducing but defining the choreography,” Mr. Barnes wrote. He added that the ballet’s impact remained powerful, “making Mahler’s revival all the more significant in keeping this 20th-century masterpiece — a work crucial to the Tudor catalog — alive and kicking.”

Elena Zahlmann and Steven Melendez in the New York Theater Ballet’s 2014 production of “Cinderella,” choreographed by Mr. Mahler.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Mr. Mahler was also associated for many years with New York Theater Ballet, a highly respected small company founded and directed by Diana Byer that promotes new works and revivals of rare older ones.

Ms. Byer said in a phone interview that in coaching her young dancers, Mr. Mahler “combined a seriousness of purpose with a childlike wonder that was contagious,” adding: “He was very witty. And he taught these dancers how to go deeply into a role.”

Mr. Tudor was Mr. Mahler’s artistic mentor. But Ms. Byer said that for personal guidance, Mr. Mahler was dedicated to the teachings of the Indian spiritual master Meher Baba, who died in 1969. (Among several other American dancers who became Baba’s followers were Viola Farber and Peter Saul of Merce Cunningham’s company. Many of them, including Mr. Mahler, had studied ballet in New York with Margaret Craske, who had lived in Baba’s community in India during World War II.)

Like many ballet dancers, Donald Freisinger had a different name before he began his career as Donald Mahler. He was born on Feb. 16, 1933, in Brooklyn. His mother, Frances (Abramowitz) Freisinger, was a homemaker. His father, Eugene Freisinger, was in the wool processing business.

Donald moved to Manhattan with his family when he was a teenager. There, he entered the prestigious High School of Music and Art (now the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts) as an aspiring painter.

An art scholarship took him to Syracuse University. But, he said, discovering dance led him to quit and return to New York, where he was accepted at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet’s school. Mr. Tudor and Ms. Craske were his teachers there, and Mr. Tudor recommended him to the National Ballet of Canada, where Mr. Mahler spent five years.

He returned to New York and began dancing in the Metropolitan’s opera productions in 1962. He retired as a dancer in 1980 and was named director of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in 1982.

He choreographed for that company and for many operas through 1986. A second career opened up for him when the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust invited him to stage or coach Tudor works for companies worldwide.

Asked to define his belief in his mentor, Mr. Mahler once replied: “Tudor’s ballets are really about humanity. He delves deeply into what makes people tick, and he wants that truth.”

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