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Elizabeth Sawyer, 79, Dance Historian, Dies

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Elizabeth Sawyer, 79, a dance historian, Juilliard graduate, and former faculty member, died in her sleep on December 23, 2010, at her home in Port Chester, N.Y. She was an authority on the work of legendary Juilliard dance faculty member Antony Tudor, with whom she had a longstanding artistic relationship. 

Elizabeth Sawyer was an accompanist for the Dance Division—and Antony Tudor in particular—for many years.

(Photo by Juilliard Archives)

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Born on March 28, 1931, in Mentcle, Pa., Sawyer attended Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn. She enrolled in Juilliard’s Pre-College Division, where she studied piano with Maro Ajemian, and also attended the Summer School before entering the Regular Division as a composition student in 1948. She received the Richard Rodgers Scholarship and the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Chamber Music Prize, and studied with William Bergsma, Peter Mennin, and Vincent Persichetti. While at Juilliard, she supported herself as an accompanist in the newly established Dance Division, where she played for Antony Tudor’s classes. In 1953, Sawyer (known to some as Betty Jean) graduated with a Diploma in composition. She also enrolled in Postgraduate and Special Studies programs. 

In 1954, her composition Cathedrals was premiered by the Juilliard Orchestra, conducted by Jean Morel. Chicago’s The Musical Leader called it “an amazing achievement for a 23-year-old composer.” Her works were featured in various programs, including the New York City contemporary music series Music in Our Time.

Though she continued to compose, Sawyer’s connection to the world of dance came to define her career. Betty Jones and José Limón choreographed to her compositions. She remained Tudor’s accompanist for 18 years, both at Juilliard and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School. She also worked with, among others, Margaret Craske, Alfredo Corvino, Martha Graham, and former director of the Juilliard dance department, the late Benjamin Harkarvy. From 1965 to 1975, she taught music courses for Juilliard dance students. 

In 1975, Sawyer moved to England to write Dance With the Music: The World of the Ballet Musician, an analysis of the relationship between dance and music and the professional challenges therein. She completed the book in 1985 and it was published by the Cambridge University Press. 

Her writing appeared in numerous publications, including Dance Chronicle: Studies in Dance and the Related Arts, where she published a series about Tudor’s ballets. A respected scholar, Sawyer lectured in the U.S. and abroad. In 2008, she was a panelist at Juilliard’s Antony Tudor Centennial Celebration.

At the time of her death, Sawyer was a lecturer in music for dance at SUNY-Purchase College Conservatory of Dance, where she had worked since 1984. She was also writing a book about Tudor’s life and work, from which she had published excerpts in Dance Chronicle and Dance International.

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