Advertisement
  1. Life & Culture
  2. /
  3. Arts

Dancer worked with Nureyev and Baryshnikov, then brought the world home

Sean Musselman made sure young dancers and his hometown could discover ballet, too.
Sean Musselman is pictured here in a performance with the Dance Theatre of Florida, which he co-founded with his wife and ran for 15 years.
Sean Musselman is pictured here in a performance with the Dance Theatre of Florida, which he co-founded with his wife and ran for 15 years. [ Courtesy Greg Musselman ]
Published Nov. 23, 2020
Updated Nov. 23, 2020

Suzanne Pomerantzeff sat in the back of an American School of Ballet studio in New York City during a rehearsal. In front of the class stood dance greats Peter Martins and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Among the students was one of her own — Sean Musselman.

Pomerantzeff had known the young man since he’d discovered dance at 13 in St. Petersburg. By that day in 1981, he was living in the city, beginning a career with companies around the country, bound later to teach ballet around the world and then bring it all back to St. Petersburg and his own students.

Mr. Musselman was statuesque at 6 feet. He was a kind partner and an exacting teacher.

“But when he danced by himself,” Pomerantzeff said, “it was like he stepped inside the music.”

Mr. Musselman died Oct. 28 from cardiac issues. He was 60.

Sean Musselman was born in Panama, where his family lived while his father taught there. His first ballet teacher remembers family trips to the beach where Mr. Musselman made the sand his stage. His brother remembers Mr. Musselman loved the moonwalk.
Sean Musselman was born in Panama, where his family lived while his father taught there. His first ballet teacher remembers family trips to the beach where Mr. Musselman made the sand his stage. His brother remembers Mr. Musselman loved the moonwalk. [ Courtesy Greg Musselman ]

Mr. Musselman grew up in a family of four boys. Greg was the actor. Garth was the comic. Rod was the musician.

Mr. Musselman became the dancer when his father produced the opera Iolanta for St. Petersburg Junior College. Don Musselman hired Pomerantzeff’s dancers for the show, and Mr. Musselman was charmed by ballet and all those ballerinas.

“I think his parents were a little surprised that he asked if he could take classes, but because they were such an artistic family, it was immediately supported,” said Pomerantzeff, artistic director at the Academy of Ballet Arts. “Back then, boys did not get support.”

Soon, Mr. Musselman started taking classes with her.

“As soon as he came into the studio, I don’t know,” she said, “it’s like stepping into the world you were meant to be in.”

At 16, he got a scholarship to study with George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet.

There, he was in the last generation to train under renowned choreographer Balanchine. Mr. Musselman went on to dance in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme for the New York City Opera. He danced with Rudolph Nureyev on Broadway in a Boston Ballet production of La Sylphide. He danced a solo in Aida, starring opera star Luciano Pavarotti. Mr. Musselman danced with the Eglevsky Ballet, the Milwaukee Ballet, the Chicago City Ballet, the Chicago Lyric Opera and the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Mr. Musselman had beautiful feet and classical lines, said Victor Barauskas, who danced with Mr. Musselman at the Chicago City Ballet. The two were always extra nervous before a performance.

”But he’d always pull it off.”

Noted ballet dancer Alexander Bennett visited Dance Theater of Florida to teach dancers the original version of La Sylphide as it was staged in 1832 in the Paris Opera. Here, he worked with Sean Musselman and Lesley Bories.
Noted ballet dancer Alexander Bennett visited Dance Theater of Florida to teach dancers the original version of La Sylphide as it was staged in 1832 in the Paris Opera. Here, he worked with Sean Musselman and Lesley Bories. [ HALE, FRASER | St. Petersburg Times ]

For years between company seasons, Mr. Musselman came home and guest taught at his old studio. In the late 1980s, he decided to come back for good.

He married, and for more than a decade, he ran the Dance Theatre of Florida and continued traveling, performing in Russia, Spain and Costa Rica.

As a teacher, he knew what it was like to be an older beginner. But he wasn’t a softie.

“He didn’t mince words,” Pomerantzeff said. “When he said those feet were bad, those feet were bad.”

Dance isn’t an easy world, she said. There’s no health insurance. Teachers get paid by the class.

“The arts aren’t easy,” agreed Greg Musselman, Mr. Musselman’s brother. “Especially doing them more or less on your own on a not-for-profit basis, so it was a bit of a struggle.”

But Mr. Musselman made the most of the connections he’d formed in the dance world. Guest artists and instructors came to town, including Barauskas.

”We’d dance in parks and malls, I even had to a choreograph a dance on an escalator in a bank,” said Barauskas, now an instructor with St. Pete’s L’Académie of Dance. “He always had confidence in what I was going to do.”

Mr. Musselman also spent two years cultivating a relationship with dancers in Russia.

Then, in 1992, about a dozen performers came to St. Petersburg from Russia’s Kirov Ballet to work with Mr. Musselman’s studio for the 100th anniversary of The Nutcracker. A Times article from that year called the partnership between the two St. Petersburgs “a ballet dream come true.”

Karen Meyers, 9, and David Ranieri, 14, working with Sean Musselman in preparation for the International Ballet Competition in June 1990 in Jackson, Miss.
Karen Meyers, 9, and David Ranieri, 14, working with Sean Musselman in preparation for the International Ballet Competition in June 1990 in Jackson, Miss. [ Times file ]

When Svetlana Datseva moved to the U.S. in 2003, she found Mr. Musselman’s studio in the phone book.

On a visit before a class, she told him she’d been a professional dancer in Russia and wanted to take classes and teach. Mr. Musselman told Datseva about his own travels to Russia and the greats he’d danced with. She couldn’t believe someone like him lived in St. Pete.

He offered her a job right then.

Mr. Musselman, who’d divorced and later remarried, didn’t just open up the world of dance to his students. For years, he organized an annual free Nutcracker in the Park and provided scholarships for families who couldn’t afford classes.

In 2017, Mr. Musselman became co-artistic director and ballet master for L’Académie of Dance. He spent the last several years teaching.

Pomerantzeff watched her former student through each stage of his life. And when he danced, she said, “It was like seeing the music live.”

Sean Musselman continued performing after moving back to St. Petersburg to teach. A few weeks before his death, he'd told his old dance teacher that he wanted to start a school for kids who’d never gotten the chance to dance and didn’t yet know they were artists. “He would have been brilliant at it,” she said.
Sean Musselman continued performing after moving back to St. Petersburg to teach. A few weeks before his death, he'd told his old dance teacher that he wanted to start a school for kids who’d never gotten the chance to dance and didn’t yet know they were artists. “He would have been brilliant at it,” she said. [ Courtesy Greg Musselman ]

Sign up for How They Lived, our obituaries newsletter

Our weekly newsletter, coming soon, is called How They Lived. It’s free. Just click on the link to sign up.

We’re also collecting stories of the people we’ve lost during the coronavirus. Please share suggestions for people to feature at khare@poynter.org.

Read other Epilogues:

Leanza Cornett used her voice for HIV/AIDS awareness

WWII vet fought in Iwo Jima, came home to bartend and help people

Her spicy papaya salad would make you cry - in a good way

Remembering a man who savored small pleasures

Advice for living from the matriarch of Pass-a-Grille

His obituary said no family came forward. It was wrong.