One of the grande dames of dance in Cedar Rapids has died.
Julia Bennett, 97, died Wednesday morning in hospice care at Crestview Acres in Marion.
A naturalized American citizen, she was born to British parents in India and was educated in England and Wales. She was an operatic mezzo-soprano and studied for five years in London with ballet, dance and opera masters and for six years in then-Bombay, India.
“It's been a great privilege to have spent my life in the arts,” she told The Gazette in 1995, adding that her interests were the “research of dance, music, singing. I love cars. Sports cars. I can see a Jaguar two miles away.”
She spent the World War II years in India, then moved to New York City in 1945, where she studied dance and sang with the New York Madrigal Society and the Little Met Experimental Opera Company. A cousin introduced her to Cedar Rapids native Edna Dieman, who was dancing in New York. They struck up an immediate friendship, moved to Dieman’s hometown six year later, and together, spent nearly half a century bringing the world of classical dance to Cedar Rapids.
"We had always had it in mind that it would be nice if there were small dance companies around the country, decentralized companies much like they have in Germany," Bennett said in a 1981 Gazette interview.
They established the Dieman-Bennett Studio of Dance in 1951, followed 10 years later by their resident company, the Dieman-Bennett Dance Theatre of the Hemispheres. Known to everyone as Miss Dieman and Miss Bennett, they retired in 1996. Dieman died in 1999.
For more than a decade, they delighted audiences by staging “The Nutcracker” at the Paramount Theatre with the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra, bringing in guest artists from the Joffrey Ballet, New York’s American Ballet Theatre, the Pennsylvania Ballet and Russia’s Kirov Ballet.
Suki Morrissey, 69, of Marion, knew Dieman and Bennett for most of her life. She said because she sat so quietly during her mother’s dance classes, she was invited to begin her ballet studies at age 4. Morrissey danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in most of “The Nutcracker” productions and continues to teach ballet classes for adults through Jane Boyd programs in Cedar Rapids.
“The memories are very, very many and very fond,” Morrissey said of her first teachers. “We were their children. They took their job very seriously and were wonderful to us.”
She recalled all the lovely Indian meals where Bennett would talk about her early years, as well as all the summer trips Dieman and Bennett arranged for students to study with ballet masters in other parts of the country. On weekends, they would go sightseeing to such places as Niagara Falls.
“These were opportunities people in Cedar Rapids just wouldn’t get,” Morrissey said. “They really were true educators."
Their teaching repertoire included authentic dances of India and Spain and they continued to travel and study through their careers, bringing what they learned back to their studio.
"They never, never stopped learning,” Morrissey said.
As Dieman and Bennett entered retirement, they told The Gazette: "We would have liked, after 46 years, to have left a permanent legacy of a Foundation of Dance Theatre of the Hemispheres on our standard -- historical dance research, classic ballet and the Dances of India and Spain -- as a universal pool of dance resources. Instead, our legacy is spread all over the world through our students."
And through others whose lives they touched with their artistry.
“Julia put wings on my feet for ‘My Fair Lady,’ said longtime Theatre Cedar Rapids actor Bob Glass, who performed in the community production staged at Coe College years ago. He said Dieman and Bennett assisted with several shows during those years. "Ms. Bennett danced in every one of them. Truly a great lady. Dance with angels, dear friend.”
Services are pending with Cedar Memorial Park Funeral Home.