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Obituary: Thea Barnes – ‘Truly beautiful and expressive dancer’

Thea Barnes in Lion King rehearsals Thea Barnes in Lion King rehearsals

Before becoming the resident dance supervisor for Disney’s West End production of The Lion King in 2001, Thea Barnes enjoyed a stellar professional dance career during which she graced countless stages around the world.

Born in Columbus, Georgia, and raised on Chicago’s South Side, Barnes’ desire to dance began at an early age. She trained with a number of respected practitioners in a wide variety of techniques before starting her professional career with the Julian Swain Inner City Dance Theatre and the Chicago Circle Players.

After earning a scholarship to study with Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem, Barnes moved to New York where she also studied with master teachers Igor Schwezoff and Chuck Davis. In 1972, she joined the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the legendary Martha Graham Dance Company in 1979. Possessing remarkable discipline, skill, and artistry, she was promoted to principal dancer in 1982.

Barnes, who was described by the Associated Press as “a truly beautiful and expressive dancer”, performed with Graham for more than a decade. Among her many career highlights, Graham choreographed the critically acclaimed piece Song on Barnes.

Performing at historic venues from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris, the “spectacular” Barnes left audiences and critics mesmerised. As one of few black female principals in a major American dance company at the time, she defied stereotypes. She remained committed to furthering the legacy of black dancers throughout her career.

During her career, Barnes shared the stage with iconic performers including Kathleen Battle, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev and Michael Jackson. She was a guest choreographer and a featured soloist with a number of prominent American companies. She also choreographed and staged original productions for her own dance company, Dancer’s Eye.

Her Broadway, film and television credits include Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, The Wiz, Alvin Ailey’s Memories and Visions, Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra and the BBC documentary Dance Rebels: A Story of Modern Dance.

In 1992, she moved to London to teach at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance, and was appointed artistic director of Phoenix Dance Theatre in 1996, where she contributed new work to its repertoire. She was also responsible for physical, powerful and exciting choreography for productions of Medea (2013) and Antigone (2017) by Actors of Dionysus.

In 2001, Barnes was recruited by Disney’s The Lion King where, for the next 17 years, she held the position of resident dance supervisor. With her vast experience, uncompromising commitment to excellence and tireless dedication to her role as a dance teacher and mentor, she helped to make the production the West End’s best-selling musical.

A dance scholar as well, Barnes earned degrees from Juilliard, Columbia University in New York and City University, London. She was a recognised independent researcher with numerous published works.

Thea Nerissa Barnes was born on February 2, 1952, and died on December 28, 2018, aged 66. She is survived by her sister.

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