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Overland Park, Kansas – Michael F. Simms, 85, passed away Saturday, April 15, 2023, at Village Shalom, where he had lived the past 12 years.
Michael wanted to be remembered as a dancer, teacher and choreographer. Much of his life was spent in the world of ballet, but also jazz and modern dance. If one aspect of that life could be emphasized, it would be his teaching. He became respected in his native St. Louis as a mentor of young dancers and a founding member of groups presenting dance. Eventually joining the faculty at Webster College (now Webster University), he later became ballet master at Stephens College in Columbia and finished his career in Kansas City.
Michael was born July 5, 1937, the first of four children of Bartlett and Marie Simms. He became a class president and student-government leader at St. Louis University High School, but his initial attraction to dance is lost to memory. His training began at Stanley Herbertt’s Ballet Arts Academy. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the Harris Stowe Teachers College and a full scholarship to the 1958 summer program of the Banff School of Fine Arts (now Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity) in Canada.
In 1959 Michael married Ourania “Roni” Kiotses, another St. Louis dancer and alum of Banff. The couple received an invitation from Arnold Spohr, artistic director of Royal Winnipeg Ballet, who knew their work from Banff. “I would very much like to have you in the company,” he wrote, “so I do hope it will work out.” The newlyweds did return to Banff that summer, but turned down Spohr’s offer; Roni was expecting their first child. There would be four Simms children: Elizabeth, Jennifer, Claudia and Michael Jr. Roni and Michael would later divorce.
Stanley Herbertt had formed St. Louis Civic Ballet, drawing from several dance schools. Plans included performances with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Michael, then teaching at the Westchester School of Ballet, performed with the group and conducted auditions judged by one of the city’s ballet icons, Madame Victoria Cassan. For six years she had danced in Anna Pavlova’s company, the former Ballet Russe prima ballerina. Since 1931 there had been a Madame Cassan studio in St. Louis. When she retired in 1962 she gifted her studio – with 500 students and a waiting list – to Michael, a testament to his growing reputation as a teacher.
He also was involved in Municipal Opera Ballet, taught jazz dance for Dance Spectrum and choreographed for independent festivals. In 1965 he joined the faculty at Webster. Two years later he and other teachers broke away from Civic Ballet to form St. Louis Dance Theatre. In 1972 the company was one of six selected to present in the first Mid-State Regional Ballet Festival in Kansas City. The company performed Michael’s piece “Contributions” on the final night, “an exceptionally strong concluding event,” said the Star’s reviewer.
In 1976 Michael left St. Louis to join the faculty at Stephens. A few years later the artistic director of a small company in Kansas City, Westport Ballet, asked him to choreograph a new piece for the group’s performance at the Folly Theater. The resulting “Caprice Americain” would become the first of several collaborations. And in 1985 Michael married the artistic director, Elizabeth Hard.
The couple lived in Columbia while Liz commuted weekly to Kansas City, and both taught in the Stephens College summer dance program at Perry-Mansfield School in Steamboat Springs, CO. They moved to Kansas City when Michael retired from Stephens in 1997 and he continued his teaching at the School of the Westport Ballet. The school closed in 2002.
At the end Michael could take stock: Workshops, master classes and residencies at universities, choreographic commissions, and service as a competition adjudicator, from Missouri and Kansas to California and New York to Europe. His students have gone on to dance for ballet and modern companies and on Broadway, and to teaching careers from coast to coast. Many count him among their top influences, remembering his tough, demanding classes full of lovely, danceable combinations.
“My students are never bored,” he once told a reporter. “Dance is so challenging you spend your whole life perfecting the simplest movement.”
Michael was preceded in death by his wife, Liz, his sister Mary Noel Simms and his former wife, Roni. Survivors include daughters Elizabeth (Lisa) Nicholas Kandel and her husband, Joseph; Jennifer Heyl, and her husband Richard; and Claudia Riley, all of St. Louis; and son Michael B. Simms and his partner, Nancy Green, of San Francisco; grandchildren Christopher, George, Katherine and Sophia Nicholas; Madeline and Alexander Heyl; and Michaela and Kailin Riley; sisters Nancy Kranzberg and her husband, Scott, of Palm Springs, CA; and Barbara Rea and her husband, Michael, of St. Louis; stepdaughter Susan Hard and her husband, John Simonson; and stepson Benjamin Hard, all of Kansas City.
A celebration of Michael’s and Liz’s lives will be held in Kansas City later in 2023. Please make any memorial donations to the dance organization of your choice.
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