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Ballet teacher Lilette Rohe, a link to Russian greats, dead at 95

Lilette Rohe operated her Evanston dance school for more than 40 years. | Provided photo

Lilette Rohe, who taught for more than 40 years at the Lilette Rohe School of Ballet in Evanston, was one of the last remaining links to the great Russian dancers who trained students in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s.

Her most influential instructor, Lubov Egorova, was a famed ballerina who’d danced with Russia’s Imperial Ballet and Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Egorova’s students included Lucia Joyce, Irish writer James Joyce’s daughter, as well as Jazz Age muse Zelda Fitzgerald, author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, who didn’t begin a rigorous study of ballet until her late 20s, far later than the age at which most dancers start their training.

“My mom always liked to tell the story of the crazy American lady who wanted to become a dancer,” said Mrs. Rohe’s son Chris.

Mrs. Rohe died Aug. 4 at the Presbyterian Homes residence in Evanston after a brief illness. She was 95 and had still been teaching until June.

Lilette Rohe learned dance from famed Russian ballerina Lubov Egorova and performed with the Metropolitan Opera. | Provided photo
Lilette Rohe learned dance from famed Russian ballerina Lubov Egorova and performed with the Metropolitan Opera. | Provided photo

“She was still running the school and teaching four or five classes a week,” her son said. “She was very healthy. She hadn’t been in a hospital since my brother was born in the mid-1960s.”

Young Lilette grew up in France, the daughter of a French mother, Jenny Robert, and Virginia-born Lewis Dabney Crenshaw. Her parents met while working at an organization in Paris that helped alumni from the University of Virginia.

She performed with Egorova’s Ballets de la Jeunesse — the Ballet of Youth — where, it was said, no dancer was older than 19. She also danced at the Paris Opera, according to her son.

The Crenshaws lived in Paris until 1939, “when it became apparent that war was about to break out,” said Chris Rohe. “They got out just in time because of my grandfather’s American citizenship.”

Lilette Rohe returned to teaching dance after raising her family. Here she is with her eldest child, Janet. | Provided photo
Lilette Rohe returned to teaching dance after raising her family. Here she is with her eldest child, Janet. | Provided photo

In New York, his mother danced and toured with the Metropolitan Opera and performed at Radio City Music Hall.

During World War II, she married a U.S. Marine, Robert Parker Sorlien. They had two children, Janet Wolf and Parker Sorlein, but later divorced, according to Chris Rohe.

She then married Paul Rohe, an editor for Random House who worked with John Gardner and watched William Faulkner at the office while he finished “The Reivers,” according to an interview Rohe gave to the Independent Online Booksellers Association. He landed a job at Scott Foresman publishing in Glenview, and the Rohes raised their family in Evanston. Her husband also ran an antiquarian bookstore on Central Street in Evanston. Later, he opened Paul Rohe & Sons in Lake View. He died in 2005.

Busy raising her kids, Mrs. Rohe didn’t return to dance until the mid-1970s, when she opened her school. At first, classes were held in a Quonset hut on a golf course. Later, she taught at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church at Lincoln and Hartrey in Evanston.

Lilette Rohe. | Provided photo
Lilette Rohe. | Provided photo

Some of her students went on to dance with the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre, according to her son. Also among her students was Connie Fletcher, an author and Loyola University professor who wrote the 1990 book “What Cops Know.”

Though her sister Aline returned to Paris, Mrs. Rohe didn’t visit her hometown until the 1970s. Once she did, “She fell in love all over again with Paris and went back every year,” said her son.

In 1991, Mrs. Rohe traveled to the Art Institute for “Day Without Art,” a nationwide event to draw attention to the AIDS crisis.

“I teach ballet,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times then, “and every time I open up Dance Magazine, I see obituaries of young dancers who have died of AIDS. I weep.”

She enjoyed walking around the Chicago Botanic Garden, reading Robert Parker mysteries and eating Portillo’s onion rings. Every morning, she ate a Bays English muffin with Bonne Maman strawberry jam. And she had season tickets to the Lyric Opera.

She is also survived by another son, Gregory Rohe, one grandchild and two great-grandchildren. A memorial has been held.

Every winter, Mrs. Rohe rode the Southwest Chief train to Winslow, Arizona, to visit her husband’s grave in his hometown. Her family plans to bring her ashes to Winslow.