I was a teen-ager when I started ballet lessons in New York in 1944; all it took for me to start was one performance of Ballet Theatre at the old Metropolitan Opera House on 39th Street. (I have written in more detail of that performance on my Blog "Ruminations".) My very first teacher was Lisan Kay who taught at Ballet Arts in Carnegie Hall. At the time she was a partner of Yeichi Nimura; she would shortly have a featured role in the musical "Lute Song". Ballet Arts was run by the indomitable Virginia Lee. A card of ten lessons was purchased for $15 and she would dutifully check off each lesson as you entered. A few of my friends were studying with George Chaffee and I left Ballet Arts to join them. Part of the reason was financial. For $20 a month I could take as many classes as I wanted. I stayed with him (and his assistant, the very capable Adelaide Vernon) for four years. I found I much preferred a small studio and small classes--most of the time a dozen students.
Chaffee danced with the Fokine and Mordlin ballets. He gave a beautiful interpretation of the male mazurka in "Les Sylphides"--which, he liked to say, was taught to him by Fokine. When he was in a good mood after class we would cajole him into performing it for us. We were also fortunate to have some first rate class pianists, Allen Tanner and Francis James Brown, a recent graduate of the Eastman School of Music. First and foremost, though, Chaffee is renowned for his ballet collection of prints, sculpture and drawings of the 16th to 20th centuries. He had a town house in Greenwich Village (if my memory serves me it was 109 Grove Street) not more than ten feet wide. On first entering I shall never forget the sight of being greeted by a sculpture of Fanny Elssler in her Cachuca costume standing blithely on a staircase newel.
I met Ben Harkarvy at the ballet when he was a few months short of his 14th birthday; even at this tender age he had thinning hair and a portly figure. He was so articulate and knowledgeable that we assumed he was a college student, although he had barely started high school. (I was a year older) He joined us for ballet lessons.
Gore Vidal also came for class--he wore white tennis shorts--and took morning class for a year. (This was before his second novel 'City and the Pillar' was published.) He was part of a large group of returning GI's who were studying under the GI Bill. We had no idea he was a writer, and we called him Gene.
We were more than 'just students'; we were balletomanes. There were only two companies regularly in New York at the time; Ballet Theatre and Ballets Russes. Each had a spring and fall season, Ballet Theatre at the old 'Met' and the Ballets Russe at the City Center. The standing room at the old 'Met' was excellent. Unlike today, we did not stand in the rear of the orchestra behind the last row of seats. There was a circle of seats around the horseshoe shape of the theater which meant we could be fairly close to the stage. It was 'first come, first served' and there was a comfortable brass railing to lean on. Standing room was $1.80 but rather than wait on the standing room line we purchased a balcony ticket for the same price and could enter the theater early and scramble to our favorite spots. Very often the crowd was three deep. We were a varied group of a dozen people, all ages. Nora Kaye's parents (Mr. & Mrs. Koreff) were among the regular standees.
The Ballets Russe appeared at the City Center on 55th Street. We sat in the second balcony. The rows went from A to H and I always purchased Row H Seat 1 for $1.10. I liked that particular row because I could lean forward and raise my seat for a clear view; the upper part of that section was not in use.
There were a few other companies that appeared sporadically: the deCuevas Ballet International on Columbus Circle; Markova-Dolin which was reorganized in 1945; the Paris Opera Ballet came in 1948 amid nightly pickets outside the theater against Lifar--but what a revelation to see Chauvire and Kalioujny. We saw Petit's Ballet de Paris with Jeanmaire and a few days later the first appearance of the Sadler's Wells with Fonteyn.
As heady as this scene appears, in between the regular visits of Ballet Theatre and Ballets Russes, we felt it to be a wasteland. To compensate we formed a group called 'Balletiana' (I opted for New York Ballet Club but the cutesy name won out). Our aim was:
"the education of its membership and the promotion of the interest of others in the place and function of ballet amongst the Arts. It provides a medium for the exchange of information and knowledge of the ballet"
--a fore-runner of Ballet Talk?
We met once or twice a month in a rented studio in Carnegie Hall and had an impressive guest speaker list: Alexandra Danilova, Frederic Franklin, Hugh Laing, Edwin Denby, Walter Terry, Anatole Chujoy among others.
To my surprise most of the students did not go to see many performances, and rarely read or discussed ballet's long history. In those days it was easy to drop into the Vilzak-Shollar studio or School of American Ballet and sit and watch a class. Over to V-S whenever Svetlana Beriosova had a PDD class (a finished dancer at 14) or over to SAB hoping to catch Doubrovska give a class. I often wondered if the SAB students knew much of the backgrounds of their teachers. There was one SAB student who knew all these things, Bob Joffrey. I knew Bob through my friendship with Ben. Bob had a good technique with particularly brilliant batterie. Coupled with an outgoing personality there was a real liveliness in his dancing.
Ben had a much harder time. He was very much overweight, had flat feet and a weak back. He also had parents who did not take too kindly to their exceptionally bright son of not wanting to go to college. He did placate them by agreeing to take courses at the New School on 12th Street, which didn't last very long. He did manage to lose weight at one time and got down to 150 lbs. I would look at these two young men who were so devoted to ballet and wonder what would become of them if they did not have a ballet career. Ben and Bob both had physical problems. Bob, with all his ebuillience did not have a dancer's body.
We all know what Bob accomplished. He gave us the Joffrey Ballet and because he was a balletomane we got Fokine, Massine, Jooss, Tudor and Ashton. Oh, that we had another Bob Joffrey. Ben capped off his career as the Director of the Dance Division at Juilliard. Before that he established the Netherlands Dance Theatre and was Artistic Director of Pennsylvania Ballet.
I returned to Ballet Arts and studied with Edward Caton and also Mme. Anderson-Ivantsova. Caton was a tall, lean man and walked with a distinctive slouch. His long legs preceded him and the rest of his figure caught up slowly. Most of the time he was dressed in brown from head to toe and wore an 'Indiana Jones' hat pushed back on his head--long before 'Indiana Jones'. He was a shy man and an affliction caused him to speak in a low raspy voice. While waiting for class to begin Ben and I sought him out and engaged in conversation. I saw him in the Ballet Theatre production of 'Giselle' as the Duke of Courland. He was every inch the aristocrat as he walked slowly and deliberately with two Russian wolfhounds. Most of the other 'Dukes' I have seen look more like supers. He encouraged me to take class with Margaret Craske which I did, but she was too dour for me and I stopped. I also studied with Mme. Anderson-Ivantsova, a former Bolshoi ballerina. Everyone took the same class, beginners to professionals. She never stopped to teach Barre. As a new student you followed the person in front of you and hoped they knew what they were doing. Barre was non-stop for 20 minutes or so. Her husband would bang out a tired ditty on the piano at her command: "Music! Mr. Ivantzov". I was amazed at the strength I gained from her classes. Her lessons were $2. I weep at her last years. Widowed, ill and financially bereft she had to depend on others for her needs.