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NYC mid centurypersonal reflections


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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 13 November 2007 - 12:01 AM

To get a clearer sense of New York City mid century and what might have influenced the choreographers who worked here, I picked up the phone and called a trusted source - my mother.

Mom was born in 1933 and lived her childhood on the Lower East Side. Her father worked for a silk manufacturer, her mother was a truant officer in the NYC schools.

My grandfather did not own a car, though my great-uncle did. My mother's life when young was bounded by where she could walk. Even so, culture was close at hand. Mom took dance lessons at the Grand Street Settlement, pottery at the Henry Street Settlement, piano lessons on Pitt Street (the cost was about $2 for a half an hour) and drawing lessons at the Educational Alliance. Dance lessons seemed to be a mix of ballet and modern - she recalls barre work and wearing soft slippers, but it wasn't ballet as she recalled it.

Cultural education was accessible and public. Mom went to the High School of Music and Art, and then to Brooklyn College, where her teachers included Mark Rothko and Kurt Seligmann (the designer of the costumes Balanchine would discard from The Four Temperaments.)

She married my father in 1956. Their first apartment, in the building on Grand Street next to her parent's, cost $50 monthly for a small one bedroom. Mom worked as a teacher in the public schools, and made $4,000 yearly as a chair of the art department in one school. The apartment on Grand Street was a bargain; a year or so later they moved out of the city to Eastchester (from right next to her mother to right next to my father's family). That larger apartment with a living room in the suburbs was $87 monthly.

Thumbing through her wedding album a long time ago, I still recalled the one black couple at a table and asked her about them. They were Jamaican and friends of hers from Brooklyn College, Mom explained. They were seated at a table with all her friends from college and she couldn't imagine leaving them out. "I think I may have shocked my mother and grandmother." I asked what Dad's reaction was. She said he wasn't bothered at all. Balanchine made the pas de deux in "Agon" for Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell the following year.

#2 bart

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Posted 13 November 2007 - 04:14 AM

Leigh, your post reminds me of the importance that was given to arts education, especially to girls, and the number of agencies in NYC and other cities which offered free or very inexpensive classes. How very lucky those people were.

What follows covers an earlier period than yours -- during World War One and the 1920s mostly. My mother's family were of Czech ethnicity, but Protestants, which made them a minority within the small Czech minority within the big New York City melting pot. She and her siblings began gymnastics training early at a German version of the Czech sokols. (Germans were a bigger ethnic group in NYC.) I have several wonderful art deco- like photos of my mother doing balletic-acrobatic poses on what looks to be Orchard Beach.

Somehow -- and I don't remember the stories -- this transitioned into the opportunity to take ballet classes on the upper East Side, where the family lived. This, possibly was through the Jan Hus Church. Training was free. There were a number of "lady bountifuls," as my mother called them, who were occasionally slightly condescending to the people they were helping, but who were also quite supportive, provinding pointe shoes and practice wear. And, eventually, the obligatory tutu, since girls at dance recitals usually were expected to bring their own costumes. Non-dance photos taken at the time show my mother looking remarkably like the young Anna Pavlova (without the beaky nose).

In those days there was very little pre-professional ballet training available in the U.S. Most people thought of ballet as the "ballet bits" in musiscal reviews, vaudeville, or other entertainments. My mother progressed to the point that she reached a kind of dead end, where going into "show business" was the only serious work option. I suspect that her rather austere familiy did not want her to become a Broadway Babe. She was offered the opportunity to travel to Prague for further training, but did not want to leave America. So the dancing ended and an office work-life began. She is said to have been the first woman in Astoria to own her own convertible.

And then marriage and family. I often wonder what she thought when, having become a suburban stay-at-home mother, she reflected on her ballet life and road she had not taken. Ballet was not an overwhelming presence in our house, but neither was it forgotten. My fondest, warmest, most kinetic memories of my early childhood are of running (dancing?) around our suburban house shouting out the names of combination steps: "Chassez, chassez, chassez .... arabesque!!!"

Later, thanks to the Long Island Railroad, my mother took me to occasional performances of Ballet Theater, the Ballets Russses and various pickup companies, performing at the Met, City Center, and outdoors in various city parks. There were also visits to the new ballet school Andrew Eglevsky established in our town. All of this led me on my own to the City Center and to Mr. Balanchine's company in the late 50s. And ... long afterwards ... to adult classes after 60 ... and to Ballet Talk.

I'd like to extend a :) to those who provide arts education and training to young people who could not ordinarily afford it or whose families would not have thought of it on their own. This does indeed change lives -- and society -- for the better.

#3 GWTW

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Posted 13 November 2007 - 07:15 AM

No memories here - I'm too young and I have no family connection to New York.

However I visited Ellis Island this past Sunday and I wanted to acknowledge the 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island during the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th - on their way to make NY and the USA what it was in the mid century. About a third of the immigrants that were processed in Ellis Island remained in the NY area. They were the artists and the audience that made it happen. :)

#4 kfw

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Posted 13 November 2007 - 09:30 AM

Mom went to the High School of Music and Art


From the Wikipedia page on the school:

New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia started the high school in 1936, an event he described as “the most hopeful accomplishment” of his administration[1]. In 1984 Music & Art and its sister school, the High School of Performing Arts, were merged into a new school, the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts at a new building in the Lincoln Center area of Manhattan.

The building that once housed the High School of Music & Art is located in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of Harlem on the campus of the City College of New York. The building now houses the A. Phillip Randolph Campus High School, a "magnet school" of the New York City Department of Education.



#5 atm711

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Posted 15 November 2007 - 04:30 AM

I always have a problem watching 'Fancy Free'---for me, Robbins captured NYC in mid-century--which I find missing in performances of today. I did not see the first performance, but I did see the second. Although no one has topped the original cast, for me (Robbins beautifully tailored the choreography to match the talents of the cast), it's more than the performers. The sense of time is gone and I would like to see it set as a period piece. The jocularity appears strained. The ballet was very much like some of the wartime Hollywood movies at the time (think Garland in 'The Clock'). It had the feel of wartime NYC.

#6 kfw

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Posted 01 December 2007 - 10:27 AM

In a 1954 souvenir program for NYCB there is a mention of "Ballet Associates in America, Inc." and an annual fundraising "Ballet Ball" ("the Ballet Ball," not "their Ballet Ball"). Can anyone provide more details about the Associates and the ball?

#7 bart

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Posted 01 December 2007 - 11:21 AM

I always have a problem watching 'Fancy Free'---for me, Robbins captured NYC in mid-century--which I find missing in performances of today. I did not see the first performance, but I did see the second. Although no one has topped the original cast, for me (Robbins beautifully tailored the choreography to match the talents of the cast), it's more than the performers. The sense of time is gone and I would like to see it set as a period piece. The jocularity appears strained. The ballet was very much like some of the wartime Hollywood movies at the time (think Garland in 'The Clock'). It had the feel of wartime NYC.

I think many people share this feeing. Is it possibly because the situation and the characters depicted in the ballet are so distant in time and from the feelings and behavior young people today? Are there, for instance, any "goofy" late adolescent males anymore? Or young women, out on their own at night, who remain both sexually desirable and essentially innocent?

Fancy Free now seems to be approached as a period piece. It seems to be done with affection ... but still seems "wrong" somehow.. Like so many period pieces, wit context has been removed, the people are forgotten, and the feel of the piece has to be guessed at or approximated by researching old, grainy, slightly faded snapshots, videos and movies.

#8 Mel Johnson

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Posted 01 December 2007 - 11:54 AM

Brooklyn Navy Yard may be long shut down, but we still have "Fleet Week", albeit in an abbreviated form. :) Sailors on liberty seems to be a quaint artifact of the past, with the relatively new "open" Defense Department standard for comportment of service members off-base and off-duty. Also quaint is the behavior of the women. Nothing seems to date a work like the way women are handled. Even in the 60s, when the movie West Side Story came out, the women ("I and Velma", "Ooo ooo. And you can punctuate it. Ooo!) seemed uncomfortably dated not ten years out from its Broadway origins.

#9 bart

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Posted 01 December 2007 - 12:56 PM

Mel, I think you're right in focusing on the 60s as the period when everything shifted.

In her biography of Robbins, Deborah Jowitt writes:

In 1943, when Robbins dreamed up Fancy Free, almost 30 percent of Hollywood features were war-related. Seven Days Leave, an army musical starring Victor Mature and Lucille Ball, came out in 1942, and Gene Kelly's Anchors Aweigh (another shore-leave scenario) in 1945.



Nostalgia for the imagined youthful innocence of American sailors -- and the American military in general -- remained long after the war. It was one of those things, after all, that defined us as different from the Soviet Union, the new foreign opponent during the period of Cold War.

Although I was born after the war started, I grew up in an adult culture -- family, neighbors, the early impact of television -- which continued to celebrate (and believe in) this American self-image. I heard the positive, sanitised stories about life in the service. I saw the snapshots of smiling young men and women in uniform handed around at gatherings. The signal I got was that the US was a special place, even in wartime, unique, kinder and gentler than the Old World societies which had forced us, as so many Americans perceived it, to save them one more time from their own darker side.

As to the depiction of young people in the military in the 50s, just think Norman Rockwell for the visuals and Reader's Digest for the text. People really did believe and and respond to those -- and not just the masses.

I suspect that audience reactions to Fancy Free in the 50s weren't all that different from what they had been at the premiere in 1944.

In the 60s, this self-imagery came to be looked on with a more cynical eye and seen to be a bit self-serving. I would think that, after opposition to the Vietnam War had developed, performances of Fancy Free would seem to me to have appeared to have a huge, dark subtext, certainly in places like New York City.

Does anyone remember what the reactions to Fancy Free were in the later 60s and early 70s?

#10 Mel Johnson

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Posted 01 December 2007 - 01:07 PM

I first saw it in the early 60s, and even as a kid, I kind of recognized it as sort of like those wartime movies you mentioned. It wasn't as remote, as, for example, silent movies, but still a charming artifact from the recent past.

#11 dido

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Posted 01 December 2007 - 08:56 PM

I'm not sure I have anything substantive to add to Leigh's marvelous evocation of a time "out of time" (for me at least) but I do have a couple of evocations.

For the opening post of the thread, I thought of Sidney Taylor's last All of A Kind Family book.

As for Fancy Free, I saw it at ABT relatively shortly after Fleet Week in NYC, and remember connecting with an image from a few weeks earlier of four young sailors in their whites clustered around three beautiful women (at 33rd and Lex). ABT's performace seemed very real and NOW to me. But then, I'm old fashioned.


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