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The Context of the Post War Flourishing of Ballet in America


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#1 Michael

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Posted 18 November 2007 - 05:26 AM

Three things strike me about how ballet flowered in New York/USA during the 50's and 60's.

1. The first is nationalism - which was a potent factor in the blossoming of the arts in each of the Napoleonic and post Napoleonic European cultures. In the US it came last and latest. Reading Lincoln Kirstein's life, I was struck last spring by how he is best understood as nearly an apostle of artistic nationalism in America, of how the word "American" as in American Ballet became almost of mystic value to him. The story of the founding of the great US ballet companies now reads like a kind of manifest destiny, which Kirstein believed in every bit as much as Albert Beveridge believed in the conquest of the west. Let's not forget Martha Graham. And reading Victoria's references to ABT's whistlestop tours of the west in the fifties and sixties, this also resonated - the kind of covered wagon approach to touring; and you also feel this wind blowing in some of Robert's photos; the American themes and the very ideas of "Rodeo," or "Fancy Free" for example. The cold war context of the building of Lincoln Center and ABT's ensconcement in the Metropolitan Opera house, the founding of NYCB and its home across the plaza fit here too.

2. The second is the paradox of the first -- that the Stalin regime in Russia, the Nazis in Germany, and the 2d World War drove the artistic refugees from Russia, Germany, France and the other European n nations (except Britain) here, and particularly to New York -- and this was the great enabler of what followed. Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Igor Stravinsky, Kurt Weil, George Balanchine, Alexandra Danilova, etc. -- were the European avant garde. They washed up here and leavened the loaf. Their tradition, means, styles and innovations were applied to our material, funded with our money, and fueled by our imperial ambition.

3. In the 50's, while NYCB was at City Center, there was apparently a good deal of artistic collaboration across the boundaries. Isamo Noguchi's designs for City Ballet's seminal Orpheus are an example. But it's my impression that this pretty much ceased when NYCB got to the State Theater. The thesis of painting and sculpture, post war, has been to be avant garde, cutting edge. Once City Ballet and ABT became the institutions they now are, collaboration with artists on the edge became in principle very difficult. Robert Rauschenberg, who made his first big splash erasing a De Kooning drawing and then signing the erased image as his own, collaborated with Merce Cunningham, not the great ballet companies. It was thereafter modern dance that attracted the self proclaimed artistic revolutionaries.

#2 bart

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Posted 18 November 2007 - 07:04 AM

Thank you for that excellent analysis, Michael. As someone who grew up and was introduced to the higher arts in the Eisenhower years, the points you have selected seem right on the money.

The most striking thing about the early Balanchine years was the way that the public view of ballet -- often thought of in America as inconsequential entertainment, or something snooty, worthy of parody -- gained weight and seriousness from its integration with challenging new developments in music, visual arts, and even theory. I don't know whether Balanchine picked up some of this from his experience with Diaghilev, but it certainly reminds me of the philosophy and passion that dominated Diaghilev and his collaborators. It was this more than anything else that made me, at least, feel that my growing interest in ballet (which I equated with Balanchine) was legitimate and worth while. From the perspective of the lobby of the City Center, what we were observing, and what Balanchine and his collaborators and dancers were creating, was ... important.

About points 1 and 2. I hope that you will develop the idea that the "nationalism" -- mining American folk roots, cultivating American composers and designers, etc. -- went hand in hand with am amazing openness to what European refugee artists and intellectuals had to bring to the table. I cannot think of that period without seeing how much each of them depended on the other, even though some people at the time thought of them as opposites and incompatible. It's interesting that many of the works associated with the more narrow "American" cultural outlook -- and the advocates for aggressively national-based art forms -- have somehow disappeared or wandered off to memory books and museums. We don't see much of Rodeo or Appalachian Spring any more, probably to our loss. But Western Sympthony and Square Dance, both of interweave American and European influences, survive. And now we are open to African and Asian influences as well.

#3 Mel Johnson

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Posted 18 November 2007 - 07:12 AM

And don't forget "Stars and Stripes" - another brilliant artifact of Balanchine's "Americana" phase!

#4 kfw

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Posted 18 November 2007 - 11:58 AM

The most striking thing about the early Balanchine years was the way that the public view of ballet -- often thought of in America as inconsequential entertainment, or something snooty, worthy of parody -- gained weight and seriousness from its integration with challenging new developments in music, visual arts, and even theory.

That's a really interesting point. Could you say more? I had the impression that it was primarily among artists and the arts and literary community that Balanchine first gained a strong following here. Are you saying that these people too had viewed ballet as frivolous entertainment? Or was it that -- because as Leigh illustrated by way of his mother --people on average had a much better grounding in the arts than they do today, Balanchine was able to gain a substantial middle-class NYC following early on? Perhaps both?

#5 bart

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Posted 18 November 2007 - 01:51 PM

We have a number of members on this forum who know a lot about dance history , and I hope that others chime in on this. Michael -- and kfw -- raise really interesting issues. Michael has given us a context for the post-World War Two years.

As to kfw's question about the situation before World War Two, it seems to me (and this is just an impression) that American intellectuals and those devoted to the "higher" arts did tend to look down on classical ballet then and indeed throughout American history. This was possibly because there was no serious classical company or tradition in the United States. Ballet was associated with the European aristocracy and plutocracy -- and, in Russia, with an extremely autocratic political regime -- and was thus usually ignored or dismissed by intellectuals on the left. Ballet in the US -- excluding the pathetic versions that appeared as part of opera performances -- seems to have been more of popular entertainment with a certain level of snob appeal to the aspiring economic elites. Maybe this was because ballet such as it was often presented as short pieces on the vaudeville or musical theater stage, or as interludes at the opera house. (Even Pavlova and Karsavina got a start in the West partly by performing in London variety shows.)

Diaghilev's company appealed to a lot of serious and intellectual people (usually right wing or apolitical) in Europe. It also thrilled a group of expatriate Americans. But the company visited the US only twice (once without Diaghilev but with Nijinsky) during World War One, an extensive tour but with a limited repertoire. Whatever deeper cultural influence it had was pretty much undercut by the infinitely larger story of the War.

Fokine, Bolm, and other Russian exiles came to the U.S. after the first World War -- but this was after their serious work was finished, for the most part. It's easy to write a book that shows connections between Diaghilev's associates and the United States -- this dancer set up a school; that dancer created a small company; this ballet was performed on such and such a date. It's pretty hard, however, to show that was a major cultural influence in the United States during 20s, 30s or early 40s.

Young Lincoln Kirstein in the late 20s certainly got flack from a lot of his peers as he began to develop a passion (fed in Europe, by the way) for ballet. When Balanchine arrived (before World War Two) he doesn't seem to have attracted much interest or support from the educated classes, with a few individual exceptions. His well-documented efforts to adopt "American" subject-matter and create work for Broadway and the movies is usually seen as a response to the lack of interest here n the kind of work he originally hoped to do. There was not much respect for ballet when he arrived. And there was no guarantee that he would succed in chaning this -- not for a long time.

Also, isn't it true that serious people at the between-the-wars years tended to favor modern dance insofar as they thought about dance at all? In the US, anyway, it was modern that tended to be encourage collaboration with artists from other fields. Modern dance was also prone to intellectuallizing and to technique-creation, both of which appealed to the educated classes. I'm thinking of the vogue of ethnological/antropological subject matter (Ruth St. Denis) --or the techniques and theories associated with Martha Graham and with Doris Humphrey.

Given all the obstacles and the unfavorable cultural conditions that he faced when he arrived, Balanchine's achievement (in conjuction with the factors that Michael describes) is impressive and almost miraculous.

#6 Michael

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Posted 18 November 2007 - 06:02 PM

Thank everyone for the very considered responses, which are humbling. I shot from the hip on this and continue to shoot from the hip; or perhaps the shots are "off hand"? (Mel appreciates the difference I am sure).

Something that occurred to me today on the drive into NY from New England was that nationalism arrived late in both the United States and in Russia -- almost simultaneously in fact, on either end of the long balance of power see-saw (with Europe in the middle and Germany in the middle of Europe). Both the US and Russia became continental and imperial powers at nearly the same moment by consolidating their territories away from the center during the 19th century. The Russian court had a tradition of ballet patronage, but largely imported French ballet from Paris from the Taglioni era onward. We, starting late, imported the Russian tradition. Elsler toured here, but I'm not aware of any consistent resident company in the 19th century. Robert will know something about this.

The competition between the US and the Soviets played a role in the 60's ballet boom, I think, and this probably helped make ballet more main-stream and popularly legitimate. Even when Kirstein was succeeding in finding a home for his company in the 50's, he probably never achieved the mainstream notoriety for ballet that arrived after Nureyev defected and people were standing in line for days to see Nureyev and Fonteyn perform. If the Russians had it and took it seriously; if the cultural competition was important; we had our Americanized Russian -- Georgi Balanchivadze -- and our "American" style, and could send it right back in their faces, etc.

Then there's the role of "Dance in America" which I haven't really considered. But probably (that word again) putting classical dance on TV had an effect as well.

Some of this cultural momentum has been lost; Ballet is probably once again more marginal today for the popular main stream audience than it was at that moment. But how would you measure that and what do I mean by it exactly? It's good that there is a devoted audience that knows and loves the subject; that you can sell 2 to 5,000 seats on any given night here for the right kind of thing; more than that, can you really hope for? Should you really hope for?

#7 bart

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Posted 19 November 2007 - 01:09 PM

Then there's the role of "Dance in America" which I haven't really considered. But probably (that word again) putting classical dance on TV had an effect as well.

This would be hugely interesting and very important.

Does anyone know of articles or other works on the history of D in A? Llists of performances and performers probably exist, in libraries at least. Wouldn't it be fascinating to know how the programs were put together -- whether or not the ballets were edited or added to for television (popular library has told us on another thread about Balanchine's new ending for Emeralds on D in A) -- what the responses were -- what effect they had on the public and on the creation of subsequent work -- and many other questions with big cultural implications for ballet history.

#8 Mel Johnson

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Posted 19 November 2007 - 02:58 PM

Season I, Episode I of the Dance in America series was Joffrey. The negotiations to execute the filming was already in progress when I came onboard with the company, but it was regarded as some deep, dark secret. I was fielding a lot of phone calls from Merrill Brockway, who was the producer, and Judy Kinberg, his assistant. Emile Ardolino, the director made a few calls, but we mostly saw him in the flesh, meeting one-on-one with Mr. Joffrey himself. A filming of this nature has to depend on what's "up" in the subject ensemble's repertoire, and we had a lot to choose from, as we would just be coming off a fall City Center season, and many three-bills were available. Now that somebody asks, I can't for the life of me recall what we ended up doing, but one glimmer of memory settles on "Green Table" with Christian Holder dancing the part of Death. I wish I could remember the other ballets, but it's just so long ago, and I was elbowed aside for the project, which, of course, worked wonders :) on my morale. The filming took place in Texas, I think, and by the time it aired in 1976, I was pink-slipped, so I sort of willfully forgot most of the lead-in details. Ardolino and Joffrey worked together on other projects, like "Live from Wolf Trap" and the "Homage to Diaghilev" featuring Nureyev. Actually, it was that former program that began effecting my reconciliation with my old boss, as I absolutely had to see "Les Patineurs", and the next City Center season, I was back at City Center, as audience this time, and ended up chatting with the Boss as though nothing had ever happened. I do know that even when he was ill, he still remembered. Penny Currey told me at the visiting hours at the Campbell Funeral Home that he had told the company during rehearsal of "Sacre du Printemps" that "Mel should see this - he's a professional historian now, and this would make him very happy." It did.

#9 carbro

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Posted 19 November 2007 - 03:13 PM

Michael, so good to see you here, and thanks for such a thoughtful and thorough essay. I was especially struck by this:

Both the US and Russia became continental and imperial powers at nearly the same moment by consolidating their territories away from the center during the 19th century.

Part of this was due to the mingling of soldiers from both wars with compatriots unlike themselves-- for the first time, a guy from a farm in Arkansas could form a bond with a guy from South Boston, etc. In conjunction with transportation networks, the national highway program most especially, the threads of national fabric could be strengthened.

Better transportation, of course, also made touring a little less arduous.

The unprecedented affluence that grew after the war and depression was, I'm sure, no small factor in the growth of American ballet.

#10 Mel Johnson

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Posted 19 November 2007 - 05:37 PM

But a great part of America, and even elsewhere, viewed the world of ballet as sort of effete and epicene. When Fred Astaire (of all people!) portrays a premier danseur in a ballet company and performs an "entrechat-trois" (he actually does a jeté battu) and Sig Rumann marvels over it, Astaire goes on to say that there's no "pep" in ballet, that it doesn't "swing", and taps up a BS Chorus to show how it should be done!

In The Unfinished Dance, one of THE WORST, if not the ABSOLUTE worst ballet movie ever made, dancers loll in exquisite ennui when not dancing. Hammy acting and just plain bad ballet makes this a real Golden Turkey, but it was what the public then (1947) thought ballet was like. Even in the dance world, there was confusion as to what went well with which. I can only point to the 1956 The Vagabond King in which Hanya Holm (who knew better) combined Rudolf Friml with 1920s-30s Mary Wigman/Doris Humphrey-type choreography and jersey dresses that looked like it should have been put to Mahler. If the former were a Golden Turkey, this was a Chocolate-Covered Oyster. It made no friends for dance, ballet or modern.


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