A real piece of history. Thanks, rg. Coincidentally, I was just reading yesterday what Lincoln Kirstein wrote about Alma Mater
in Thirty Years: the New York City Ballet.
... when we tried to discover a suitable subject for a contemporary work in an initial repertory, [Kirstein's close college friend Edward] Warburg drew on the world he knew best and liked most, that of an Ivy League undergraduate. Just as I was under the spell of Hollywood ganglands, Arab revolt, and Diaghilev's court, he was magicked by rituals of college eating clubs, big football, and Harvard-Yale games. ..
Warburg's notion for a ballet was triggered by turn-of-the-century sepia photographs of football teams posed against sections of the old Yale fence, or grouped pyramidally with the year's captain displaying a pigskin inscribed with the date. ... Eddie's aim was ironic as well as comic -- to satirize the synthetic idolatry of athletes and athletics -- and he would be disappointed when Balanchine grasped little if any of this special vein of humor, simply resorting to an old bag of European music-halll and circus gags and tricks.
Eddie's inventions for Alma Mater involved an idiotic demigod quarterback and a Salvation Army lass who turned into a stripteaseuse. John Held, Jr., the Charles Dana Gibson of the Jazz Age, designed various undergraduate types in crew cuts, raccoon coats, helmets and shoulder pads, bell-bottom trousers, and flapper regalia. Balanchine was piloted to the Yale Bowl; the tactics of broken-field running, surprise plays, and drop kicks were offered to his ingenuity. We asked George Gershwin for a score. Already over-occupied with Hollywood., he suggested that his friend Kay Swift would be witty and capable, and he score triumphantly vindicated his confidence. Balanchine often said he felt like an American even before he left Leningrad, and he had used popular music for revue numbers in London.
Alma Mater was, at the least, an earnest of pious intentions toward the creation of indigenous repertory. In it we fumbled toward an expression of the male principle as athlete rather than prince or god. Balanchine had already paved the way nearlyi a decade before with Apollon, in which the Sun-Dancer played games with his muses rather than making love to them. Girl cheerleaders and baton twirlers were Atlantic City beauty queens -- Miss Americas rather than fairy swan-princesses. Balanchine knew that a small-scale domestic frame was all that so slight a pretext could contain, but his carpentry made it viable, and the miniature songless musical comedy lasted for several seasons.
From Repertory in Review
The real puzzle was how Balanchine, recently arrived from life in Paris, Monte Carlo, Copenhagen, and Leningrad, had the vaguest idea what he was doing. According to Ruthanna Boris, a member of the ensemble, "He got it from us. The ballet was divine. It opened with kids in the corps dressed in shorts, bush hats, little jackets, lying on the floor reading the funny papers. That was because on Sundays when we rehaersed we did the same -- read funnies and chewed gum. He thought these things were very American. Says Balanchine, "I didn't know anything. I was swimming. Once they took me to see football, and, of course, I had been to soccer in England. It's practically the same thing -- well, that is, there's a ball and they're running."
"There's a ball and they're running."
Good old Mr. B -- he could really get to the heart of things.