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Nancy Knott Mann on NYC and Dancing in the early 20th century

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After her coaching session with the Balanchine Foundation and a long discussion on Ballet Talk about New York's dance history, I impulsively called Nancy Knott Mann and asked her what she recalled. I regret never having turned it into an article, but here are my notes - the details she recalls are invaluable.


Interview with Nancy Knott Mann – 6pm – 8 pm via phone October 30, 2002

Mann was born and raised in New Rochelle. Her father was close to 70 when she was born (“that was more customary then”) and was born before the civil war. She was born approximately 1917 and is 85. Mann took “fancy dancing” lessons in New Rochelle with Lucille Haskell, who had danced with Pavlova. Mann’s mother, by then widowed, was worried about her daughter’s future, although in a slightly impractical manner (“How will she ever get to go to the Opera?”) Haskell suggested she would be able to see the opera by being in the Opera. At the age of 12, she was sent to the Metropolitan Ballet School taught by Margaret Curtis. The school was in the “old Met” which she recalled as being on 40th Street (it was actually on 39th & Broadway). Classes were three times a week (MWF?) and from 4-6pm except on Friday when there was an extra half-hour of classical Spanish dancing, castanets and all.

She recalls Balanchine’s studio (“American ballet”) as being on 59th Street quite a ways east. Across the hall from his studios were those of Alexander Yakovlev. He was very popular, and at that time better known than Balanchine, who had only recently arrived.

At the American Ballet Pierre Vladimirov was the main teacher, to be supplemented by Muriel Stuart.

Balanchine’s class was “lots of fun”. He didn’t speak English very well, and wanted you on the music; he was very friendly and very egotistical. Vladimirov was stricter; she considered Balanchine quite open to outside influences, he brought in Erick Hawkins to teach. Around this time (before she went to the Ballets Russes) Balanchine was rehearsing a section from Errante with her. She does not know whose part she was learning specifically, but it had many sissonnes in it. “Balanchine kept saying, ‘No, it’s like mystics.’ I tried to be more delicate, then I realized he meant mosquitoes.”

Mann also studied at that time with Anatole Vilzak, who taught at Balanchine’s studio occasionally but then started his own studio. Eugene Loring also studied with Vilzak.

Mann was on scholarship at the American Ballet. The Ballets Russes had come to NYC (see my article on Reminiscence) and needed extra dancers because they were splitting the company in two, having one section (with Toumanova) touring and one (with Baronova) in New York City playing at the St. James Theater. She was only about 14 at the time, and it was the first opportunity to dance actual ballet in America in years. It did cause a problem for Balanchine (“I don’t train my dancers for Massine”) and it caused her to lose her scholarship.

Grigorien was regisseur of the company. She danced Fokine’s works, Les Sylphides, Petrouchka, Prince Igor. She tells the story of arriving one night to dance Les Sylphides and being told they were doing Prince Igor. When she said she did not know Prince Igor, she was told, “You have been in this company for a week and you don’t know it?” She danced it that night, basically taught it on stage. She did the part of one of the Polovtsian girls, which was the same 32 bars, so it was possible to do so.

Also in the company at that time were Fokine’s son (Vitaly) and nephew (Leon) but both performed under stage names. At that point the company was so small from the division that Baronova would perform as herself in the lead, and then perform in the corps in another ballet as “Irinova”. Ms. Mann’s stage name for that three-week engagement was Anna Noskova.

Leda Anchutina also performed with the Ballets Russes and joined Balanchine’s company later.

Other teachers Mann studied with after the Ballets Russes engagement were Bechislav (sp?) Svoboda, Vilzak and Vincenzo Celli (a student of Cechetti who claimed to have all his notebooks) Svoboda’s studio was in an old movie house where Lincoln Center now stands.

Another teacher was Leon Chalif, who hired Svoboda to teach ballet. (and a man named Manilov to teach adagio) His studios were in the building that now houses Columbia Artists Management and CAMI hall. She recalls them fondly, saying they were beautiful. There were four floors of studios, one studio was two floors high, with a balcony rail where people could observe. Chalif and his wife lived on the top floor. Though Russian, Chalif taught “Greek dancing”, something Mann recalled as being akin to the “Fancy Dancing” she was taught by Haskell in New Rochelle; it was more a sort of expressive movement for those who did not like or could not work with the stricter rules of ballet. She was on scholarship at the schools she studied at and never paid for classes. At Chalif’s studio she earned her classes by demonstrating for his children’s classes. Chalif also choreographed a Broadway show she danced in, “Frederica”.

She met her husband Michael as part of the Fokine Ballet, but started to become involved with him when they were both in the cast of “I Married an Angel”. In “Louisiana Purchase”, she was Zorina’s double in a scene were Zorina needed to make a quick costume change and reappear in an entirely different outfit. She recalled one show as being at the Shubert Theater, the other at the Imperial. She also recalled that either Ballet Caravan or Ballet Society performed at a small theater on West 54th Street “near the Bryant Hotel and Studio 54” (which was a night spot even in the 60s before its late 70’s heyday). I think the Bryant Hotel is now probably the Ameritania, and the theater she mentions was probably The David, a gay porn movie house that was torn down in the late 80s. It is now the site of a temporary 4 story building housing a sightseeing tour company.

Michel Fokine’s studio was at 4 Riverside Drive, on 72nd Street. The building is still there. “We worked in two studios. Upstairs, there were barres and he was very correct. Then he would say, ‘Now I don’t want to see any fifth positions. We are going downstairs to dance.’” His center was more akin to a variations class. Annabelle Lyon was his protégé and he would compose variations they would dance. He was not interested in teaching technique. “I teach dancing, you go somewhere else to learn how.” This made him less proprietary about his students, he wanted them to take from other teachers as well.

The Fokine Ballet also performed in the summers at Randall’s Island. The Shuberts brought operetta up there and the ballet would also perform (this is approximately 1936) – she danced in Les Sylphides, Scheherezade, Carnaval (the role of Chiarina) and Prince Igor. Work was a spotty thing, she would perform in operettas (Yakovlev would choreograph some) or on Broadway. When she wasn’t working, she was taking class to stay in shape. She lived at the Barbizon Hotel, a woman’s hotel where men were not allowed above the first floor. (I recall this hotel as well) Also she and her mother lived for a time in the Great Northern Hotel, where one could have a room with simple cooking facilities (an icebox and a warming plate) One forgets that there was a time when there were transient hotels in New York City.

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