Solomon Hurok (Gurkov) (1888-1974)
Ballet in America was nonexistent outside the very large cities in the 1920's. Today we can see dance performances almost any night we want to. It is hard to believe that dance has not always been an easily available form of entertainment. We are in debt to Sol Hurok for his role in making ballet one of the most popular theatrical art forms in the 20th century.
Hurok was born Solomon Gurkov in 1888 in the Ukrainian village, of Pogar, a town of 5000 people with no paved roads. Hurok's father ran a hardware store and taught him the business so he could follow in his footsteps. Although the family was Jewish, in an era marred by outbreaks of anti-Semitism, Hurok downplayed his Jewish background throughout his life, and re-created his past. There have been at least three books and a movie (Darryl Zanuck's Tonight We Sing) chronicling his life. Hurok's chief memory of his birthplace was that of music. He claimed that music was everywhere, and that people sang as they walked the streets. Entertainment for the villagers was singing around a camp fire. There was always someone playing the accordion or balalaika. Hurok played the balalaika, although poorly.
When Solomon was 18 years old, his father gave him 1000 rubles to go to Kiev. Hurok didn't stop there, but kept going until he reached America, (Brooklyn to be exact). Totally without funds, he had to borrow enough money to get to Philadelphia, where a brother lived. He had many jobs -- one was wrapping Sunday news papers. But once he visited New York City he saw his future, left his job, and made his home in the great metropolis in 1906. His first job was in a hardware store working for a dollar a day. Soon he joined the Socialist Party. The Socialists were involved in helping the young revolutionaries in Russia (circa 1907). Hurok took an active part in getting people to attend the meetings, and raising money. He began to employ musicians as an added attraction. He couldn't give up his dollar-a-day job, but he did manage to save enough to buy an eight-dollar suit, which he wore to all the affairs.
When Hurok convinced the young violin virtuoso, Efrem Zimbalist, to perform at a meeting in Brownsville, Brooklyn it was considered a real coup. Encouraged by this success, Hurok thought that he could do more, and he managed to book Zimbalist into a performance at Carnegie Hall, which was sold out. Hurok was now on his way to becoming an impresario. He kept his job and on the weekends he offered Sunday concerts called Music for the Masses for the people of Brownsville.
Having always worshipped the Russian opera basso Fyodor Chaliapin, Hurok's dream was to manage him in an American tour. This was not to happen until later.
Hurok often spent his free time at the Hippodrome Theatre in Manhattan standing in the back, being transported into another world. When Anna Pavlova was performing he never missed a show, even though she was sandwiched between animal acts and jugglers. His goal was now to become another Oscar Hammerstein, the owner of the Victoria Theatre. Hammerstein was the grandfather of the great lyricist, Oscar Hammertsein II.
Hurok became such a fixture at the Hippodrome that everyone knew his name and would save his place. One day Pavlova's manager asked him if he would like to meet the famous dancer. This meeting began a friendship and professional association that would last until Pavlova's death.
It was Pavlova who introduced Hurok to the dance world. This great ballerina who was interested in all forms of dance, encouraged Hurok to manage the revolutionary Isadora Duncan. He brought the American-born Duncan to towns that had never seen dance. She didn't make life easy for him, because at the end of her performances she would take the stage again to advocate her beliefs in free love and Socialism. Many theater owners canceled her show or would not book her at all.
Because of financial difficulties in 1927 Hurok was evicted from his apartment at the Ansonia Hotel. He slept in Central Park rather than let anyone know. Even though he kept his office open.
From the 1920's on, almost every program for a dance performance carried the heading, "S. Hurok Presents." After the Great Stock Market Crash in 1929 Hurok brought the German Mary Wigman, mother of modern dance, to America. He referred to her as a Teutonic priestess. Because of his own varied interest he was willing to take chances with artists new to America. On Pavlova's advice he introduced the Hindu dancer Uday Shan-Kar, who toured with Pavlova, the Spanish stars Vicente Escudero and Argentinita, and Swiss born mime Trudi Schoop.
Although Katherine Dunham was already a star, he became her manager. Hurok spoke of Dunham as elusive, unpredictable and a combination of exoticism and intellectuality.
Martha Graham the high priestess of contemporary dance was already established artistically when Hurok presented her during the 1946 season . Even though I have been telling you about the Hurok's dance activities, he was busy simultaneously managing other artists: singers, violinists, and orchestras. As his success increased he finally was able to manage his idol, Fyodor Chaliapin. in 1921.
Sol Hurok certainly made ballet part of America's entertainment world, but before him, Adolph Bolm is credited with helping to sow the seeds of appreciation for ballet across the country. After touring as leading dancer with Dighilev's Ballets Russes, Bolm remained in America, bringing ballet companies to Chicago and San Francisco.
After Pavlova's last performance here in 1926 there were only brief spurts of dance activity until Hurok took over the management of the René Blum and Col. V. de Basil Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He brought them to the St. James Theatre in New York City in 1934.
Hurok spoke of his impression of Blum as a genteel, tasteful human being, but his opinion of de Basil, with whom he never got along, was totally different. Unfortunately it was de Basil who accompanied the troupe to America, and it fell to Hurok to pacify this eccentric man. In 1935 Blum and de Basil had a falling out, Blum left and eventually started a new company. Hurok, a shrewd businessman, felt that America couldn't support two ballet companies. He did what he could to get de Basil and Blum to forget their differences, but was unsuccessful and he ended up managing both companies.
The Ballet Russe brought ballet to the masses and I know it was the first ballet company I saw. This company was the catalyst for bringing me and many others into the ballet world.
When Ballet Theatre, founded by Lucia Chase and Richard Pleasant, made its debut in 1940, many dancers left the Ballet Russe to dance with this new company. When Pleasant left Ballet Theatre Hurok took over its management, with Chase. This arrangement lasted only two seasons. As much as Hurok loved ballet, he found dealing with its egos and temperaments more than he could take. When he was writing his autobiography, S. Hurok Presents, in 1953, his first title was To Hell With Ballet.
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, many male dancers departed to join the armed forces, but Hurok thought it was important to keep the companies performing. During World War II, Ballet Russe and Ballet Theatre continued to tour America. The companies had to travel on special cars attached to the troop trains.
S. Hurok Presents always appeared over the name of the performer or organization. The list of artists presented by Hurok was a who's who of the entertainment world. Pavlova, Chaliapin, Isaac Stern, Van Cliburn, Marian Anderson, Authur Rubinstein, The Royal Ballet, The Bolshoi Ballet, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev are just a few of the many famous names.
It matters little that Hurok created the history of his own life. He brought music and dance to the hinterlands of America. Hurok played an important role in America's artistic development. You owe it to yourself to read the excellent biography The Last Impresario (1994) by Harlow Robinson.
(First published April 1997)