Ballet in America: What Do You Really Know?

November 7, 2004 (rev August 12, 2005)

When other performers in the theater talk about dancers they often say that dancers are the hardest workers and the most dedicated people in the theater -- and yet the dancers themselves know very little about the history of dance. I hate to believe that they couldn't care. Today's dancers seem to think that dance has always been here, as if created at the same time the earth took form. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The earliest instances of theatrical dance in America were small European companies braving the rough ocean to perform in the new land. Some stayed and taught dance to an audience who had never seen ballet. There were three American dancers who did what they could to bring ballet to this country. They were George Washington Smith, Augusta Maywood, and Mary Ann Lee. Unfortunately, their efforts had no staying power. Fanny Essler, from the Paris Opera, had a big success in America -- but after her two-year stay, ballet went back to clog dancing and visiting companies from Europe.

When we hear the name Ballet Russes we think of one company. However, after Sergei Diaghilev's death other companies capitalized on his name. Most of these companies used the name Ballet Russes in one form or another.

Diaghilev's Ballet Russes was the premier ballet company in Europe from 1909 to 1929. After his death it took three years before another major company emerged. The New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and The San Francisco Ballet are direct descendants of Diaghilev's Ballet Russes. The oldest of this group is The San Francisco Ballet, founded in 1933. The same year the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo made its first tour to America.

Smaller companies did exist before Diaghilev's death,, most made up of defectors from his company. Anna Pavlova, one of the first defectors, traveled to almost every little town in America in an effort to make ballet an art form in the States. She never established a school or an American ballet company, but she did inspire many young girls to become dancers.

Anna Pavlova left Russia in 1910 and never returned to her homeland. She traveled throughout the world spreading the love of ballet, until her death in 1931.

Pavlova and Mikhail Mordkin appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910. Mikhail Mordkin left Pavlova's company to form his own All-Star Imperial Russian Ballet. He hired as many of Diaghilev's dancers as were willing to leave the famous Ballet Russes.

Adolph Bolm, another Diaghilev dancer, organized Ballet Intime, which toured America from 1918 to1920. He was the creative force behind the Chicago Opera, and in 1933 he founded the San Francisco Opera Ballet. When Ballet Theatre was ready to open in New York, they invited Bolm to choreograph their first season.

Leonide Massine left Diaghilev to dance with other defectors, and from 1927 to 1930 he became the choreographer at the famous Roxy Theater in New York City. No wonder Diaghilev felt hurt -- it was through his efforts that all these dancers were brought to the West.

Diaghilev's Ballet Russes remained the major ballet company in the Western World until his death in 1929. Because of the other companies there was work for some of the dancers -- but it was hard times for most.

Rene Blum, director of the Monte Carlo Ballet, and Colonel Vassili De Basil, in association with the L'Opera a Paris, joined together to continue Diaghilev's tradition of ballet. They hired George Balanchine and Leonide Massine as choreographers, and Serge Grigoriev. Grigoriev had the ability to remember every detail of the famous repertoire. For the publicity, Balanchine introduced the "Three Baby Ballerinas" - Tamara Tourmanova, Irina Baronova, and Tatianna Riabouchinska.

The repertoire consisted mostly of the ballet of Diaghilev's company and new works by Balanchine and Massine. The audiences preferred the ballets of the old Ballet Russes and Massine's newer ballets. After the first year Balanchine was fired -- but he struck out on his own to create his company, Ballet 1933. The company was, unfortunately, a financial failure. Lincoln Kirsten had been a fan of Balanchine's ballets for some time, and when Balanchine was in need of work Kirsten and Edward M.M. Warburg offered him and Vladimir Dimitriew an invitation to come to America and establish a school.

When the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo was about to declare bankruptcy, Sol Hurok took over the management. Hurok booked the company in the States at the St. James Theater in New York City. Hurok lost a large amount of money at the beginning, but the second season saw a larger audience. Then Hurok thought it was time that ballet took its rightful place in America, and booked the company into the Metropolitan Opera House. This move was a great success, and he changed the name to the singular Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

Difficulties between Rene Blum and Vassili De Basil caused Blum to give up his share in the company, leaving De Basil and Leonide Massine to run the company. After his contract was finished, Massine returned to Monte Carlo and with Blum formed another company, with Julius Fleischmann, of Fleischmann Yeast, as president. New York financier Serge Denham served as vice-president. They went to court to see who owned the name. Once the case was settled, both companies were able to keep the name Ballet Russe, but De Basil had to drop de Monte Carlo.

Sol Hurok severed his connection with De Basil and became manager of Blum and Massine. He thought that America could not support two ballet companies and tried to get them back together. His efforts failed.

Finally, Sol Hurok managed both ballet companies. He arranged Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to play four weeks at the Hollywood Theater (now called The Mark Hellinger), and immediately followed with the Original Ballet Russe (De Basil's new name). It was the longest season to hit New York City - a solid fifteen weeks. .

When World War II started the company remained in the States, but Rene Blum stayed in Europe. He was imprisoned by the Germans at Auschwitz Concentration Camp, and was murdered by the Nazis. When Fleischmann retired as president of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Serge Denham took over the helm and held the position until his untimely death after being hit by a bus on Fifth Avenue in 1970.

Ballet Theatre and Balanchine's American Ballet began taking many of the dancers away from both companies. Marquis George de Cuevas founded a new company, first called Ballet International and later the Grand Ballet De Monte Carlo. The common thread uniting all these companies was Sol Hurok.

Next: When Did It All Change?