The Beginnings of American Ballet

Ballet in the USA started long before many of us would have thought. Companies of dancers visited the Colonies as early as 1735, when England's Henry Holt and his group performed three ballets in Charleston. Because of the Puritan influence, any possibility of starting a ballet company in this country was discouraged.

The first actual ballet given in the new land was presented by Alexander Placide and his wife, performing in Charleston, S.C., in 1791. Included in their first performances in New York City was John Durang, George Washington's favorite entertainer and America's first professional dancer. Alexandre and Mme Placide presented a whole season in New York in 1792. Mme Placide became Prima Ballerina of the New Orleans Theatre, presenting ballets by Noverre and Dauberval.

Paul H. Hazard and his wife, European dancers and members of the Paris Opera, came to America and settled in Philadelphia. They opened the first school of ballet circa 1835. The Hazard school produced three American dancers that became famous in their own time. They were George Washington Smith, Mary Ann Lee and Augusta Maywood.

In 1840 Fanny Elssler came to the States and performed with great success, using an American dancer as her partner, George Washington Smith (b. 1820). Mr. Smith is remembered mostly because he was the first American Albrecht in "Giselle". Remember this information, for it is on the test to get a dance license in New York City. What ballet lovers would love to forget is the Mme. Elssler killed a sailor when he tried to attack and rob her. She kicked him I do not know where, but he did not survive.

George Washington Smith, a young clog dancer, joined Fanny Elssler's Company and eventually became her partner. James Sylvian, Elssler's original partner, taught both Smith and Mary Ann Lee. Sylvian honed these dancers' technique, but later returned to Europe leaving ballet to stagnate.

Mary Ann Lee came from a family of circus performers and her American audience called her "Our Mary Ann." In 1844 she went to Paris to study with Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli. She learned Giselle and La jolie fille de Gand from Carlotta Grisi and La Fille du Danube from Marie Taglioni.

In 1845 Mary Ann returned to the States and formed a small troupe in partnership with George Washington Smith. They were the first Americans to dance Giselle in America and they toured the States for two years. Mary Ann retired from the stage shortly afterward, but George Washington Smith continued to dance (with Lola Montez), teach and choreograph. He also danced with the Ronzani Ballet, with a very young Enrico Cecchetti, during that company's American tour.

Augusta Maywood was born in 1825 to Henry August Williams and his wife, English actors performing in America. The Williams got a divorce and Mrs. Williams married Robert Maywood, manager of the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. Her two daughters took the name Maywood. The oldest daughter, Elizabeth, became an actress. Augusta, at the age of ten, began to study dance with Paul Hazard. She proved to be so talented that within two years she was ready to make her debut. Along with another student of Hazard (Mary Ann Lee) she appeared in an adaptation of The Maid of Cashmere. The star was La Petite Augusta, a popular German Ballerina. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Maywood were the quintessential ballet parents. They took their daughter to New York where she appeared with great success as Zelica in The Mountain Sylph (an American version of La Sylphide). In 1838 the Maywoods went to Paris so Augusta could study with Joseph Maziler and Jean Coralli. Mother Maywood was determined to protect her daughter from the evils of the Opera.

Augusta had a beautifully formed body and a jump that was compared to a wild doe. In 1839 she made her debut at the Paris Opera dancing a pas de deux with Charles Mabille in Le Diable Boiteux and received excellent reviews. She was 14 years old. Her career with the Opera was assured until she eloped with her partner Mabille. They planned to get married in London but Augusta, being a minor without her own passport, was returned to her mother's supervision.

Finally, Mrs. Maywood succumbed to her daughter's pleading and Augusta and Mabille were married. They left the Opera to dance in Marseilles where Augusta and her husband had a child. When she discovered she was pregnant again by another man she abandoned her husband and daughter. The Mabilles had a legal separation, but remained on good terms. They signed a lucrative joint contract and continued performing together with great success in Vienna. Augusta had a third child, fathered by yet another man. She then left Vienna and settled in Milan.

For the next twelve years Augusta was a ballerina at La Scala. La Scala's programs listed her as prima ballerina assoluta. In Europe she was compared to all the great romantic ballerinas of the nineteenth century, although Cyril Beaumont, the British critic, doesn't even acknowledge her existence. Fanny Elssler helped her by making sure that Augusta appeared in the leading role of many of her ballets.

Back home in America, the news of her lifestyle made her unwelcome in the States. This snub didn't seem to bother her. Augusta got tired of others dictating to her and of depending upon unreliable managers of local theaters, so she formed her own touring company with sets, costumes, music and corps de ballet. She was the first dancer to take on these responsibilities.

In 1858 her husband, Charles Mabille, died leaving her free to marry her lover, Carlo Gardini. She retired and opened a ballet school in Vienna with her new husband. She again had a baby, and Gardini claimed it was not his. Unfortunately the child died within a few hours. Gardini left her and went to Sasso-Marconi and opened a school of his own.

Augusta continued to teach dance and choreographed several ballets. At the age of 51 she contracted smallpox; her death went unnoticed by her thousands of admirers.

Augusta was the only American to achieve the rank of prima ballerina in Europe and held that honor until Nana Gollner became prima ballerina of Colonel de Basil's Ballet Russes in 1935.

"The Black Crook" a theatrical extravaganza, opened in 1866 and during its very long run introduced generations of Americans to the art of ballet. Hundreds of dancers were used in its long run and tour, that lasted until 1909. It was the start of the Music Hall and Variety show. Many of these dancers opened schools of dance throughout the country. Some of us or our teachers started in such schools.

(First published September 1993)

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