“Thank you, dear Lucia”: American Ballet Theatre celebrates 75 years

Two years before the Japanese bombed the American fleet in Pearl Harbor in December 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt began to prepare the nation for war but early in 1940 he was still proposing a new “freedom”, a “freedom from fear, a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour – anywhere in the world”.

Did he really believe this dream could become reality? Or was he still hoping along with all Americans that peace would somehow prevail. As 1940 was ushered in, life did seem to continue as normal, or as normal as it could be in the first few months of World War 2 in Europe.

The bands of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller played on, Judy Garland had entranced the nation with one of the hits of the 20th century, Over the Rainbow, Fred Astaire danced up a storm with Eleanor Powell in the movie, Broadway Melody of 1940, and Garland went on to star in a new Broadway production of Strike Up The Band.

And on 11 January, 1940, at the Center Theatre in Radio City Music Hall, a new company was born. The theatre was full to capacity for the premiere performance of Ballet Theatre, (later renamed American Ballet Theatre), promoted in posters around the city as a company soon to present “The Greatest Ballets of All Times staged by the Greatest Collaboration in History”.

The opening night was a triple bill: Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides, The Great American Goof, choreographed by Eugene Loring, who also danced the title role, and Mikhail Mordkin’s Voices of Spring.

The most praise was given to Les Sylphides, rehearsed by the choreographer himself, with Loring’s ballet considered a failure by most critics. It subsequently sank without trace.

The three week season included 21 ballets with six world premieres and five American premieres. Antony Tudor’s The Judgment of Paris, Dark Elegies and Jardin aux Lilas – three ballets he had choreographed for the Ballet Rambert – were the biggest critical successes.

Tudor had relocated from London to the US only three months before Ballet Theatre began.

The central figure in the company was its co-founder, the dancer, Lucia Chase, who was also the benefactor. Her personal fortune kept it floating for a number of years but the continual pain of feeding in money was a constant frustration for her. Her co-founder was a Hollywood agent, Richard Pleasant, who left the company to be succeeded by the designer, Oliver Smith, in 1945.

In 2009, the University of Press, Florida, published Bravura! Lucia Chase and the American Ballet Theatre, written by Chase’s son, Alex C. Ewing. I can highly recommend it as a portrait of a fascinating woman and an important account of the company’s history, up to and including the time when Kevin McKenzie became artistic director.

In 1980, Lucia Chase retired from the company and Mikhail Baryshnikov became the artistic director. Chase died in 1986. At her memorial service Oliver Smith said of his friend and colleague: “Lucia could have enjoyed a social existence and entirely indulged herself with its sybaritic pleasures. Instead, she spent her fortune and her entire energy in helping create and sustain one of the world’s great dance companies.

“Her main concern was artistic excellence, professional behavior, and survival. She saw the company through wars, fires, financial instability, and internal turbulence, always with faith in its future existence….What greater or more generous gift could one leave for us to admire and cherish? Thank you, dear Lucia”.

Footnote: Ballet Theatre’s first performance shares a date with the first production of Romeo and Juliet danced to the score by Prokofiev. The Kirov Ballet premiered the production, with choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky, in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) on 11 January 1940.

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American Ballet Theatre, 1948, photo © Irving Penn, top row: Hugh Laing, John Krizia, Igor Youskevitch: second row: Muriel Bentley, Alicia Alonso, Antony Tudor, Oliver Smith, Dimitri Romonoff, Lucia Chase, Nora Kaye, Max Goberman

Marcelo Gomes and Gillian Murphy, photo © Gene Schiavone