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I was there!

The world of Balanchine, Robbins, Tudor, De Mille, et al... in 1940’s NY

“… one day Mr. Balanchine came in to watch class, and after class he asked me if I’d like to be in his show “Song of Norway”, which he had choreographed on Broadway.”

— Barbara Cole Folsom

This is the company that Barbara kept during her time in 1940’s and 50’s NY.  

The legendary faces in the photo above, seated on the bench from left to right are: Maria Tallchief, George Balanchine, Tanaquil Le Clercq.  Around the piano, clockwise from left are: Melissa Hayden, Frederick Ashton, Diana Adams, Janet Reed, Jerome Robbins, Antony Tudor, Nora Kaye.

The photo was taken February 1952

When I watched the American Ballet Theatre documentary chronicling its 75-year history with rare historical footage from its early days in the 1940’s, who knew that some 7 months later I would meet a ballet dancer from that actual time!

This was back in March, when my business partner Lana found out that a neighbour was acquainted with a 91 year-old ballerina living practically next door.  Naturally, I flipped!

The neighbor mentioned something about the ballerina being from New York – an even more exciting piece of news, since NY is an epicenter of the ballet world.  For me, this translated into an increased likelihood of the dancer having had a serious background — and a great story for us!

our note to the ballerina

It turns out the two ladies took a dance class at the local Y that involved Zumba mixed in with a bit of tough love from their instructor, who reportedly hurries the students to take their water breaks without a moment’s waste, immediately returning them to the dance floor… this I heard later on.

So of course, Lana, asked our neighbour to connect us somehow, to find out if this lady would be interested in meeting with us.

Our neighbour returned with instruction asking us to write a note to our person of interest in the way of an introduction, which she would then pass on to the ballerina, whose name we still didn’t know.

We obliged, the neighbour passed our note on and came back with the verdict: her classmate loved it and was enthused to meet. Finally someone wanted to see her, and not her husband, a 98-year old WWII pilot veteran who gets all the attention in their family… “not many of these left, ”she later affectionately admitted referring to him.

Barbara, whose name we finally learned through her phone call to Lana, set up a meeting with us for Friday, March 22nd at her place… just several miles from us in Santa Monica.

The day finally came and this is how our conversation went…

our commemorative parking pass from that day at Barbara’s place

Pack your bags for New York

We did the customary meet and greet and engaged in a bit of repartee about Barbara’s adventures accompanying her husband in his post as military attaché at the height of the cold war – definite spy novel material! – but this would have to wait.  We were there for one reason, and one reason only… which Barbara’s endearing husband well understood.  So after our initial exchange, Barbara began to recount the unforgettable moments in her remarkable journey:

Flyer from Balanchine’s school, which he established in 1934, together with his patron, the distinguished dance scholar Lincoln Kirstein

… when I graduated from high school, I packed my little bag, I went to New York the next day and went to the School of American Ballet… started by George Balanchine.

… one day Mr. Balanchine came in to watch class, and after class he asked me if I’d like to be in his show Song of Norway, which he had choreographed on Broadway.

So I said: “Well, Mr. Balanchine I really want to be in a ballet company, I didn’t think about Broadway.” — where did I have the nerve to say that!”  Barbara bashfully remembers.

Balanchine said: “It’s good experience!  You do my show, maybe later ballet company.”

Balanchine teaching some of his first notable dancers at the School of American Ballet (circa early 1940’s); photo credit Time Life Pictures /Getty Images

A little before Barbara’s arrival, the studio photo here shows Balanchine teaching class at his School of American Ballet (SAB) in the early 1940’s. The dancers from back to front are: Anne Barlow, Marie-Jeanne (Balanchine’s famous ballerina of the 1940’s), Georgia Hiden, Jane Ward, June Horvath, Kathryn Lee, and Mary Ellen Moylan, called the first great Balanchine dancer” by Balanchine’s star ballerina and former wife Maria Tallchief.

Balanchine working with Mary Ellen Moylan; photo by Hans Knopf from Jacob’s Pillow Archives (1942)

'Lucky"

Encouraged by her mom who more than anything wanted to be a classical dancer herself, but was not physically cut out for it, Barbara started ballet early on receiving her training at the Washington School of Ballet.

Barbara holds a photo of herself strking a pose on the Queen Mary, with Alicia Alonso in the background (right)

“I was fortunate that I had good training through childhood…” Barbara recalls. And it’s no wonder, as her teacher in Washington had been a Russian-trained dancer who actually toured with the Anna Pavlova Company.

Between her schooling in Washington and the final period of prep at Balanchine’s school in NY, Barbara had accumulated a good dose of Russian methodology and Vaganova instruction under her belt, enough to outshine her competitive peers and soon grab the attention of Balanchine, de Mille, Tudor and more!

… though Barbara frequently repeats in the conversation that she was ‘lucky’.

There’s certainly a measure of disbelieving innocence that comes through Barb when she recalls her fortuitously wild ride, but perhaps there’s also a dose of truth to this ‘lucky’ business, owing to the opportune showbiz era of 1940’s & ‘50’s NY and LA.  Barbara herself attests to this when talking about her departure from Song of Norway, where her shoes were eagerly filled with the likes of Mitzi Gaynor – box-office star of hits including South Pacific and There’s No Business Like Show Business.

“I don’t know why I was so lucky, but I certainly was, it wouldn’t happen now…” she told us.

Antony Tudor

Before taking off for her next venture, Barbara accepted Balanchine’s offer and went on to perform in Song of Norway.  In the meantime, like any other professional ballet dancer, she continued her lifelong classes.  One class she took was with the legendary English choreographer Antony Tudor.

Tudor is known for his psychological ballets pushing dancers to strip the ego and move beyond the boundaries of one’s own personality, thus allowing the dancer to enter and vividly reveal the world of the character they are portraying.

As celeb ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov put it:  “We do Tudor’s ballets because we must. Tudor’s work is our conscience.”

Antony Tudor
the famous Gelsey Kirkland and Jonas Kage performing a pas de deux in Tudor’s ballet “The Leaves are Fading"; photo by Martha Swope (c. 1975)

So after class he [Tudor] came up to me and said: “How would you like to be in Ballet Theatre, this company that just started?”  And I said, “ It sounds wonderful, I’d love it.”   So I packed my bag and went off on tour with Ballet Theatre. That was in 1946.

“Oh, I missed one step!” Barbara tells us. No big deal – it’s only her experience with Agnes de Mille!

Agnes de Mille

Agnes de Mille in 1954; photo credit: Everett

It turns out that during her stint in Song of Norway, Barbara took a several week course with the celebrated American choreographer, who took notice of young Barb and offered her a spot in her most famous musical:

… I took a course that Agnes de Mille, the Broadway choreographer, was doing at a school in New York… and after the final class she called me over and she said “how would you like to be in Oklahoma, my Broadway show?

And I said: “Sounds like fun, but I’m already in a show, I’m in Song of Norway.”

Barbara tells us that de Mille wasted no time in instructing her new found talent on leaving Balanchine’s production and joining her own:

She [de Mille] said:  “You take your two weeks, the union rules that you have to have two weeks notice to leave the show, and you come and watch, and we teach you what you would do in Oklahoma.”

But the Broadway dame showed Barbara the other side of a ruthless business when the young dancer decided to take leave of Oklahoma for her next big opportunity:

… after about three months, that’s when Antony Tudor asked me to go into [American] Ballet Theatre. So I gave in my notice to Oklahoma and de Mille was furious, she was just livid, she said: “I’ll tell you when you’re ready to leave the show!!”

And I thought, how cruel, and being only 18 I just quivered, it was awful.

Of course there’s much more to De Mille than that!

in character... Agnes George de Mille

Born in NY, into a family tree whose members were visibly accomplished writers, directors and producers in early film and theatre, as well as activists in the economic sphere, Agnes George de Mille compiles within herself a unique portrait embracing all these traits.

In her early life, Agnes moved to LA where her playwright father sought to launch his career following in the footsteps of his successful brother, filmmaker Cecil B. de Mille.

Agnes De Mille in a photo by Nickolas Muray (circa 1928)

Discouraged from her dream of becoming an actress on account of her looks, and not allowed to pursue dancing seriously as it was still considered a “pastime” in the early decades of 1900, Agnes resorted to studying film stars on the set with her dad, an occupation which she found interesting and one which served as her immersion into character study.

After graduating college with a degree in English, Agnes moved back to NY with her mother and sister, where she would begin her long and arduous pursuit of a career in dance and theatre.  Lacking the natural endowment attributed to a classical dancer, de Mille was driven to use her talent to create stories and character roles performing them in solo recitals, which were well received in the professional arena.  

But Agnes’ projects were not moneymakers, and the young innovator sought another route towards destiny, travelling to London with her mother, where her potential was noticed and encouraged by Marie Rambert at whose establishment de Mille would study for the next five years.

Now acquiring sufficient professional skill as a dancer and continuing her staging work, de Mille’s next chapter would bring her back to NY where she would combine her dance and writing acumen in her travels across the US and Europe as a performer and emerging choreographer who staged her first works with Ballet Rambert*, and later with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

Over the course of her lifetime, Agnes de Mille developed an award-winning scope of work that spanned from ballet to theatre, musicals, films and even literature, with a distinct style of movement integrating modern and folk, and a daring flair for the dramatic, in a genre that was predominantly ‘good ole’ American storytelling.  De mille went on to carve out a niche of her very own as a 20th century artistic and cultural icon.  

*Incidentally, Ballet Rambert, today simply “Rambert”, is named after Marie Rambert, a dancer with the original Ballets Russes who was always tenderly remembered as a great teacher by her famous student, Audrey Hepburn.

This eventful period in Barbara’s life was also a memorable time for the entire country, as she herself told us:

… that summer I can remember the final day of the war trying to get home up Broadway, and it was just packed.  The whole of Times Square was packed with people, and everybody was grabbing and kissing and I just wanted to get home and to bed… it was a wonderful time for the country.

Presumably Barbara is talking about the very same day that this infamous WWII Victory picture was taken in Times Square.

Aug. 14, 1945, known as “V-J Day in Times Square” and more commonly called “The Kiss,” this image was published two weeks later in Life magazine; photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Ballet Theatre

Barbara accepted Tudor’s invitation and in 1946 traveled to England with her new family at Ballet Theatre for their international debut at Covent Garden:

… we went to England, we were the first American company that had been there at the end of the war – and it was just wonderful… We performed at Covent Garden Opera House and walked through the garden, the market to get to the Opera House and heard all the funny accents: ‘hello love…’

snapshot from ABT's history timeline commemorating the company's 75th Anniversary
The beginnings of American Ballet Theatre… clipping of a 1940 newspaper ad with ticket prices from 55 cents to $2.20. Choreographers include DeMille, Tudor... dancers include Chase, Laing, Lyon, Tudor, Romanoff…

Barbara proceeded to tell us that the repertoire brought over to England by the original American Ballet Theatre included classics like Swan Lake and Les Sylphides, and that the company did what they called a ‘ham and eggs’ program while touring:

We’d have the costumes ready, the music ready for the orchestra, and you would do Les Sylphides to start, and there would be a sort of comic ballet like Fancy Free, or light things.  And then we’d end up with a big rousing group like Petrushka…

But it turns out that touring is also where some of Barbara’s not so good memories reside:

… we travelled by train and sometimes the train schedule would be:

you’d leave late at night and you would arrive at the theatre the next afternoon, go right to the theatre, warm up, do some rehearsing wherever you could space it on the stage, and then do the performance, and then go back to the hotel and collapse.

It was not for me, I couldn’t stand it.  So I did it for 2 years, and then I decided that I would rather go back to Broadway.

Back to Broadway

As luck, or perhaps fate would have it, Barbara next hooked up with the historic dance figure Ruth Page, to perform in her Broadway show Music in My Heart, a tribute to the life of the Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

It turns out that Ruth Page and Barbara’s teacher in Washington knew each other because the two had been together in the company of none other than the legendary Anna Pavlova. “That’s real history!” as Barbara put it.

American dancer and choreographer Ruth Page as Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet”, one of three Shakespearean characters she adapted for dance during this time (c. 1939)
Ruth Page and Harald Kreutzberg in Bacchanale, photo by Maurice Seymour (Chicago, c. 1934)
Ruth Page as Lady Macbeth in her choreographed adaptation of “MacBeth” (c. 1939)

After ABT… I did a show called Music in My Heart and it was choreographed by Ruth Page.

Ruth Page had her own company in Chicago, and she was asked to choreograph this show…  I understudied the lead dancer, and there was a little song that went with it, it was fun…

… the understudy part opened up because the woman who did it, Dorothy Etheridge, had been in… she was Ballet Russe, and she left to go back to Ballet Russe and I got the part to study, so that was lucky for me, again lucky… that I got to do that.

SIDEBAR

A word on Anna Pavlova.

After a short run with the Ballets Russes, the unrivaled prima of the Imperial Russian Ballet proceeded to form her own company, which toured the world with a repertoire based on the works of Russia’s luminary choreographer Marius Petipa, as well as arrangements commissioned especially for Pavlova herself.

“a very enterprising and daring act. She toured on her own… for twenty years until her death. She traveled everywhere in the world that travel was possible, and introduced the ballet to millions who had never seen any form of Western dancing.”

— Quote from Agnes de Mille, The Book of the Dance (1963)

James Starbuck, Sid Caesar and early Television

Barbara’s next opportunity came knocking without delay, when her former dance partner James Starbuck was asked to choreograph for a television variety show called Admiral Broadway Revue and called on Barbara to be in a talent group he was putting together.

Starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, the 1949 series ran for just 6 months serving as the predecessor to the small screen hit Your Show of Shows which debuted on NBC early the next year.

But it’s much more interesting to hear it in Barbara’s own words:

… it (Music in My Heart) probably occupied a year of my life. 

… then after it closed, the young man who had been my partner, James Starbuck, had the new choreography in the summers at a place called Lake Tamiment [a resort in the Pocono Mountains]…

They wanted 3 men, 3 women to dance and be in comedy sketches.  So he called me and came over to the apartment and I had quickly pressed a dress and got myself all dressed up to meet the director/ producer…

1949 Playbill Program Advertising TV Admiral Broadway Revue
James Starbuck rehearsing choreography with ballet’s grand Dame Alicia Markova for “Your Show of Shows” (1953)
Imogene Coca

Here’s Barbara’s recollection of her time working with the great talent Imogene Coca:

… we did a show called Admiral Broadway Revue. And that was for Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca who was a very funny lady… she had danced in her youth and she did parodies of the swan, Swan Lake, they put her on wires and she would fly overhead, and she did the exact choreography, but just made it look so clumsy… she was wonderful!

And so until the show lost its sponsor, Admiral appliance company, it was another great year with another great gig in Barbara’s action-packed life:

… I loved it! (laughs)  … that was my introduction to television… I did a lot of television shows and early tests for color TV, you know, originally it was all black and white…

“Then I went to Europe for a while…“ Barbara starts to tell us, but her stream of thought is interrupted and we may have lost a precious piece of biographical data … maybe we’ll revisit that one!

Washington Ballet... the beginnings

“I was in New York for 5 years before I went back to Washington…” which is where Barbara was asked to teach at her alma mater, The Washington School of Ballet.

… I taught for them for a couple of years… the company wasn’t union then… it was still sort of like an amateur company, but with some very talented dancers, and then they started getting funding and they had the union come in and set up their part.

Program cover page for the Washington Ballet’s inaugural Nutcracker in 1961; image from The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

Another interesting tidbit from an insider into the very beginnings of the now formidable Washington Ballet Company, which as their own webpage says: “…grew out of the success of The Washington School of Ballet…”

And again, Barbara was there!

Washington had no theatre at that time… well one.  It was called the National Theatre, and it had a fairly small stage because it was for plays, not for ballet… the stage was just too small.  So they performed in a hall, in Constitution Hall which was built for the DAR.

Do you know what the DAR is?  They’re a bunch of old ladies who remember the Civil War…

And this is where Barbara’s husband who has been patiently sitting with us the whole time and waiting for his moment, animatedly chimes in:  “Daughters of the American Revolution!”

DAR Constitution Hall in Washington DC opened in 1929, built to host the annual DAR convention

Another parameter of Washington Ballet’s early performance venue, as Barbara reveals is:

“They couldn’t have scenery, so whenever I saw a ballet, you’d have to use your imagination.”

Washington Ballet founder Mary Day; photo from The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

For all of us who are building an idea from the ground up, it’s comforting to know that all the biggies had to start somewhere!

And speaking of starting out, here’s some encouragement about the power of your vision from The Washington Ballet, talking about their founder, Mary Day:

The School opened in 1944 and the Company was established in 1976 with Ms. Day’s singular vision clearly illuminated:

create a stellar institution of teaching, creating, and enlightenment through dance.

Barbara’s life remained busy and anything but boring.  Along with her teaching, she performed at a theatre just opening in the DC area:

… there was a theatre there opening called… Arena Stage, a theatre in the round, the audience would be all around you and would perform in the middle, so I was acting all the ingénue roles, the sweet little girls that never get the man.

On top of her performing and teaching schedule, Barbara would go down to the local air base to give ballet lessons to the otherwise idle children only too eager to engage in this activity.

… once a week I would go down to Patuxent Naval Air Station… where the children have nothing to do, so I’d make a fortune, every little girl on the air station wanted to take ballet classes, so they’d come over…

This is what Barbara’s husband, Sam Folsom, must have looked like around the time they met. Sam Folsom is one of the last living WWII Marine fighter pilots. (circa 1940’s)

This is also the part where Barbara meets the man in her life:

… and Mr. Folsom, Kernel Folsom, well no you were Major then [Barbara turns to confer with her husband, Sam].  He was producing a show for the March of Dimes for charity, and somebody told him that the ballet teacher might be willing to dance in his show. So he came over and saw me collecting all this money from all these little girls, and that was it, that did it.  Love at first sight.

Before moving onto the highlight of our get together – an impressive, weathered scrapbook with tattered edges, waiting to tell us stories torn right from the pages of glorious dance history…

…before we moved onto this magnificent object just waiting to divulge what it had inside, we got an additional archival treat.  Another article in the room was also asking for our attention – an impressive looking, large, gold covered book.

Barbara shows us the American Ballet Theater Coffee Table Book (a gift from her husband) with herself on the inside cover, standing right

It was the 1970s American Ballet Theater Coffee Table Book with photos by Cecil Beaton. Barbara proudly took it in her hands and opened it up.  There she was, young Barb in costume right on the inside cover!

“That was taken in London by Cecil Beaton… That’s me, and that’s my roommate Francis Rainer…” Barbara pointed to photos in the spread.

And now onto the centerpiece of our discussion: the scrapbook. A compilation of Barbara’s Broadway and Ballet Theatre “memorabilia” as she calls it.

The Scrapbook

We situated ourselves around the book and Barbara started leafing through it.

We start off with the Song of Norway booklet showing the original cast members of the Balanchine production:

“There’s no picture of me in the book because I went in after…” Barbara explains.

Ballet Theatre’s annual production booklet with a page on Balanchine and his works including “Song of Norway”

Barbara shows us production booklet covers from “Song of Norway”

The original Song of Norway was Ballet Russe, all the dancers he used were people taken from Ballet Russe. And when they had to leave to go on tour, that was when I got in.

… All these girls were Ballet Russe: Sonja Tyven, Mary Ellen Wallace (Moylan?), Pauline Goddard – and she didn’t go back to Ballet Russe, she left and did more Broadway shows.. and we were in another… TV show, she was one of the three of us…

In my research on the “girls” names that Barbara calls off, I came across a historic photo that former Ballets Russe dancer Pauline Goddard shared in an interview several years back, showing Balanchine with herself (Pauline Goddard) on right, Maria Tallchief in center; Mary Ellen Moylan Hanks behind Pauline. I’ve since found a better version of this same photo in a blog by The George Balanchine Foundation, featured here. 

historic photo showing Balanchine with Barbara’s one-time pal, former Ballets Russe dancer Pauline Goddard on right; Maria Tallchief in center; Mary Ellen Moylan Hanks behind Pauline

Moving on to Oklahoma! Barbara tells us:

“…my future roommate Frances Rainer was also in Oklahoma, so we went into Ballet Theatre together and roomed together.”

Below, Barbara points to her name in the 1946 cast of Oklahoma!  The images also show write-ups following Barbara’s career from various news sources including the Washington Post, dated April 6, 1946.

Production booklet with photos of Oklahoma! playwright, scenic & costume designers on left side opposite cast members on right
Barbara points to her name in the 1946 cast of Oklahoma
Oklahoma Playbill cover surrounded by newspaper clippings on Barbara “Babbie” Cole

Next Barbara walks us through a series of newspaper clippings:

Now here we were arriving in London and these are historic names in ballet…

That’s Melissa Hayden (born Mildred Herman) who was corps de ballet back then.

Ricki (Enrica) Soma married John Huston eventually, the movie director… she was a beautiful girl, looked very much like the Mona Lisa painting…

All these are all ABT… there I am.  And we arrived in London…

The top right corner photo captioned “Meeting the English Press” shows Barbara (far left) among a notable group of Ballet Theatre dancers performing in London in August of 1946. The article is titled “Ballet Theatre in London”, dated September 1946
Barbara’s colleagues: ABT company artists including Enrica Soma, Ruth Ann Koesun and Erik Bruhn in a production booklet from Barbara’s scrapbook
Chicago-born ABT dancer of Chinese-Russian descent, noted for her classic grace, Ruth Ann Koesun had a remarkable career including a White House performance in “Billy the Kid” for President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1962, and was featured on the cover of a 1947 Life Magazine alongside Melissa Hayden (Koesun in profile)

Melissa Hayden

After her time with American Ballet Theatre from 1945 to 1947, Melissa Hayden, the Canadian born daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, danced with the New York City Ballet for over 3 decades, almost 2 of those decades as Prima ballerina
Melissa Hayden

Enrica "Ricki" Soma

American Ballet Theatre dancer Enrica "Ricki" Soma
Ballet dancer Enrica "Ricki" Soma in a 1946 photo by Philippe Halsman; Soma was the 4th wife of film director John Huston and mother of actress Anjelica Huston

Michael Kidd

… when I said there were choreographers who were still dancing [at Ballet Theatre], I didn’t mention Michael Kidd … Michael Kidd did the choreography for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers… a lot of other musicals too… choreographing and dancing.

Michael Kidd in the Ballet Theatre production booklet from Barbara’s scrapbook
Michael Kidd talking with Fred Astaire during filming of subway scene in The Band Wagon (1953)

Barbara was certainly in the right time and place with Ballet Theatre, which turned out to be a talent goldmine where a fair number of future dance, theatre and film icons got their start. Michael Kidd, who happened to be at Ballet Theatre from 1942 to 1947 is a case in point.

The talented “kidd” from Brooklyn who started off with the name Milton Greenwald, was born in 1915 to Russian immigrants who had fled the falling Russian Empire on the brink of revolution.

Kidd’’s inclination for dance came through in school, though he would diverge from his path with several years of college in chemical engineering, which perhaps mainly served to spur his appetite for his number one choice.  Either way, Kidd could not be held back from his calling and joined the School of American Ballet as a scholarship student in 1937. 

The student quickly became the dancer, performing with American Ballet and associated companies.

Michael Kidd’s signature ability to artistically mimic personality styles and mannerisms turning them into choreography, seamlessly woven into the fabric of a story, was impossible to miss from the get-go.  His opportunity to do his thing came at Ballet Theatre in 1945 with his first production On Stage! about a stagehand who falls in love with a dancer.

This was followed by his rapid ascension to the heights of Broadway with Hollywood less than a step behind, and the rest is history for the 5-time Tony Award winner who cast his fellow company member Barbara in his premiere ballet.

Michael Kidd in choreography mode

Barbara reminiscently points to photos in her scrapbook article naming off her peers in the Ballet Theatre company aboard the Queen Mary in September of 1946:

Here we are on the Queen Mary… going over to London… that’s me and this is Alicia Alonso, she was the Cuban ballerina… And that’s John Kriza…

Barbara's famous Ballet Theatre colleagues aboard the Queen Mary

John Kriza

Berwyn, Ill.native John Kriza was a vibrant, engaging principal dancer representing Ballet Theatre for over 2 decades from its very start in 1940, a key figure in introducing ballet to the American audience
Jerome Robbins, John Kriza, Michael Kidd, Janet Reed, and Muriel Bentley in Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free (ABT, 1944)
Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina Assoluta, Choreographer

Alicia Alonso

Alicia Alonso, who is distinguished with the title prima ballerina assoluta – a rare merit reserved for only the most exceptional dancers – is an artist whose inspiration extended into the sphere of culture and politics, affecting the ideals of both her own country and the world.  Arguably her greatest gift is her living legacy, the Cuban National Ballet, (aka Ballet Nacional de Cuba) founded in 1948, along with its associate educational institution, the prestigious Cuban National Ballet School, (established in 1950).

Born in Havana, Alonso began her formal ballet education with the Russian-born ballet teacher and Cuban choreographer Nikolai Yavorsky at the Pro-Arte Musical Society in Havana (Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical) in 1931, the same year that Yavorsky was invited to direct the dance school established by the Society.  Around 1937, Alicia moved to NYC with her fellow ballet-student husband, where she continued to study at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, associated with the New York City Ballet.

Afflicted with a serious eye condition, Alicia underwent a series of surgeries, forcing her to be bedridden for extensive periods of time, with instruction not to move or even laugh – lest it may affect the healing process of the eye. During this time, with the continuous devotion of her husband, Alicia continued to study dance on a daily basis, teaching herself great classical ballet roles including Giselle using just her fingers.

The surgeries proved unsuccessful and Alicia was left partially blind, but unstoppable.  Adjusting her technique and partner skills to work with her, she continued to perform at an optimal level, as a top-notch artist for years to come.

I danced in my mind,” is her famous quote and a testament to the conviction of the true dancer in us, no matter the journey.

Alicia Alonso shows her spirit in her famous ballet role Carmen; original photo from ICAIC
Alicia Alonso in flight performing Giselle, one of her best-known roles

“Did you meet Jerome Robbins?” we ask.

“Oh sure, we were all in the company together…” Barbara informs us:

… in fact, not many people would warm up before the performance, and I just felt I had to, I didn’t want to hurt myself.  So I would warm up holding onto the piano, and he [Jerome Robbins] would warm up holding onto something else. The two of us… claim to fame.

Barbara's warm-up buddy at Ballet Theatre
Jerome Robbins immersed in imaginative focus (circa early 1940’s)

Jerome Robbins

Barbara’s warm-up buddy went on to create legendary works on Broadway known by audiences far and wide, including the big hits West Side Story, The King and I and Fiddler on the Roof.

Born in Manhattan, Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz, whose surname would later change to Robbins, came into a family of Russian-Jewish origin with ties to vaudeville and theatre showbiz society.

In high school, Robbins studied modern dance with a teacher who encouraged improvising steps to music, inspiring a play of imagination and a feeling of freedom to tell stories through movement in the young Jerome.  

In addition to modern, Robbins studied various forms of dance including folk, Spanish and Asian as well as classical ballet with a member of the Pavlova Ballet Company, Ella Daganova, known for her thoroughness in training.  Robbins’ dance education also included the learning of dance composition and performing with the Yiddish Art Theater.

Working with the artforms of classical ballet and modern dance through the media of stage, film and television, Jerome Robbins reached iconic status as an American choreographer, director and theatre producer.

Recipient of five Tony Awards, two Academy Awards for directing and a Kennedy Center Honoree, Jerome Robbins is not only a name in history, but a great example of how our impressionable childhood imagination is fostered by our exposure to the richness of arts and culture, and our potentials are shaped through the opportunities afforded by our environment.

We move onto the next series of photos of a less known ballet about which Barbara educates us:

Les Patineurs we did, that’s the ballet about the skaters and they [Ballet Theatre] put it together, cast it, in London because it was choreographed by [Frederick] Ashton, the British choreographer — and they chose me to be in it!

Of course we ask Barbara if she ever saw the famous maestro. “Once, he came in to approve the casting, but then he turned it over to an assistant,” she tells us.

Barbara shows us Les Patineurs ballet scenery image

I point to a waify illustration that catches my eye.  Barbara tells me: “I think it’s a costume sketch… “ and without losing a moment’s focus continues on with her Ashton ballet:

… here is Patineurs… this was my costume, they did it from the back with the little pillbox hat… Les Patineurs… and they put down a white ground cloth for it and pulled it really tight so we didn’t trip.

waify image in Les Patineurs section of Barbara's scrapbook
Barbara shows us her Les Patineurs costume with pillbox hat

SIDEBAR

The composition of Frederick Ashton.

Sir Frederick Ashton in a photo by Jane Bown (1970)

Though Ashton’s choreography expresses a spectrum of styles, from classical to dramatic to abstract, his connection with the Ballets Russes, through its former members including Bronislava Nijinska and Marie Rambert, has a deep influence in the formation and foundation of the man’s work. 

Perhaps the first and foremost influencer of this great British choreographer is Anna Pavlova, a legend in a stratosphere all her own, through whom he deeply fell in love with ballet upon seeing her perform when he was a 13 year old boy.

It is said that Pavlova “… inspired Ashton’s undying love of classical technique, and…all … that accompanies ballet: its airs and graces, its manners and mannerisms…”  as noted by Sanjoy Roy of The Guardian.

The second figure of notable impression on the art of Ashton is Bronislava Nijinska, the Polish-born, St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre trained dancer who performed with, and later choreographed for the Ballets Russes… and yes, sister of the famous Vaslav Nijinsky.

Hailed as an important 20th century choreographer, Nijinska is credited with introducing a more simple, modern aesthetic to the previously fancier, decorative variations in staging classical ballets.

Her specific sphere of influence on Ashton’s style appears to be her emphasis in using the upper body (the articulation of the head, shoulders, arms and hands, as writer Sanjoy Roy put it) to tell a story with less weight on emphasizing the legs as the primary mode of expression.

Interestingly enough, Bronislava Nijinska took her last breath just a few miles from where Barbara and I live now, at her home in Pacific Palisades, CA, albeit be it 1972. It turns out the international dance leader had been a Los Angeles resident for over 3 decades, moving and opening her own school out here in 1941.

Anna Pavlova with pet swan Jack (1927)
Bronislava Nijinska, circa 1930's

The third significant influence in Frederick Ashton’s life is Isadora Duncan, the American born, free-spirited pioneer of a dance, whose value lay in natural movement over classical technique, and whose mind was a fountain overflowing with imagination through movement.

Duncan, whose deep-rooted mission was “the creation of beauty and the education of the young” infused Ashton’s innovative aspect with a spark for the element of simplicity and honesty in speaking through the dance.

These intelligences came to form central components in the identity formation of Sir Frederick Ashton.

Isadora Duncan, early 1900's

Barbara spouts off more names… 

Nora Kaye… there’s Alonso and Hugh LaingIgor Youskevitch and his wife… a dancer, teacher.

Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch in photo opp for Swan Lake at Ballet Theatre (circa late 1940’s); photo by Maurice Seymour
American prima-ballerina Nora Kaye with principal Hugh Laing, two of the most significant dramatic ballet dancers of the 20th century, in (likely) Antony Tudor’s version of Romeo and Juliet at Ballet Theatre in NYC (c.1947)

Lucia Chase & Mikhail Mordkin

We continue to flip through [American] Ballet Theatre’s annual production booklet with Barbara’s nonchalant commentary…

This was the director of the company, Lucia Chase, and she had lots of money… she was a wonderful actor dancer.

Johnny Kriza who was just so charming.

There’s Michael Kidd [dancer there too], he did a ballet called “On Stage” and put me in it – I was so happy. We all had things to say.

Ballet Theatre [today known as American Ballet Theatre] co-founder Lucia Chase

Frankly, Lucia Chase can be credited with midwifing ballet into American society.

In fact, Chase not only brought ballet to America, she empowered the artform globally by facilitating a cultural exchange and integration of talent between the US, United Kingdom and Russia.  

Her efforts – or perhaps more accurately, passion – to advance ballet and thus advance the cultural wealth of our country and as well as broaden our horizons through artistic collaboration in the international arena have been honored through multiple platforms including magazine awards, honorary degrees from universities across the country, invitation to join distinguished organizations abroad, the city of New York itself, and even a Medal of Freedom from the US President in 1980.

What is perhaps less known is that her great teacher and influencer was the one-time Bolshoi ballet master and partner of Anna Pavlova, Mikhail Mordkin. Mordkin’s approach to ballet was perfectly aligned with Lucia’s love for acting, as he saw the art from the perspective of entering and playing out the character being danced.

Mordkin was also instrumental in encouraging Lucia to use ballet as a tool in working through her family loss and propelling her focus from personal grief to life purpose.

Another mighty figure from the annals of ballet history, Mordkin who formed his own company in the US with his American students including Lucia Chase, is credited with helping to “build the foundation for ballet in America”.  By all accounts, the seed of Mordkin was successfully planted in Lucia who may be said to have carried out his mission on a grand scale.

Anna Pavlova and Michael Mordkin performing the Russian Dance by Foulsham & Banfield, published by Rotary Photographic Co. (1909)
Michael Mordkin, from The Rucker Archive (c. early 1900s)

Balanchine’s Waltz Academy

Barbara points to several photos with impressive scenery. They are shots of Balanchine’s Waltz Academy, a production he did for Ballet Theatre, which Barbara “… did get to do… that’s me right there,” she proudly shows us.

“… all these pictures are ballets that had different choreographers,” Barbara explains. “That’s Robbins, Balanchine… Les Sylphides…“

George Balanchine’s Waltz Academy in Ballet Theatre’s production booklet (bottom half) with Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free on top
close-up of performers in Waltz Academy

“Diana Adams switched to New York City ballet, became a principal dancer with them,” Barbara tells us.

Diana Adams with Arthur Mitchell in George Balanchine's Agon in photo by Martha Swope from Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library (c.1957)
New York City Ballet rehearsal of "Agon" with Diana Adams and cultural phenom Arthur Mitchell, choreographed by George Balanchine; photo by Martha Swope (1957)
George Balanchine and the legendary composer Igor Stravinsky rehearse Agon in a photo by Martha Swope/ TimePix (1957)

Diana Adams & Agon

A principal with Ballet Theatre and subsequently New York City Ballet, Diana is recognized for her exceptional aptitude and versatility in both dramatic and abstract ballet genres. A favorite dancer of George Balanchine, Adams was appointed by the unflinching mastermind to teach at his School of American Ballet, whilst still a member of the company, a school where later on Diana would become dean, also at Mr. B’s behest.

One of Diana Adams’ most technically and psychologically demanding roles was Balanchine’s Agon set to the music of Stravinsky. 

A ballet whose name stems from the ancient Greek word for struggle or competition, Agon still remains an enigmatic study to both audiences and dance scholars. The most obvious clue to understanding this Balanchine work is its ever-presently loud dynamic of oppositional forces at play in every aspect of its expression, including the ultimately stark juxtaposition of a black male and white female in the lead roles.

It’s almost as if this echoes back to the very core of Balanchine’s own nature – expressing an unapologetic, even merciless severity, intensity and passion defining every aspect of his work and character.

If we go a step further, perhaps it’s not a long shot for this seminal work to represent the underlying essence of Mr. B – a vessel with a divine spark forced to re-create often tormenting ‘themes & variations’ of a dualistic world where yin and yang are always at war.

Now this guy became a big Hollywood dancer, Tommy Rall, he was … in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers… we just saw him in Kiss Me Kate, the old movie version.

And he became a Broadway choreographer, Don Saddler, every year he would do the Tony’s show…

Tommy Rall and Ann Miller in Kiss Me Kate
Donald Saddler (standing) with actor Robert Morse in 1973; photo by Neal Boenzi of The New York Times
Barbara leafs through her scrapbook to show us a page on Tommy Rall and Donald Saddler

Donald Saddler

A dancer with the original American Ballet Theatre, where he made life-long friendships with the likes of Jerome Robbins and “Fiddler on the Roof” star Maria Karnilova, Saddler went on to choreograph a number of notable ballet, stage and film productions including the Tony Award broadcasts.

Donald had an uncanny ability to tell a period story: “I do new research for every show because I believe you must recreate a period with respect and love,” The New York Times quotes him… “Each show is like taking a journey to another time and place.”

His talent for transforming the dance arts into a vehicle of time-travel, was recognized with several Tony Awards.

Saddler’s life in dance started with his attempt to regain strength after a bout with scarlet fever, after which there was no turning back. “I only knew who I was when I was dancing.”  he reportedly told The New York Times years later.

We have to wrap up somewhere, and we end our afternoon with Barbara’s account of André Eglevsky, at whose ballet school she taught in New York … at a later point in her life.

…got back to New York and I taught for André Eglevsky, do you remember that name?  He and Youskevitch were the big macho male ballet dancers from that era… Andre was not a very good teacher but he was a good example… take a preparation and do about 10 pirouettes without any effort… look and try to analyze how he did it, incredible – big, strong man.

Andre Eglevsky in a photo by Carl Van Vechten (1944); image from Marquette University Archives
Andre Eglevsky with Maria Tallchief, Diana Adams, and Tanaquil LeClerq (left to right) at New York City Ballet (circa 1950’s)

André Eglevsky

Born in Moscow, the soon to be ballet prodigy moved to France early on with his mother, fleeing the revolution of his country, and as is often times the case with other ballet dancers, his entrée into this exclusive world was in part prompted by Andre’s need to recover and strengthen his system after his ordeal as a young boy.

In Nice, Eglevsky studied with a group of formidable Russian teachers, several of whom were notable figures from the country’s Imperial world including Olga Preobrajenska. Later on, Andre would study in London with another star of the Mariinsky Ballet, Nicholas Legat.

Recruited by the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo at just 14, he eventually became the company’s lead dancer alongside its star Igor Youskevitch. This is also where Andre developed his partnering skill working with the best of the best – namely the legendary Alexandra Danilova, who left Russia together with George Balanchine, the two joining the original Ballets Russes – she as a dancer and her as-yet unknown companion as choreographer.  

Eglevsky went on to become principal dancer with the world’s premiere companies and partner with ballet’s greatest.  His vagabond life-style took a more stable turn during his stay with Balanchine’s American Ballet (ltoday known as New York City Ballet) for a period of seven years.  

One of the most impressive figures in the life of Eglevsky was none other than Mikhail Fokin from whom he acquired what must have been the greatest role of his career – the “Spectre” in “Le Spectre de la Rose”, a role he eventually passed onto Mikhail Baryshnikov.

In the late ‘50’s Eglevsky together with his wife, also a former dancer with American Ballet and a student of the artform’s pioneers, opened their own ballet school and some years later formed the Eglevsky Ballet.  

Characterized by his imposing stature and definite presence of pedigree atop his natural gift for this discipline, Andre Eglevsky is regarded as the preeminent classical dancer of his era. 

It has been a transporting encounter.  We all give each other hugs and look forward to reuniting again.

Searching for Barbara...

I’ll end with this interesting message I found on BroadwayWorld.com in the midst of my research on Barbara’s exceptional life…

We are all searching for someone… someone who is in some way a piece of the puzzle on the road to discovering who we really are.

In fact each one of us holds a unique key to this great puzzle that we are all here to solve.

The secret is to match the puzzle pieces correctly. And it’s all about CONNECTION.  

Each CONNECTION brings us a step closer to our purpose, our talent, the expression of who we are … our IDENTITY.

Our drive for CONNECTION is deeply rooted in our DNA. And so underlying everything else that we do, is our drive for CONNECTION.

Our intuitive mind always directs us in our quest, if we listen. Our intuition is a voice that does not force, a voice that does not come from fear, it is a voice that simply knows. Our intuition is the voice through which our soul speaks to us.

Our Identity is our source of life, it is what gives us our beauty, our power, our riches… and finding our Identity is the only thing that can truly save any of us.

And so, I treat this essay on the rarely serendipitous journey of Barbara Cole and all the players in it, as an exploration of a life bearing the fruits of the spark of CONNECTION with self, with our natural talents… with our Identity.

For each of us the path to self is as individual as we are.  And for some of us, the treasure is more deeply buried than for others.  But beyond the shadow of a doubt, if you focus on what matters most, you will be stunned at what emerges in no time at all.

til next time!

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