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First Draft: Ballet and Modern Dance in the United States in the 1920’s

The 1920’s was a remarkable time in history for the United States. Growth and change were happening everywhere and the same was true for the ballet and modern dance worlds. Before the 1920’s, there was little to no classical dance being performed or taught around the United States. Not many people would recognize, let alone appreciate the beauty of ballet and fewer would understand the depth and meaning behind modern dance if they saw it. Throughout the 1920’s this quickly changed. Ballet companies from Europe started touring, and young people fell in love with the art of dance. These tours captivated the souls of dancers, such as Maria Tallchief and Martha Graham, who ended up devoting their lives to ballet and modern dance. The techniques that were brought over from the East had a lasting effect on ballet in the United States. Ballet did not originate here and that is apparent when looking at the history of the techniques currently used in ballet schools. Modern dance is a different story. Without the modern dance artists that emerged from the 1920’s, our modern dance world would not be what it is today. Many modern techniques, such as Graham, were beginning to blossom in the 1920’s. Ballet and modern techniques have continued to change and evolve. Dancers legs reach higher to the sky, men jump higher, and new modern techniques have continued to enrich the dance world, but one thing is certain. The 1920’s was a huge turning point for ballet and modern dance in the United States. This decade birthed new dance companies, world renowned dancers, and techniques that would forever change the entire dance world.
To begin, let us examine the few ballet performances that were presented in the United States during the 1920’s. John Gruen, writer for Dance Magazine, explains that America was a “balletic wasteland” and had only visits by European dancers and touring companies (48). Ballet originated in Italy, and solidified itself in France. The United States did not invent any aspect of ballet and depended on European companies to introduce the dance form. To our credit, since being introduced to ballet, our country has developed some beautiful ballets, ballerinas, and choreographers. But, the United States owes credit(use different word) to the first companies that brought dance overseas. Anna Pavlova and her company toured the United States from 1910 to 1925, and Diaghilev’s company, Ballet Russes, started touring in 1916 (Gruen 48). This is when United States citizens started to notice ballet and young dancers were inspired to be the next Anna Pavlova.
There were a few small ballet companies starting to form in the United States by European dancers that had immigrated. Michel and Vera Fokine, who danced with Pavlova’s company, formed their own ballet company and school in the late 1920’s (Gruen 48). Two Chicago based companies, Adolph Bolm’s Ballet and the Pavley-Oukrainsky Ballet formed in 1918 and 1921 (Gruen 48). Other than these companies, ballet acts, specifically “toe dancers,” were found in showbiz, vaudeville, musical comedies, and nightclubs (Gruen 48). There were no ballet companies where dancers could find steady work, and so they danced wherever they could. It was not until January 1933 that the United States had a resident ballet company that performed 52 weeks per year. Radio City Music Hall had opened in New York City less than a year before by Samuel L. (Roxy) Rothafel, and finally the Music Hall Ballet employed prima ballerina, Patricia Bowman and other U.S. dancers (Gruen 53, 56).
Pavlova’s ballet company and Ballet Russes are responsible for bringing ballet to the United States in the 1920’s, but what exactly was contained in these performances. Playbills from Pavlowa Ballet, Inc., the American tour in 1913-1914 and 1924-1925 showcase well-known repertoire including Giselle, Snowflakes [from the Nutcracker], Don Quixote, and Coppelia, and lesser known pieces, such as La Fille mal Gardee, The Romance of a Mummy, and Halte de Cavalerie (Grassi). Ballet Russes combined the artistic talents of well-known artists Matisse, Picasso, Nijinsky, Stravinsky, Ravel, and Balanchine for their ballet’s costumes, scenery, music, and choreography. Sergei Diaghilev, director of Ballet Russes, manifested a creative revolution with his ballet company in the 1920’s (Ballet Russes). This passage was written in Pavlowa Ballet’s playbill:
“Huntley Carter, eminent English critic, sums up the situation by writing that the Russian ballets “are the first real advance in the third great dramatic movement of the world. First came the Greeks, then Shakespeare, and now comes the new Classicism. The Russian ballet offers a spectacle of a world wherein a theme is handled with simplicity, beauty and strength by three sets of hands, working as one and directed by a master builder” (Grassi).
This quote helps vividly describe what U.S. citizens were feeling as they watched dancers float and leap across a stage as they had never seen before.
Famous ballet dancers of the 1920’s include Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, George Balanchine, Patricia Bowman, Harriet Hoctor, and those just being born, including five Native American dancers from Oklahoma. Let us explore the dancers who were native to the United States, including Patricia Bowman, Harriet Hoctor, Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, Moscelynne xx, Rosella, xxx, and xxx. First studying Patricia Bowman, she was often referred to as the “first contemporary American prima ballerina” and “whom critics called the American Pavlova” (Gruen 48). Patricia began dancing in Washington D.C. at the age of nine. Her father didn’t want her to dance, but fortunately her mother was so supportive that she actually started working just to pay for Patricia’s dance lessons (Gruen 48, 50). She eventually moved to New York City to continue professionally training with Michel Fokine. This training pushed her to the top of the ballet world in the United States. Patricia explains, “It was now the late twenties. I danced here and there—in vaudeville, small revues, anything I could get. It was a rat race” (Gruen 53). This statement sounds all too familiar coming from an artist’s lips. Many dancers today would say the same thing. Unfortunately, in the 1920’s even the best ballerina didn’t have a ballet company to join. Eventually, Ms. Bowman did secure jobs at Radio City, the Roxy stage, and various tours (Gruen 52-58). Being a dancer during the 1920’s was not an easy task. There were few jobs, and just like today, the competition was rough and required an enormous amount of hard work.
Harriet Hoctor was another U.S. native ballerina, who worked during the 1920’s. She states that she regrets not having any ballet companies that she could have joined. Later in her career she was employed by Mr. Zeigfeld. She remarked that his offer was better than she would have received from a ballet company. She took it, because she was a hungry dancer, who didn’t want to starve (Hoctor). These words are also familiar. Today’s dancers often have a second job outside of their dance company job. It is truly for the love of dance that some cannot fathom striving towards anything else besides this passion even though it requires much more than a normal job.
Talking about the dancers of this era would not be complete without mentioning five Native American stars that were born in Oklahoma in the 1920’s. These dancers were Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, Yvonne , Moscelynne , and Rosella . Each of them were first inspired to become dancers after watching performances of Ballet Russes. Four out of the five dancers later joined the company, the Original Ballet Russes or the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo. Marjorie Tallchief, who did not dance with Ballet Russes, was the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet. Although, these dancers careers did not happen in the 1920’s, they were born into this rich era when dance was changing, and their careers inspired and touched the lives of many. After their performing careers were over, each dancer continued to enrich the ballet world. Maria Tallchief created the Chicago Opera Ballet, Marjorie founded the Dallas Ballet, Yvonne established the Oklahoma City Ballet, Moscelynne founded the Tulsa Ballet, and Rosella acted as the ballet mistress for the Pairs Opera Ballet (EN POINTE). These stars born in the 1920’s continue to influence today’s ballet world.
After examining the ballet companies and dancers in the United States during the 1920’s, let us look at the schools and techniques that were available. Just like the companies and dancers, there was not a huge availability of where a dancer could go to study classical ballet. Patricia Bowman’s first training consisted of learning the Irish Jig, Sailor’s Hornpipe, and a minuet (Gruen 50). She later studied with Paul Tchernikoff, Lisa Gardiner, and the great dancer, Mikel(?) Fokine, in New York City. Fokine’s lessons were $5.00 per lesson, which was very expensive in the 1920’s. Ms. Bowman remembers that there was no piano for the half hour at the barre, which was very hard. Fokine would clap or hum to keep the rhythm. Then the dancers would go to the ballroom to work on repertoire (Gruen 52). Starting at age eight, Moscelynne xxx also studied with Mr. Fokine (EN POINTE). Before this, Moscelynne studied at the small dance school in Oklahoma that her Russian mother had opened (EN POINTE). Maria and Marjorie Tallchief started to dance at the young age of three and would travel to Colorado in the summers to take class in the basement of the Broadmoor Hotel (EN POINTE). In the 1930’s, both Tallchief girls moved to Los Angeles to study more intensely with Ernest Belcher, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Mia Slavenska (Ballet Russes, EN POINTE). This training trajected them toward stardom (EN POINTE).
What techniques were used in the training that brought these dancers to prima ballerina status in the dance world, and how do they differ from today’s techniques? All of the teachers mentioned above stem from Ballet Russes or Pavlowa Ballet, including Nijinsky, Slavenska, Fokine, Belcher, Tchernikoff, and Gardiner. All of these teachers have one thing in common—they are originally from Russia. According to the cecchetti Council of America, Enrico Cecchetti taught Pavlova and other Ballet Russes dancers at the Imperial Ballet Academy (Brillarelli, Tidwell, Darby, and Floyd). The Cecchetti technique was taught by Ernest Belcher to the Tallchief sisters, and is still frequently taught at schools around the U.S. The Imperial Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg is where most of our current ballet technique comes from, whether it is the Vaganova or Cecchetti method. Now the Imperial Ballet Academy is called the Vaganova School, named after Agrippina Jacovlevna Vaganova, (Jonas 24). These techniques formed ballet around the globe to what it is today.
The dance clips from the movie, Ballet Russes were fascinating to watch. As in all sports, the athleticism found in ballet has continued to increase and make new standards of what is acceptable and possible. The expression in the art of ballet changes with each dancer and choreographer, and is not necessarily setting a new record of expression. The same is not true for the physical aspect of the art. The lifts between men and women were not as high as they are today. Jumps were not as high or long, and when the dancers landed from these jumps their feet were not in as tight of a fifth position as you would see today. The number of pirouettes and fouettes achieved by a dancer continues to grow, along with flexibility. A ponche shown in the Ballet Russes clips would show a ballerinas extension at 130 degrees (Ballet Russes). Today, nothing less than 180 degrees for legs in a ponche is acceptable by a ballerina in a professional company.
The last technical aspect of ballet that I would like to explore is the dancer’s physical body. Walter War in his book “Ballet is Magic” describes Patricia Bowman’s body as “ideally formed for dancing. Her torso is classical; her limbs straight and slender; her pointes superb; her arms delicately graceful, accentuated by long tapering fingers” (Gruen 56). The ideal ballerina in the 1920’s had the same bodily characteristics as today’s ballerinas, but our standards have changed in this arena as well. Walter Terry, former dancer with Denishawn and author of dance books, comments on today’s dancers, “Bodies are thinner, and toes are more pointed” than in the transitional years of dance in the early 1900’s (Early Years). The dance clips in Ballet Russes confirmed this same idea—feet were less arched, legs were not as skinny, posses were lower, legs were less turned out, and knees were not as straight (Ballet Russes). As time goes on, ballet technique has continued to reach new levels, just like athletes continue to set higher records in the Olympics with each passing year.
Ballet in the United States in the 1920’s was just coming to fruition, and right beside it was the United States’ creation of modern dance. While the prima ballerina, Pavlova was touring the country and introducing ballet, Graham was discovering dance techniques that would forever change the dance world. Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, and Isadora Duncan were performing dance in this era that for the first time presented social protest in dance (Early Years). Many great modern dancers of today were taught by the performers of the 1920’s. The ideas, techniques, and names from the 1920’s are still ever-present in modern dance. Let us take a closer look at the performances, dancers, schools, and techniques of modern dance in the U.S. in the 1920’s.
First, exploring the modern dance that was being performed around the United States in the 1920’s. Two of the biggest names of this decade were Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Their names combined to form Denishawn, which represented their performance company, the Denishawn Dancers, the Denishawn training schools, and their technique (Sherman). Their most popular performance was Pharoh and Queen, which told the tale of an exotic land. Miss Ruth and Ted Shawn performed this piece close to 2,000 times (Early Years). Just like in ballet, these performances happened between animal acts, comedy routines, and wherever the company could find to perform (Sherman chronology). Isadora Duncan was also a well-known modern dancer of this time. She took inspiration from the Greeks to create passionate, spiritual works of dance (Early Years). Her life drastically changed during this decade, which affected her dance pieces. By 1925 her two children had drowned in an automobile accident and her husband had committed suicide. Duncan’s dances “had taken on a somber, autumnal tone; grief and suffering, not the joys of springtime or the glories of the Russian Revolution, increasingly became her themes” (Jonas 198).
In the late twenties, Martha Graham was just starting to perform her own pieces. She was breaking away from her teachers, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, to explore her own type of movement. A trio of dancers, including Betty MacDonald, Thelma Biracree, and Evelyn Sabin, was led by Martha Graham and was referred to as “The Graham Dancers” (Tracy 3, 7). According to Robert Tracy, dancer with American Ballet, Merce Cunningham, and receipient of an Edward F. Albee writing fellowship, “The trio had a great deal of work” and often danced in the Greenwich Village Follies (7). This era marked the beginning of performances by Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman, and started the transition of fading for Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn (Early Years).
Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis could be labeled as the parents of modern dance. Jane Sherman, a former Denishawn Company dancer, acknowledges:
“The chain now has hundreds of links of different shapes and values, but every one connects in a long line reaching straight back to Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in a process that would have made those two innovators justifiably proud. And every one, the now famous and the yet unknown, will add another link to that chain for as long as mankind continues to dance” (101).
But, what inspired these two dancers to create such masterpieces of art and students? Miss Ruth turned to the Orient for her inspiration. She learned from photos in encyclopedias, watching dancers at Coney Island, and studying coins. She never claimed that her oriental dances were the real thing, but did admit that they were authentic in gesture and spirit (Early Years, Sherman 35). Walter Terry refers to Ted Shawn as the first American male dancer of note (Early Years). He learned how to dance from the movies, and continued on to make some of the most spectacular dances by himself and with Miss Ruth. He started incorporating social protest into his dances, which was very rare in these times. One of these dances was called, “The Return of the Hero,” which consisted of a veteran returning from the war, forgotten and maimed (Early Years). These two dancers are responsible for the birth of modern dance in the United States and the world.
Another dancer emerging in the United States in the 1920’s who has greatly shaped the modern dance world is Martha Graham. Graham studied and performed with Denishawn and eventually started exploring her own movement. Louis Horst, musical director for Denishawn, urged Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman to “break away from Denishawn” (Tracy 5). In this transition period, Martha worked with a small number of dancers. Betty MacDonald, one of Graham’s dancers in the 20’s, remembers working until four in the morning with Graham. Graham was inventing a new technique and when she felt inspired than they worked. Her dancers did have performance opportunities, but at this time were not being paid. Martha Hill, another of Graham’s dancers, eventually had to make the decision between dancing with Graham or getting paid to teach. It was a hard decision to make, because Hill states, “an emotional feeling led me to Martha.” Hill ended up leaving Graham to teach (Tracy 12, 18). Other dancers were in this same predicament. Betty MacDonald lived with Graham and slept in her dressing room for a period when she had no money, because they were not being paid (Tracy 7). Anna Sokolow also didn’t remember being paid anything to dance with Graham and made a living teaching children’s classes (Tracy 25). Graham has become a leading force in modern dance, and it is astounding to think that her first dancers working until four in the morning were not being paid a cent. These memories account for a true artist’s life. The hard work achieved in the beginning is often not recognized until decades later.
Technically, there were no “modern” dance schools in the 1920’s. Today we have The Ailey School, Merce Cunningham Studio, Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, and the Mark Morris Dance Studio, where a dancer can find modern technique classes in a certain discipline. Since all of these modern techniques have developed since the 1920’s, the question remains—what modern dance training facilities were available during the 20’s? Gerald Jonas, author of Dancing, claims the “Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in Los Angeles (with branches around the country)…became the center of the modern dance world for the next ten years” (Jonas 201). Other schools were the Eastman School in Rochester, New York, directed by Rouben Mamoulian; the Anderson-Milton School, where Martha Graham taught; the Neighborhood Playhouse, now known as the School for Arts related to the theater; and the Mary Wigman School of New York, directed by the famous dancer, Hanya Holm (Tracy 3, 41, 51). The most well known and influential of these schools was the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts. These schools offered classes in “ballet, Spanish, Oriental, Egyptian, Greek, American Indian, geisha, creative, Delsarte, primitive, and folk” (Jonas 201). Please note there is no class called “modern,” but an array of cultural dances students could choose from which translated to modern. It is assumed that the other “modern” schools around the country at this time offered similar classes to Denishawn, since most of the teachers were once students of Miss Ruth and Shawn.
To end with, let us look at the techniques of modern dance and how they have changed throughout the decades. Walter Terry noted in the 1920’s the Denishawn technique reached its fullest (Early Years). At the same time Martha Graham was developing her own technique aside from the “character, revue-style dancing of Denishawn’s influence,” and she “wanted to find meaningful, significant movement” (Tracy 4). Out of this exploration came the well-known “contraction and release,” which was one of Graham’s largest contributions to modern dance (Jonas 207). Eurythmics was also being studied by modern dancers to build their rhythmic sensitivity (Tracy 12). Making dances about how you feel and translating the emotions into movement was popular during this decade and continues to be in modern dance. Doris Humphrey would often concentrate on the emotional conflicts between humans and their environment, while Martha Graham would concentrate on the conflicts that humans face within themselves (Tracy 14, 24). Still today, modern dance will focus on expressing a feeling as opposed to ballet, which often tells a story.
The techniques of modern dance have drastically developed since the 1920’s. Just like ballet, modern dancer’s bodies have become better physical instruments than they were in the 20’s. Students studying the Graham technique will contract, release, spiral, and leap in a moments notice. The bare-footed dancers of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater fly through the air as never seen before. Their expression is unparralled, and just the flick of a dancer’s foot will move an audience member to tears. The techniques have changed throughout the years, but the influence of Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Martha Graham, and other dancers from the 1920’s was a necessary step and an unforgettable contribution to modern dance.
The 1920’s was a turning point for ballet and modern dance in the United States. Without the presence of the Russian dancers, who came over from Europe, ballet in this country would have not existed. The dancers of the Ballet Russes and Anna Pavlova’s company toured to unknown territories that had never before been graced by the beauty of ballet. The Russian ballet techniques live on in the United States today and continue to amaze and awe their audiences. The modern dancers who emerged from the 1920’s changed this technique of dance forever. All modern dancers can be traced back to the days of Denishawn, who we owe so much. Their performances, inspirations, and techniques have help a new art form be born right here in the United States. The ballet and modern dance world of the 1920’s was booming with talent, love, beauty, and inspiration. I wish that I could have seen and experienced these dance forms first hand in the 1920’s, but through this paper I can vividly imagine the sights, smells, sounds, and emotions joined with each performance.

Works Cited
Ballet Russes. Dir. Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller. Perf. Irina Baronova, Tania Riabouchinska, Tamara Toumanova, Frederic Franklin, George Zoritch, and Mia Slavenska. DVD. 2005.
Berenson, Ruth. “Denishawn Redivivus.” National Review 29 (1977): 155-156. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Empire State College, New York. 29 Oct. 2007.
Brillarelli, Livia, Dr. Kathleen Tidwell, Shiela Darby, and Rose Marie Floyd. “History of Cecchetti.” The Cecchetti Council Web Site. 2005. Cecchetti Council of America, Inc. 17 Nov. 2007. .
EN POINTE: the Lives and Legacies of Ballet’s Native Americans. Dir. Shawnee H. Brittan. Perf. Maria Tallchief, Marjorie Tallchief, Yvonne Chouteau, Moscelyne Larkin, Rosella Hightower, and Richard Thomas. 2000.
Grassi, Amata. Amata B. Grassi Papers, 1878-1971. New York Performing Arts Library, New York. 9 Nov. 2007.
Gruen, John. “Patricia Bowman: showcased in showbiz, her artistic maturity during the 1920’s and ‘30’s coincided with a period in our dance history when her art could not find its proper setting.” Dance Magazine (Oct. 1976): 47-62.
Hoctor, Harriet. Interview with Walter Terry. Invitation to Dance. 22 Jan. 1967. WNYC, New York. 5 Feb. 1967.
Jonas, Gerald. Dancing. New York: Harry N. Abrams, in association with Thirteen/WNET, 1998.
Sherman, Jane. Denishawn: the Enduring Influence. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.
Terry, Walter. Miss Ruth. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1969.
The Early Years: American Dance in Transition. Dir. Patricia Kerr Ross. Perf. Walter Terry. Videocassette. 1981.
Tracy, Robert. Goddess: Martha Graham’s Dancers Remember. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996.

1 Comment»

  Tara wrote @

Interesting article, I really enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing.


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