By Richard Nash
This coming spring, at the Metropolitan Opera House, American Ballet Theatre will be celebrating its seventieth anniversary season. ABT is well known today as a cultural treasure, one of the great dance companies of the world. Since its inception, it has been acclaimed for its brilliant dancers and bold spirit. Still, from its very first season, when it nearly folded before opening night due to lack of a venue, through its first several decades of scrounging for finances to keep the doors open, ABT’s journey has not been an easy one. In fact, without the careful guidance and financial backing of its great patron and longtime artistic director, Lucia Chase, it is doubtful that ABT could have survived at all. As Anna Kisselgoff noted in her appreciation of Chase in the New York Times, “American Ballet Theater would not be here today if it had not been for Lucia Chase. Nor can one separate the international reputation of the company from Miss Chase’s association with Ballet Theater.”
As Chase’s sole surviving child, as well as a prominent figure in the dance world in his own right (chancellor emeritus of the North Carolina School of the Arts and former general director of the Joffrey Ballet), Alex Ewing is one of the best authorities on American Ballet Theatre in its first four decades. Certainly, he is the only real authority on the life of Lucia Chase, whose tenacity, passion, and unwavering commitment made ABT what it is today. Over the past six years, Ewing has devoted himself to the task of setting down these intertwined histories. The resulting book, Bravura! Lucia Chase and the American Ballet Theatre–which Dance Magazine has praised for filling “an aching gap on the dance bookshelf,” is now out from the University Press of Florida, and will be celebrated in a week-long exhibition of photos, designs, and costumes opening today at VBH at 940 Madison Avenue.
Earlier this week, Alex Ewing took some time to ruminate with Anne Horowitz–an associate editor at Soft Skull Press, and a former ballet dancer herself–on Chase’s life, her legacy, and the writing process.
AH: What you’ve done, essentially, is to tell not only the story of Lucia Chase, but to tell the entire story of the first four decades of the American Ballet Theatre. I was amazed to discover that there are almost no other books about ABT in existence.
AE:That’s correct. Charlie Payne did a big picture book, a coffee table book, in the 1970s, and that was wonderful, but it’s about three-quarters photographs. And that’s the only real thing i’ve seen. You see a lot about New York City Ballet, you see a lot about Martha Graham. You do see some things about Ballet Theater: You see them in the news, and you read reviews. But you don’t get the history. You don’t get the essence.
AH: What made you decide to write this book, and how did the approach solidify in your mind?
AE: To everyone I knew, I said, I’m going to write a book, and I’m not quite sure whether the book should focus on Lucia or on Ballet Theatre. And everyone said, you’ve got to choose, you can’t write two books! I tried to see if I could focus on one or the other, and it was just impossible. You could talk only about Lucia, but she lived her whole life in and around Ballet Theatre. And likewise, Ballet Theater couldn’t have existed without her. It would have been going under all the time, without her. Lucia was a founding member of the company, and by the time she retired in 1980, there weren’t all that many of them left. She was a pivotal figure in the company’s history. And for thirty-five years! You can’t write about Ballet Theatre without Lucia, in much the same way that you couldn’t write about Diaghilev’s company without writing about Diaghilev, or New York City Ballet without writing about Lincoln Kirstein. So, in the end, I couldn’t separate them, and that became my subject. I decided, I’m going to write about both. And I didn’t mind, because I realized that just as nothing had been written about Ballet Theatre, nothing had been written about Chase either. She didn’t want it. She was a very private person, and there were things she didn’t want written about. She didn’t want people to know about her financial backing of the company. She didn’t want anyone to know her age. And she didn’t want her ballet training gone into minutely. Lucia was always a figure people knew of, but they didn’t know her as a person. So I realized that both of these things needed to be written about, and who was going to do it? By the time i started–2003 or 2004–most of these people were dead. Nora Kaye, Charlie Payne, all these people were gone. And i started to realize, oh my goodness, there aren’t that many left. I knew Lucia in a personal way, and not many people did. Most of the people who were left knew about the dancing, but they didn’t know much else about her. I am really the only one.
AH: How did the research process work? Obviously, you’ve got personal memories. Did you keep records of conversations over the years? How many sources from the early days were still available to tell you stories you hadn’t known?
AE: Well, there are a lot of dancers, particularly the ones who were there in the ’70s, who are around. Perhaps I should have spent an extra year tracking them down, going to their cities, or at least getting them on the phone. But it’s a laborious process, and meanwhile, I thought, I’d like to get this written! I don’t want to end up with it half-written, or have it just drag out. i was a little bit impatient! [laughs] There wasn’t that much other source material, really. You know, dancers don’t write. It’s not as if you’re following a political figure, or even a sports figure, where there’s just so much material everywhere, articles, diaries. I didn’t find all that much I could use. So that was one problem I had, just finding the material. And then again I had another big problem, probably because I was not given any good counseling, which was: when you find material, then what do you do with it? I didn’t know what to do with it. Do I use cards? A computer? Do I sort things alphabetically? Chronologically? By subject matter? These are problems that a more experienced author would not have had, but for me, I had to reinvent the wheel. And it was sort of an oblong wheel. But there were wonderful people I talked to. There were a few people I could just talk to for a long time. Cynthia Gregory, I talked to her for hours. Irina Baronva, too, she was the most wonderful woman in the world. Although she was in Australia, which makes things more difficult. There were a number of people who helped me. I was aware of the private side of my mother pretty well, which not many people were, but on the dance side, I knew I could use any amount of information.
AH: Lucia Chase was a fascinating figure. She was persistent and determined, and she had great spirit. What do you think motivated her to support and rescue this company again and again?
AE: Well, she would just be cringing as I start to talk about this. She never wanted to be in that role. When she started off, her total interest was in being a dancer. She had a lot of challenges, many handicaps, in this, since she was already older. She was born in 1897, and by the time she started dancing with Ballet Theatre, she was already forty-three. She didn’t want anyone to know that–and no one would have guessed it. She certainly didn’t act it. But she was not interested in supporting the company. She just wanted to get the thing started so there would be this wonderful outlet for all the dancers, including herself. But she didn’t do it selfishly; she wasn’t really very selfish. She was just dedicated into trying to get this idea she had on the boards–and once it was on the boards, not to let it slide. She didn’t want to do it with her money, and she didn’t want to say, don’t worry I’ll keep this thing alive. She just went from one crisis to the next, always hoping it would be the last one, but there was always a crisis, and they were coming weekly. And once you get into it, you know, it’s like blackmail! Once you do it [bail the company out] you’ve got to do the next one. She wasn’t going to have wasted that money and said goodbye to everyone and moved onto some other life. After a while, it wasn’t even a choice anymore: she was a captive. The only choice that would have been open to her would have been to change the structure of the operation so that in a crisis it wouldn’t always turn to her and depend on her. But that wasn’t her particular talent. Her talent was running the company on the backstage level. She didn’t care much about the office. She didn’t build a board of trustees or focus on the company’s infrastructure. Really, she was a dancer.
AH: As the longtime leader of Ballet Theatre, Lucia attracted both praise and criticism. The prominent dance critic John Martin, though generally admiring of Ballet Theatre, once accused her of having no artistic vision and of not actively seeking out interesting new choreographers to work with the company. She has also been criticized for never securing a permanent home for ABT. Talk a bit about her strengths and weaknesses as a director. What would you say was Lucia’s greatest legacy, in the current incarnation of ABT?
AE: Well, let me start by talking about the weaknesses. As far as the weakness you mentioned go, I do think they’re legitimate criticisms that were made, and in writing the book, I didn’t want them to be bypassed or dismissed. Because I think that it’s perfectly obvious that she was not a Diaghilev or a Kirstein. She did not even really know the people who were out in the artistic field–the composers, the designers, even some of the choreographers. She didn’t know the world of modern dance; she wasn’t informed and she wasn’t intrigued by them. She was not out going to Martha Graham’s performances. She didn’t read books, she didn’t go to museums. These are curious things for an artistic director not to have done! It wasn’t that she deliberately choose this, or that that kind of exposure was something she was against. But this was natural for her: she just wasn’t bent that way. What she was bent toward, her strength, was that she had a great deal of sympathy and insight when it came to the dancers. You can talk to any dancer who knew her or worked with her: I never ran across any bitter remark. No one said anything to the effect that she couldn’t be trusted, or she betrayed me. Now, in the world of theater, that’s unbelievable! In the world of theater, people have long memories, and they take things personally. But Lucia did not betray, or undermine, or block anyone that i talked to. As the head of a company, if you have that kind of rapport or allegiance, that is a great thing. It’s a great thing for any company, whether it’s the Ford motor company or American Ballet Theatre. Her employees’ interest was close to her heart. I’d say that that’s probably the distinguishing thing about Ballet Theatre–it’s something you could never say about Ballet Russes, for example! And it comes out ten or fifteen years later when you’re talking to the dancers. That was her strength, and that’s what kept it together. You know, they didn’t get much money: this wasn’t Harkness! She was working with a limited amount of resources and she was always fair about it. And in that way she kept the company together when it easily could have fallen apart or split into factions. The company didn’t experience that kind of stress until the very end, when she was already out of it, when the strike took place. Then, Ballet Theatre really sort of divided and had a difficult time holding together, and at that point she was outside, looking on with a certain agony. But until then it was a cohesive and closely knit organization.
One thing I’d add to that was that she was aware of her weaknesses, that she didn’t always know the best choreographers or other artists, and that’s exactly why she had Oliver Smith, who was really her opposite. He was not getting up early to go off on tours with the company, be the first on the bus and at the party, and all that. He didn’t have that kind of energy and that type of instinct. When you think of Oliver Smith, you think of him with his long legs folded, looking up at you, and maybe smoking a cigarette in a languid fashion. But Oliver knew who was out in the artistic field. Certainly he knew the visual artists and the designers. He knew the composers and who was doing what; that was his world and he was invaluable to her in that way, and if there was going to be a new work for the company, she would always hope that Oliver would be there to talk to the creative team, because he was so good at it. They never had a harsh word between them! This partnership last lasted from 1945 until 1980, all the way: he was her closest adviser. And Oliver was funny–because there he was, twice as young as Lucia, ten times as poor, a foot taller . . . anything you wanted to say, they were different–and yet he was so devoted and amused by her . . . it was an amazing team.
AH: How has the company changed since her tenure ended?
AE: I think she’d be sort of amazed. At last with the company’s organization and the infrastructure. American Ballet Theatre now is a full-fledged corporate entity, which it never was in the past. Until Sherwin Goldman became involved, there was almost no organization at all! And there was really no effective board of directors at all. ABT is now a multimillion dollar entity, and it needs that kind of support system to keep going. But the difference between ABT then and ABT now is the difference between a dinghy, or a sailboat, and an ocean liner. ABT was always full of wonderful dancers, and there were always really interesting theatrical personalities. Even more so than now, because now the technique is so terribly demanding that, unless you can do certain things–that in those days, none of those dancers could do–if you can’t do them now, you can’t get past the audition! When you see what dancers can do now, just at auditions, that would have gotten them into any ballet company years ago, and as far as technique goes, they would have been right at the top. But that wasn’t what Ballet Theatre was about. That wasn’t what those dancers were about. They projected a personality, so when you saw a [Nora] Kaye or a [Anton] Dolin, it wasn’t like looking at one of the principals of Ballet Theatre or New York City Ballet today. They were more distinctive in terms of their personalities. Well, that’s just the way I see things, my personal feeling about it.
AH: So, how will you be celebrating the release of the book?
AE: Ha. Well, mostly I would just like to have enough people hear about it so that it will not have been in vain–a lot of work for very few eyes. You know, I’m not quite equipped to sell this book the way Sarah Palin could sell it. I’d just love to get this story into as many hands as possible. It’s a good story, and to me, it was a personal story. I think it’s a fascinating American saga . . . well, because what artistic company has been around now for . . . we’re at seventy years! What repertory company in America–I mean, not the Metropolitan Opera or anything like that–but what repertory company in America has been around for seventy years? What repertory company has performed throughout fifty states, over 250 towns and cities in America, and five continents?
AH: In a way, it can be said that American Ballet Theatre was truly America’s national ballet company.
AE: Oh, absolutely! I don’t think New York City Ballet would even contest that, since they never really toured or covered the country. New York City Ballet was an amazing repertory company that created an amazing amount of work in a short time. And what they had was Balanchine, who was a full-blown, uncontested genius. Balanchine was wonderful and he kept on being wonderful, so New York City Ballet has that to boast about. But I don’t think they can boast about covering the country, appearing in small towns and in gymnasiums, things like that, all the things that Ballet Theatre went through. It touched people’s lives, and it created the audience that is there today.
Bravura! Lucia Chase and the American Ballet Theatre is now on sale. The exhibition featuring photographs, costumes, designs, and gowns opens Friday, December 10th at VBH, 940 Madison Ave, New York, NY.