- The American Ballet’s Caravan
In October 1933 when George Balanchine was brought to the United States through the efforts of Lincoln Kirstein, the need to establish an indigenous tradition of ballet in the United States did not register as a pressing national priority. For one, the country had barely begun the long process of recovery from the worst financial crisis in its history.1 If the bold actions begun earlier that year during the Roosevelt administration’s “Hundred Days” had brought a new general sense of hope, the daily reality for most Americans was still quite grim, and would remain so for many years to come. In urban areas including New York City, where the Balanchine–Kirstein ballet enterprise would find a home, discontent among workers and the currency of progressive and socialist politics bred the fear—or anticipation—that the country might be on the brink of open revolution.
It was just not owing to politics or trying economic conditions that a new ballet company was not an urgent matter, however. As a growing body of scholarship has demonstrated, ballet and other forms of dance had already established quite deep roots in the U.S. by the early 1930s, and the Depression years would have proved an extremely fruitful period for the further development of dance in America with or without the addition of Balanchine to the mix. At the time that Balanchine and Kirstein were organizing their new venture, the country offered myriad pedagogical opportunities for aspiring dancers, whether in the numerous schools of ballet run by native and émigré instructors or the increasingly dominant institutions of modern dance.2 Modern dance had in fact come to be understood as the more viable and appropriate idiom in which to create a uniquely American movement vocabulary distinct from ballet, which was dismissed by many as a decadent Old World import that could not truly speak to the experiences of the young nation, much less advance the left-wing political beliefs to which numerous choreographers and performers —many of whom were women and Jews (or both) from marginalized immigrant populations—were passionately committed.
Having not yet turned thirty years old and left-leaning in his politics, Kirstein was by no means unsympathetic to the dire challenges facing his fellow citizens in the early 1930s, nor was he unaware of prevailing trends in the arts more generally and dance in particular (see Photo 1). A co-founder [End Page 69] and editor of the modernist literary quarterly Hound and Horn and closely involved in the newly opened Museum of Modern Art, Kirstein was similarly well versed in the current state of dance in the U.S. and abroad. He had published several articles defending the continued relevance of ballet and notoriously critiquing what he regarded as the unstructured and overly individualized aesthetics of modern dance (Kirstein 1930, 1931).
It is without question, however, that the circumstances of Kirstein’s birth had inured him to the widespread despair that pervaded so much of the country. His family’s wealth and social prominence allowed him to cultivate wide-ranging interests in literature and the visual and performing arts during one of the bleakest periods of American history.3 But the same social distinction that had made his projects possible in the first place was also partly to blame for the shaky public debuts of Balanchine and Kirstein’s first performing company, the American Ballet. Geared to a small, Ivy League elite of which Kirstein and his business partner Edward Warburg were consummate exemplars, the 1935 Adelphi Theater debut of the company was shockingly tone deaf to the realities of the moment, and was famously dismissed by dance and music critics alike as the somewhat amateurish offerings of a troupe that should rightfully be called “les ballets américains.”4
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The elitist and out-of-touch repertoire of the American Ballet has found a congenial foil in the output of another institutional predecessor of the New York City Ballet, the chamber-sized touring organization called...