ABT: AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE AMERICA'S NATIONAL BALLET COMPANY®

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AMERICAN PIONEER:
AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE'S 1960 TOUR OF THE USSR

by Catharine Nepomnyashchy

From the 1950s to the 1970s, an unprecedented number of American dance companies traveled on international tours with US State Department support. These tours highlighted the intersection of nationalism, public policy, and the arts, as dancers and choreographers grappled with what it meant to represent the United States abroad during the cold war.[1]

Beginning with the early years of the Cold War, cultural exchange emerged as a significant tool of U.S. diplomacy.  The United States Information Agency (USIA) worked on tours with the State Department, and other organizations, including the CIA, arranged tours as well.  In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave an enormous boost to the arts when he established the President’s Emergency Fund for International Affairs, allotting “$2,250,000 to the State Department to support dance, theatre, music, and sports tours and $157,000 to the USIA to publicize the tours.”[2]  Charles Payne in his book about American Ballet Theatre, speculates that “these changes were inspired, oddly enough, not by officials in Washington but by commissars in the Kremlin.”

The thought occurred to someone in the Soviet propaganda bureau that the uncommitted nations of postwar Europe and the Middle East could be repelled from casting their lot with the capitalist United States if it was pictured as a crass, commercial country totally devoid of culture.  Surely these nations would prefer to associate themselves with the Soviet Union, a country that would respect and encourage their artistic traditions, just as it honored and fostered its own.  The Russians, in effect, employed culture as a weapon in the Cold War.[3]

On the American side, three panels—devoted respectively to theater, music, and dance – comprised for the most part of major New York figures in performance, criticism, and arts administration under the auspices of the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA) were entrusted with the task of selecting performing arts groups to represent the United States abroad.  The Dance Panel began meeting monthly in October 1954.  The process of selection would bring to the forefront difficult questions concerning dance, dancer, and national allegiance in discussions of how best to represent the United States abroad.

For four decades after the Bolshevik revolution there was virtually no official cultural exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States.  This policy changed abruptly during the late Khrushchev years as Eisenhower’s initiative coincided with cultural relaxation in the USSR.  Exchanges began as early as 1955 and 1956 in the spirit of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program with the goal of using culture to promote the Soviet image abroad.

Soviet and American artists began appearing in each other’s countries.   Major artists including Isaac Stern, Jan Peerce, Emil Gilels, David Oistrakh, and Mstislav Rostropovich made their debuts in the Soviet Union and the United States respectively during this period.  Also during 1955-56, first a production of Porgy and Bess, already on tour in Europe, and then the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed in the Soviet Union.[4]

Despite the change in political climate, there were still hindrances to expanded exchanges.  Arrangements for tours did not proceed without problems, and attempts in 1956 to arrange a tour of the Moiseyev Dance Company broke down because of the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which required that foreign visitors be fingerprinted.  The door was opened to closer relations between the two countries by the signing of the “Agreement Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Exchanges in the Cultural, Technical and Educational Fields.”  This first exchange agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union was signed on January 27, 1958 by William S. B. Lacey, President  Eisenhower's Special Assistant on East-West Exchanges, and Gregory Z. Zarubin, Soviet Ambassador to the United States.  “Under this two-year agreement," writes Naima Prevots in her ground-breaking study Dance for Export, "there were exchanges in science, technology, agriculture, medicine, public health, radio and television, motion pictures, exhibitions, publications, government, youth, athletics, scholarly research, culture, and tourism.  Also included was an arrangement to establish direct air service between the two countries.”[5]  The agreement made it possible for the Moiseyev troupe to come to the United States.

Sponsored by the impresario Sol Hurok, the 1958 Moiseyev tour was spectacularly successful.  Performances played to sold-out audiences, while Ed Sullivan devoted an entire hour of his CBS Sunday-night variety program to the group.  The following year the Bolshoi Ballet toured the United States to great acclaim.  The success of the Soviet dance groups made return exchanges by American dance troupes to the Soviet Union a high priority. At the February 18, 1960 meeting of the Dance Panel (after it had already been decided to send American Ballet Theatre to the USSR), the panel members concurred that it was “a national emergency.”[6]  Clare Croft observes:  “Planning exchanges meant facing questions about what groups best represented American art.  Initially, the dance panel’s strategy for defining American identity in dance was to counter whatever the Soviet Union sent to the US with a similar genre.”[7]  Thus, a folk group was sent to the USSR in response to the Moiseyev, and the Bolshoi Ballet tour called for a ballet company to be dispatched in return to the USSR.

As early as 1956 Lincoln Kirstein, general director of New York City Ballet, was approached by the Soviet Minister of Culture with an invitation for the company to perform in four Soviet cities, and he was approached again in 1957.  George Balanchine’s virulent anti-Sovietism as well as his belief in the fundamental aesthetic differences between the New York City Ballet and the major Soviet ballet companies proved insuperable obstacles to an agreement at that time.  In the spring of 1958 Jerome Robbins' newly formed Ballets: U.S.A., came up as a candidate for exchange, but the Soviet side turned down the offer because of the company's emphasis on what the choreographer described as “our own current jazz style.”[8]

Finally, as indicated above, it was decided that American Ballet Theatre would be the first American dance company to tour the USSR.  It would be ABT’s eleventh international tour.  Ironically, ABT’s biggest challenges – its lack of a home theater and nomadic touring existence – probably set it on the trajectory that led to its selection.  Charles Payne notes: “The one-night stands in America and the capital-hopping abroad were debilitating and diverted energies from creative work, but in retrospect they proved to have qualified the company to be a logical recipient when the bonanza of government subsidy was struck.”[9]  As Walter Terry noted in the New York Herald Tribune, ABT was the "first company to perform in England following World War II (1946), the first major American company to tour continental Europe after the war (1950) and the first ballet troupe to perform abroad under the auspices of the State Department (1953)."[10]  The road from the decision to send ABT to the USSR to the implementation of the tour was bumpy, however, and it remained uncertain up to the last minute whether the tour would actually go forward.

ABT suffered a number of major setbacks in the period preceding the USSR tour.  On August 18, 1958, a truck carrying scenery, costumes, props, and personal effects of the dancers went up in flames on its way from Cannes to Geneva.  Virtually everything for ABT’s current European tour was lost.  Only through extraordinary efforts—loans from other ballet troupes, special orders from suppliers of ballet gear – was ABT able to perform at opening night of the U.S. Pavilion in Brussels as planned.[11]  Upon its return to the United States, the financially troubled company went into hiatus for over a year.  The troupe was reconstituted for a three-week engagement (April 18 to May 7) at the Metropolitan Opera House, a celebration of the company’s twentieth anniversary.  But a crushing blow was delivered by John Martin, the dean of American dance critics, who wrote a blistering review of the Met season – laced with a personal assault on Lucia Chase, the company's co-director, guiding spirit, and major financial supporter:

If the American Ballet Theatre actually goes to the Soviet Union (which heaven forbid!) to represent the United States under the auspices of the President's Special Internationl Program for Cultural Presentations,, it will be a profound national humiliation.... The American Ballet Theatre was once a vital and brilliant company, but it has burnt itself out.  In its recent engagement at the Metropolitan Opera House, an ironic celebration of its twentieth anniversary, it virtually collapsed before our eyes.

This is not a surprising development.  Its devoted, determined, and wrong-headed director, Lucia Chase, has never seen the necessity for an artistic director.  She has concentrated on financial support and patronage – women’s committees, men’s committees, chapters in various cities – which is all very good in its way; but because she herself is in no way qualified to direct the artistic activity of a company, and does not seem to be aware of the fact, she has allowed a once-distinguished repertory to age and shrivel, a once-great company to dwindle away.[12]

Such a devastating review from the influential critic of the New York Times threatened the USSR part of the company’s scheduled tour.  The tour’s first leg, a four-month circuit  beginning in Lisbon and ending in Bucharest,[13] was allowed to go ahead as planned.   “Ballet Theatre left for Europe on May 12, 1960, from Idlewild  Airport in New York,” ballerina Maria Tallchief recalled in her memoirs, “and we posed for pictures in a big group.  Someone thrust a huge flower horseshoe into my hand before we boarded the plane, and I held it for all the shots – like a prize racehorse.  I laughed to myself.”[14]  Despite Tallchief’s lighthearted memory, the concluding leg of the tour into the USSR remained uncertain.  At the April 21 meeting of the Dance Panel, the opinion was expressed that the company was “in no condition to go to Russia,” and suggestions were made to cut the repertory down and engage a “coach-director” to improve the situation.[15]  Dance Panel members and Soviet cultural watchdogs monitored ABT’s progress during the European tour before a final decision was made to allow ABT to continue on to the USSR.  Critic Walter Terry, a member of the Dance Panel, gave “a full report on the situation concerning the American Ballet Theatre” (which he had just seen perform in Brussels) at a joint State Department-ANTA Panel meeting on June 16. According to the minutes,

Mr. Terry disagrees with the basic premise that no one should send a ballet company to Russia because he thinks they (the Russians) should see what has happened to ballet since 1900.  Mr. Terry told the members what is necessary to make the Ballet Theatre good enough to appear in Russia, and said if these things are all brought about, we still will never know until the company opens in Moscow whether our judgment was right or not.  If any of the Panels make a “boo-boo,” he hopes it will not be held against our record.[16]

Favorable reviews and a positive assessment from a special representative of the Bolshoi Ballet who went to see ABT in Amsterdam eventually turned the tide.  However, the Soviet cultural authorities dragged their feet and did not agree to sign the relevant contracts letting the Soviet tour go forward until the very last minute.[17]

The Dance Panel was most concerned about the personnel and repertory ABT would take to Russia and questioned Lucia Chase – herself a panelist – closely about both.  At the November 1959 meeting, Walter Terry called for Chase “to present cast and repertory to the Panel, ‘so that we can keep a careful eye on it.’”[18]  A primary concern of the Panel members was to put America’s best foot forward by mustering the top dancers and choreographers to ABT:  “Panel members want Miss Chase to have the finest company for Russia,” the minutes for the February 18 meeting recorded.[19]  That meant bulking up the company’s roster with stars.  With regard to the mandate to constitute a genuinely American company, there seems to have been relatively little concern about the nationality and birthplaces of the dancers recruited – except in the case of Alicia Alonso, a citizen of Cuba who had already danced in Russia.  (She did not, in any case, go.)  The State Department was even called in to appeal to select dancers and choreographers.  This move appears to have had little effect except in one important case.  Ballerina Maria Tallchief had had qualms about joining the ABT tour because she did not want to leave her infant daughter for the six months of the tour’s duration.  However, by her account:

Lucia  [Chase] and Erik [Bruhn] were not alone in urging me, importuning me, to say yes.  Members of the presidential program added their voices to the chorus. It was explained to me that this was a very important tour with political consequences.  Ballet Theatre would be breaking barriers, and the State Department was very much involved in working out the logistics.  A great deal was at stake.  No one wanted to risk the off chance that a major American performing arts institution might have anything less than a triumph in the Soviet Union.  So, after talking to government representatives, I felt that as an American I owed it to my country.  I gave in.[20]

Tallchief was not only one of the top ballerinas in the United States, but she had impeccable American credentials as a member of the Osage Indian tribe.  In the end the roster of stars who danced for ABT in Russia included Tallchief, Erik Bruhn, Lupe Serrano, John Kriza, Royes Fernandez, Scott Douglas, Glen Tetley, and Ruth Ann Koesun, with Igor Youskevitch appearing as a guest artist.  Altogether the troupe that traveled to the USSR consisted of fifty-three dancers.[21]

The challenge with the repertory was to strike a balance between contemporary American works and works in a classical vein.  In the end, ABT took three programs to the USSR.  The first program included George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations (1947), Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo (1942), the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake, and David Lichine’s Graduation Ball (1940).  The second program consisted of Mikhail Fokine’s Les Sylphides (1908/1909), Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free (1944), the pas de deux from Don Quixote, and Fokine’s Bluebeard (1941).  The third program was Birgit Cullberg’s Lady from the Sea (1960), William Dollar’s Combat (1949), Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas (1936), and Theme and VariationsRodeo and Fancy Free were left to represent contemporary American ballet when the Soviet authorities nixed Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid (1938), de Mille’s Fall River Legend (1948), and Herbert Ross' Caprichos  (1950) on the basis that they were “too violent.”[22]  Thus the repertory ranged across a spectrum from works very familiar to the Soviet audience – the two Petipa pas de deux—to American-themed and unfamiliar works by de Mille and Robbins.

ABT played to capacity crowds throughout its run in the USSR, which ran from September 13 to October 23.  Tickets were reportedly hard to come by.  The New York Times reported that 10,000 people seeking tickets to the first performances in Moscow had to be turned away, although balletomanes managed to attend multiple performances.  During the first leg of the tour in Moscow (September 13-15) the company danced not at the Bolshoi Theater, but at the second-tier Stanislavsky Theater, which seated 2,400 and offered less than ideal conditions.  Maria Tallchief recalls:

To begin with, although it was September, the weather had turned cold.  We were dancing not at the Bolshoi but at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Lyric Theater, a somewhat smaller house.  It was freezing there, and nothing I did warmed me up.  There was no heat backstage or in my dressing room, and when I tried to warm up I was so cold I couldn’t feel my feet.  It was the same when I went out onstage.”[23]

To make up for it, Mrs. Nikita S. Khrushchev, by some accounts the country's most powerful balletomane, and prima ballerinas Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya were in the opening night audience, and the evening closed with six curtain calls.[24]  After Moscow, to which it would return at the end of the tour, the company went to Tiblisi, Georgia, where it danced  at the  Zakharia Paliashvili Opera and Ballet Theater from September 20-30. The troupe then traveled to Leningrad, where it performed at the Cultural Cooperative Center (Dom kul’tury promkooperatsii), which seated 2,100 and was sold out for the entire two-week run (October 5-19). The company then returned to Moscow (October 21-23) for the conclusion of the tour, dancing at the Lenin Sports Palace, a stadium seating 10,000.

At the final performance in Moscow Premier Khrushchev, just returned from delivering his infamous shoe-banging speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, showed up unexpectedly at the stadium with his wife and son and sat with Soviet dignitaries, member of the Politburo Frol R. Kozlov, Minister of Culture Ekaterina Furtseva and her husband Deputy Foreign Minister Nikolai Firyubin.  When the U.S. Ambassador Llewellyn E. Thompson, who was watching the performance on television at home, saw Khrushchev arrive, he quickly dressed and headed for the stadium.  After the performance, which ended with three curtain calls, Khrushchev invited  Lucia Chase, Charles Payne, music director Kenneth Schermerhorn, Maria Tallchief, Lupe Serrano, John Kriza, and other senior members of the company – for a late midnight supper.  Curiously, as Maria Tallchief remembers, the premier asked each of the dancers their nationality when he was introduced to them:

One by one we were presented to him.  As Mr. Khrushchev shook each of our hands, a deputy speaking through a interpreter announced our nationality or ancestry.  “Danish,” he said when Erik and Toni were presented.  "Czechoslovakian" when it was John Kriza’s turn.  When I was introduced, all the man could say was "Miss Tallchief.  She’s an American."  I had to smile.[25]

Khrushchev “raised a toast to the American dancers and to ‘art and friendship’” and invited ABT to come back to the USSR, an event that made the front page of Pravda the next day.[26]  While it is unclear why Khrushchev chose to show up at the ballet, the tenor of his comments, especially in contrast to his historic performance at the UN just weeks before, would seem an eloquent advertisement for cultural diplomacy.

In turning to the reception of ABT’s performances as reflected in the writings of Soviet critics, we find a mixed, but generally positive response as mirrored in the titles of some reviews:  “Udachi I proschety” (Successes and Misjudgments), “Sporno, no interesno” (Controversial, But Interesting), “Klassika prikhodit na pomoshch’” (The Classics Come to the Rescue).  In the article “Controversial, But Interesting,” Tbilisi critic Eteri Gugushvili discerns two competing trends in American ballet as presented by ABT:  “in American ballet there clearly co-exist two opposite tendencies – the classical and the contemporary (I would rather call it modernist).  They do not so much mutually enrich one another as do battle and compete.”[27]  Saying she does not know which tendency will prevail in the end – the classical which has the advantage in terms of “pure dance” or the contemporary which wins out in terms of “pure experiment,” she concludes with the rhetorical question:  “Does it not follow from the remarks made that the path of mutual enrichment would be much more fruitful for the development of American choreography than the path of mutually exclusive contrasts?”[28]  This perception of a clash of classicism and modernism, which runs as a leitmotif through the Soviet reviews, was most likely exacerbated by the fact that the ABT programs were made up exclusively of one-act ballets, while the Soviet audience was accustomed to full-length story ballets.  Thus, critic Mikhail Chudnovskii wrote in Teatral’naia zhizn’ (Theater Life):

The main thing that draws attention to itself in the programs presented by our foreign guests is the absence of a striving to create large-scale, monumental shows, multi-act ballets.  In contrast to the Soviet ballet theater, which in the past quarter of a century has created such masterpieces of choreo-dramatic art as Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and Fountain of Bakhchisarai in which classical dramatized dance proved capable of communicating the lofty ideologic conceptual aspect of the brilliant texts of Pushkin and Shakespeare, in the works of foreign choreographers dramaturgy drops back into second place, yielding place to abstract dance.  The fundamental emphasis is placed on ever more refined technique, often passing over into unvarnished acrobatics.[29]

The clash would have been exacerbated by the juxtaposition of short ballets of different “tendencies.”

There was undoubtedly a note of condescension in at least some Soviet commentators’ approach to ABT, a tendency to contrast the American company’s youth to the venerable Russian ballet tradition.  One especially partisan critic, Mikhail Gabovich, writing in Sovetskaia kul’tura (Soviet Culture), opined:

To a greater or lesser extent every ballet collective that comes to our country from abroad experiences great creative trepidation.  And that’s understandable.…

The Soviet ballet theater has become as it were a sacred place, Mecca and Medina for ballet figures from the whole world.  Probably it is both honorable and worrying to perform before the Soviet viewer.  And it is no accident that some American critics expressed apprehension about how this troupe’s engagement in the USSR would resonate after the triumphant performances of the Moscow ballet in the United States.

Yes, of course, if you compare the state of ballet art in our country and in America, if you don’t know that this young collective doesn’t even have its own stationary theater, leads a difficult, “nomadic” way of life, if you don’t take into account the corrosive force of all possible “newest” trends, then there is basis for apprehension.

However, it seems to me that the American artists of this young collective, which has existed for only 20 years, probably counted on a sympathetic, amiable, and attentive attitude toward them on the part of the Soviet viewer.  And I think in this they were not mistaken.[30]

On the other hand, the critic E. Gaevskii, while voicing serious reservations about ABT, wrote about the youth of the company in glowing terms:

American Ballet Theatre began its engagement.  As is apparent from what we have read about it and what we have seen on stage, it is a young collective:  twenty years of existence for a ballet theater does not yet signify maturity.  Its attainments are obvious; as it must be said are its shortcomings as well, about which we will talk later.  Before us is a truly living organism, full of strength, energy, and initiative.  This manifests itself in everything – in the character of its searches, in the character of execution, even in the character of the young artists’ stage presence – in that spirit of joyous daredevilry peculiar specifically to them, which it seems is just waiting for a convenient moment to break forth onto the stage and take possession of it.  In one way or another the elemental force of carefree gaiety breaks into the action of almost all the ballets we have seen.[31]

E. Lutskaia, writing for the journal Kul’tura i zhizn’ (Culture and Life), on the other hand, viewed Soviet audiences as demanding, but enthusiastic about touring groups:

The exactingness and stringent taste, goodwill and hospitality with which foreign touring groups are greeted in our country are well known.  Everyone knows that in our country the idea of all-round cultural exchange – exchange of envoys from all realms of art – has arisen and taken shape.  That is why the words of Lucia Chase – director of American Ballet Theatre, which came to the USSR for the first time this fall – sound so natural:  “We are happy that, finally, we find ourselves in Moscow.”

Becoming acquainted with the creative work of this theater, we are yet again convinced how great, how truly international is the proliferation of the traditions of Russian choreography.[32]

Tellingly the critic – and not this critic alone – finds in ABT an affirmation of Russian preeminence in ballet.

Official Soviet accounts are virtually unanimous in reporting that audiences greeted the ABT performances “warmly.”  It is not clear what effect ABT’s presentation of four short works by different composers and choreographers may have had on audiences used to full-length dramatic ballets in the classical tradition that were the staple of the Soviet repertory.  At least one American critic reviewing the performances felt Soviet viewers may have been confused about how to react appropriately to more unfamiliar works,[33] and certainly some ballets were received with greater favor than others.

Of the two distinctly American ballets danced by ABT in the USSR, Rodeo and Fancy Free, the former unquestionably received the more enthusiastic reception.  Set to music by Aaron Copland and situated in the American southwest, Rodeo follows a young cowgirl who begins as a tomboy and ends up getting the man she loves, a story told with rousing dancing.  The ballet and its performance were praised for their “energy” and “joyousness,” traits that were ascribed in a positive sense to the youth of the ABT company itself.  Mikhail Gabovich wrote of the ballet:  “Festive, genre scenes from the everyday life of cattlemen from the southwestern states clothed in dance form behind which you see the living person.  Zest for life, humor, folk elements, and real characteristics of life in the structure of the dance movements plus a very good execution by the artists Jenny Workman, Notara Darrell, and John Kriza left an interesting artistic impression.”[34] Another critic even used the de Mille piece as his primary example of the ABT repertory and actually titled his review “Cinderella in a Cowboy Hat” (Zolushka v kovboiskoi shliape).  He characterized the ballet:  “This colorful, comic little scene is both funny and sad.  Muscovites liked it.”[35]  Rodeo may have been more legible to Soviet audiences because it has the rudiments of a plot and was viewed as drawing on American folklore.  Fancy Free, to music by Leonard Bernstein, did not fare as well.  Lucia Chase, in her report on the tour to the Dance Panel after ABT’s return, expressed the opinion that Fancy Free was the least successful of the ballets presented.[36]  Unlike Rodeo, it has no real plot.  It portrays a fleeting dalliance in a bar between three sailors on shore leave and three women out for a good time.  There is no story line, and the encounter leads to no real denouement.  This was so far from ballet as they knew it that it left Soviet audiences puzzled.  One Moscow critic wrote:

We also saw the contemporary American ballet Fancy Free, choreographed by the ballet master Robbins to music by Bernstein.  The spirit of rationalism reigns on the stage.  Three sailors in white clothes dance, three random girlfriends – in yellow, pink, and green.  The ballet master devises for them now acrobatic, now eccentric, now angular, now flowing movements.  But after five minutes it becomes boring, for the people on the stage move, but the movement of the ballet stands still.[37]

In a similar vein, another critic wrote:

To the deafening roar of convulsive jazz music in which it is difficult to catch any melody a scene is acted out in a New York bar, where in the dead of night three drunken sailors have wandered in and meet street women.  Deliberate eccentricity, acrobatics in place of dance, gimcrackery quickly become annoying and begin to irritate.  We understand that this staging of the choreo-scene Fancy Free is a consequence of the searching of a young theater, its response to one of those “tendencies” that now prevail in American ballet art.   But was it worth it to include this choreo-etude in many ways controversial from an artistic perspective in the same program with masterpieces of the classics?  Indeed it is more suitable to a variety show than to ballet theater.[38]

Vera Krasovskaia, writing for the Leningradskaia pravda (Leningrad Truth), dissented.  She found that in Fancy Free thanks to the ballet’s “laconic brevity images of people who retain their individuality arise in the music, restless and subdued by passion, replete with acrobatics and devices of the variety show.”[39]  Another Soviet critic, moreover, noted that “many American ballets, at the present time numbered among the achievements of national choreography, were created by this troupe [ABT] or, having been produced in other theaters, are included in its repertory.”[40]  The critic then goes on to name Billy the Kid (which the Soviets had not approved for the tour), Fancy Free, and Rodeo in this pantheon, concluding:  “Precisely in these works with their democratic subject matter, based on folk traditions of choreography, is formed the style of the American national ballet.”[41]

One “American” ballet that fell short of expectations was George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations.  I term it “American” to stress the irony that a work by a Russian-born, Maryinsky-trained choreographer needed to be included to represent the best of contemporary American ballet.  Created for Ballet Theatre (as ABT was called until 1957), this plotless work is set to the final movement of Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 3 for Orchestra in G major, Op. 55 and consists of increasingly complex variations that invoke the classical traditions of nineteenth-century Petipa ballets such as The Sleeping Beauty.  One critic, while praising aspects of the ballet, opined:  “But evidently Tchaikovsky, with his genuinely Russian clarity, his uncommon excitement demands a more profound interpretation.”[42]  A Leningrad critic wrote:  “In Theme and Variations the choreographer George Balanchine inventively varies patterned figures of dance, but nothing remains of Tchaikovsky’s theme, of its soulfulness and contemplation.”[43]  Particularly surprising perhaps is a harsh review from a Tbilisi critic given the fact that Balanchine was of Georgian ancestry and therefore, in a sense, playing to a home crowd: 

Before us is the ballet Theme and Variations produced by the well known ballet master George Balanchine to music by P. Tchaikovsky.  In terms of inventiveness of the dance design as a whole, the elegance and nobility of the lines of dance and the dance movements of the remarkable Lupe Serrano and Royes Fernandez and the whole corps de ballet as well this staging pleasantly surprises.  But at the same time the ballet leaves the viewer indifferent.  There is no choreographic force in it, no internal dynamics or poetic inspiration.  And although the ballet master strives to violate a bit the classical “tranquility” and academicism of ballet, the staging as a whole wafts of cold.  Does this not suggest that the classics are at times understood in American ballet as belonging in a museum, static, not yielding to movement forward?[44]

Another Tbilisi critic similarly opined: “The ballet does not leave a deep impression – it is perceived more like a beautiful spectacle because it does not have enough of that emotionality, of that heartfelt transport without which Tchaikovsky’s music is unthinkable.”[45]  This, of course, resonates with Chudnovskii’s remarks cited earlier about American ballet sinking into abstraction.  It also reflects the difficulty of Soviet audiences in dealing with works without an explicit narrative or plot.

Unsurprisingly, Soviet audiences and critics tended to react most favorably to what was most familiar.  Thus, the pas de deux from Swan Lake and Don Quixote, staples of the Soviet repertory, were greeted by the rhythmic clapping with which Soviet audiences expressed their greatest appreciation, and critics raved, especially about the performances of Erik Bruhn in Swan Lake and Lupe Serrano in Don Quixote.  Willliam Dollar’s Combat set to music by Rafaello de Banfield was also favorably received.  Perhaps the most telling “review” was a comment overheard and published in the New York Herald Tribune:  “And Miss Plisetskaya, after watching enviously William Dollar’s ‘The Combat,’ was heard to remark wistfully that she wished a ballet like that could be created for her.”[46]  Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas and David Lichine’s Graduation Ball, the latter to music by Johann Strauss in an arrangement by Antal Dorati, received mixed notices, although Graduation Ball charmed a number of critics with its lightness and humor.  Jardin aux Lilas, with its emotional subtlety and psychologically infused movement, was something else, however.  Mikhail Gabovich called it a “talented work” but found it hard “to escape from the strange sensation that arises” when you watch it.

Everything would seem to be in place.  The beautiful, romantic […] music of E. Chausson, the clear development of the plot (true, a bit salon-banal), good, talented artists, “normal” choreography without transcendentalism and formalistic flourishes, costumes of subtlety and taste.  All the conditions, it would seem, for the creation of poetic, living work.  But it is precisely life that is missing.… Why?  Because people act as if they were in a trance.  There is something somnambulistic in the conduct, relations, glances, touches of these youths and girls who have gathered together in the lilac garden lit by the moonlight.  As if an old and kind romantic moon stopped being kind and poetic and became malicious and sickly.  And its light in a fateful way transforms a person into a lunatic… This choreographic “lunatism,” pretentious mysteriousness, suppressed exaltation, and overtones of tragic impending doom appear as a clearly expressed style of impending doom for many ballet “searches” in the West.  It is not the person, but his aesthetic shadow that begins to act on the ballet stage.[47] 

By contrast, most critics received Lady from the Sea negatively.  Chudnovskii wrote:

As concerns Lady from the Sea, choreographed by the ballet master Birgit Cullberg to music by K. Riisager on the Ibsen play of the same name, this presentation calls forth objections.

First of all, Ibsen’s clear philosophical story is transformed into some sort of symbolic diagram where it is not real living personages with vividly expressed characters, but only shadows of the heroes produced by Ibsen who act.  Second, the dance of the characters is somehow angular, unnatural, frequently passing over into pure acrobatics.[48]

Probably the most successful ballets were the two Fokine works, Les Sylphides and Bluebeard – and this is understandable, for audiences were welcoming home their own, the great Russian choreographer who traced his lineage back to the Imperial Ballet and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  Thus one Moscow critic wrote:  “In the second program was shown the famous ballet Les Sylphides (‘Chopiniana’) created in 1908 by Mikhail Fokine.  There is in essence no plot, but Chopin’s creation found in Fokine’s fantasy a wondrous incarnation that it seems to viewers:  it is impossible to dance Chopin any other way.  This meeting with ‘Chopiniana’ was for Muscovites just as exciting as a meeting with an old friend.”[49]  E. Lutskaia finds that “A sense of humor does not forsake the American dancers, constituting, evidently, an inalienable attribute of the whole collective.”[50]  She then by implication attributes this trait to Fokine as she leads into the conclusion of her article with a rave review of what she terms “a brilliant satire of all the bad clichés of the ballet stage,” Bluebeard:  “This quality [sense of humor] was divined by Mikhail Fokine.  This greatest of Russian choreographers set his last ballet specially for this theater.”[51]  She then goes on to conclude her review as a whole by tracing ABT to Fokine’s legacy:  “This work is a kind of bequest left by Fokine to American Ballet Theatre in 1941.  Since that time twenty years have passed.  And the more carefully the collective preserves and develops the principles of ballet performance formulated by Fokine the more interesting, groundbreaking, goal-directed will be its pursuits.”[52]  Thus she articulates what is a leitmotif of reviews of ABT – encouraged by Lucia Chase in interviews to the Soviet press:  that ABT comes out of the Russian ballet tradition and therein lies its positive side.[53]

Judging by the official Soviet reviews – for the most part backed up by reviews by American journalists – it would be hard to label ABT’s tour of the Soviet Union a “triumph” from a purely dance perspective.  And yet this judgment was borne out by the sold-out houses, the enthusiastic applause, and the appearance of Khrushchev himself at the final performance in Moscow.  ABT’s visit to the USSR was an important step in the opening up of the Soviet Union to the West.  We do not know how many in the audience went precisely to see something new.  Certainly the ABT tour paved the way for other American dance groups – New York City Ballet would visit the USSR in 1962, the Joffrey Ballet in 1963, and ABT itself would return in 1966 – offering Soviet audiences a broader view of what constituted contemporary dance.  More important, the 1960 tour was a triumph of cultural diplomacy because it gave American dancers and Soviet citizens a chance to see one another if not up close at least closer[54] in a non-political context. Perhaps even more important, it was a triumph precisely in not being an unqualified triumph.  The tour gave Soviet critics the opportunity to acknowledge the debt of young American ballet to the Russian tradition while still remaining firmly in control of Russian superiority in ballet.  It would be more than thirty years before the Soviet Union collapsed, but it is not too much to say that the seeds of that collapse were planted by these early contacts between cultures.

NOTES

I would like to thank Lynn Garafola for her generous help in editing and researching this article, which would not exist without her.  I would also like to thank Robert H. Davis, Columbia University’s Russian, Eurasian and East European Librarian, for his help in obtaining bibliography.

 

[1] Clare Croft, "Ballet Nations:  The New York City Ballet's 1962 US State Department-Sponsored Tour of the Soviet Union," Theatre Journal 61 (2009), 421.

[2] Ibid., 425.

[3] American Ballet Theatre, text and commentary by Charles Payne (New York: 

Knopf, 1979), 166.

[4] Naima Prevots, Dance for Export:  Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War, introd. Eric Foner (Hanover/London:  Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1998), 70.

[5] Ibid., 71.  For the Agreement itself, see page 69.

[6] Quoted in Prevots, Dance for Export, 76.

[7] Croft, "Ballet Nations," 426.

[8] “Dance Advisory Panel Meeting, International Cultural Exchange Service of ANTA, 18 Feb. 1960.  Quoted in Prevots, Dance for Export, 75.  For early Soviet approaches to Kirstein and the New York City Ballet, see 74.  I am grateful to Naima Prevots for sharing copies of the minutes for this and other panel meetings with me.  The originals come from the Bureau of Educational and Historical and Cultural Affairs Historical Collection, Special Collections Division, University of Arkansas Libraries

[9] Payne, American Ballet Theatre, 208.

[10] Walter Terry, "First U.S. Ballet Troupe Will Tour Russia in 1960," New York Herald Tribune [hereafter NYHT], 3 Dec. 1959, 19.

[11]  Alex C. Ewing, Bravura!  Lucia Chase and the American Ballet Theatre (Gainesville:  University Press of Florida, 2009), 192-4.

[12] John Martin, "Dance:  Dilemma.  Ballet Theatre's Mission to Russia In the Light of Its Local Debacle," New York Times [hereafter NYT], 15 May 1960, X10.  Martin went on to note:  “As it happens, Miss Chase herself is a member of ANTA’s Dance Advisory Panel, which makes the recommendations for these Government assignments.  Though she undoubtedly abstained from the actual voting in this case involving herself, she can scarcely have been surprised at the outcome.  Her company has been sent on several previous tournées of the same general nature, though none of them, to be sure, of so critical a character.  On at least one of these occasions, however, the company was billed as the American National Ballet Theatre, which was damaging enough to our cultural prestige by its quite unjustified implications.”

[13] The entire European tour, including the USSR, encompassed fourteen countries and twenty-eight cities.  "U.S. Ballet Troupe Going Into Russia," NYHT, 22 Aug. 1960, 8; "Ballet Troupe Wins European Acclaim," The Chicago Defender, 27 Aug. 1960, 20; Ewing, Bravura!, 200.

[14] Maria Tallchief, with Larry Kaplan, Maria Tallchief:  America's Prima Ballerina (New York:  Henry Holt, 1997), 257.

[15] “Dance Advisory Panel Meeting:  International Cultural Exchange Service of ANTA,” 21 Apr. 1960.

[16] Joint State Department-ANTA Panel and Committee Meeting,” 16 June 1960.

[17] Ewing, Bravura!, 200.  The contract signing was announced in the New York Herald Tribune on August 22 with the comment:  “The contract signing in Moscow was announced here yesterday by Miss Lucia Chase, co-director of the company.  The signing came less than four weeks before the scheduled start of the tour on Sept. 14” ("U.S. Ballet Troupe Going Into Russia," NYHT, 22 Aug. 1960, 8).

[18] Quoted in Prevots, Dance for Export, 76.

[19] Ibid. 

[20] Tallchief, America's Prima Ballerina, 256.

[21] “Ballet Theatre in Moscow,” NYT, 12 Sept. 1960, 34.  This figure was also published in several other US newspapers.  However, Lucia Chase told a Moscow interviewer that "in our troupe are 75 people, mainly young" ("My schastlinvy i vzvolnovany:  govoriat artisty Amerikansokogo teatra baleta"("We are happy and uneasy:  artists of American Ballet Theatre speak"), Sovetskaia kul'tura [Soviet Culture], 13 Sept. 1960. I am deeply grateful to colleagues at the State Library for the Arts (Rossiiskaia Gosudarstvennaia Biblioteka po Iskusstvy) (hereafter RGBI), Moscow, for copies of newspaper articles and reviews relating to the ABT tour.

[22] Walter Terry, "Russia Banned Some American Ballets," NYHT, 18 Sept. 1960, D5.  According to Terry, the reasons for the triple ban were that these works were  "masochistic," "violent," "gangster-type," "macabre," "unpleasant," and "glorified crime."

[23] Tallchief, America's Prima Ballerina, 261.  According to Ewing, there was "at least one more hair-raising crisis.  In this instance, all the sets and costumes to be used in Russia had been shipped well in advance, but somehow they didn’t arrive at the Moscow theater until the afternoon before the scheduled opening.  There was just barely enough time to unload and hang the scenery, and no chance to have even a rudimentary dress rehearsal in the totally unfamiliar theater, with a crew that spoke no English and had never seen any of the repertory” (Bravura! 200).

[24] Tom Lambert, "American Ballet Dancers Open Tour of Soviet Union," NYHT, 14 Sept. 1960, 18.  One major dancer who did not attend the ABT performances was Rudolf Nureyev.  He missed the Moscow performances planning to attend the Leningrad ones only to find himself sent on a forty-six-day bus tour of East Germany exactly when the company was performing in Leningrad.  Nureyev believed the timing was deliberate.  Before he left Moscow he attended a Bolshoi performance of Swan Lake at which he glimpsed Erik Bruhn, Maria Tallchief, and Lupe Serrano in the audience.  He wanted to talk to them, but was warned off, “Don’t you dare, because they will never let you out of Russia.  Your career will be finished if you speak to them’” (Julie Kavanagh, Nureyev: The Life [New York: Pantheon Books, 2007], 154). A year later Tallchief met Nureyev, and he told her that her performance of the Black Swan pas de deux with Erik Bruhn had been filmed and he had seen it.  "After watching the film," he told her, "he vowed he was going to meet Erik so that he could learn how to dance like him.  He said he's remember our performance as long as he lived" (Tallchief, America's Prima Ballerina, 262).  Diane Solway in her biography of Nureyev refers to Mrs. Khrushchev as the "country's most powerful balletomane," adding that "it was well known that Khrushchev himself admired dancers" (Nureyev:  His Life [New York:  William Morrow, 1998], 123).

[25] Tallchief, America's Prima Ballerina, 266-7.  John Kriza, although the son of Czech immigrants, was actually born in Chicago.   Royes Fernandez, of French and Spanish parentage, was born in New Orleans.  Igor Youskevitch, a guest artist on the tour, was born in Imperial Russia, raised as an émigré in Yugoslavia, trained with Russian émigré teachers in Paris, and settled in the United States at the start of World War II.  He may well have decided to keep a low profile in the USSR.

[26] Raymond H. Anderson, “American Ballet Opens in Moscow,” NYT, 16 June 1966, 52; Zakonchilis’ gastroli amerikanskikh artistov,” Pravda, 24 Oct. 1960, 1.

[27] Eteri Gugushvili, “Sporno, no interesno,” Zaria Vostoka (Tbilisi), 22 Sept. 1960, RGBI.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Mikhail Chudnovskii, “Podaiushchii nadezhdy,” Teatral’naia zhizn’ (Moscow), No. 24 (1960), 28.

[30] Mikhail Gabovich, “Amerikanskii balet v Moskve,” Sovetskaia kul’tura (Moscow), 2 Oct. 1960, RGBI.

[31] V. Gaevskii, “Klassika prikhodit na pomoshch’,” Literaturnaia gazeta (Moscow), 17 Sept. 1960, RGBI.

[32] E. Lutskaia, “Balet,” Kul’tura i zhizn’ (Moscow), No. 12 (1960), 37.

[33] Tom Lambert, “American Ballet Dancers Open Tour of Soviet Union,” NYHT, 14 Sept. 1960, 18.

[34] Gabovich, “Amerikanskii balet v Moskve.”

[35] E. Ermolaev, “Zolushka v kovboiskoi shliape,” [unidentified newspaper], 17 Sept. 1960, RGBI.

[36] Prevots, Dance for Export, 77.

[37] N. Volkov, “Pervoe znakomstvo,” Izvestiia, 15 Sept. 1960, RGBI.

[38] L. Markozov, “Na spektakliakh amerikanskogo teatra baleta,” Molodoi stalinets (Tbilisi), 29 Sept. 1960, RGBI.

[39] V[era] Krasovskaia, “Na spektakliakh amerikanskogo baleta,” Leningradskaia pravda (Leningrad), 12 Oct. 1960, RGBI.

[40] L.S., “20 let Ameriken balle thetr,” Teatr, No. 10 (1960), 191.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Igor Smirnov, “Udachi i proschety,” Izvestiia (Moscow), 17 Sept. 1960, RGBI.

[43] Krasovskaia, “Na spektakliakh amerikanskogo baleta.”

[44] Gugushvili, “Sporno, no interesno.”

[45] Markozov, “Na spektakliakh amerikanskogo teatra baleta.”

[46] Tom Lambert, “Red Critics Reflect, Find U.S. Ballet Is Not So Bad,” NYHT, 25 Sept. 1960, D5.

[47] Gabovich, “Amerikanskii balet v Moskve.”

[48] Chudnovskii, “Podaiushchii nadezhdy,” 28-9.

[49] Volkov, “Pervoe znakomstvo.”

[50] Lutskaia, “Balet,” 38.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Writing in almost as mean a spirit as in his review of ABT at the Met, critic John Martin commented in the New York Times:  “According to an informed opinion about the American Ballet Theatre’s tour of the Soviet Union – emanating from neither the controlled press not the uncontrolled press agent, but from an experienced and unofficial Russian balletomane—the Soviet public liked three things about the visitors’ presentations – Erik Bruhn, Lupe Serrano and ‘Bluebeard.’”  John Martin, “The Dance:  Back Home,” NYT, 14 May 1961, X8.

[54] While the ABT dancers were apparently able to have some contact with Soviet dancers, their movements were closely monitored, and there would have been no real opportunity to meet with “average people.”  Maria Tallchief records in her autobiography:  “As expected, our movements in the Soviet Union were closely monitored, and once we arrived we were never permitted to go anywhere on our own.  We ate together in one large group, traveled everywhere by bus in what the Russians called a delagatzie.  And at all times we were accompanied by a group of interpreters.  They never one left our side” (America’s Prima Ballerina, 260).