Editor’s Note: Today we introduce another new Hidden City Daily contributor, Bob Skiba. Bob is the typical Philadelphia polymath: dancer, archivist, tour guide, and linguist. In January he started a blog, The Philadelphia Dance History Journal. Beginning this month, Bob will write a feature for the Daily on the hidden history of streets called “Street Lives.” Today’s feature–in honor of March being women’s history month–is on women in Philadelphia ballet history. Among them early 20th century Anna Pavlova, “the immortal swan.”
Of Fairies and Ballet-Girls
Until the 20th century, ballet in America was most often served up as lightweight diversion. The eye-pleasing color and motion of these “incidental dances” relieved the often static staging of serious operas and plays; both the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera maintained a corps of dancers.
In the complementary world of vaudeville and popular music houses, elaborately costumed dances were usually part of a kaleidoscopic program that might include songs, magic acts, trained dogs, pantomimes and clowns. There were exceptions, like Philadelphia’s own Mary Ann Lee and Augusta Maywood (more on them soon), but the ballet dancer, daring to expose her shapely limbs in “fleshings,” spangles and short skirts, was generally seen as something closer to chorus girl than to ethereal fairy. In short, the “ballet-girl” was something no better than her wicked sister, the actress. The Daily Evening Bulletin described this scene from a ballet presented at the American Theatre in 1867:
The dancers are dressed in an extreme ballet costumes, the majority of them are wearing the shortest possible skirts, with their extemities clothed in flesh colored tights…The dance is perhaps no worse than many others of the same character that are given at other places of amusement, and yet it will scarcely be denied that its chief attraction was its lascivious character, and that the theatre was crowded nightly by men, who came her for the extreme purpose of seeing this dance, and the women who engaged in it.
The Immortal Swan
Without a doubt it was Anna Pavlova who did the most to publicize ballet and create new audiences in the early 20th century. It was for the frail-looking Pavlova that Michel Fokine created the solo “The Dying Swan.” In an era before air travel, it was estimated that Pavlova logged over 400,000 miles while touring the globe. She first appeared in Philadelphia with the Russian Imperial Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House at Broad and Poplar Streets in 1910 to a house nearly filled by a curious public. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that “this form of entertainment possesses pleasurable possibilities which had not before been adequately realized in this vicinity…it did prove once more that the dance is entitled to be admitted to the company of the fine arts.”
Indeed, Pavlova was to return to Philadelphia many times in the teens. Her face appeared on Wanamaker Department Store ads and, over eighteen weeks in 1915, The Evening Public Ledger published a series of illustrated articles in which “Pavlowa, peerless dancer” would instruct Ledger readers in her versions of the waltz, the onestep and the polka. The incomparable Pavlova had shrewdly used the mania for ragtime ballroom dancing to promote her company and classical ballet, widening her audiences and her appeal.
Fiery & Cool: Catherine Littlefield’s Philadelphia Ballet
Around the same time that Pavlova began appearing on Philadelphia stages, West Philadelphian Catherine Littlefield began studying at her mother Caroline’s dance school. Later, she studied and performed in New York, then in Europe with the Paris Opera. Returning home to Philadelphia, she began choreographing and dancing for the Philadelphia Civic Opera, of which her mother was ballet director, and the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company. Soon, she was teaching at the family’s Littlefield School of Ballet at 1815 Ludlow St., near Rittenhouse Square. From that school, in 1935, grew the Littlefield Ballet, which quickly became the Philadelphia Ballet. Mother Caroline accompanied classes on piano, sister Dorothie was ballet mistress and brother Carl was enlisted to dance with the company. (See Catherine rehearsing the Philadelphia Ballet in the Ludlow St. studio, right.) The New York Times wrote of the new company in December of 1935:
With no fanfare whatever, but considerable promise of success, a new ballet organization has slipped into the American field with Philadelphia at its centre and Catherine Littlefield as its director. Though it came into official existence no longer ago than Oct. 25 with a modest suburban performance, it is already worthy of attention for several reasons. In the first place, it is a healthy step in the direction of breaking down the centralization of all dance activity in New York…In the second place, Miss Littlefield’s procedure is eminently practical, devoid of all pretension and Barnumism, and based on the good old fashioned principal of making haste slowly…At present the repertoire consists of three pieces composed by Miss Littlefield with a very definite end in view. They have been designed to make an appeal to audiences which may never have seen any kind of dance before, and at the same time to be in every way up to the best standards of dance.
Appealing to a wide audience was just what Littlefield did. The Company performed where they could find an engagement –in high schools, women’s clubs, and athletic associations. The company was fresh, young, and full of enthusiasm. They performed pieces set to classical European music choreographed for them by Littlefield, such as Bolero to music by Ravel, Viennese Waltz to Strauss melodies and a full length Sleeping Beauty. However, they also performed American themed pieces like Barn Dance before Agnes DeMille’s Rodeo and Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid (see photo, below); The Rising Sun, an historical piece marking the 150th anniversary of the Pennsylvania constitution and Cafe Society, a spoof of the nightclub scene. The company performed to acclaim in New York, and later with the Chicago City Opera. In 1937, Littlefield’s Philadelphia Ballet became the first American company to tour Europe.
In the early 1940s Littlefield lost too many men to the war draft to maintain a performing company–she had always stressed the importance of strong, athletic male dancers. She spent the rest of the decade choreographing ice shows and making significant contributions to musical theater. Littlefield crackled with energy yet was calmly focused; a contemporary commented, “She was dry ice–fiery and cool.”
I love learning about the cultural side to the city..The dance school photograph was so clear and it could have passed for the 50’s…..looking forward to more stories..
Thanks, Nonnie. The photo is from a 1938 Dance Magazine in my personal collection.
Catherine Littlefield is an unsung heroine of dance history in America. Balanchine got many of his first dancers from her school and her vision of a uniquely American classical ballet legitimized and helped to formulate the growth of a uniquely contemporary ballet scene in this country. I am giving a paper on Littlefield and her “Americanization” of ballet at the SDHS conference this summer at SDHS (held at U Arts). I’d love to chat about any archival information you have been able to dig up….
Thanks for your article!
I absolutely agree, Laura. Littlefield was an amazing woman. I’m looking forward to reading your paper after you give it at the conference.
This is great historical information. We should also remember and acknowledge the contributions of Essie Marie Dorsey and Marion Cuyjet, two significant African-American women who trained many African-American dancers in ballet during and after segregation in Philadelphia. They are a part of the ballet history of Philadelphia as well. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.
I’ll be at SDHS as well presenting about another amazing Philadelphian-Mary Hinkson.
Thanks, Dionne. There’s a not so pretty link between Marion Cuyjet and the Littlefield’s Philadelphia Ballet. Light skinned Marion studied and danced with the Philadelphia Ballet when she was in her teens. The company at that time – the 1930s, – did not accept black dancers. When black friends came to visit her backstage after a performance, the company ballet mistress realized that Cuyjet was also African American. It was made clear to Marion that she was not welcome back; even in the creative and groundbreaking world of American ballet there was an ugly shadow of racism. Undeterred, Cuyjet would go on to found a dance school, “Judimar,” where she taught Judith Jameson and Joan Myers Brown. Her skill and determination helped to tear down the prejudice she had encountered and open the field of classical ballet to black dancers.