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The Ballet In Its Dark Age

( Originally Published 1924 )

When a plant has passed a climax of luxuriant blossoming, a heedless owner is likely to leave it to the mercies of weather and worms, while he turns his interest to other plants whose season of bloom is just beginning.

Taglioni and Ellsler faded about the middle of the nineteenth century. Cerito, Grahn and Grisi were, at best, unable to surpass them. Jenny Lind set people talking about singers, and spending their time listening to songs. Dancers, desperately straining to recatch the lost interest, multiplied entrechats and pirouettes, jumped higher and more bravely than ever. Straining for technical feats, they forgot motive; the public called the ballet meaningless, its work a stupid form of acrobatics, its smile a grimace. A genius could have made such words seem the words of fools; in the de-fault of a genius, the words were accepted as of more or less true judgment.

The years that followed produced a certain amount of dancing that was good, notably some of the operatic ballets of Europe, and a few ballet spectacles of the seventies and eighties; more that could not exactly be called bad; and, lastly and principally, a series of monstrosities that were nearly infinite in both number, and ugliness.

In trying to find something that would suit the' new and unsettled state of the public taste, managers apparently tried any concoction that could be devised by stage, paint-bridge, property room or box-office. Montmartre dance-halls evolved the Can-can; half of Paris caught its fever; England, and thence America, were engulfed in the lingerie of high kickers. Not dancers, just high kickers.

"One, two, three, KICK!" was their vocabulary—or is, for they are not all dead yet.

In England several managers at various times offered good productions, with casts of capable artists. Of such productions the most fortunate made small profits; the majority lost whatever money was put into them. Managers said the public did not want good work—a deduction apparently justifiable. They devised the elaborate scenic production—Aladdin's-cave sort of thing, with millions of jewels the size of roc's eggs, delirious with yards and furlongs of red, yellow and green foil-paper, acres of chrome-yellow, and "magic transformation scenes"; with one hundred people on the stage, one hundred, obviously making two hundred legs, every one of which was considered thrilling and dangerous in those days. Of all those legs displayed in all their amplitude, usually not one pair could dance a step; but they did not need to dance.

That was; the form of art called the extravaganza. It was a naughty thing to patronise. Its inanities, with-out its "stupendous" cost of production, survive in the present-day burlesque.

In the morbid conditions of Montmartre there came into favour a species of acrobats whose aim was to pro-duce the illusion that their legs and spines were out of joint, if not broken. Although of an ugliness demoniac, their work was called dancing. "Wiry Sal" in England and "Ruth the Twister" in America were the illuminating pseudonyms associated with the specialty. Perhaps a specimen of the kind might still be unearthed in a dime museum.

Enter Lottie Collins, she of "ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay." To high kicking and contortion, and the Skirt Dance vogue of the moment, she added action so violent 'that it seemed a menace to life itself. The combination of attractions was irresistible; Europe and America made her rich. Her master-stroke was bending back until her body was horizontal, and violently straightening up to emphasise the "boom" of her song. For no less than a dancer she was a singer! The two talents were employed together. And hordes of little plagiarists of her act, as of every other "hit," brought delight to the many and despair to the few.

Lottie Collinsism left no territory to be explored in its direction. So an eager world turned to the inanity of sweetness.

The dear little girl had been discovered. Evil among days! Preferably she was dimpled. She wore a blond wig with curls falling artlessly over her shoulders. Her eyebrows were painted in a smoothly curved arch ex-tending around on to the sides of her face, and her eyes were shaded with the luxuriant lashes begot of heavy "beading"; they, too, were carried out an indefinite distance to the sides. She dressed as a child of twelve, with a sash that conveyed the idea of being dressed for Sunday-school; imagination always sup-plied a cent gripped in her fist. She wore "cunning" little low-heeled shoes, with straps. It was not amiss that she have some sort of sunbonnet, of lace, slipped carelessly off her flaxen head and hanging down her back. Rouge, with a bloom of rice powder, gave her a perfect peaches-and-cream complexion. Grease paint widened and shortened her lips, curved them into an infantile cupid's bow. And from that cupid's bow emerged, in piercing calliope tones, inflectionless recitals of her devotion to her dear old mother. At the end of each stanza she had a little dance—usually a slow polka-step, one, two, three and kick! (An irreproachably discreet little kick, to the side.) Repeat four times each side, and on to the next stanza—which in-stead of "mother" and "other," will avail itself of the felicitous rhyme of "roam" and "home," or "heart" and "part."

Lest the enumeration of the foregoing horrors should be criticised as out of place in a discussion of dancing, be it recorded at this point that the said horrors went under the name of dancing within easy remembrance of people now living, that there are still people living who call them dancing, and—for artistic sins of the world as yet unexpiated—they still influence the dancing situation in these United States.

The Black Crook is a name that stands for superlatives. It was the most lavish spectacle America ever had seen. It made such a "hit" as rarely has been duplicated since. Its dancing features, which were of the first order, made more of an impression than had any dancing in this country since Ellsler's tour, in 1840, '41 and '42. Its origin was in part due to the some-times favourable factor of accident.

"In consequence of the destruction by fire of the Academy of Music, this city," writes J. Allston Brown in his History of the New York Stage, "Jarrett and Palmer, who were to have produced La Biche au Bois there, had on their hands a number of artists brought from Europe. They made an arrangement with William Wheatley to utilise the ballet troupe, the chief scenic effects, of which they had models, and the trans-formation scene." From those beginnings grew The Black Crook. With Marie Bonfanti, Rita Sangalli, Betty Rigl and Rose Delval as principal dancers, it opened at Niblo's Garden in September, 1866. The run closed in January, 1868, after 475 performances. A return to Niblo's in December, 1870, yielded 122 performances. December of the following year added 57 to the score. A revival in August, 1872, brought into the company the Kiralfy family, dancers, among whom were the brothers destined to fame as managers and producers. This 1872 revival ran twelve weeks. In 1874, Kiralfy Brothers appear as lessees of the Grand Opera House. They initiated their term with The Black Crook, with Bonfanti as premiere.

Of American appreciation of good dancing panto-mime, during that period, at least, there is no question. It must be borne in mind that the New York performances above mentioned represent only a fraction of the production's total business. The tours that largely occupied the intervals met the same success. The box-office measure of public enthusiasm is incomplete, more-over, without mention of Humpty Dumpty, also a spectacular pantomime with good dancing. Of its first run (in New York, and largely coinciding with the, first run of The Black Crook in point of time) the gross receipts were $1,406,000. It was commensurately profit-able as a "road" attraction. Pertinent to the quality of its dancing, we have a few words of its manager, Clifton W. Tayleure, as quoted by Brown : ". . . principal dancers were not easily to be found. A quarrel between Vestvalli and Sangalli enabled me to secure the latter. Betty and Emily Rigl, who had previously se-ceded from Niblo's, were also secured."

Notwithstanding desertions, The Black Crook maintained its high standards. Its ballet has never since been equalled in America, according to Mme. Bonfanti, in the classic style of work.

For its managers, at least, dancing had earned for-tunes. To the Kiralfys it was evident, too, that the kind of dancing America wanted was good dancing. To produce their Excelsior in 1882 they brought from Paris Sr. Ettore Coppini, now ballet-master of the Metropolitan Opera; and George Saracco, now ballet-master of the Brussels Opera, as a leading dancer. Nor did Jarrett and Palmer modify their faith in quality. Their White Fawn., with an excellent ballet, was little less successful than The Black Crook.

The fame of such works is food for parasites; creatures incapable of discerning the quality of successful works, and upon whom the goodness of the successful dancing had made no impression. Black Crook and White Fawn companies overran the country like a flood of counterfeit money—one part fine, ninety-nine parts base. Plausible advertising protected the deception, but only for a time. It was not long before lovers of good dancing began to realise that they were being defrauded.

In a similar contingency, the supporting public of a baseball club loses no time in applying to that club's manager whatever pressure may be necessary as a means to correcting shortcomings, as far as within him lies. The source of their ability to do this is twofold: they can analyse the game, and they have a vocabulary in which to express themselves. Baseball had not so many enthusiasts in those days as dancing had. But the appreciators of dancing lacked analytical knowledge of the art, and the language in which to discuss it. Promoters of counterfeits were not taken to task, there-fore, as would have been to their own good. Instead, the names of Black Crook, White Fawn, dancing; and pantomime became synonyms for theatrical imposition, and America laid aside interest in them and all their appurtenances.

Of all the consequences of the above incidents, perhaps the most unfortunate was a generally accepted managerial deduction that America does not like dancing after all. Though the Russian ballet has shaken that belief, the belief is not dead yet.

There is a saying that no man is indispensable; that, after his removal, there is always another to take his place. The saying is not true.

Pantomime—not dancing to be sure, but so closely related to it that the prosperity of either usually means that of both—at one time had the alliance of Augustin Daly. He believed in it as a great art, and contemplated increasingly ambitious productions. To those closely associated with him he declared himself willing to lose money on it for three years, and more if necessary; he was confident that eventually it would attain to great popularity in this country. But after producing L'Enfant Prodigue and Pygmalion and Galatea, death stepped in and took away from the stage one of the best influences it ever had, and from dancing a possible friendship of the kind it sorely needed.

In the eighties there was in Chicago a child who had considerable fame as a temperance lecturer. Her name was Loie Fuller. She was moved to take dancing lessons; but (according to biographers) gave them up after a few lessons, on account of difficulty. After a certain amount of voice culture, she qualified as an actress with a singing part. During an engagement in this capacity she received, from a friend in India, a present of a long scarf of extremely thin silk. While playing with it, delighting in its power to float in the air almost like a vapour, Miss Fuller received the idea that was to bring her before the world, the Serpentine Dance. The dance was there in its essence, needing only arrangement and polish, and surety of keeping a great volume of cloth afloat without entanglement. Steps were of no consequence, nor quality of movement in arms or body. The cloth was the thing, and Miss Fuller lost no time on non-essentials.

The success of the Serpentine was not one of those victories gained after long experimenting for a perfect expression, patiently educating the public, and years of disappointments. It was instantaneous and complete; a few weeks sufficed to make Loie Fuller a national figure. A period of tremendous popularity followed, popularity amounting to a fashion. And still another impulse was to come, second only in importance to the use of the gauze itself.

In Paris Miss Fuller had a sketch in which she, a solitary figure, stood on a height at dawn, silhouetted against the sky. The rising sun was arranged to illuminate, one after another, the prominences in the landscape falling away into the distance. The figure, on being touched by the rays, represented its awakening by the fluttering, raising and full play of its hundred yards or so of drapery.

It happened that an audience mistook the intent of the effect, and greeted it as a dance of fire. The up-ward rush of the cloth, obviously, had suggested flame. "La Loie" lost not a moment in seeing the possibilities, nor an hour in setting to work on their development. Stage electric lighting was new; so new that it acknowledged no limitations. Electricians were enthusiastic over new problems, because new problems were being solved by new and sometimes sensational inventions. To lighting Miss Fuller turned to make the effect of the fire dance unmistakable and startling. With the result that the colours and movement of flame were al-most counterfeited. Variously coloured glasses lent their tints to the rays of spot lights; set into discs made to revolve in front of the lamp, they simulated the up-ward rush that helps make flame exciting. As a pre-caution against theft of ideas, the essential parts of the electric arrangements are said to have been trusted exclusively to Miss Fuller's brothers.

La Danse de Feu, consistently prepared as such, created an enthusiasm in Paris probably equal to the "hit" of the Serpentine in America. Indeed Miss Fuller was practically adopted into the French nation, where she was affectionately and widely known as "La Loie." French is the language in which she wrote her memoirs.

Her work, always startling, never failed of being agreeable also. By a loose application of the word it was justified in being called dancing. Strictly speaking it was not, from the point of view of step, movement or posture. Interest in steps the work frankly claimed by its own terms ; an easy movement from place to place, with reference always to the drapery, was all that was undertaken in the department of foot-work. The arms were equally subordinated to the drapery; their movements, as interpretation or decoration, meant nothing. The performer held in each hand a short pole as aid to manipulation of the cloth, in which her arms were buried most of the time. They committed no awkwardness, nor did they contribute to the effect except as they furnished motive power. As to the drapery, any idea of making it a vehicle of controlled lines would obviously have been out of the question. Colour without form was the result; and form, when all is said and done, is the essence not only of dancing, but of any art that would attempt to convey a message to the senses as well as pleasure to the eye.

Imitators affected Miss Fuller very little. So closely were her means guarded—it is said that no one of her designers and sewing-women knew more than a part of the construction of her draperies—that attempts to reproduce her work were generally laborious compromises with failure. But the musical comedy stage underwent an inundation of illuminated dry-goods. With the mechanical problem simplified by the distribution of the hundred yards of drapery among forty people, there followed a sea of cavorting rainbows and prisms that lacked even a semi-careful selection of colours.

The World's Fair in Chicago brought to America a variety 'of dancers, most of them good. The novelty element was the work of the Orient. The Oriental point of view differs from that of England and America it accepts as natural the existence of sex. In all its expressions, whether literary, sculptural, pictorial, or choreographic, the subject of sex is neither avoided nor emphasised. It takes its place among the actuating dramatic motives exactly as it has done in the expressions of all civilisations of all times, except those of our Anglo-Saxon civilisation since about 1620, in which it is evaded, and of certain decadent civilisations, where it is an obsession.

The World's Fair crowd was so amazed by the Oriental disregard of Puritan tradition that it could see nothing in dances of India and North Africa except obscenity. Instead of trying to acquaint the public with the wealth of poetic symbolism of the dances, and their unlimited scope of meaning, every manager on the Mid-way at once adopted the motto of the majority of his profession: "Give the public what it wants." That at least is the inference from conditions. Before the fair was a month old there was hardly an Oriental dancing attraction on the grounds that did not claim, in the sly-dog, language of naughty suggestion, to surpass all competitors in lewdness. And it verily seemed as though most of them were justified in their claims.

They all made money. And they created against Oriental dancing a prejudice just beginning to melt now at the end of twenty years; the majority of the public is still convinced that no Oriental dancing is any-thing but a pretext for offensiveness. For any physical quality truly is offensive the moment it is unduly insisted upon. And with few exceptions the managers of the unhappy Arabs dancing in this country have in-spired their charges to exaggerate one quality to; the almost complete exclusion of every other one.

The ghastly reaction of such a state of affairs is on dancing in general. In this present year, 1913, one of the most prominent and successful managers in America said: "There are two ways to succeed with dancers. If they have a sensational acrobatic novelty that never has been seen before, that will make money. Otherwise you've got to take their clothes off, if you want anybody to look at 'em. Duncan? St. Denis? What does the American public care about art? They have succeeded because they took their clothes off."

It sounds unreal, it is so demonstrably silly. But it was what that manager said. In his profession there are several who hold contrary beliefs; but the one quoted is of the opinion common among the present custodians of the dancing art in America. In their offices is determined what character of dancing shall occupy the stage; to their beliefs the lover of good dancing must give heed.

Any refutation of the above. cynicism as affecting Miss Duncan and Miss St. Denis is superfluous. Their work has at all times been charged with a big, roman-tic or mystic meaning. Imitators, basing their activities on the manager's creed above quoted, have furnished an illuminating experiment to determine exactly what interest the public finds in the work of the two artists named. Invariable failure has accompanied their approximate nudity, despite the fact that many of them are pretty in face and figure.

Great dancers have come, been seen, but—until the coming of the Russians—have achieved few victories of lasting value. Genee is an exception ; to delight in her work is to be added a real influence in favour of real art. Carmencita, Otero and Rosario Guerrero, all great artists of expression conveyed through the medium of the dances of Spain, have had good seasons in this country. Even though their influence on taste did not seem far-reaching, it must be believed that they helped prepare the way for great things that were to come.

But the real force of the coming change, the change that was to take its place among the important revolutions in the history of all art was quietly preparing itself in an American village.

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