- The Washington Times - Friday, February 11, 2005

This is a tale of the ‘40s, the Kennedy Center and what might have been. A festival, “A New America: The 1940s and the Arts,” is going on now, billed as the center’s most ambitious yet. It is being sold as a celebration of America in the ‘40s — but the only ‘40s ballet we have seen so far is the 1841 “Giselle.” Not quite what we had been led to expect from the blown-up Life magazine covers with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, wartime sailors and Dwight Eisenhower lining the halls of the Kennedy Center.

A celebration of the ‘40s would be an inspired way to show American dance at a seminal moment, when it came to be recognized as a serious creative force, but the Kennedy Center is offering that moment only a cursory nod.

The ‘40s brought a period of innovation seldom equaled, transforming the dance scene almost overnight. George Balanchine and Martha Graham, two of the most important artists of the 20th century by anyone’s standards, were poised to create some of their grandest works.

As the decade began, the country was still recovering from the Great Depression, the clouds of war were hovering, and a company called the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was the most prominent dance group in the country.

Then a new company, Ballet Theatre, eventually to become American Ballet Theatre, was created in 1940. Full of big ideas and high ambition, the company performed ballets by the English choreographer Antony Tudor, including “Lilac Garden,” “Dark Elegies” and “Pillar of Fire,” which made Nora Kaye a dramatic ballerina overnight.

Jerome Robbins burst onto the scene during World War II with probably the best first ballet ever made — “Fancy Free,” about three sailors on home leave. This brought together three remarkable talents who were to be central figures in the arts for the rest of their lives: Mr. Robbins; Leonard Bernstein, who composed the score; and Oliver Smith, who went on to co-direct ABT and be a scenic designer for ballet, Broadway and opera.

Agnes De Mille created the very American “Rodeo” and “Fall River Legend,” the story of Lizzie Borden, an unusual topic for those days. George Balanchine, not yet with a company of his own, created the brilliant “Theme and Variations” for ABT. He free-lanced during this period, choreographing “Concerto Barocco,” “Ballet Imperial,” the haunting “La Sonnambula” and “Symphony in C.”

Eventually, Mr. Balanchine founded Ballet Society and went on to choreograph “The Four Temperaments” and “Orpheus.” Before the decade ended, he had a new star and a new hit, Maria Tallchief in “Firebird,” and the company had a new name, the New York City Ballet. It was to become the most excitingly original ballet company in the world.

By 1940, Martha Graham had started taking men into her company. With the greater scope their presence allowed, she embarked on the most important, productive decade of her career.

During the ‘40s, Miss Graham choreographed “El Penitente,” “Letter to the World,” “Herodiade,” “Appalachian Spring,” “Dark Meadow,” “Cave of the Heart,” “Errand Into the Maze,” “Night Journey,” “Diversion of Angels” — such a wealth of works in such a concentrated time frame.

Merce Cunningham, a featured dancer in the Graham company, had already begun his lifelong artistic collaboration with the composer John Cage. The Mexican-born Jose Limon, handsome of face and heroic of gesture, returned from the war, formed his own company and created “The Moor’s Pavane.”

Bold planning by the Kennedy Center and some focused spending to assemble truly relevant dances could have created a real sense of what the ‘40s decade was like in dance and what a long shadow it cast.

Instead, the center has brought major companies on those companies’ own terms and with only the most minimal of nods to the subject of “The 1940s and the Arts.” It is highly misleading to announce such a promising topic and then ignore it.

What we have is American Ballet Theatre taping a full-length “Swan Lake,” which the company never mounted until 1967, while doing “Giselle” and a mixed bag of shorter pieces, the latest made in 1911.

Two of the nine ballets the New York City Ballet is bringing next month — “The Four Temperaments” and “Theme and Variations” — were created in the ‘40s — and that’s all.

The works the Graham company is bringing next week are totally appropriate, but that’s a slam-dunk, given that the majority of Miss Graham’s great works were made in the ‘40s.

The Kennedy Center’s great Balanchine celebration 4 years ago was not an empty festival: It told us much about the impressive diaspora of his work with companies from Russia, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, Washington and Philadelphia. Seeing them in close proximity gave a vivid picture of the many ways Balanchine was danced.

A celebration like that approximates the insights to be gained from seeing a thoughtfully assembled art exhibit that illuminates the progression in an art form or reveals an artist’s development over time.

A dance festival, properly planned, can do that, too.

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