Author: Alex C. Ewing
University Press of Florida
Hardcover - 339 pages
List price $36
Alex Ewing has written a captivating and detailed account of the life of his mother, Lucia Chase, and about how the seeds of American Ballet Theatre were sown from her grief over the loss of her husband of six years. Born into enormous wealth, Lucia had the opportunity to choose how to spend her life without regard to realities or probabilities of success. She dreamed of becoming an actress and dabbled in theater and music early on, always with an enormous, perhaps unrealistic optimism that affluence and sheltering tend to foster. She did not begin to study ballet seriously until after her husband and the father of her two small children died unexpectedly leaving her with massive wealth and a shattered life.
After a period of grieving, Lucia sought out her acquaintance, Mikhail Mordkin, a former member of the Bolshoi Ballet and the Ballets Russes, who ran the Mordkin School of Dance Arts. There was nothing odd about a widow with two children beginning to study ballet seriously for the first time. The comfort of the discipline and the art form’s demand for full focus eased her grief and gave purpose to her days. And as happens with so many, the ballet took hold of Lucia and took over her life.
Much of Ewing’s account traces the financial challenges and missteps over several decades which brought ABT to its knees on more than one occasion. But there are stories that give glimpses into the creative geniuses and pathological tenacities that drove the development of ABT.
The cut-throat ambition of Richard Pleasant and his maneuvering of the Mordkin Ballet out of Mordkin’s hands is a troubling period that Ewing deals with openly and honestly. Lucia’s discomfort at frequently being asked for money to run the company, distracting her from her self-promotion as just another dancer and raising questions about the legitimacy of her talent, elicits the reader’s sympathy unexpectedly. She truly did have talent as a dramatic dancer, particularly in the ballets of Tudor and de Mille, but that was always overshadowed by her financial usefulness.
About Jerome Robbins’ early methodologies around the time of Fancy Free, Ewing writes:
Most choreographers start out with a germ of an idea that may lead them to do considerable research beforehand, but they generally wait to be in a studio with dancers before they begin formally working. But Robbins took the novel approach of writing everything down first, working out on paper exactly what would take place in each miniature segment, who would be dancing what and for how long, how the characters would look and act in relation to each other, and describing every movement in such intimate detail that later on, after seeing the ballet, to read the written script was like watching a rerun of everything that took place onstage.
The ability of Ewing’s mother to put one foot forward in front of the other and emerge from crisis after crisis is a recurring theme as he remembers the devastating fire that destroyed the sets, costumes and personal belongings of the dancers while on an European tour. And there was Lucia’s struggle with the IRS which disallowed her losses on “loans” to ABT because the IRS simply could not believe that Lucia actually believed that the loans were made with the expectation of returning a profit.
Lucia’s fortitude was tested time and time again by Sol Hurok and his management of ABT’s touring engagements and culminated in a relationship-ending stand-off over money which he owed the company. Lucia and the rest of the company’s steering force resisted Hurok’s efforts to turn ABT into a Russian imitation and maintained a commitment to acquiring new works, most notably, by Tudor, de Mille, and Robbins.
It was Lucia who early in ABT’s life, when the State Department sponsored so many overseas tours, began referring to the company as a national treasure and the country’s national ballet company – a branding opportunity only formalized in recent years.
Ewing’s book is a highly interesting examination of ABT’s family tree and the characters that contributed DNA to the present day company. Much time has passed since Lucia Chase relinquished the reins of ABT and it is time to refresh our memories of her sacrifice, determination, and deep love for the ballet. A good place to start is with Alex Ewing’s book.