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Chase, Lucia (1907—)

Chase, Lucia (1907—)

American dancer who was a founder and co-director of the American Ballet Theatre. Pronunciation: LOOshuh. Name variations: Lucia Chase Ewing. Born on March 24, 1907, in Waterbury, Connecticut; third of five daughters of Irving Hall Chase (president of the Waterbury Watch Company, manufacturer of Ingersoll watches) and Elizabeth Hosmer (Kellogg) Chase; graduated from St. Margaret's School, Waterbury; attended Theatre Guild School in New York City; studied ballet at the Vestoff Serova School; married Thomas Ewing, Jr. (d. 1933), in 1926; children: Thomas (d. 1963); Alexander Cochran Ewing (at one time business manager for the Robert Joffrey Ballet; chancellor of North Carolina School of the Arts).

In 1940, New England heiress Lucia Chase became a principal dancer and founding member of the Ballet Theatre, later to be called the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Set on developing a world-class American ballet company, the maverick enterprise broke with tradition from the beginning. "The young Ballet Theatre grew like Topsy," wrote dance historian Robert Coe. It avoided a unified style of dancing by hiring the best and brightest performers, including Russian and English artists, and by eliminating the role of a single company choreographer, a new concept. The group employed young and innovative choreographers, such as Michel Fokine, Agnes de Mille , Antony Tudor, and Eugene Loring, to create a varied dance gallery appealing to the eclectic tastes of the American audience. During the 1940s, the company used as many as 32 choreographers, creating a repertory that included influences from France and Russia, as well as Hollywood, Broadway, and modern-dance companies. With renowned theatrical designer Oliver Smith, Chase became co-director of the company in 1945. Throughout her near 40-year association with the ABT, she not only provided generous financial support (almost single-handedly pulling it through the lean years of the 1950s and 1960s) but also guided the careers of countless extraordinarily talented dancers and choreographers.

Born in Connecticut in 1907, an imaginative Chase knew from age three that she wanted to be an actress, and she was encouraged by her parents. She often appeared in children's plays in her hometown of Waterbury and, after graduating from St. Margaret's School, enrolled at the Theatre Guild School in New York City. There, her acting instructor, Rouben Mamoulian, cultivated the pantomimic skills that would later serve her so well as a dramatic dancer. Chase also took singing lessons at the school and studied both tap and ballet. Her fledgling pursuit, however, was cut short by her marriage in 1926 to Thomas Ewing, Jr., vice president of the Alexander Smith and Sons Carpet Company, a business established by his grandfather in the 1800s. Chase had two sons (the eldest of whom was lost at sea in a sailing accident in 1963). Aside from giving an occasional voice or dance recital, she forgot about her professional career until 1933, the year her husband died of pneumonia.

Chase picked up her ballet studies with Mikhail Mordkin, formerly of the Bolshoi Theatre and one of Anna Pavlova 's most brilliant partners. In 1937, when Mordkin established the Mordkin Ballet Company for some of his more ambitious students, Chase became one of its principal dancers, performing the title role in Giselle, Lise in La Fille Mal Gardée, and leading roles in The Goldfish, Trepak, and other ballets. When Mordkin's business manager Richard Pleasant founded Ballet Theatre, Chase was not only a major financial backer and charter member of the new group but also a dancer in the company. During the initial sold-out season in 1940, she created the roles of the Girl in Eugene Loring's The Great American Goof and Minerva in Antony Tudor's Judgment of Paris. Dance critic Grace Robert praised the latter as "one of the more compelling performances in the contemporary theatre." In subsequent ballets, Chase made her mark in a number of other performances, including the title role in Princess Aurora, the Greedy One in Agnes de Mille's Three Virgins and the Devil, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, and Pallas Athena in Helen of Troy.

Chase's dancing career peaked in 1960, when she and Nora Kaye, another of Ballet Theatre's stunning dramatic dancers, performed in Tudor's Pillar of Fire, which was considered one of the masterpieces of the company. (Chase also performed in Tudor's Dark Elegies, another of her more distinctive roles.) After 1960, Chase made only occasional appearances on stage, typically as the Princess Mother in Swan Lake and the Stepmother in de Mille's Fall River Legend, a ballet based on the story of Lizzie Borden . Most critics concur that Chase's greatest strength as a dancer lay in her roles. "Coming too late to the classic technique to become a truly proficient classicist," writes Olga Maynar in Dance magazine, "she drew on her talents and training to make herself a fine character dancer." Foremost dance critic Walter Terry agreed: "She is a superb dramatic dancer and a brilliant comedienne," he wrote, "and her presence in these capacities would enhance any company, whether she controlled it or not."

From the earliest days of Ballet Theatre, Chase supported Richard Pleasant's goal of creating

a truly American ballet company, but with his resignation in 1941 she watched the young company begin to flounder. His replacement, Sol Hurok, brought a decidedly Russian element to the company that Chase and her associates found contrary to its American spirit. In 1945, when she was asked to take over management of the company, she agreed, with the condition that Oliver Smith, who had mounted the company's production of Fancy Free (1944), share the job. (Fancy Free, choreographed by former chorus member Jerome Robbins and scored by the young Leonard Bernstein, was a runaway hit. It ran for two weeks of an extended Metropolitan Opera House season.)

During the late 1940s, Ballet Theatre continued to be a showcase for international ballet stars and choreographers, and, as Coe points out, "a stronghold of a new kind of dance-theater realism, inspired in part by experiments in modern dance, by the naturalism of the American theater, and by an unabashed engagement with the historical experience of the nation." Chase was continually cited as the pivotal figure in the growth of the company, which enjoyed a well-received London performance and a successful American tour, performing a new George Balanchine ballet, Theme and Variations, and an upgraded production of Giselle. While Smith, as artistic director, handled the music and the staging, Chase was responsible for the dozens of dancers, overseeing promotion of students from the Ballet Theatre School to the company, assigning featured roles, negotiating contracts, and, with Smith, selecting and casting each ballet. Believing that no one person could oversee the staging of both classical and modern ballet, she also hired an individual choreographer for each specific work and followed their progress by attending regular rehearsals. "You have to know what your dancers are doing," she once told John Gruen of Dance magazine. "You have to see how they're coming over. Dancers come and tell me how well they're doing, but I prefer to see for myself."

Entering the 1950s, as the company began to experience financial woes in spite of a dedicated campaign to secure public and private grants, it continued receiving financial transfusions from Chase. During most of the decade, the company toured, performing in Europe and South America, as well the United States. By 1959, however, bookings were down, and the company disbanded until 1960, when it celebrated its 20th anniversary with the performance of Pas de Deux, a new ballet choreographed by Herbert Ross, along with choreographer Birgit Cullberg 's The Lady from the Sea, Pillar of Fire, and Giselle. The 1960s brought further overseas tours in the Soviet Union, South America, and an international dance festival in Cuba.

The American Ballet Theatre celebrated its 25th year in 1965, with a soldout performance at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. Chase raised the money for the performance, which showcased six new ballets, including Jerome Robbins' Les Noces, Glen Tetley's Sargasso, and Agnes de Mille's The Wind in the Mountains and The Four Marys. Although critics praised this as their most exciting season to date, Chase admitted in an interview for the Washington Post that she had serious doubts about the company's future. "We were determined to go out in a blaze of glory," she said. Near financial collapse by November 1965, the company was rescued at the last minute by an emergency grant from the National Council on the Arts. Earlier, in 1963, they had been conspicuously ignored by the Ford Foundation, in favor of Balanchine's New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet. Chase, no longer able to pour large sums of her own money into the faltering company, insisted that even without her the company must go on. She told the New York World Journal Tribune in October 1966: "I feel that there should be at least two great ballet companies in America…. We can and should be friendly rivals, just like Yale and Harvard…. We are very different from the New York City Ballet. We are not a one-choreographer company, and I know that for us, our cornerstone was and is right."

In 1968, the ABT became the official ballet company of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., which had become its home base in late 1962. Chase, believing the company deserved such an honor, cited its performances in each of the 50 states and its representation of the nation in 55 different countries during 15 international tours. In preparation for the Washington premiere (followed by performances in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, and Dallas), Chase revived Petrouchka and Romeo and Juliet and asked David Blair, of the Royal Ballet, to design a new Sleeping Beauty. The modern-dance portion of the repertory included two works by José Limon, The Moor's Pavane and The Traitor, as well as a new Alvin Ailey ballet, The River, scored by Duke Ellington.

Throughout the 1970s, Chase resorted to more revivals, often at the expense of new works, and began contracting more and more foreign stars to dance them. According to Coe, critics began to argue "that America's exemplary ballet company had surrendered itself to the cultural imagination of Europe and the charisma of foreigners." There was also increasing dissension among the company's dancers, who resented outsiders being brought in for plum roles. In 1974, Cynthia Gregory resigned briefly in protest after the announcement that nine guest stars were contracted for the coming season. More disastrous to the company, however, was the overwhelming financial burden of mounting the classical ballets and importing foreign dancers.

Amid growing problems, in January 1975 the ABT presented a gala 35th-anniversary performance at Manhattan's City Center. The program, under the direction of Tony-award-winning choreographer Donald Sadler, was interwoven with current dancers and returning alumni; Chase recreated her original role in a scene from Pillar of Fire. The audience honored Chase and Smith for their three decades as co-directors with a standing ovation. "The whole evening was, of course, a source of renewed satisfaction to Lucia Chase," writes Charles Payne, "a convincing confirmation that thirty-five years had been well spent. She would continue to resist any suggestion that she was solely responsible for the success and survival of Ballet Theatre, and certainly there were hundreds of other contributors. But of Lucia Chase alone could it be said that had she not been there, Ballet Theatre would never have been alive to celebrate its Thirty-fifth Anniversary."

When she stepped down in the late 1970s to make way for Mikhail Baryshnikov, Lucia Chase was still trim and petite, looking years younger than her age and enjoying an active personal life at her home in New York and at the family's oceanside retreat in Narragansett, Rhode Island. She had received the Capezio and the Dance magazine awards, as well as the Handel Medallion, the highest cultural citation New York City can bestow. Of her many years with the American Ballet Theatre, she was most fulfilled by its status as a showcase for American ballet throughout the world.

sources:

Coe, Robert. Dance in America. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1985.

Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1947.

Dance Magazine. August 1971.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1975. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1975.

Payne, Charles. The American Ballet Theatre. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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