Genée, Adeline (1878–1970)

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Genée, Adeline (1878–1970)

Danish-born ballerina who founded the Royal Academy of Dancing and was the most famous ballerina of her day. Name variations: AG; Adeline Genee; Dame Adeline Genée; Dame Adeline Geneé-Isitt. Pronunciation: Je-NAY or EYE-sit. Born Anina Margarete Kirstina Petra Jensen on January 6, 1878, in the Danish village of Hinnerup, in Aarhus, Jutland; died in Escher, Surrey, on April 23, 1970; daughter of Peter Jensen (a musician) and Kirsten Jensen (of Norwegian descent); at age eight, studied dance with her famous aunt and uncle, dancers Antonia (Zimmermann) Genée and Alexander Genée; married Frank S.N. Isitt, on June 11, 1910 (died 1939); no children.


honorary Doctorate of Music, University of London (1946); Dame Commander of the British Empire (1950); "Ingenio et Arti" from king of Denmark; Order of Dannebrog (1953); founder and president of London Association of Operatic Dancing (presently known as the Royal Academy of Dancing).

Ballet roles:

Centifolie in Die Rose von Schiras (1896); a diamond in Monte Cristo (1897); Fairy Good Fortune in Alaska (1898); Lizette in Round the Town Again (1899); Variations in Sea-Side (1900); Queen of Butterfly Land in Les Papillons (1901); Swanilda in Coppelia (1902); Grand Adagio in The Roses of England (1902); Coquette in The Milliner Duchess (1903); the Hunting Dance and the Cakewalk in High Jinks (1904); the Bugle Boy in The Bugle Call (1905); title role in Cinderella (1906); Queen of the Dance in The Belle of the Ball (1907); lead role in The Soul Kiss (1908); title role in The Dryad (1908); Abbess Elena in Roberto il Diavolo (1909); divertissements in The Bachelor Belles (1910); title role in La Camargo (1912); principal dancer in La Dance (1912); Minuet in The School for Scandal (1915); a divertissement in Spring (1915); principal dancer in The Love Song (1932).

Adeline Genée was a major force in the world of dance who elevated the status of the dancer to a new level of respectability and brought the art of ballet to the masses as well as the cultured elite. The methods of teaching ballet in the British realm were meticulously standardized when she founded what was to become the Royal Academy of Dancing.

Genée was born Nina Jensen, the surviving twin in a Danish farm family. Her father was also a musician, and hers was a home filled with music. From age four, she displayed such a love of dance that her parents allowed her to be raised by her aunt and uncle, who were famous dancers of the day. It was understood that she would be trained to dance on the stage, an idea which pleased the young Nina. Alexander and Antonia Genée , who had formed their own ballet company and danced successfully throughout Central Europe and Russia, eagerly began their niece's training in 1886. Alexander had choreographed several dances in the opera Carmen for the famous opera singer Adelina Patti , and he renamed his niece to honor Patti. Years earlier, he had taken the surname Genée from the composer Richard Genée, who had helped him greatly as a young artist. Thus Nina became Adeline Genée.

Dance lessons began immediately for Adeline. Antonia was Hungarian and spoke only Hungarian and German, while Adeline spoke only Danish, but Adeline was serious about her work and meticulous movement training broke down obstacles in communication. She was raised in the company of adults, a situation which fostered her mature demeanor. With a thorough knowledge of the backstage areas, she enjoyed watching her aunt dance on stage and longed to begin performing. Alexander ensured that her ballet training was pure and precise, passing on the fruits of his own ballet lineage. He taught Adeline what he had learned in Russia under Christian Johansson, who had been a student of August Bournonville, the most prominent man in Danish ballet. Bournonville was trained by none other than the greatest dancer of his day, the famous Auguste Vestris of the Paris Opera.

Owing to her uncle's theatrical work, Adeline had the opportunity to travel and live in various parts of Denmark and Sweden. She learned to adapt to new languages and surroundings, and she expanded her knowledge of various theatrical tasks and new balletic roles. Adeline's upbringing stressed the need to be fastidious in not only her dance movements, but also in her dress. Years later, it would be said that she was probably one of the most technically perfect dancers; if captured in a photo at any given moment, her movements would show perfect positioning. Such breeding was not the norm in the English dance world of that period. Genée learned the various roles in the ballet repertoire so well and quickly that she was easily able to fill in, with little or no rehearsal, if someone became ill. This was a greatly valued skill in the theater. Before long, she had many opportunities to play a wide variety of roles, winning critical acclaim. When she appeared in Munich, the Allgemeine Zeitung News commented on her lightness, grace, and the brilliance of her pointe work. The Neuesten Nachrichten News wrote that they had never seen such a dancer in the history of their theater.

In 1897, Genée received an offer to dance for six weeks in London at the Empire Theater to celebrate Queen Victoria 's Diamond Jubilee, and an important phase of her career began. What was supposed to be a six-week contract extended into a stay of ten years. Genée was to become the most popular ballerina of her day, both to commoners

and royalty alike. Her achievement can be well appreciated in light of the status of ballet in her time. Early in the reign of Victoria, ballet was an important part of the opera, and foreign singers and dancers attracted the public, but there was no established British ballet school to provide the needed dancers, and so the fate of ballet in Victorian England was not very promising. Gone were the incredible ballerinas, such as Maria Taglioni and Fanny Elssler , of the 1830s and 1840s. Ballet by the mid-19th century was therefore less popular than opera. When British theater moved into what became known as the music-hall phase, characterized by huge spectacles in the variety show format, the programs attracted the masses rather than the cultural elite. The numbers in these spectacles were well choreographed, lavishly costumed and lit, and the motifs were kept light and happy rather than heavy and somber. The productions were expensive and often employed hundreds of artists, although the technical ability of the dancers left much to be desired. Some of the dancers were apprentices to the theater, and they received free lessons as part of their compensation but they were not required to attend. To counter the tendency of the shows to go flat, new ballerinas were brought in to keep the audiences coming back. Thus, because ballet was featured as part of the production, the general public—who may never have gone to see classical dance—was exposed to the art.

The London public loved Adeline Genée from the moment they saw her dance as a diamond in her debut in Monte Cristo in 1897. Her uncle insisted that she be given an additional dance to truly show off her expertise in her London debut. Genée was immediately compared to Elssler and Taglioni by some of the older audience members. It was said that she danced with her heart, not just with her body. Soon after, she went on to dance as the Fairy Good Fortune in a show called Alaska. Modern theatrical themes attracted large audiences, and this show's motif, the gold-rush, featured spectacular lighting, focusing on dancers who portrayed the Aurora Borealis. The newspaper reviews found the show positively enchanting. Genée was unique in her versatility: she could do classical work as well as character roles. Max Beerbohm commented in The Saturday Review that she was a born comedian, and such a fine actress in communicating her meaning without words that she made him forget his craving for words.

In Round the Town Again, Genée was the first leading ballerina at the Empire Theater to dance in high heels. She continued to win the hearts of the British and the establishment's management by filling the theater to capacity. An exceptionally hard worker, she practiced two hours every day, in addition to rehearsals and performances, under her uncle's watchful eyes. Intellectually curious, she began to study Shake-speare's plays. When Genée had to portray a character fighting a duel she studied fencing.

In the 1900 production Sea-Side, Genée attempted many varied dances and amazed viewers by the diversity of her dancing ability and character work. The following year, audiences were astonished by her portrayal of the Queen Butterfly in Les Papillons. This was the first time the public had witnessed a series of entrechat six (a series of beats of the feet) in pointe shoes. The dancers in this production wore costumes based on butterflies actually on display in the National History Museum.

The production Our Crown was mounted in honor of Edward VII's coronation in 1902, with Genée playing the Messenger of Peace who requests that the colonies bring their finest natural gifts in order to design the royal crown. The result was a breathtakingly beautiful work of art. Also in 1902, the Royal Theater in Copenhagen honored Genée by asking her to appear as Swanilda in Coppelia. Her partner Hans Beck asked the entire dance company to be present at a rehearsal in order to see Genée perform her entrechat six (a step the Danish did not perform). She surprised Beck by adding the step at the last minute during a performance, and he was so astounded that he forgot his entrance. The duo was graced by the presence of King Christian IX of Denmark and his daughters, Alexandra of Denmark , queen of England, and Marie Feodorovna (1847–1928), the dowager empress of Russia. A critic from the Politiken claimed that Genée's finely trained body made the Danish dancers look over-nourished, and he compared her toe to a steel spring because of her precise, controlled movement while quickly turning.

When Genée returned to London's Empire Theater in 1903, she danced one of her most famous roles as Coquette in The Milliner Duchess. By her exquisite technique, hard work, and example, she had raised the standard of dance in the corps du ballet at the theater. This ballet, especially, seemed infused with Genée's delightful personality. She played a country bumpkin employed in a millinery shop, who simply couldn't resist trying on every hat. The critics praised her as a born mime and comic.

The year 1904 hailed the production of High Jinks, which included one of Genée's most famous solo dances, "Return from the Hunt." Again, critics acclaimed her talent. Her determination to realistically portray her characters earned Genée the admiration of crowned heads of Europe. When King Edward VII invited her to give a performance, he enhanced the status and respectability of the dancer.

After the 1907 production of The Belle of the Ball, Genée sailed to America to star in a Ziegfeld production of The Soul Kiss at the Chestnut Street Opera House in Philadelphia. At age 29, she now had control of her own financial affairs. Before her departure, the Empire Theater celebrated the tenth anniversary of her debut there, and her devoted fans gave her countless curtain calls. Her years of work had changed the face of ballet in Britain, and now she hoped to do the same in the States.

Our grandchildren will never believe, will never be able to imagine, what Genée was.

—Max Beerbohm

Billed as The World's Greatest Dancer, she did not disappoint the public who jammed the Philadelphia opera house. Genée finished her American tour in a triumphant fashion and sailed back to her fans in London, where she renewed her "love affair" with her British public. When she returned to the United States for her second tour in 1908, she performed in 23 different theaters in 30 weeks. While there, rumors began circulating that the dancer was romantically involved with a prosperous businessman from London, Frank S.N. Isitt. Alexandra of Denmark, alarmed that the dancer might consider retirement, told her to weigh carefully her decision because "nobody can dance as you can." But after her third American tour, Genée nevertheless married Isitt, on June 11, 1910.

Following her wedding, Genée was busier than ever with performances and personalities. She continued to tour both in Britain and the United States, and in 1910 the American public had a chance to compare her with the visiting Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova . Generally, Genée had more popular appeal than the Russian, because her light, quick, pleasant style induced a "happy" mood in the audience. Pavlova's style was more exotic, dangerous, deep, and full of melancholy. Despite their different appeal, the two ballerinas respected and admired each other. Genée and her husband also enjoyed the company of inventor Thomas Edison, who invited the couple to socialize over a meal.

Genée had a deep interest in the history of ballet, and she carefully researched the lives of professional dancers. Combining her academic and performance talents, she determined to educate the public about the history of dance and put together a revue, "La Danse," which related ballet's history from 1710 to 1845, by employing a series of tableaux. She was passionately devoted to this project and spent considerable sums of her own money to present the widely admired show on several continents.

In 1914, when Genée announced her intention to retire, several ballerinas—including Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina , and Phyllis Bedells —published a letter of public appreciation for her magnificent contribution to ballet. Genée requested that her fans should not award her with monetary gifts, but should instead donate any gifts to Topsy Sinden , a dancer who had experienced a terrible accident. Genée's last audience gave her a 12-minute ovation.

Nevertheless, a great talent such as Genée could not really "retire." When World War I broke out, she helped raise money for the families of British war dead: she danced, she knitted socks for the soldiers, she auctioned off autographs—anything that would raise money. After the war, she focused on helping the ballet community standardize ballet instruction in Britain. Genée was well aware of the importance of technique and diligent training. When the concerned instructor Edouard Espinosa brought the standardization issue to Genée's attention in 1920, she gladly attended the meeting which he called. Five leading dancers represented the various schools of ballet at the gathering: one from the Danish-French Bournonville school, one from the French school, one from the present British system, and two from the Imperial Russian school. Genée presided over the group; in fact, she was the uncontested president of this fledgling Royal Academy of Dancing (RAD). Under her guidance, certain measures were adopted: British teachers must employ standardized ballet exams; dancers were to wear uniform attire in testing; and all who had an interest in the discipline should promote it for the masses, not just for the cultural elite.

Always quick to respond to requests for charity, Genée agreed to dance once more for a benefit to aid the Hertford Hospital in Paris in 1932. Even at the age of 54, she so awed her partner with her grace and style that the man had a difficult time concentrating on his steps. Genée was legendary for making the most difficult things seem easy. Even her husband was not permitted to watch her rehearse, for if he saw the sweat that such hard work produced, it might break the illusion of ease that she wished to portray in her dancing.

Genée spent much of her 50th decade caring for her ill husband, and she was deeply affected by his death in 1939. Her devotion to the cause of the Royal Academy of Dancing kept her strong during her difficult days. She was a powerhouse of energy in her toil and travels in the name of RAD. In 1954, after 34 years of unceasing service, she handed over the presidency of RAD to Margot Fonteyn . By this time, Genée had received an honorary doctorate of music from the University of London; she had been named Dame Commander of the British Empire; and the king of Denmark had presented her with the Order of Dannebrog. In East Grinstead, Sussex, a theater was named in her honor. By many accounts, she was a wonderful host and put that skill to use while serving as chair of the Anglo-Danish Society in England. She also spent some of her later years meticulously recollecting a lifetime of memories for a biography that was written by Ivor Guest. By the time she died in 1970, at age 92, ballet had reached heights never previously imagined. Many changes in the ballet world were due to Genée's promotion of the finest ideals and standards of the art, beauty, and education of ballet.


Chujoy, Anatole. The Dance Encyclopedia. NY: A.S. Barnes, 1949.

Clarke, Mary, and Clement Crisp. The History of Dance. NY: Crown, 1981.

de Mille, Agnes. The Book of the Dance. NY: Golden Press, 1963.

Guest, Ivor. Adeline Genée—A Lifetime of Ballet Under Six Reigns. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1958.

——. The Empire Ballet. London: The Society for Theatre Research, 1962.

suggested reading:

Pask, Edward H. Enter the Colonies Dancing. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Brigid Kelly , ballet instructor at Desert Ballet Centre, Yucca Valley, California