Blacks and Classical Dance - December 2008
I don't want to sound prejudiced but why is it you never hear about Black people being involved in classical dance?
-- Justin Romain - Colorado Springs, Colorado
One day in 1946, a young Los Angeles man named Joseph Rickard looked on in horror as an African-American mother and her daughter were turned away from a dance studio where they had sought ballet lessons for the little girl. The studio's instructor told them that blacks could not study classical dance and directed them to a tap-dance studio. The outraged Rickard, a Caucasian and himself a ballet dancer, vowed to do something about this injustice. Believing passionately that all who shared his love for dance should be able to enjoy it fully, he set about starting his own dance studio specifically for African-American students.
In the years after World War II and on into the 1950's, African-Americans were beginning to make tentative steps into many areas of mainstream American life, including dance. By 1951, Janet Collins would become the first black premiere dancer in the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and in 1954 the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo would accept its first black ballerina, Raven Wilkinson (whose acceptance was limited, however, since her fair skin induced most audiences to assume she was Caucasian).1
But, prior to the limited integration in the 1950's, African-American dancers had been barred altogether from major ballet studios. In the 1920's, when ballet was a young dance form in the United States, aspiring dancers of color had no choice but to study either in segregated settings or as private students of prominent white teachers willing to take them. By 1937 a black ballet company, the American Negro Ballet, debuted at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem.2 Although its premier was a critical and popular success, the American Negro Ballet survived for barely a year before its demise in 1938.
Less than a decade later, in Los Angeles, Joseph Rickard founded his First Negro Classic Ballet. Rickard (1918-1994), a native of Michigan, had made his way to Los Angeles in the 1930's to fulfill his long-held desire to study ballet. Accepted as a student of Bronislava Nijinska, he became a professional with the Ballet Russe in 1943. After he witnessed the dance studio's rejection of the black child, Rickard applied his creative energies to setting up a ballet school and gathering students from the African-American community. He found a deserted ballroom at Jefferson Boulevard and Normandie Avenue for his studio and, to finance the school, he worked two jobs, in the mail room at Paramount Studios and driving an ice cream truck. He also lived at the studio, in order to save money. To attract students, Rickard placed ads in an African-American newspaper, the Los Angeles Sentinel, and worked the streets, handing out leaflets and promoting his studio through personal contact. He recruited Theodore Crum, who would become one of his most gifted dancers, when he happened upon the young man buying a recording of "Swan Lake."
Along with Ted Crum, many of the dancers Rickard taught were adults who had lacked the opportunity for dance instruction as children. In addition to those he recruited directly, some of Rickard's adult students came to the studio initially just to watch their children's lessons and were then persuaded to join in. Indeed, Bernice Harrison, the mother whose little girl had been denied lessons, began studying along with her daughter and became the Classic Ballet's prima ballerina. Beginning their training so late in life, the dancers could not achieve the technical ease and proficiency of younger students, but Rickard was particularly gifted in teaching older students, and, with his genius for choreographing dance sequences that relied on narrative and acting abilities rather than technique, he was able to emphasize the strengths of his performers.
Joseph Rickard also possessed a genius for attracting other gifted and dedicated individuals to his group. His girlfriend, Nancy Cappola, who worked in the garment district, designed and made the costumes. Claudius Wilson, an African-American pianist and composer, played piano for rehearsals and performances and, one day, brought in his musical setting for "Harlot's House," an Oscar Wilde poem. Rickard created choreography, and the resulting piece, "Streetlight," became one of the Ballet's most popular and frequently-performed dances. Thereafter, Wilson and Rickard teamed to create original ballets, including their African-American version of "Cinderella." Rickard also persuaded Robert Usher, an art director at Paramount Studios, to design sets for the company. Usher, whose film work included sets for the Mae West movie, "She Done Him Wrong," and the Hope-Crosby "Road" pictures, created stunning set drawings for "Cinderella" and other dances.
The Classic Ballet's dancers brought to the group the same level of dedication and commitment as Rickard's volunteer staff. Unlike their counterparts in white ballet companies, the black dancers could not devote themselves full time to their dance studies. Rather, they worked as janitors, elevator operators, and housewives, and came to their lessons after a hard day on the job, many traveling long miles across town on a streetcar or bus before an evening of strenuous dancing. In addition, the dancers also helped with the making of costumes and the fabrication of sets for the grass-roots company.
With the ballet studio launched and the dancers rapidly displaying mastery of their art, Rickard began to plan the group's first recital. Held on October 19, 1947, at the Danish Auditorium on West 24th Street, the event was sponsored by the Los Angeles Sentinel, which publicized it (using the group's first name, "Ballet Americana") as "one of the outstanding performances of the season."3 In its review of the recital, the Sentinel declared, "Sunday night marked the beginning of a new era in American culture. The successful presentation of the Ballet Americana -- the first time in history, so far as is known, that such a performance has been presented -- opened an entire new field of expression to Negroes."4
There followed performances at Los Angeles venues and, by 1949, the company, now known as the First Negro Classic Ballet, was establishing its place in the arts scene in Southern California. Its first professional performance, on November 19 in Santa Barbara's Lobero Theatre, impressed both the audience and the dance reviewer, who praised the company for its "artistry," "showmanship" and "promise."5
The Classic Ballet, now a professional troupe represented in turn by booking agents Irwin Parnes and Mary Bran, performed in such Los Angeles theaters as the Assistance League Playhouse and the Philharmonic Auditorium, and toured California, earning the favor of their predominantly white audiences and garnering overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews. Others, however, viewed black ballet dancers as exotic novelties and repeated ugly racial stereotypes even as they praised the group's artistry. One San Francisco journalist, for example, began his review by stating, "Negro dancers are famous for the exciting cleverness and energy of their taps and boogie-woogie" before going on to praise the performers, and another wrote, "Rhythm is so inherent in the Negro race that it was not surprising to find even the less skilled members of the sextet right on the beat -- with hands as well as feet."6
Other insults, both deliberate and inadvertent, born of the prejudice of the time, had to be overcome by the dancers. A frequent difficulty for the black troupe when touring was the scarcity of hotels that would admit them. Tellingly, the same issue of the Santa Barbara News-Press that carried the publicity announcement about the Classic Ballet's first professional performance also ran an article about the citizens who had offered to open their homes to the members of the company.7 In another revealing incident, the touring black dancers discovered on arriving in England that, despite their advance dispatch of the ballerinas' toe-shoe measurements to London manufacturers, no shoes were ready for them -- British shoemakers simply could not believe that blacks could dance en pointe.8
Many reviewers, along with most audiences, were free of racial prejudice and responded with genuine pleasure and appreciation to the Ballet's exciting dance sequences that were characterized by one critic as "an escape from stereotyped use of form" with "alive and never flagging performances," and by another as "a refreshing and individual treatment of the classical dance . . . balanced with some of the more realistic styles."9 The company, led by Graham Johnson, Bernice Harrison, James Truitte, Theodore Crum, Donald Stinson and Yvonne Miller, dazzled audiences with programs that usually included three components: modern conceptions of classics by such composers as Bach, Chopin, and Mendelssohn; contemporary Rickard-Wilson creations like "Cinderella" and "Streetlight;" and African-American stories such as "Raisin' Cane" (music by Claudius Wilson, choreography by Graham Johnson), a tale of sugar-cane croppers whose sequences included "Juba," "Speakeasy," and "Pas de jitters."
In 1956, Rickard was approached by Edward Flemyng, who had just formed the New York Negro Ballet, with a proposal to merge the companies. The idea looked attractive, for Rickard was short of money but had a large, experienced troupe of dancers, while Flemyng lacked dancers but had the backing of a wealthy patron. Within a year, however, the patron passed away, and the combined company was forced to disband.
During its ten-year life, the First Negro Classic Ballet played a crucial part in advancing the place of African-Americans in American ballet. Although Joseph Rickard's troupe was not the first black ballet corps, it built on the accomplishments of its predecessor, the American Negro Ballet, founded in New York in 1937. Both companies set the stage for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, founded in 1968 by Arthur Mitchell. The high level of achievement in all three groups proved the ability and artistry of black dancers and enabled them increasingly to find acceptance in white companies.
The long-forgotten story of Joseph Rickard's contribution to the advancement of black ballet and to the arts in Los Angeles is found in the papers he donated to the Huntington Library shortly before his death in August, 1994. The photographs, programs, publicity flyers, set designs, music scores, tape recordings and clippings afford a rich resource that will preserve and illuminate the history of a talented band of dancers and of the dedicated man in whose hands their dreams took wing and soared.
This essay is edited from a portion of an article, "Worlds of Leisure, Worlds of Grace: Recreation, Entertainment and the Arts in the California Experience," by Peter J. Blodgett and Sara S. Hodson, California History 75:1 (Spring 1996), 68-83. Published by permission.
1 James Haskins, Black Dance in America, p. 128, and Zita D. Allen, "Blacks and Ballet," Dance Magazine (July, 1976), p. 66.
2 Zita D. Allen, op.cit., p. 68.
3 "Sentinel Sponsored Ballet Recital Oct. 19," Los Angeles Sentinel, September 25, 1947, p. 20; and "'Ballet Americana' Will Be Presented on Sunday Night," Los Angeles Sentinel, October 16, 1947, p. 20.
4 "Sentinel-Sponsored Ballet Has History-Making Debut," Los Angeles Sentinel, October 23, 1947, p. 20.
5 Ronald D. Scofield, "Balet Review: Negro Dancers Score With Art, Showmanship," Santa Barbara News-Press, November 20, 1947, p. B-3.
6 Alexander Fried, "Novel Ballet Makes Debut," San Francisco Examiner, August 16, 1952 (clipping in collection, no page number provided); and Marjory M. Fisher, "Negro Ballet Wins Praise," San Francisco News, [August 16, 1952] (clipping in collection, no page number provided).
7 "Negro Ballet Here Tonight," p. A-7, and "City to Open Homes To Negro Ballet," p. B-3, Santa Barbara News-Press, November 19, 1949.
8 Interview with Kathy Harmon Ho, San Marino, California, August, 1994.
9 Los Angeles Times, [following February 4,1956 performance], undated clippings, Rickard Papers, Box 2.
The First Negro Classic Ballet
by Sara S. "Sue" Hodson, Curator of Literary Manuscripts, The Huntington Library.
Appears in Jan/Feb 2003 issue of Archival Outlook,
published by the Society of American Archivists. Reproduced by permission.