George Washington who? John Kriza, Paul Godkin, Jerome Robbins, and Robert Barnett were full of a special pep and vigor that I didn't associate with European dancers.
Wrong. The correct response is, "Who was George Washington Smith?" George Washington who? It sounds very much like a joke, but George Washington Smith is a name very properly honored in dance history.
I first came across him more than a half-century ago in the writings of Lillian Moore ("Who was the first great American dance historian?") and I was enchanted with his name and picture, which made him, complete with luxuriant mustache, look more like an early American pugilist than a dancer. (But you never can tell: Jacques and Eddie might have been mistaken for boxers, and in his youth Eddie actually was one.) GWS was born in Philadelphia in 1820 and died there in 1899. He started life as a stonecutter, but found local renown as a clog dancer early on.
In this he seems to have been largely self-taught by the noble art of imitation, especially, it seems, of fellow Philadelphian Charles Durang (1794-1870), a dance performer and teacher. And Durang was the son of John Durang (1768-1822), a master of hornpipes and harlequinades and the first American dancer to win considerable recognition. But GWS' first major classical teacher was the distinguished English dancer James Sylvain (real name Sullivan--the Sylvain was adopted during his stint with the Paris Opera Ballet, 1831-33), who toured America as Fanny Elssler's partner and ballet master of her company.
Sylvain recruited GWS into the Elssler corps in 1840, and Smith's destiny was evident. A quick learner after touring with Elssler and Sylvain, in 1845 he became the partner of Mary Ann Lee, who had studied with Jean Coralli in Paris. He became the first American to dance Albrecht to Lee's Giselle, in a production "after Coralli/Perrot." The following year our indefatigable hero was staging Giselle himself at the Bowery Theatre in New York. Smith, who later not only partnered the notorious Lola Montez, but was also her troupe's ballet master for an American tour, had altogether a great career as dancer, regisseur, and dance teacher. He opened a school in Philadelphia in 1881, and his most celebrated student was his son Joseph (1875-1932), who in the 1920s became Broadway's best known choreographer.
After the heyday of George Washington Smith, there was virtually no classical male dancer for almost a century. Yes, there was Ted Shawn in modern dance, who formed an all-male troupe. Yet despite tours by European dancers and companies, including Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, classical ballet did not put down roots here until the 1930s. With supply largely dependent on demand, there were no male dancers, a situation exacerbated by a long-held prejudice against male dancers throughout the Anglophone world.
As a result of these two cultural currents, the first generation of American classical male dancers did not arise until the 1930s and 1940s, with a first trickle, including the likes of William Dollar, eventually becoming a stream. I well remember my own first sight of American male dancers, with the Ballet Theatre of 1946 (led by Eglevsky) and 1950 (led by Youskevitch) and the New York City Ballet of 1950 (with a 14-year-old d'Amboise prominent in the corps).
Was there anything particularly American about the men of those companies? I thought so at the time, especially with Ballet Theatre. Those three sailors in Fancy Free--Harold Lang, John Kriza, and Jerome Robbins--seemed quintessentially American. But years later, so did the dancers of the Birmingham Royal Ballet when they performed it. All the same there did seem something specifically American about those companies from 1946 to 1952. Kriza and later Paul Godkin in Rodeo and Billy the Kid, and Robbins, Lang, and Robert Barnett from City Ballet, all looked as American as Hollywood's Andy Hardy--full of a special pep, vigor, and look that I didn't associate with European dancers.
Today, I'm not so sure. Call it dance globalization, but now it seems that male classical dancers, Americans and non-Americans alike, are in just three categories--the good, the bad, and, that vast majority, the simply in-between. But none of them looks like George Washington Smith!
Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.
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|Title Annotation:||George Washington Smith|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2008|
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