By CYRUS PARKER-JEANETTE
A recent donation of archival materials of 20th century dancer and choreographer Adolph Bolm (1884-1951) represents another important addition to the dance collections in the Music Division of the Library of Congress. These materials are particularly relevant to the Library because Bolm was the first choreographer invited to stage a work at the Library's Coolidge Auditorium during the 1928 Chamber Music Festival in collaboration with Igor Stravinsky, who was commissioned to compose the score for "Apollon Musagète."
The Bolm collection includes numerous newspaper clippings, correspondence, short manuscripts and biographical outlines by friends and family, as well as stories and photos of his collaborations with Marc Chagall, George Herriman, Nicholas Remisoff, Igor Stravinsky, Manuel de Falla, John Alden Carpenter and Anna Pavlova.
From 1908 until his death in 1951, Adolph Bolm traveled across the cities of Europe and America with the self-proclaimed wanderlust of a gypsy, establishing companies, training dancers and creating choreography. The Russian-born artist left his homeland and immersed himself in America, developing a broad awareness and understanding of the diverse American culture that even some of his native-born contemporaries lacked.
Bolm was born in St. Petersburg on Sept. 25, 1884, to an intellectual family dedicated to the arts. He auditioned at the age of 16 at the Maryinsky Theatre, home of the Russian Imperial School, and graduated in 1904. Among the choreographers with whom Bolm worked was the great ballet master Mikhail Fokine. At this time Fokine was battling the stultified traditions in Russian theater and dance, seeking to extend the artistic boundaries of the Czar and the Russian aristocracy, and his revolutionary approaches began to have an impact within Russian artistic circles.
In 1908, motivated by this innovative spirit, Bolm organized a small company of Russian dancers with ballerina Anna Pavlova as his partner, marking her first appearances outside Russia. They toured Northern Europe to broad acclaim. The tour itinerary originally included a stop in Paris, but impresario Serge Diaghilev, who was planning the first European season of the new Ballets Russes with Fokine there, pleaded with Bolm to forgo his appearances in Paris. Diaghilev and Fokine feared that the Bolm tour might diminish the impact of their own troupe. Bolm graciously complied, and the following year Bolm and Pavlova accepted Diaghilev's invitation to appear as featured performers in the premiere 1909 Paris season of Ballets Russes.
During the following years with Ballets Russes, Bolm performed in some of the most famous ballets created during the early 20th century—including the role of the Chief Warrior in "Prince Igor" and Pierrot in "Carnaval." Several writers and critics of the time credited Bolm with restoring masculinity to men's roles in classical dance, which proved essential in returning alienated audiences to ballet.
The Ballets Russes
Many critics attribute the dazzling success of the first two seasons of Ballets Russes to the brilliance of Vaslav Nijinksy's dancing. Yet Serge Lifar in his book "Serge Diaghilev" and Mikhail Fokine in his "Memoirs of a Ballet Master" challenge this assertion, proclaiming Bolm as one of the greatest dancers in history.
In Bolm's performances of the Polovtsian Dances from "Prince Igor," choreographed by Fokine, numerous accounts describe the frenzied behavior of the audience as they rushed toward the stage in their enthusiasm and tore down the rail separating audience and orchestra.
During Bolm's tenure with Ballets Russes (1909-1916), he was frequently overshadowed by Nijinsky. With Diaghilev's attention and affections obsessively focused on the young Nijinsky, Bolm was often denied performance and choreographic opportunities in the company. Within the first few seasons of Nijinsky's tenure, it became clear to Bolm that his managerial, choreographic and performing ambitions would not be realized with Ballets Russes.
Ironically, when arranging the first Ballets Russes American tour in 1915, Diaghilev turned to Bolm for help. Bolm embraced Diaghilev's request by training what was virtually a new company and re-creating a repertory of 20 ballets with assistance from régisseur (stage manager) Serge Grigoriev (whose collection is also in the Music Division). The first tour was rocky, but the company performed in America to full houses and received fervent ovations and positive reviews.
It is well documented that during this tour Diaghilev famously proclaimed: "America is a barbaric country. They know nothing about art! It is all Indians and bankers and gangsters in checked suits. They are cave people!"
Diaghilev's tempestuous and arrogant attitude, combined with exorbitant financial demands, led chairman of the board Otto Kahn to ban Diaghilev from the Metropolitan Opera House during the second tour. Given this stipulation and the danger of crossing the seas during wartime, Diaghilev did not return to America. He approached Bolm with a proposal that Nijinsky and Bolm manage the second United States tour together. In a magazine article titled "A Dancer's Day," published in The Dance in October 1926 (copies available in the collection), Bolm discusses his apprehensions about such an undertaking. But once again he accepted Diaghilev's offer.
The second American tour of Ballets Russes was even more onerous than the first, and conflict emerged with a disingenuous and visibly deteriorating Nijinsky. There were many unpleasant and disruptive incidents resulting from Nijinksy's erratic behavior, including a serious injury to Bolm. In "A Dancer's Day," quoted below, Bolm acknowledged his dismay, and expressed his belief in the potential artistic freedom available in America.
"There is a childish busy zest about life on this young continent. Some humming, growing American city filled with color-hungry citizens will be a fine place to live, to create flashing new ballets bright with the tones of life, symbolic of moods of wistfulness and wonder.
"I am grateful for the accident which keeps me here in America after our turbulent little group of dancers has sailed for Europe. I am ready for a new adventure. I am not going back to Russia."
The accident referred to in this excerpt resulted from Nijinsky's oversight in not ensuring the placement of mattresses onstage to cushion dancers' falls; as a consequence, Bolm suffered a severe spinal injury. In his performance as the Stranger in "Tamar," Bolm landed from a large jump onto the hard stage floor. Bolm did not reveal his injuries to the troupe until they were in Los Angeles within the next week at a welcoming party given by the actor Charles Chaplin. As Bolm visited with guests, he suddenly paled and started to faint. A doctor was summoned, and Bolm was immediately taken to a hospital where it was confirmed that he had several spinal fractures. He was put into a body cast and remained in the hospital for several weeks.
Otto Kahn asked Bolm to remain quiet about the accident so that the producers could keep his name on the programs for the American tour. The United States wanted to see the great Adolph Bolm. The company went on to San Francisco and Bolm's roles were performed by others, though he often came out for the curtain calls to satisfy Kahn and the audiences. After his body healed, Adolph Bolm embarked on the dream he had for himself as an artist in America.
From 1916 until his death in 1951, Bolm considered America his home. He merged his Imperial School training with contemporary experimentation to produce work that contributed to the shaping of 20th century dance. He affected hundreds of young dancers with his passionate and demanding pedagogy. Bolm's choreographic legacy in America can be traced from his initial post at the New York Metropolitan Opera through Broadway productions, concert venues, presentation houses and groundbreaking films with directors such as Max Reinhardt and Fritz Lang.
In 1917 Bolm created his own company of remarkable international dancers in New York, calling it Ballet Intime. He next moved to Chicago in 1919, where he founded Chicago Allied Arts. Here he worked closely with Ruth Page and secured his associations with many American artists and composers.
Career opportunities eventually led Bolm to California, where he made substantial contributions to ballet in San Francisco and to the presentation of dance at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. He was also one of the five choreographers involved in the founding season for Ballet Theatre in New York, where he staged many works from 1940 until his death. During his career, he preceded many artists in his restaging of classical repertory with integrity and flair, paving the road to more sophisticated dance programming in America.
An examination of Bolm's artistic career in America reveals a curious and recurring eclipse of his achievements. The experiences with Diaghilev and Nijinsky and his work with Stravinsky's "Apollon Musagète" particularly illuminate this recurrent theme in his career.
Most ballet enthusiasts link Stravinsky's "Apollon Musagète" with George Balanchine, for example. Even though Balanchine's choreography was produced by Diaghilev in Paris in June 1928, Stravinsky's composition premiered six weeks earlier at the Library of Congress with choreography by Adolph Bolm. The events surrounding this premiere are telling.
In 1925 Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge created a festival to promote modern music and cultural awareness in America. An idealist, she maintained that public exposure to good new music was essential to a powerful society, and her aim was to build an auditorium for the Library of Congress to support these goals.
Mrs. Coolidge donated $60,000 to the Library to build the theater and develop the project. She established an annual chamber music festival and commissioned her favorite international composers to create original works. For the third season in 1928, Coolidge determined that she wanted to plan a program with dance as a central focus, and she requested that Carl Engel, chief of the Music Division, contact Adolph Bolm to be choreographer.
Two composers, de Falla and Ottorino Respighi, declined the commission, and in 1927 Coolidge contacted Stravinsky to compose a chamber ballet that would be performed at the festival. She set many parameters, requiring that the chamber ballet be 30 minutes in length and employ no more than six dancers and a modest orchestration so that the work would be accommodated on the Coolidge Auditorium's small stage. For this commission, Stravinsky created "Apollon Musagète" with choreography by Bolm. Nicholas Remisoff designed the costumes and scenery, and the dancers included Bolm as Apollo, and Ruth Page, Elise Reiman and Berenice Holmes as the Muses. This ballet was announced as "the first time in history a major ballet work had its world premiere in America."
Nonetheless, Bolm's "Apollo" was beset with difficulties, ranging from Stravinsky's cavalier and egocentric treatment of the project to the limitations of the stage size and the small audience capacity. In fact, Stravinsky barely refers to Bolm's version of "Apollo" in any of his memoirs.
Charles M. Joseph, author of "Stravinsky Inside Out," states that according to some of Stravinsky's unpublished correspondence, he may have doubted Bolm's choreographic capabilities and convictions in the late 1920s. Joseph also asserts that although the work was commissioned for Bolm and was to be performed by his group, Stravinsky reserved the European rights for Diaghilev. After one performance at the Library of Congress, noted Joseph, "Coolidge's ‘Apollo' instantly became Balanchine's ‘Apollo,' forevermore."
Bolm's contributions are clearly equal to many of the highly regarded figures of 20th century dance, even though his life and works remain in relative obscurity. They are often simply embedded in single chapters or indices of dance history books. Martha Graham, eminent American choreographer, stated in a letter dated Sept. 27, 1962:
"He was a kind of catalytic agent, and had a great dream which far surpassed the traditional in dance. He was fearless in experiment and did not protect himself, and he was ruthless where mediocrity was concerned." She recalled him "with admiration and love and deep gratitude," and as "an artist who never received the honor that he earned and should have had."
Eclipsed or merely awaiting tribute, Adolph Bolm's spirit for dance and innovation are vitally present in the collection of photographs, articles and notes now available in the Adolph Bolm Collection in the Library's Music Division.
Cyrus Parker-Jeanette is associate professor and chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at Chapman University.