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Ann Barzel - More Resources

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Ann Barzel (1905-2007)  

by George Jackson 

Ann Barzel is best known as a dance writer, filmer, and organizer. She reviewed for the general press in Chicago and for dance specialty publications around the world. Her silent film footage is often the only available record of 20th-century dance and dancers. Barzel helped to organize the dance scene in Chicago and beyond by founding the Chicago Ballet Guild, by advising the U.S. Government on its dance commissioning and touring programs, and by lecturing on dance to a broad public. The diverse materials she collected became the nuclei of major dance archives.

Born on December 13, 1905, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Barzel began her preoccupation with dance after her family’s 1914 move to Des Moines, Iowa. She first took dance classes at Des Moines’ Jewish Settlement House and started collecting dance materials at age 9. Her family moved to Chicago in 1920 and that city was her home base for the rest of her long life. Growing up trilingual (English, Yiddish, Hebrew), she attended Crane Technical High School, the University of Chicago (as one of Robert Maynard Hutchins’ early entrants at age 14), and Chicago Teachers College. During her younger days (until 1943), she also studied and performed ballet and modern dance with American and Russian teachers (Mark Turbyfill, Adolf Bolm, Michel Fokine, Alexandre Volinine, Doris Humphrey, School of American Ballet faculty, Vecheslav Swoboda, Nicholas Legat). She appeared with the Chicago Civic Opera Ballet and with Berenice Holmes’ ballet group, not to promote herself but in order to understand dance. Barzel’s memory for choreography was exceptional.

As a writer on dance, Barzel was a plain stylist. She liked to explain technique to her readers and was able to do so clearly in her newspaper reviews as well as in her reports for dance specialty publications. She had started at age 17 by ghostwriting for Bolm and was then the dance critic for two big dailies, The Chicago Times from 1946 to 1950 and Chicago’s American (a Hearst publication) from 1951 to 1974, and then for the weekly Lerner Newspapers from 1974 to 2003. Barzel wrote for Dance Magazine beginning in 1937 and remained an advisor to the publication until her death. Her articles also were printed in Dance News, Dancing Times and many other specialty publications. Less frequently, Barzel did scholarly dance writing; her “European Dance Teachers in the United States” for Dance Index (No. 3; 1944) is historical research of the first order.  Barzel’s “rival” as a popular writer was the Chicago Tribune’s Claudia Cassidy (1899-1991), a flamboyant prose stylist who reviewed all the performing arts and also wrote about travel and restaurants. For a time, the Hearst paper in Chicago wanted Barzel to cover as broad a field as Cassidy and she tried. Ultimately, though, Ann remained wedded to dance.  

As a dance collector, beginning at age 9, Barzel initiated what became important dance archives, particularly those of Chicago’s Newberry Library and of the Chicago Public Library. She contributed to the New York Public Library’s Dance Collection (now the Jerome Robbins Dance Division) materials she had acquired and films she had shot.  Her dance footage was taken with a simple, silent, 16mm wind-up camera. She did not think of herself as a filmmaker but wielded her camera in the wings, from the prompter’s box, or wherever else she was allowed to do so in order to document what was happening in dance.  Because her films are silent and lack the “glue” of music, they are important teaching tools that show the difference between choreographers who merely string steps together and those who build and develop movement.   

As an organizer, Barzel was the driving force behind the Chicago Ballet Guild (1940 – 1962), a predecessor of late-20th-century regional ballet in America. Artistically, the guild enabled the Chicago vicinity’s many dance schools to collaborate by giving joint performances that drew larger audiences and showed the diverse  types of dance that were being taught. Socially, the guild hosted parties for visiting dance companies and helped integrate new talent into the Chicago dance scene. On this social front, Ann and the guild cooperated with other prominent Chicago dance figures such as choreographer and company director Ruth Page, and ballet book shop owner and technique teacher Edna Lucile Baum (1894-1982). Nationally and internationally, Barzel influenced America’s arts policy by advising the U.S. Government’s funding of dance commissioning and touring programs. 

What sort of dance did Ann Barzel respect? She preferred artistic vision built on technical strength, but did not subscribe to a single style. She was critical of those who lauded, for example, only neoclassical ballet or just modern thrust. Nevertheless, she recognized the pre-eminence of a George Balanchine, a Harald Kreutzberg, a Martha Graham and a Doris Humphrey, or a Paul Taylor. The approach of Merce Cunningham and John Cage she would recommend guardedly, for those with adventurous taste. Twyla Tharp, she felt, didn’t master the dance styles she exploited.    

Ann was physically diminutive but full of energy. She earned her living as a Chicago public school teacher who specialized in mathematics. For 27 years, known by her family name of Eisenstadt1, she was on the faculty of the William Penn School at 16th & Avers Streets in the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago’s Southwest Side. The future movie actress Kim Novak was one of her students.  Ann and her family also lived in Lawndale until 1955. Later, Ann had an apartment on Marine Drive near Irving Park Road, overlooking Lake Michigan and the lakefront parks.  She traveled the world, but always in order to see dance.  She did not marry but seemed close to her two sisters and their children. In late years, she moved into assisted living. Ann Barzel died in St. Joseph’s Hospital on Chicago’s lakefront.


1 Ann used the pen name Barzel, which means iron in Hebrew, instead of Eisenstadt, which is German or Yiddish for Ironcity.   

George Jackson's first contact with dance was as a child figure skater in Vienna, Austria before World War II. Later he studied ballet and square dancing. Starting to write about dance for his college newspaper at the University of Chicago, he went on to review for the general press (Washington Star, Washington Post, London Times) and numerous specialist publications. He was a founding member of the Dance Critics Association. Most recently he has written for DanceView (and danceviewtimes.com), Ballet Review and Dance Chronicle.



Selected Resources for Further Research

Books and Articles 

Barzel, Ann. Interview by N. Kalish. Chicago Jewish History 31 (3), Summer 2007.

Prevots, Naima. Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.

Smith, Sid. Obituary. The Chicago Tribune. February 14, 2007.

Dunning, Jennifer. Obituary. The New York Times. February 21, 2007.

Jackson, George. “Transitions.”  Dance Magazine, June 2007.


Texts by Ann Barzel 

“European Dance Teachers in the United States”. Dance Index, 3, l944.  

Billy Sunday Presented by Ruth Page in Chicago”. Internet – October 21, 2007 – https://www.flickr.com/photos/camenta/sets/72157602583448981. Actual date: December 15, 19??.  

Moving Image and Sound Recordings 

Barzel, Ann. Interviewed by Don McDonagh. Sound recording; 1972. New York Public Library (*MGZTL 4-2539; use in library).  

Barzel, Ann. Interviewed by Ella Jenkins. YouTube (Smithsonian Folkways Recording, 2000; published May 21, 2015 on the Internet). 


The Newberry Library 

The Newberry Library in Chicago holds the Ann Barzel Papers (finding aid: http://mms.newberry.org/xml/xml_files/Barzel.xml) and many films and books owned by Barzel.           

The Chicago Public Library 

The Chicago Public Library holds an extensive collection of films shot by Ann Barzel, which are available onsite at the Harold Washington Center.      

The Jerome Robbins Dance Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts 

The NYPL Dance Division holds clippings, articles, moving image materials, and interviews with Ann Barzel.