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Adolph Bolm (1884-1951)

By Judy Estey

Adolph Bolm was a key member of the Russian emigré generation in early-twentieth-century America and contributed to its influence on the development of American ballet. Bolm experienced the quintessential Russian ballet tradition, first training at the Imperial Ballet School (later Vaganova Academy) and then dancing at the Maryinsky Theater from 1903 to 1911. From 1909-1917 he was one of the lead male dancers for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (1909-1929), excelling in character roles such as the Chief Warrior in Michel Fokine’s Polovtsian Dances. After leaving the Ballets Russes to settle in America, Bolm initially developed a career as régisseur, setting Ballets Russes productions on American companies. However, perhaps his more significant contribution to American dance was as choreographer and dance teacher in Chicago (1920s) and San Francisco (1930s), as well as one of the first choreographers for American Ballet Theatre in the early 1940s. Bolm started several dance companies within U.S. cities that nurtured the careers of emerging dance artists and strengthened the reputation of dance in cities outside of New York. Bolm’s work as a choreographer, both as a carrier of the Russian tradition and a creator of new works, assisted the birth of ballet in the United States.

Career Overview

Russia and Europe

Adolph Bolm was born in St. Petersburg in 1884, entered the Imperial Ballet School in 1894, and became a dancer with the Maryinsky Theatre in 1903. During his tenure with the Maryinsky, Bolm served as principal dancer, frequently partnering star ballerinas Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) and Tamara Karsavina (1885-1978).  He also led the company’s tours to Scandinavia and Europe in 1908. In 1909, he began performing with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in its premiere season in role such as Pierre in Michel Fokine’s Le Carnaval (1909). Bolm premiered the role of the Moor in Petrouchka (1911) as well as the Tsarevitch/Prince Ivan role in Fokine’s The Firebird (1910).

America: New York and Chicago

Bolm left the Ballets Russes in 1917 after sustaining an injury and after having been passed over as choreographer when Diaghilev instead promoted Vaslav Nijinsky and later Léonide Massine. In 1918, Bolm choreographed and danced in the ballet Falling Leaves for the Broadway revue Miss 1917, as well as working for the New York Metropolitan Opera re-staging Ballets Russes ballets Le Coq d’Or and Petrouchka in 1918 and 1919. Bolm spent a majority of the 1920s in Chicago where he served as ballet master, premier danseur, and choreographer for the Chicago Civic Opera and Chicago Allied Artists. Bolm established both the touring company Ballet Intime, known for its “oriental” influences, and later the Adolph Bolm Ballet. With director Dudley Moore, Bolm starred in and created the short film Danse Macabre in 1922, set to music by Camille Saint-Saëns. In the late 1920s the Library of Congress commissioned new ballets from Bolm such as Apollon Musagète, Arlecchinata, Alt-Wien, and Pavane pour une Infante Défuncte.

California and Ballet Theatre

During the 1930s-1940s Bolm worked in California, choreographing for Hollywood films including John Barrymore’s The Mad Genius (1930), and director Gregory Ratoff’s The Men in Her Life, and The Corsican Brothers (both 1941). He also served as the ballet master for the San Francisco Opera from 1933-1936. In 1940, Bolm joined the newly-established Ballet Theatre, for which he choreographed Peter and the Wolf to Sergei Prokofiev’s score. He also served as company régisseur from 1942-1943, and staged his version of Firebird in 1945. Bolm choreographed his last ballet, Mephisto, for the San Francisco Civic Ballet in 1947. He died in 1951 in Hollywood at the age of 66.

Cultural Context and Legacy

Russian Expatriates

Due to the Russian revolution and the stagnant Russian ballet system during the early 1900s, a wave of Russian dancers emigrated to the United States and Europe in the early twentieth century, importing with them the rich Russian ballet tradition. This was compounded after the death of Diaghilev and division of the original Ballets Russes into other iterations, with Russian dancers and choreographers now creating permanent homes and careers for themselves in America and Europe. Tamara Karsavina and Nicholas Sergeyev assisted the establishment of the Royal Ballet in England; Serge Lifar became director of the Paris Opera Ballet; and George Balanchine created the School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet with Lincoln Kirstein. As living records of both classical Russian ballets and newer Ballets Russes repertory, Bolm and his fellow expatriates helped build the repertories of Western companies and ensured the survival of some of the ballet choreography most beloved today, such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and Don Quixote.

Secondary Status

As a member of the Imperial Ballet and Ballets Russes, and frequent partner of famous dancers such as Tamara Karsavina  and Anna Pavlova, Bolm shared the stage with icons of Russian ballet history. However, Bolm never achieved the same level of recognition. With the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev chose to champion other Russian choreographers over Bolm, including Nijinsky, Massine and later George Balanchine. Indeed, Bolm was overshadowed by Balanchine once again in America: while Igor Stravinsky’s score Apollon Musagète was commissioned specifically for Bolm in 1928 by the Library of Congress under the patronage of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, it is Balanchine’s version (choreographed that same year for the Ballets Russes) that has become a part of the ballet canon.

Influence in America

Bolm’s career intersected with the emergence of both American ballet and modern dance. For example, his first touring company, Ballet Intime, featured American dancer Ruth Page (1899-1991), Japanese dancer Michio Ito (1892-1961), with guest appearances by modern dance icons Martha Graham (1894-1991) and Agnes de Mille (1905-1993). His later company, The Adolph Bolm Ballet, toured across the United States under the direction of future Martha Graham collaborator Louis Horst (1884-1964), starring Ruth Page and Vira Mirova. In San Francisco, Bolm served as ballet master to the San Francisco Opera, unofficially establishing the San Francisco Ballet. As a collaborator in the early years of Ballet Theatre, Bolm joined forces with ballet choreographers such as Bronislava Nijinska (1891-1972), Michel Fokine, American Agnes de Mille and British Antony Tudor (1908-1987), who would all go on to have illustrious careers choreographing for British and American ballet companies. Bolm’s long teaching career, opening studios in Chicago and Hollywood, helped to instruct a generation of American dancers such as film star Cyd Charisse (1922-2008).

Judy Estey graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and Dance from Barnard College, Columbia University, with Departmental Honors for her thesis on the Politicization of the National Endowment for the Arts. She served as research assistant to Claudia Gitelman’s Alwin Nikolais Exhibit at New York Public Library Spring 2010. In 2009 she received a Dance Heritage Coalition Fellowship to process special collections at the Library of Congress and Washington D.C. Historical Society. She was recently honored to be a panelist for the 2012 DC Mayor’s Arts Awards and Fairfax County’s Arts Fellowship grants.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Online Resources

Adolph Bolm website created and edited by Marilyn McLeod. Career chronology, articles, resources and links.



Adolph Bolm Collection at the Library of Congress

This collection, which documents his career both in Russia and the United States, contains photographs, correspondence, programs, pamphlets, articles, business papers, writings, artwork, and music scores.


Adolph Bolm Collection, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Books and Articles

Garafola, Lynn, and Nancy Van Norman Baer. The Ballet Russes and Its World. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999.

Prevots, Naima. Dancing in the Sun: Hollywood Choreographers, 1915-1937. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Press, 1987.

"Wandering Dancer," Library of Congress Information Bulletin, Cyrus Parker-Jeanette. February 2005- Vol 64, No. 2. http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0502/bolm.html

Moving Image

Danse Macabre video:


Adolph Bolm rehearsing in studio with Ruth Page interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67cG4GU4HeI&feature=related