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Lucia Chase (1907-1986)

By Dawn Lille

As co-founder and co-director of the company that became American Ballet Theatre (ABT), Lucia Chase (1907-1986)  introduced much of America to the art of ballet in its broadest sense.  Lucia’s parents, Irving Hall Chase and Elizabeth Hosmer Kellogg Chase, were part of a socially prominent enclave in Waterbury, Connecticut. The family fortune came from the Waterbury Clock Company, where her father was president. She attended St. Margaret’s School and Bryn Mawr College before beginning a serious study of acting at the Theatre Guild in New York City. She took singing lessons and also ballet classes, mainly with Mikhail Mordkin, but also with Michel Fokine, Anatole Vilzak and Antony Tudor.

In 1926 Chase married Thomas Ewing, Jr., a polo player who inherited Alex Smith and Sons, a carpet company in Yonkers. He encouraged her to pursue a career in the theater, which she continued before and after the birth of their two sons, Thomas and Alexander Cochran. Ewing died of pneumonia in 1933. For the rest of her life this strong willed, wealthy, and driven woman kept her private and public endeavors very separate, including the death of her son Thomas in a sailing accident in 1963.

Chase was originally drawn to Mordkin, who was from Moscow, by his dramatic approach to dance, and he was a friend as well as her teacher. She made her debut as a soloist in his company, which was basically a vehicle for his advanced students. She danced leading roles in his re-stagings of Giselle, La Fille Mal Gardee, and Sleeping Beauty and also provided major financial support.

Richard Pleasant was the manager of the Mordkin studios and company, and he convinced Chase to co-found with him a new company initially called Ballet Theatre, which gave its first performance in 1940. From the beginning she was the prime financial backer of an entity she was determined to make into America’s national ballet company. She initially did not wish to hold the directorial job but in 1945 she accepted it temporarily. In 1946 she and the designer Oliver Smith became co-directors. She retired in 1980 when Mikhail Baryshnikov took over.

Ballet Theatrewas built on the foundation of the Mordkin Ballet and Mordkin was originally given the job of ballet master. As other choreographers signed on, his role diminished and he left the organization. Chase was sometimes criticized for seeming to desert her teacher, but she did not envisage his leaving when she set out to transform his company into something bigger than a troupe with one choreographer and re-stager.

Because Chase began dancing late, it was not her technical skills, but her dramatic presence on stage that made her so successful in roles such as the eldest sister in Tudor’s Pillar of Fire. She was also a superb comedienne, portraying such characters as the Greedy One in Agnes De Mille’s Three Virgins and a Devil and Queen Clementine in Fokine’s Bluebeard. Her sense of humor was also in evidence off stage. She stopped performing in 1960, but was still seen in many of the female mime roles in the repertory.

As co-director of Ballet Theatre she selected dancers, set the repertory, and planned the programs and casting. She went on tour with the company, traveling on the bus with the dancers and sharing a room. She never missed a performance, even after she retired, until illness forced her to do so.

Like other strong women in ballet before her – Bronislava Nijinska, Ninette de Valois, Marie Rambert, Ruth Page, Catherine Littlefield – Chase was colorful and daring. Controversy was something this opinionated individual seemed to welcome and thrive on. She constantly argued with dancers and choreographers, but she was always accessible to them. She also negotiated each contract herself, bypassing an agent.

Lucia Chase put her energy and her fortune into what became American Ballet Theatre,encouraging American choreographers such as Jerome Robbins and Michael Kidd. She also invited the English choreographer Antony Tudor and welcomed dancers from everywhere. Clear headed and practical, she was a tough administrator and made her company a great one. Oliver Smith  said she could handle any problem or temperament without revealing her own. Baryshnikov termed her a realist who lived like an idealist and said that when ABT danced it did so for Lucia Chase.

Chase was elected to the Board of the Royal Academy of Dancing (London), which called her the “fairy godmother” of American ballet, in 1946. She received the Dance Magazine Award in 1957; the Capezio Award in 1968; the Handel Medal of the City of New York, 1975; and honorary degrees from Long Island University, 1979, and Yale, 1980. In 1980 she was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Alex Ewing has written a book about his mother and ABT. He points out that to this indomitable woman, whose private life was filled with sadness, family and friends were of utmost importance. Anna Kisselgoff speculated that of all the roles in the dance world that Lucia Chase played she was happiest being a dancer. American ballet owes much of its success, development, and maintenance to this remarkable and determined individual, who devoted most of her adult life and fortune to it.


Dawn Lille trained in ballet, modern dance and labananalysis, has worked with dancers and actors as a performer and rehearsal coach. She has taught internationally, headed the graduate program in dance research and reconstruction at City College and taught dance history at Juilliard for fourteen years. Dr. Lille has written two books, chapters in five books and over one hundred articles in encyclopedias, numerous periodicals and Art Times

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Ewing, Alex C. Bravura: Lucia Chase and American Ballet Theatre. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2009.

Hunt, Marilyn. “Lucia Chase, 1897-1986,” Dance Magazine, (March, 1986): p.50.

Kisselgoff, Anna. “Dance View: Lucia Chase Helped Create the Ballet World We Know,” New York Times, (January 19, 1986).

“Lucia Chase Remembered,” Ballet Review 18.1 (Special Issue, Spring 1990) pp. 54-66.

Payne, Charles. American Ballet Theatre. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

This book includes many photographs and an essay by Lucia Chase called “Directing a Ballet Company.”

Archives

Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library:

Lucia Chase Papers: finding aid

Interview with Lucia Chase (sound recording), 1974. *MGZTC 3-769