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Eugene Loring (1911-1982)

by Martha Ullman West  

Eugene Loring is best known as the choreographer of Billy the Kid, the Americana classic he created in 1938, which is still in the active repertory of American Ballet Theatre and many other companies.  Loring’s contributions to American dance, however, go far beyond his only surviving ballet.  In a career that spanned half a century, spent on both coasts, as performer, choreographer, director, and teacher, Loring’s eclectic point of view not only reflected the diversity of North American culture, but expressed it as well. His democratic principles made him equally at home in the worlds of high art and entertainment—no dance style was better than another in his opinion.  At once pragmatic and passionate, Loring was an American original, in some respects ahead of his time, in others, very much of it.

Loving to Dance, Milwaukee 1911-1934

Le Roy Kerpestein (he changed his name to Eugene Loring when he decided on a theatrical career) was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on August 2, 1911.  Music, dancing, and athletics were part of his life early on. An accomplished swimmer and acrobat, he could not remember a time when he did not participate in the Friday night dances at his father’s saloon and dance hall.  He studied piano for nine years, was self-taught in music history, and easily read scores.  All of these activities fed his choreography and contributed to his career in dance. 

Loring saw his first concert dance as an adolescent, when Uday Shankar, the great Indian dancer who had partnered and choreographed for Anna Pavlova, came to Milwaukee. This was strong male dancing and he found it inspiring, as did many other young Americans of the period.    A career as a concert dancer didn’t occur to him, however.  While the city did have a strong theater scene, opportunities to perform theatrical dance, or even for training, were extremely limited. Theater was  obtainable, and after high school, he joined the Wisconsin Players, a community theater group directed by Boris Glagolin, and supported himself by working in a hardware store. 

Glagolin, who had trained at the innovative Moscow Dance Theatre, saw his potential, and used him as a dancer, singer and actor, teaching him a lot about the integration of movement with acting to create character and giving him his first opportunities to choreograph. In 1934, a member of a touring theater group who knew Lincoln Kirstein saw Loring’s work and encouraged him to go to New York to study with George Balanchine at the newly formed School of American Ballet.

Getting Established: New York 1934-1943

Loring arrived at SAB with $240 in savings (a tidy sum during the Depression), not knowing the difference between ballet and anything else, except tap.  “Dance was dance,” he said, an inclusive approach he held to throughout his career (Hunt, p. 9).  What he found at SAB was excellent training and a cause: the creation of an American ballet. Today, a 24-year-old would be considered too old to start ballet training, but he was accepted as a scholarship student, taking classes from Balanchine and Muriel Stuart, who had been schooled in classical and modern dance. Pierre Vladimiroff, however, was most important to his development as a dancer.  Vladimiroff  taught the short, compact American, who reminded Kirstein of James Cagney, how to move expansively.  

Loring’s professional performing career, which began with MichelFokine two months after his arrival in New York, indisputably fed his choreography. From Glagolin he had heard about the Russian who had revolutionized 19th century classicism, making it far more naturally expressive in such works as Les Sylphides, and character-driven in Petrouchka and Carnaval.  In Fokine’s ballets, movement and music, with minimal mime, and no extraneous star turns, express character and narrative, realistically and naturally.  While Loring’s classical technique was minimal, Fokine took him on, and he soon advanced from character dancer to soloist in ballets that demanded considerable versatility of style and technique. 

In the same period, he danced with Balanchine’s American Ballet, originating roles in Alma Mater and Card Game.  In 1936, Kirstein chose him for Ballet Caravan, a touring company whose purpose was to develop an American repertoire created by American choreographers and to provide summer work for dancers.  

Loring made four ballets for the Caravan; the last one was City Portrait in 1939. Harlequin for President, (1936), a satiric take on American politics using the conventions of Commédia del Arte, was reportedly quite funny. Yankee Clipper (1937) featured an innocent New England farm boy who ships out on a whaler to see the world—witnessing Loring’s takes on African, Japanese, and Balinese dancing in the process.    Loring spent close to a year looking at sources for movement, including newsreels, the film of Captains Courageous, and the contents of whaling museums (Kirstein, p. 56).

Billy the Kid 

Harlequin and, more particularly, Clipper, basically served as practice runs for Billy the Kid, which premiered in Chicago on October 16, 1938, with a Pulitzer prize-winning score by Aaron Copland (his first for ballet) and sets and costumes designed by easel painter Jared French.  Chicago critic Ann Barzel immediately proclaimed it a “milestone in American ballet,” citing Loring’s imagination and “inventiveness” (Barzel, 1938). 

Billy was Kirstein’s idea and he bombarded the three collaborators with all kinds of material.  Loring was given a recent biography of William Bonney, the real Billy, as well as source books about the old West, and undoubtedly watched a good many western movies. By 1938, four films had been made about the Brooklyn-born outlaw, who by the time he was killed at the age of 21 had dispatched as many men as he had years.  Film certainly influenced the choreography, although critic Rosalyn Krokover rather snobbishly pointed out that “There is nothing of the cowboy movie treatment in Billy the Kid, which is authentic art in choreographic terms,” as if one were antithetical to the other (Krokover, p. 45). 

Cowboy songs were left on Copland’s piano, and French, whose striped pants and star-trimmed boots for Billy were a knock-off of the American flag, was presented with a book of Remington engravings, which Loring also used as source material. The cactus-adorned backdrop placed the ballet in New Mexico, as did the cast of Native Americans, settlers, lawmen, Mexicans and dancing girls, all of them highly stylized and stereotyped.

Loring and Copland, who worked together closely,  succeeded in distilling their material into a 40-minute ballet that was as much about the settlement of the American West as it was about the unquestionably psychopathic young killer, framing the action with processions  of settlers heading west, and placing the “kid” in the context of American history and American character.  With this ballet, Loring came into his own as an intensely musical, innovative, and problem-solving choreographer, fearless in mixing many forms of dance, inventive in creating equestrian movement for the male characters, and radical in having much of the action take place away from center stage, decades before Merce Cunningham proclaimed that “there are no fixed points in space.”   

Only Billy, the anti-hero, is given bravura dancing to do, specifically a double pirouette and a double air turn just before he kills someone, symbolizing a surge of rage. The vicious kick to the dead body brilliantly conveys the Kid’s contempt.   The shooting is done in silence (Copland’s idea) and without a replica of a gun; props in fact are non-existent in the ballet.

Apart from Billy, the most interesting character is Alias, who symbolizes everyone the Kid kills, thus avoiding having a stage littered with bodies.   In the guise of a “good guy”—rancher, sheriff, land agent--he moves in a straightforward open jeté or stride.  As the Indian guide who betrays Billy, he moves sinuously, ingratiatingly, and sneakily, in a dated portrayal of the “Red man.”   Loring, who in most of his work during this period presented a highly moral point of view,  similarly differentiated between “good” women, ranchers’ wives,  and “bad,” dance hall girls; the former moved quietly and deliberately, the latter swung their hips and shook their shoulders.  Billy’s Mexican sweetheart was the only woman to dance on point. Performed by the same dancer who portrayed his mother, whose accidental stabbing at the beginning of the ballet (and in real life) is said to have created a killer out of a young boy, like Alias this is a shape-changing role.   Loring said later she was meant to be a dream.

Billy was well-received wherever the Caravan was permitted to perform it.  In Loring’s home town the presenters did not view the anti-hero as a suitable subject for a ballet.  One California city would not allow it to be programmed on a Sunday, and one American ambassador, when it was presented on American Ballet Caravan’s 1941 good will tour of South America, said that if he had known about it in advance, he would not have allowed it.

City Portrait, a gritty, grim piece in which Loring expressed his lifelong belief that big overpopulated cities lead to moral corruption and the destruction of families, was not a success.  Placed in Depression-era New York, with a set based on paintings of urban squalor  by Reginald Marsh, by all accounts it was laced with the bitterness and degradation of the times.  It is about the disintegration of a family of five, confined to too-close quarters in a tenement apartment under the Third Avenue El.  Henry Brant’s score contained quotations from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and what New York Times critic John Martin described as street music.  Martin found the ballet too episodic; others found it too dark, and audiences reacted negatively to its realism. 

Billy’s success led to a contract with the newly formed Ballet Theatre(today’s American Ballet Theatre) in 1939, as dancer, choreographer, and head of the short-lived American wing, and Loring left the Caravan a year before it disbanded.  He danced the title role in Billy a number of times, to critical acclaim; critic Edwin Denby cited his “command of the dramatic pause” (Denby, p.97).

Ballet Theatre and The Great American Goof

The Great American Goof, which was on the company’s debut program along with Fokine’s Les Sylphides, was certainly ahead of its time. Loring’s multi-media collaboration with author and playwright William Saroyan, which included text spoken by such luminaries in the cast as Antony Tudor, was an absolutely avant-garde work. The score was by Brant; scenic designer Boris Aronson used film projections on sliding screens to indicate the wanderings of the Goof. The Goof is a well-meaning but clueless American male, meant in Saroyan’s words to represent the great white hope of the human race, who creates considerable havoc in the course of a dance drama that was an audience failure and a critical success.  Martin was particularly impressed:  “…it is certainly entitled to the season’s laurels as the most significant contribution made by the new company.  It is not the slickest or the loveliest or technically the showiest, but it dares to turn the illumination of imagination upon the contemporary mind and strike out boldly in the direction of a new and authoritative idiom” (Martin, Feb. 4, 1940).   Loring’s performance as the hapless Goof earned him a starring role as a non-dancing actor in Saroyan’s 1941 Broadway hit, The Beautiful People.

Ballet Theatre very soon ran out of money and suspended operations.  Toward the end of 1941, sponsored by poet and arts aficionado Winthrop Palmer, Loring founded Dance Players, dedicated like the Caravan to the telling of American stories in dance. The 16-member company lasted a very short time, from January of 1942, when rehearsals began, to November, when the last performance was given in Trenton, New Jersey, but their activities had considerable significance not only for American ballet, and Loring, but also for a number of the dancers.

The roster included Caravan veteran Lew Christensen, who choreographed Jinx for the company, a piece later taken into the repertoire of New York City Ballet, and Michael Kidd, who had replaced Loring when he left Caravan.   Janet Reed, who had been principal ballerina of the San Francisco Opera Ballet, was given a principal dancer contract; she was petite and had proved herself a fine dancer-comedian as Swanhilda in Coppélia and dancer-actress in Willam Christensen’s Romeo and Juliet.   Loring thought she would make the perfect partner for himself, because, among other reasons, she was short like him.   Reed went on to originate roles in ballets by Jerome Robbins and Tudor at Ballet Theatre, and byBalanchine, Ruthanna Borisand Todd BolenderatNew York City Ballet.   

Reed’s memories of working with Loring on Prairie offer a window on his approach to choreography, a craft he had studied in a workshop at Bennington College, a bastion of modern dance, during the Caravan years.  “He made charts and was very methodical….  Everything was very carefully studied, [and] he worked fairly quickly.  I think he went in a studio by himself and really worked out the movement and when he came [in] he gave it to you” (Tobias, p.27).  These charts may have been the beginning of a system of dance notation he would fully develop by 1955, which he called Kinesiography.  It is noteworthy that in this system, for which he borrowed a medical term, he included measurements and symbols for the emotional content of movement. Loring had little use for abstract dance; dancers are human, human beings have feelings, even non-narrative dance conveys some kind of feeling.

Prairie, loosely based on Carl Sandburg’s poem, was another ballet contrasting the evils of city life with the wholesomeness of the country. Reed originated the role of the young woman who, bored with her hard-working life on the prairie, goes to the city, and eventually is rescued from dire straits by a young man, a role performed by Loring.  “In a way, it was like an American Les Sylphides,” Reed remembered, “in that we wore a modification of Western dress in the shape of a long tutu. The costume was wool, with long sleeves, a high-necked frontierswoman’s dress, and it changed the look of our movement [which was on point], but it was right for a frontierswoman.”  It was also extremely uncomfortable to dance in.  Beyond the costuming, Reed thought Prairie was similar to Sylphides because unlike Billy or City Portrait, episodic dance dramas in which character drove the movement, Loring chose to do it “in classical form, with a corps, pas de deux and pas de quatre” (Tobias, p. 10). He also employed more of the classical vocabulary than he had in past work; fouettés and pirouettes à la seconde abounded.

Martin considered Prairie to be a complete departure for Loring, because “there is nothing pantomimic or theatrical about it; it is essentially an abstraction, poetic in the full sense of the word …(and) formally of great charm and clarity” (p.20). The characters were archetypes; one was called the Land. 

Loring created a total of three new works for Dance Players, including The Man from Midian, also based on a poem, this one about the life of Moses and written by his patroness.  Midian was danced in bare feet and from photographs one can discern a focus on the modern movement of the day.  Billy the Kid and City Portrait were revived, the latter greatly revised, as was Harlequin for President.

Loring’s light-hearted Duke of Sacramento had its sole performance in New Hope, Pennsylvania, where the company had a summer residency.  After they disbanded in November, Loring returned briefly to Ballet Theatre, which by this time was under the management of Gerald Sevastianov, who had a very different vision of American ballet from founding managing director Richard Pleasant’s.   Sevastianov declined to mount Man from Midian, which Pleasant had originally commissioned, suggesting a balletic version of Show Boat in its place.  Loring decided that if he were going to choreograph musicals rather than the experimental works that most interested him, he might as well get paid decently.  He signed a much more lucrative six-month contract with MGM and departed for Hollywood. 

He was hired as a performer and choreographer on the strength of his work with Ballet Theatre, his starring role in The Beautiful People, and, no doubt, his choreography for the 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carmen Jones.  This was an American version of Bizet’s opera, with an all black cast.  For the Toreador Song, Loring substituted a boxing match for the bullfight, receiving critical praise for the “honesty and integrity” of the movement (Adler, International Encyclopedia of the Dance, Vol 4, p. 228). Loring knew exactly what a boxing match looked like; his father had trained prize fighters in Milwaukee. 

The Hollywood Years, 1943 to 1966

Loring did the choreography for a number of musical comedies and television specials over the years, including the Ziegfeld Follies, Toast of New Orleans, Deep in My Heart, and Meet Me in Las Vegas. In 1957, he created the dance numbers for two superb Fred Astaire movies, Silk Stockings (a musical version of Ninotchka, Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 spoof of Stalinist Russia),which also starred Cyd Charisse as the uptight heroine, and Funny Face, which starred Audrey Hepburn as an intellectual turned fashion model. Silk Stockings contains a number to the song “Red Blues” that incorporates just about every dance form that interested Loring, from classical ballet to Russian folk dance, jazz to swing, tap to acrobatics.  For Funny Face he did the wonderful ensemble dance “Think Pink” at the beginning, with Kay Thompson as a hardboiled fashionista, and a trio for Hepburn and two men in a Left Bank café in which the earnest pretentions of the existentialists are sent up with every move their long legs make.

After he left New York,  his primary choreographic focus was on film, and he spent most of his time on the west coast, but in 1948 he returned to ABT to perform the title role in Billy the Kid. In 1953, he went back to literary sources to create Capitol of the World for that company; it was based on one of Ernest Hemingway’s bullfight stories, and was also televised.

The American School of Dance

Loring had strong views about how American dancers should be trained. He believed passionately that there was no freedom in the practice of one technical form; he was the opposite of a stylistic ideologue. And he insisted that dancers needed to know everything about their art form, as well the arts related to dance, specifically music and visual arts.  

In 1948, he founded the American School of Dance in Hollywood, where he could put these beliefs into practice.  All dancers, no matter what kind—chorus girls and classical dancers, modern, jazz and tap--were welcome to take class; many cast members of touring shows and companies did just that.  In an interview for a 1956 article for Dance Magazine, Loring said, “Americans are a composite lot and American dancers must be as many faceted as the melting pot” (Lloyd & Cohen, p.33).  It was possible at the ASD to study clowning, jazz, tap, ballet, dance theory, visual arts, and a form created by Loring he called Freestyle.  Freestyle was made up of elements of modern, ballet and jazz dance and was meant to provide flexibility and strength, the ability to define line and form, and coordination.  “I expect the student,” he said, “to work at dancing to discover dance and what movement is about. Freestyle frees the student by making her use the whole body in a way that ballet does not” (Maynard, p. 72).   

In 1965, this intellectual yet hands-on approach to training professional dancers led the dean of the School of Fine Arts at the University of California’s brand new campus at Irvine to hire Loring, who had nothing but a high school diploma and a lifetime of experience, to establish their dance program. For some years he continued to run his school in Los Angeles, then in 1974 he sold it, focusing solely on the university program until he retired in 1981. 

UC Irvine gave Loring much freedom and many opportunities to promulgate his view of the well-trained dancer, one who is knowledgeable about every aspect of the art, including stage production, dance history and theory, many different techniques, choreography, visual arts, music, Labanotation and Kinesiography, and ethnography.  All of these disciplines are listed in the Department of Dance catalog for 2009.  Faculty members include such practitioners as Donald McKayle and former Joffrey principal dancer Jodie Gates, who teaches ballet and choreography.  Prominent scholars are also on staff, and courses in digital technology that Loring would probably have loved to have taken himself are offered as well.  It is a rigorous program, for both undergraduate and graduate students, for which Loring set the standard nearly fifty years ago.

Loring continued to choreograph, primarily on his UCI students, but in 1966, the Joffrey Ballet presented These Three, based on the infamous murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.  Clive Barnes thought These Three was a failure, although he commended him for addressing a highly charged human rights issue through dance theater.  Loring, like the American modernists of the 1930s and 40s made works about such issues throughout his career.  In the early seventies, he made The Folk Dances of a Mythical Country for his students, inspired by Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War to Cambodia.  “It was successful with students because it was about them,” he said.  “They want to see work that relates to them” (Hunt, p. 63).   

Loring retired from UCI in 1981 and returned to the east coast, hoping to revive The Great American Goof and The Capitol of the World, not wanting to be remembered solely for Billy the Kid.  He died on August 30th, 1982, in Kingston, N.Y. before he could realize those dreams.

The headline on his New York Times obituary reads, “Eugene Loring, 72, Choreographer who created ‘Billy the Kid,’ Dies”—his identification with that masterpiece was as inescapable as its own identification as a brilliant piece of the American narrative in dance theater form.

Everything Loring did, on stage, on screen, in the studio and the classroom, was driven by the American concept of freedom, and finding it where it best suits you. “I really don’t see why it should be necessary to live in a very crowded city in order to produce great dance works,” he said in an interview in the mid-sixties (Hunt, p. 91), paving the way for a much younger generation of choreographers to establish themselves outside of New York and San Francisco.  Paul Vasterling, artistic director of the Nashville Ballet, tells American stories in the ballet idiom and in 2012, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, reconstructed the original set and costumes for Billy the Kid, creating a production other companies can use.  Trey McIntyre, who could have based his company anywhere, chose to establish it in Boise, Idaho, feeling that small communities are as deserving of good ballet as large ones.  Loring understood that great art is also great entertainment, that it must speak to the heart as well as the mind, through all means available.  That non-elitist, eclectic point of view is also very American.   


Martha Ullman West is a dance critic and historian based in Portland, Oregon. She has been writing for Dance Magazine since 1979, where she is a senior advisory editor, and has published in Ballet Review, Dance Chronicle, The Chronicle of Higher Education Review and many other publications. She was the recipient of the Dance Critics Association Senior Critics Award in 2011, and is currently under contract to the University Press of Florida for a book titled Making Ballet American: Todd Bolender and Janet Reed.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Adler, Reba Ann, “Eugene Loring,” in International Encyclopedia of the Dance, ed. Selma Jeanne Cohen, vol 4, p. 228, New York, Oxford, 2004

Denby, Edwin, Dance Writings, Florida, 2012

Guest, Ann Hutchinson, “Selma Jeanne Cohen and Eugene Loring’s Kinesiography.” Dance Chronicle, 18:2 (1995): 195-206

Kirstein, Lincoln. Ballet, Bias and Belief.  New York: Dance Horizons, 1983.

Krokover, Rosalyn. The New Borzoi Book of Ballets. New York: Knopf, 1956.

Lloyd, Margaret & Selma Jeanne Cohen.  “Eugene Loring’s Very American School of Dance.” Dance Magazine (August 1956, 30-33).

Maynard, Olga. The American Ballet. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith Co., 1959.

Maynard, Olga.  “Eugene Loring Talks to Olga Maynard,” Dance Magazine, (July, 35-39, August, 52-54, 72-74, 1966).

Palmer, Winthrop. Theatrical Dancing in America. New Jersey: A.S. Barnes, 1978.

Reynolds, Nancy, & McCormick, Michael.  No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003.

Reynolds, Nancy. Repertory in Review: Forty Years of the New York City Ballet. New York: Dial Press, 1977.

Siegel, Marcia B. The Shapes of Change: Images of American Dance. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,

1979.

Moving Image

“The Red Blues,” from Silk Stockings http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UvBs6z3xZs

“Think Pink,” from Funny Face http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVserRvKyec

Archives

Interview with Eugene Loring, by Marilyn Hunt (1975). Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Interview with Eugene Loring, by Marian Horosko (1966). Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Interview with Janet Reed, by Tobi Tobias, (1977). Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.