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By Jeffrey Slonim | August 24, 2009 | People
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Lucia Chase (CENTER) and the original cast of Pillar of Fire; Chase and sons; Chase in Petrouchka
This generation likely first heard of dancer Lucia Chase and her extraordinary gift to New York—American Ballet Theatre (ABT)—when, in last year’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Cate Blanchett’s Daisy tells Brad Pitt’s Benjamin of a fascinating woman she met while dancing with ABT in the 1940s. A version of Chase also appears in the 1977 dance drama The Turning Point.
Chase, who helped keep ABT afloat repeatedly over nearly four decades (often by quietly writing checks from her late husband’s family fortune to the tune of what would be approximately $30 million today), tirelessly championed the company. This month, Bravura! Lucia Chase and the American Ballet Theatre (University Press of Florida) by Alex Ewing—former executive director of the Joffrey Ballet, chancellor emeritus of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and Chase’s son—details her astonishing career.
As artistic director of ABT from 1945 to 1980, Chase commissioned the choreography of greats like Michel Fokine, Jerome Robbins and, later, Twyla Tharp. After defecting in a parking lot in Canada, chased by the KGB, Mikhail Baryshnikov phoned ABT star Natalia Makarova. She called Chase, who hired Baryshnikov. The decision effectively saved the company.
As a tot, Ewing recalls summering in Rhode Island on the shoulders of Mikhail Mordkin, Anna Pavlova’s dance partner and his mother’s early mentor. So began a professional life of dance for Chase—the toast of New York society, who, after her husband died suddenly after six years of marriage, devoted her life to her two sons and ABT.
“She was basically the prom queen of the East Coast,” says Ewing, whose book will be fêted on December 10 by Zac Posen, Frédéric Fekkai and his wife, Shirin von Wulffen, to benefit ABT. “My mother attended six separate Yale senior proms.”
Chase met her husband, Tom Ewing, at a society dinner she hosted at a family farm in Rhode Island where he had played polo. Heir to a New York rugmanufacturing fortune, Ewing promised Chase that she could continue to dance if she would marry him. Six years later, when he died suddenly of pneumonia, “she threw herself into dance,” says Ewing.
The book imbues perpetual drama into Chase’s launch of the fledgling company. World War II proved a windfall when Europe’s great choreographers joined to escape the war—Tudor and Bronislava Nijinska, sister of the dance legend Vaslav Nijinsky.
On the road throughout WWII, the company crisscrossed the United States. Chase and prima ballerina Irina Baronova slept on fold-out seats in train cars, arriving moments before performances. In Savannah, the company pulled in so late they encountered an audience that had been belting out choruses of “Roll Out the Barrel” for hours.
Later, when a truck filled with ABT costumes on the way to Geneva burst into flames, dancers from all over Europe sent replacements. The indomitable Chase and her company were shut down for a week in Buenos Aires while tanks and gunfire thundered through the capital. They danced for Khrushchev in Russia and for the British royal family at Covent Garden.
Chase was never touted for her technical expertise. It was her haunting dramatic presence onstage that won raves. “She started too late [pushing 40],” says Ewing. “Early on she performed in Les Sylphides and Petrouchka, but for decades she remained effective in Pillar of Fire and Swan Lake as the queen mother.”
“We always had ballet people at the dinner table,” says Ewing of his childhood. “She loved the Russians—Baronova, Makarova… Massine and Nijinska had worked with Diaghilev.”
For their day, ABT’s Agnes De Mille—who would later choreograph Oklahoma! for the big screen—and Chase were uniquely high powered. “Like cats, they’d circle each other,” says Ewing. “But in the end, they were each other’s biggest champions.”
“She didn’t want to be known as a person from a social background, money,” he says. “She wanted to be a dancer like the others.”
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF BRAVURA! LUCIA CHASE AND THE AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE, UNIVERSITY PRESS OF FLORIDA (PILLAR OF FIRE AND PETROUCHKA)