Volume XXVI · Spring 1971 · Number 3
A Vision Shared
-- ENID KNAPP BOTSFORD, Originator of The Eastman Theatre Ballet
I am delighted to tell about the beginning of the Eastman Theatre ballet because it was, as I tell it, seemingly all accidental; but it was really built on a thought, a plan, an idea, and a vision which was far-reaching in its concept because it was the whole art of ballet, its growth, its development, and its start in America today.
This whole idea from which I was prompted to work was really established for me by my mother who had been an opera singer in Boston. She, from this experience, grew to know the whole scope of opera and to know that ballet was a definite part of the entertainment of opera. She was able to advise me in the direction I should go if I wanted to become a dancer. Because there was no one in Rochester with whom to study--no one in almost any city outside New York, in fact--she took me at a very early age to New York, to find a ballet teacher who would follow in the tradition of classical ballet. I went to the Metropolitan Opera House, where Luigi Albertieri, a famous pupil of Enrico Cecchetti, taught. I worked with him for a number of years, and I danced in outstanding companies in New York City while I studied. I danced with the Kosloffs who were famous at that period. I danced with Adolf Bolm, and Michel Fokine. I also won the competition for the Anna Pavlova Scholarship, and I studied with her, as well. So I had all of this classical training.
Now while I was in New York, I was taken ill with appendicitis, and I had to return to Rochester to recuperate. This was about 1922. A friend suggested I go look at the Eastman Theatre, which was then new. When I saw the theater, all the ideas I had been imbued with by my mother came back to me and I thought: "This really is a place for ballet."
It was in the morning, and the orchestra was rehearsing in the pit. The theater was black. There was a conductor, Mr. Arthur Alexander, and I spoke to him for a moment. He said, "Won't you wait? I'll be glad to see you. I'm just finishing the rehearsal."
So I waited, and when it was all over, he and I went to his office and I sat down and I told him my idea of having a ballet company dancing there. But it was still very, very far from my dream of having a whole ballet company and school resident there.
"But," he said, "where can you find such a company?"
I said, "Well, I can. I know of a company in New York. If you will hand me that phone on your desk, I will call and I can have a company here for you."
My whole approach to the situation was perhaps built on the training of my father. He had been an MIT man, in the class of '84, and he had become a manager of Pennsylvania Steel. When I was born, he was vice president of Maryland Steel, on the Chesapeake Bay. He had trained me to see the top person, and never to stop for anything else. It was quite natural for me to go to the top man.
So I picked up the phone and, to the amazement of Mr. Alexander, I had the people in New York; I asked them if they could fill an engagement at the Eastman Theatre on a date about three weeks away. I said I would put them down for that.
And so, I said good morning to Mr. Alexander and I went. I was sort of leaping out of the theater. Strangely enough, I never saw Mr. Alexander again.
That was the fascinating part about the Eastman Theatre: things were happening so fast that you couldn't be surprised about anything. When I came three weeks later with the company I had engaged, I asked for Mr. Alexander, and Mr. Alexander was not there. It didn't worry me because I had a feeling of ability, that whatever happened, I could adjust. And so, I did.
Well, the company danced there for a week, and Mr. Eastman came and saw it, and he was interested.
I want to say right here, the important thing about all of this, was that Mr. Eastman was developing a whole new format of entertaining. The moving picture, up to that time, had just been in a moving picture house, with a piano or an organ. But Mr. Eastman had built this beautiful theater. He had established a symphony orchestra, and now he was to see for the first time in that theater, ballet, and its relation to a whole new format of entertainment.
In a certain respect it vied with the Roxy Theatre in New York. The Roxy didn't have a symphony, but it did have an orchestra, and it was developing at the same time that Mr. Eastman was begining to develop the Eastman Theatre. The people from the Roxy occasionally came up to see what we were doing.
I began to visualize what it really could be. I knew Mr. Eastman had seen the performance, and I had heard he liked it from Mr. William Fait--Billy Fait--the manager. I talked with Mr. Fait that first week and I said, "Do you know we could have a ballet school here? We could use Rochester girls, and they could be trained like I wish I could have been trained in Rochester. Then we could develop a ballet company and have a ballet at the theater." This, because there was no ballet anywhere outside New York, was a great vision. When I came to Rochester, no one had seen a barre, or danced on toe.
He listened to me and was very receptive. He really was a wonderful man to work with because he grasped what you thought and saw very quickly.
After some negotiations with people in New York, which didn't work (because they wouldn't leave the city), Mr. Fait said, "Why couldn't you?" I was a little awed, and a little frightened, because if I did consider it, what a responsibility it would be. Mr. Fait then went to see Mr. Eastman, and I went along. He said, "Mr. Eastman would like to meet you," and it was very thrilling.
Now, I always had a very good impression of Mr. Eastman. I was taught to respect people who were able to do things that were successful. And I knew that whatever they did, they had some right to it.
So when I saw him, I shall never forget him. He was very quiet, and we sat at a long table. This was in the office of the director of the theater.
I had the impression that he must be a man about sixty. He was not a tall man, and he was not a stout or large man. He was, you'd say, medium. I can't say that his stature gave you any impression, "this is a great man." You felt at once the simplicity of this man, and you felt the humility and the lack of statement, really, in his whole physique.
He was not elegantly tailored. You couldn't say that his clothes had been finely made in measure and line and proportion to him. They were just suits which each time I saw him later gave me the feeling of either dark grey or black. He was a very simple, average man. You did notice that he was very intent, and that he had come for a purpose.
His eyes were somewhat deeply set, and they were a grey-blue that didn't carry too much expression. His mouth was, you could almost say, somewhat cold in the narrowness of his lips. You rather felt, "Well, I have to say in a very few words what I want to say to this man." And yet you also felt that he was very attentive, concentrated on what you said; and very humble, very understanding and very willing to accept you.
We asked Mr. Eastman if he liked the ballet, and he had liked it very much. I felt sure I wasn't talking to a person who was without knowledge. I felt he must be somewhat familiar with ballet from his attendance at the opera in Europe. So, at that meeting, after I had finished talking, Mr. Eastman said to me, "Would you make a plan, and would you come back and give me that plan?"
Now, when he said that, he meant the financial condition. His principles of setting up financial programs were the same that I had been brought up on: that you must never be in debt, that anything you did must pay for itself, and you must work out how that thing can pay for itself, that it must be perfectly workable, and that you must be responsible.
The next thing Mr. Eastman told me was a little terrifying: You must be responsible for the fact that it did prove to be a workable basic plan. If it was workable, you succeeded and you remained. But, if it wasn't workable, not to be surprised if you didn't remain. If your result was a failure, that meant you were a failure. So this was a very personal responsibility that was given to me.
The next thing he told me was that the moral state of those girls I should train, girls from Rochester, must be protected so there was no harm done them. They must in no way suffer from the familiarities that can develop on the stage. And I understood this.
I would not call him a prude. I would never call Mr. Eastman a prude. I would call him a gentleman. He wanted to maintain a standard that was his standard. He wanted that for Rochester. For example, we went to the theater in evening clothes; we promenaded in evening clothes. We saw limousine after limousine with chauffeurs parked across Gibbs Street waiting. We were on the level and standard of the Metropolitan Opera opening night. When Mr. Eastman arrived at the theater, it was really something. He did not meet a great many people when he left or entered the theater. He just bowed, very simply and formally, and went to his seat. He had a special seat, on the right hand side of the mezzanine, off center, just in the middle, in the first row. He had one or two people with him--Dr. Rush Rhees, Mrs. E. W. Mulligan, Mrs. Robert Ranlet--perhaps five. I never saw him with as many as ten people.
As I left the office, I felt : "How do I dare accept this responsibility? How can I ever get it done?" But I thought of my mother who was always very sensible and always said, "Whatever's at hand, do what is at hand, and take what is at hand. The ability and the way will become possible to you."
When I went back in ten days, Mr. Eastman had Mr. George Todd with him. Mr. Todd hardly said a word, but Mr. Eastman would talk, not at great lengths, but using simple, direct questions. They were men somewhat alike.
Now, at this time I knew a very interesting thing was happening. The School was running a deficit, although Mr. Eastman had given it millions of dollars. It disturbed him that it should be in the red because that meant it was not meeting his policy. So I knew that if I offered him a proposition that would cost money and increase the deficit, I would not be talking about a workable plan.
So I said, "Mr. Eastman, if you will give me a place to teach, I have the pupils. They are girls who have worked with me whenever I have come to Rochester. If you will allow me, when they are ready to perform a ballet suitable to your pictures, I will produce those ballets for your theater. I will charge you nothing."
I knew, you see, that when my pupils--there were only five--were on the Eastman stage in a ballet, there would be many dancers who would want to be part of that performing group. I knew that in a very short time, my income from lessons, which the pupils paid me, would be sufficient for me. I was willing to give this in fair exchange to Mr. Eastman.
In the two or three years I worked at the theater, I gathered a class of some 200 students. I was, in fact, so successful that certain people resented this, and coveted the income for the School of Music deficit. They were in a position to force me to leave and therefore I withdrew my school from the Eastman. I have maintained that school to this day.
Between meetings, Mr. Eastman evidentally talked with Dr. Rush Rhees, because at the next meeting he told me that I would have to be responsible for the school. The Eastman Theatre and the Eastman School, which they were planning to make part of the University, could not have a school of dance connected to them. The University of Rochester was established by persons with strong Baptist affiliations, and Dr. Rush Rhees was fearful that if we had a ballet school, a dancing school, this might become a concern to those responsible for the University.
I never told this to anyone. The only income I ever had from the school was the income from my pupils, and they never could realize that the theater didn't pay me or that the school didn't pay me.
So, I established the class in the tuning room of the Eastman School. I put them immediately on a professional basis of training, a lesson every day. In between times, I imported dancers from New York to augment them, so they had experience rehearsing with dancers from New York. They began to absorb some of the professional atmosphere, getting to be a group on their own who could work without New York dancers. We gave many performances at the theater out of the little tuning room.
Once you had succeeded and had gained Mr. Eastman's respect, you could count on him to give you full support. I don't like to speak of the things that caused great eruptions at the theater, yet I do feel that as far as Mr. Eastman was concerned, he did everything he could to make things harmonious. It was the people themselves who destroyed themselves or destroyed someone else. And then, everything would get blamed on Mr. Eastman.
An incident remains in my memory, to show how loyal he was. I had staged, you might call them, scenes de ballet, brief sketches to be danced to familiar classical music. I had done a circus scene. Now in this circus I had children in cages. I had lions and monkeys, a bareback rider who was a ballerina and did a toe dance. There was also a ring master and, of course, a clown. And all of the dancing and moving back and forth was built on what I call contra-rhythm.
Well, in the midst of my production a director in the opera department complained to the manager of the theater about the ballet. This director, Rouben Mamoulian, who later became famous on Broadway but who was then an absolute novice, said the ballet was all wrong, that it wasn't in rhythm. Now, a contra-rhythm gives you the atmosphere, agitation, excitement of a circus. Only in contra-time do you get this. Naturally, the complaint upset me.
There was nothing to do except call Mr. Eastman. He had given me the privilege of calling him, either at his Kodak office or at his home. And he came to the theater, to my office. As usual, a big whisper went around whenever he entered the building. He looked at the performance of the ballet, then he turned to me and said, "Mrs. Botsford, I like it very much." He stood up to leave. "Don't do anything to change it," he added. Then he left.
I was there to please him. I was his choice of a person to run the ballet school. Therefore, I must know what I was doing. That is the way I figured it, and I imagine he felt the same way.
Mr. Eastman knew what he wanted, and another story that points this out has its humorous aspect. Mr. Mamoulian and his partner, Mr. Vladimir Rosing, were preparing a production of "The Tales of Hoffman." Mr. Fait had said these men were to have anything they wanted. Well, the stagehands can be very clever at times; they can recognize a true professional, too. These two directors were really novices in their field at that time; yet, they would listen to no one.
Charley, the stagehand, was receiving his orders from Mr. Mamoulian. The backdrop wasn't suitable.
"What other backdrop do you have?" asked Mr. Mamoulian.
"Oh," said Charley, "I have a silver one."
"Wonderful, let's have that one." Mr. Rosing agreed with him.
Then Charley began to be naughty, suggesting one thing after another: Wouldn't you like a rose, a string of roses? Oh, yes, roses, let's have roses. Mr. Rosing agreed. Then Charley brought out a vase. Oh, he was naughty! Mr. Fait and I were in the mezzanine and we wanted to go down and stop Charley--but we couldn't contain ourselves. Finally, the property room was nearly empty. All of this happened on a Sunday morning; we were to perform that afternoon. Mr. Eastman came to the performance and I had never seen such a reaction from him: he stood up, annoyed, and he appeared to be furious. He walked right out and said, as he was leaving, "take all of that off the stage." During the next performance there was just a simple velvet drape. Those directors had gone too far, they had insulted good taste; and Mr. Eastman knew this right away. It points out, again, that if Mr. Eastman didn't like a thing he was rapid, as a sharp knife, to let one know; but if he liked what one did, he stood behind the person without wavering.
Mr. Eastman and I, if I may say so, understood each other. I think he belonged to a generation that some people had forgotten. I had been part of that generation, because it was my father's, and my mother's. We had vision; we had purpose. And I had been brought up with the economy he knew, Boston economy.
This character I saw in Mr. Eastman, and he was greatly criticized for it. One time there was a little bit of string, and someone was going to throw that string away. Mr. Eastman said, "Oh now, just a moment, give me that string," and he wrapped the string around his fingers. There wasn't much string, but it was enough, if he needed it, to do the thing he wanted to do. And this was valuable, and he knew it.
He was a man I would say who had a perspective and value for all things. For example, he always looked at his watch as he talked to you. To some people this might have been disturbing, but it wasn't disturbing to me. I was built on time by my father, and I knew I had to say what was to be said and do what had to be done.
The watch was his mother's. It was a little gold watch that you push a button and the cover comes open. He carried it in his vest pocket, but he didn't have the customary chain of the period, or the fob. Although he was the great George Eastman the millionaire, he carried his mother's gold watch and he timed himself on his mother's gold watch. I could understand that. I think this is lovely about him.
If I were to retain one lasting remembrance about him, I think it would be the following incident, which happened shortly after I had proposed my plan to him. He was in the theater, although I didn't know it. I was working busily and was hurrying back to my office after consulting with the manager. There stood Mr. Eastman in the hallway. I was overcome because he stood still and faced me squarely without saying a word. Then he bowed, bowed so low that his head was at my waistline.
For me, that bow expressed his deep appreciation of all I was trying to accomplish. Only a man of George Eastman's character could make such a gesture and have it seem true and fine and unpretentious.