May-June 2017 | Dance History Quiz

Fun facts for teachers and students

1 In 2015 former Royal Ballet principal dancer Alessandra Ferri pleasantly surprised the ballet world by returning to the professional stage to dance Woolf Works with the company. At age 52, she was the oldest former principal to dance with The Royal Ballet since Dame Margot Fonteyn. Which other company record does Ferri hold?

a. She performed more times as Giselle than any other company member.
b. At age 19, she became the company’s youngest ever prima ballerina.
c. Over her career, she gave five command performances for Queen Elizabeth.
d. Her 1992 performance in Romeo and Juliet was capped off with seven curtain calls.

b. At age 19, she became the company’s youngest ever prima ballerina.

A protégé of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Alessandra Ferri retired in 2007 after 27 years as a ballet dancer to spend more time with her children. She was 44—older than most of her contemporaries when they bowed out of the demanding physical life of professional ballet. But as London’s Daily Mail reported, many prominent dancers used to perform into middle age and beyond—Margot Fonteyn was 66 when she portrayed the Queen in Sleeping Beauty in 1986; Cuban legend Alicia Alonso danced into her 70s.

Now, more often than not, dancers don’t want—or aren’t allowed—to stick around so long. But after a few years away from the stage, Ferri began to experience personal problems: she stopped exercising; her marriage fell apart. She realized she had made a mistake, telling the Daily Mail that the idea of being a dancer who couldn’t dance “gave me great sadness.”

So, in 2013 she returned to professional ballet, and two years later at age 52, she performed as a guest artist in Woolf Works with The Royal Ballet, where she had once been a principal dancer. In 2016 she received raves for her performance as Juliet with American Ballet Theatre—the company with which she spent more than 20 years of her career. Last April, a commercial showing Ferri dancing with a hologram version of herself at age 19 made clear that the star hadn’t lost any of her effervescence.

And while she admits that she wouldn’t dream of attempting to dance the lead roles in Giselle or Swan Lake, Ferri says: “I don’t feel 50, I don’t act 50, so I thought, ‘Forget about the number and just live the way you feel,’ ” she told the Daily Mail.

For more information:
Alessandra Ferri, Royal Opera House

Never give up the job you love: Royal Ballet’s OLDEST prima ballerina, 53, reveals how her marriage was destroyed after she stopped dancing for the sake of her family,”, December 25, 2016

 Review: “At 53, an Effortless Return to Dance Romeo and Juliet,” The New York Times, June 24, 2016

2 Merce Cunningham created many of his boundary-pushing modern dances by using which inventive system for choosing movements and patterns?

a. Rolling dice or tossing a coin
b. Pulling slips of paper out of a hat
c. Asking strangers for suggestions
d. Adhering to a complex mathematical algorithm

a. Rolling dice or tossing a coin

Intrigued by the potential of random phenomena to determine structure, Merce Cunningham pursued pure movement without emotional implications. Cunningham developed a technique in which such random methods as tossing a coin or rolling dice determined the order of movements within a piece. He used this “choreography by chance” to create the appropriately named Suite by Chance (1952) and the 1951 dance, Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three.

Three decades later, Cunningham created Fabrications (1987), a full company work for 15 dancers, himself included, that employed chance operations to determine the organization of 64 dance phrases into a series of groups (solos, duets, trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets), which unfold over the dance’s 20 sections.

For more information:
Merce Cunningham, Encyclopædia Britannica

Fabrications, Merce Cunningham Trust

Reconstructing Suite for Five and Fabrications, Merce Cunningham Trust

Fridays at Noon: Alastair Macauley with Patricia Lent of The Merce Cunningham Trust, Vimeo

3 How “Russe” were the Ballets Russes?

a. Totally; all original members were Russian.
b. Partially; the dancers had Russian or European origins, but the company toured only in Russia.
c. Not very; dancers hailed from many countries, including the United States.
d. Not at all; the all-British company chose that name to capitalize on the popularity of Russian ballet.

c. Not very; dancers hailed from many countries, including the United States.

While the Ballets Russes name is well known, the history behind that name is complex and somewhat confusing. In an essay for the Dance Heritage Coalition’s Dance Treasures series, Jack Anderson notes that while several companies presenting ballet from the early 1930s to the early 1960s called themselves Ballet(s) Russe(s), two historically important troupes emerged. One, the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (formed in 1932 and run by Col. Wassily de Basil) renamed itself the Original Ballet Russe to avoid confusion with a second troupe, known as the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (formed in 1938 and run by Sergei J. Denham, Réne Blum, and Léonide Massine).

Neither of these troupes, however, should be mistaken for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which performed from 1909 to 1929. Pushing the boundaries of ballet, Diaghilev’s troupe collaborated with top artists of the day, from Igor Stravinsky to Pablo Picasso to George Balanchine.

Anderson writes that the “Ballets Russes troupes were never totally ‘Russe,’ ” employing dancers from several nations, with Americans—such as Ruthanna Boris and Mary Ellen Moylan—filling more spots as the years went on. The five Native American ballerinas from Oklahoma—Rosella Hightower, Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, Yvonne Chouteau, and Moscelyne Larkin—found fame with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which became the first ballet company to tour the U.S. with a black dancer on its roster after it hired Raven Wilkinson in 1956.

In the 1930 and ’40s, both the Original Ballet Russe and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo did much to introduce Americans to classical ballet, yet financial strain and a failure to keep up with innovations in the art caused the Original to give its final performance in 1952 and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to disband in 1962.

For more information:
“Ballet Russe” by Jack Anderson, Dance Treasures

4 The George Gershwin musical Girl Crazy (1930) holds a special place in musical aficionados’ hearts because it marked the first time larger-than-life singer Ethel Merman appeared on a Broadway stage (belting out “I Got Rhythm”). But the musical also marked an important (and lesser remembered) moment for dance fans when it brought together two creative forces for the first time. Who were they?

a. Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon
b. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
c. Irene and Vernon Castle
d. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor

b. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

Ask anyone to name a famous dancing duo and one of the most likely responses is bound to be Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In a Dance Heritage Coalition essay, Maureen E. Maryanski says that the two first met in a Girl Crazy dance rehearsal when Astaire was brought in to choreograph a number for Rogers. This 1930 show marked the first time that Astaire (who had already found fame onstage with his sister Adele) and Rogers (tackling her first leading role after starting out in vaudeville at the age of 14) would dance together.

Astaire and Rogers went on to make movie magic in 10 films between 1933 and 1949, dancing their way with technical agility and unsurpassed style through Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), and Shall We Dance (1937). “Their dances were more than dances,” Maryanski says; “they were physical manifestations of the characters’ emotions, both advancing the plot of their movies and inviting the audience into the emotional world being created.”

For more information:
Ginger Rogers” by Maureen E. Maryanski, Dance Treasures

5 Popular and prolific ballet and Broadway choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, a native of Somerset, United Kingdom, was enjoying a career as a dancer with The Royal Ballet in the early ’90s when which event prompted his move to the U.S.?

a. His heart was broken by a kindergarten teacher he met on a blind date.
b. He inherited a sizable fortune from an estranged uncle living in Milwaukee.
c. The movie Titanic inspired him to seek his fortune in the States.
d. His purchase of a vacuum cleaner included a free airplane ticket to New York City.

d. His purchase of a vacuum cleaner included a free airplane ticket to New York City.

World-renowned choreographer Christopher Wheeldon began ballet lessons at age 8, and trained with The Royal Ballet School from age 11 to 18. According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography, even as a student Wheeldon won prizes for his choreography. Yet he was working as a Royal Ballet dancer when, lying on his couch at home with a bag of frozen peas on his injured ankle, he spied a TV commercial that promised a free airplane ticket to New York City for everyone who bought a Hoover vacuum.

Wheeldon bought a vacuum, and once he arrived in New York, he took a few classes with New York City Ballet. His ankle must have been thoroughly healed by then, because the company offered the young dancer a spot. He accepted, becoming a soloist in 1998 and the organization’s first artist in residence in 2000.

For more information:
Christopher Wheeldon, Encyclopedia of World Biography

6 George Balanchine’s Serenade (1934) is a favorite of many a balletomane. Although the great choreographer tinkered with the ballet over the years, the opening tableau still features 17 dancers—an odd number to set a piece on. What is the significance of the number 17?

a. Balanchine immigrated to the United States in 1917.
b. He was first invited to join a professional ballet company at age 17.
c. Seventeen is a lucky number in Russian folklore.
d. Only 17 dancers showed up at the first rehearsal.

d. Only 17 dancers showed up at the first rehearsal.

George Balanchine created Serenade as an academic exercise for students at his fledgling ballet school, yet its premiere on June 9, 1934, “turned out to be a pivotal moment in American dance history,” according to Rick Nelson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein had opened the School of American Ballet just a few months prior, and its dancers were not yet the admirable corps Balanchine would have in years to come. Still, because he needed to make a ballet (and wanted to acclimate the dancers to performing onstage), Balanchine went to work with the 17 dancers who showed up for the first rehearsal. He used that unwieldy number to create the now famous intersecting diagonals of the opening sequence.

In subsequent rehearsals, when only nine or six dancers were present, he created sections for them. Over the years, Balanchine would tinker with the piece, adding a pas de deux and changing some steps, but many of the ballet’s famous moments—a dancer falls, another arrives late, a few hold up their hands to shield their eyes from the bright sun—were taken directly from moments that occurred in those initial rehearsals.

For more information:
Balanchine’s glorious Serenade is ultimate starter ballet,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 23, 2016
7 Which dancer famously used the phrase, “Everything’s copacetic”?

a. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson
b. George M. Cohan
c. Ann Miller
d. James Cagney

a. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

One week after Bill Robinson’s death in 1949, 21 musicians and tap dancers founded a club, the Copasetics, to remember the legendary performer, taking one of Robinson’s signature phrases—“Everything’s copasetic”—as the club motto. The group included top-shelf tappers Charles “Cholly” Atkins, Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, Ernest “Brownie” Brown, Charles “Honi” Coles, and Charles “Cookie” Cook, who were joined in later years by James “Buster” Brown, honorary members the Nicholas Brothers, and others.

According to the American Tap Dance Foundation, the Copasetics held boat cruises, balls, and charitable performances during tap’s lean years in the 1950s and ’60s. The Copasetics also made their mark as performers in Broadway productions such as My One and Only and as mentors to up-and-comers such as Brenda Bufalino and Jane Goldberg during tap’s revival in the ’70s and ’80s.

Today, ATDF’s Tap Teacher Training Program shares the Copasetic Canon—a collection of steps and combinations that these great artists created—with a new generation of dancers and educators.

For more information:
Everything’s Copasetic,” Notes from the Dreamtime, September 23, 2008

Tap Teacher Training Certificate Program, American Tap Dance Foundation

About the Copasetics, American Tap Dance Foundation
8 John Cranko’s ballet Onegin is based on an epic and heartbreaking novel in verse by 19th-century Russian writer Alexander Pushkin. Little did Pushkin know that in his case life would imitate art. Which tragedy befell a young man in Pushkin’s novel and, later, the author himself?

a. Cruelly rejecting a woman in love with him, to his everlasting regret
b. Fleeing into exile
c. Dying after a duel over a woman
d. Loss of his fortune through gambling

c. Dying after a duel over a woman

After a distinguished career that included leading the Stuttgart Ballet, choreographer John Cranko died at age 45. Cranko’s death, caused by an allergic reaction to a sleeping pill, was premature, but he still lived longer than Alexander Pushkin, whose complex, 100-page verse novel Eugene Onegin served as the basis for Cranko’s 1965 ballet Onegin.

Both the novel and the ballet tell the story of a bored Russian aristocrat, Onegin, who visits his friend Lensky and Lensky’s fiancé, Olga, in the countryside. Olga’s sister, Tatiana, is a simple country girl who falls for Onegin and writes him a passionate letter. Onegin rejects  Tatiana (in the ballet, he tears up the letter) and further shames the girl by publically flirting with a flattered Olga. Outraged, Lensky demands a duel, and Onegin is horrified when he fatally wounds his friend.

Years later, Onegin returns from a self-imposed exile to find that Tatiana is now a mature, beautiful—and married—woman. Despite her lingering love, Tatiana will not leave her husband, and sends a crushed Onegin away.

It took Pushkin seven years to write his famous work, which tragically portended his own death. In 1837, scandalous rumors of his wife’s affair with a French officer led Pushkin to face the officer in a duel. Both were shot, and Pushkin died two days later at age 37. He has been called Russia’s greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian literature.

For more information:
John Cranko, American Ballet Theatre

Alexander Pushkin, Wikipedia