Changing History – A different first Nutcracker in America

If I have to recommend a Nutcracker, my personal go-to is the 2004 San Fransisco Ballet version by Helgi Tomasson, so I very much appreciate the San Francisco Ballet (and not just because they’ve got the third-largest budget for a dance company in the country). It is widely published, and generally acknowledged that the San Francisco Ballet presented the first full-length Nutcracker in America. The idea that the Nutcracker in America started in San Francisco is, well, everywhere.

Ballet being ballet, the matter isn’t entirely settled. Some point to the 1940 Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo Nutcracker, with choreography by Alexandra Fedorova, after Lev Ivanov, which premiered on October 17, 1940 at the 51st Street Theater in New York City. New Yorkers do have their pride, and the Boweryboys (among others) aren’t afraid to lay claim to that first Nutcracker. This is an abridged one-act version, so not being “complete,” this one rarely gets full credit. Still, publications like the Los Angeles Times, Dance Spirit, and Pointe Magazine give the Ballet Russe a quick nod before breaking out the San Francisco title.

nutcrackerballet.net, like most places, doesn’t hesitate, putting San Francisco’s claim right on the front page. Variations of this story are everywhere, and it’s probably the history you know. No less an authority than Time Magazine, in 2014, says to us “When the San Francisco Ballet company performed the first complete version of The Nutcracker in the U.S. on Christmas Eve, 1944, they had no way of knowing that in time it would become as American as leaving the milk and cookies out for Santa.” This production, with choreography by William Christensen, working with George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova, usually gets the credit.

The San Fransisco Ballet, of course, makes its claim boldly and prominently, “Founded in 1933, the company staged the first full-length American productions of Coppélia (1938) and Swan Lake (1940) and, in 1944, we launched an annual holiday tradition when we produced the first full-length production of Nutcracker in the US.” They’ll even give you a nice, concise version of their Nutcracker’s story.

Let me tell you a different story…

On June 2, 1935, news of the the Bekefi-Deleporte Institute of Dance Spring recital appears in print…

Senora de Azcarate, wife of the military attache of the Mexican Embassy heads the list of prominent patrons for the forthcoming Spring concert of the Bekefi-Deleporte Institute of Dance Sunday evening, June 2, at 8:30 o’clock at the Community Center Auditorium at Sixteenth and Q streets. Among other patrons and patronesses are Mrs. John Francis Butler, Mme. Natalie Rimsky-Korsakoff, Mr. And Mrs. Richard W. D. Jewet, Mr. Frank La Falce, and Mr. William Nelson.

There will be many out-of-town guests for this colorful dance event, for the group of artist and students dancers to be presented by Mr. Theodore Bekefi, Mr. Maurice Deleporte, and Mr. Billy Lytell includes more than a hundred Washington dancers who are interested in the recital and who will participate in the varied program of ballet and character numbers, opening with the first presentation in the Capital of the entire “Nutcracker Ballet,” by Tchaikowsky, from which the often-seen Nutcracker Suite is but a part.

Evening Star, Washington, D. C., May 20, 1935, page B-4.

The announcement made, more details follow the next week…

Theodore Bekefi, prominent dance director of Washington will present Tschaikowsky’s “Nutcracker Ballet” as the opening feature of the Spring recital of the Bekefi-Deleporte Institute of Dance next Sunday night at 8:30 o’clock at the Community Center, Sixteenth and Q Streets. Victor Neal, concert pianist of this city, will play the accompaniment for the ballet, which will be danced by a large group of classical and character dancers in the leading roles, including Boydie Barry, Dorthy Ann Goodman, George Filgate, Boofie Barry, with Bekefi himself as Dreselmeyer, the leading character role.

In the ballet will be seen also Virginia Barry, Charlotte Bolgiano, Mary Bolgiano, Theresa Clancey, Ronnie Cunningham, Margaret Mary Edmonston, Margie Gibson, Mary-Beth Hughes, Ethel Mevay, Elise Pinckner, Marguerite Reese, Lila Zalipsky, Dorthy Barry, Josephine Parther, Mary Renkel, and May Tenn.

Evening Star, Washington, D. C., May 26, 1935, page F-6.

I include this list of performers, first to afford them some credit in this 21st Century, but also to point out that (it seems) Lila Zalipsky would go on to make many ballet things happen, particularly on the west coast, as Lila Zali. The others in this performance didn’t ring any immediate bells for me, so that’s some research for a future date.

This is “just” a spring recital for a local dance school, but before the show, there’s a third piece in the Evening Star, this time with some casting details…

For the first time in Washington, the complete production of Tschaikowsky’s “Nutcracker Ballet” will be staged by Bekefi: opening the program of the occasion, with Bekefi in the leading role of Droselmeyer, and included in the dancers, Boydie Barry as the Nutcracker; Dorothy Ann Goodman as Clara, George Filgate as the King of Mice, Boofie Barry as the Doll and a large group of little girls, mice and soldiers.

Evening Star, Washington, D. C., June 2, 1935, page F-6.

Finally, at the end of this thread, we have a review.

The program, in four parts, any two of which would have made a delightful entertainment, was late in beginning and very long. Tschaikowsky’s “The Nutcracker Ballet,” staged and directed by Theodore Bekefi opened the program. The pantomime was well carried out and the cast included, in addition to Mr. Bekefi, Dorthy Ann Goodman, Boydie Barry, Mary Boudren, Barbara Culley, Mary Coen, Lois Heckinger, Betty Jamison, Mary Renkel, Sonya Samkow, Izetta Simon, Boofie Barry, Bill and Jack Smoot, Melvin Goldberg, Bernard June, Phyllis Schwartz, Mary Quick, Edith Klee, Eleanor Klee, Barbara Ramey, Barbara Schwartz, Jackie Smith, George Filgate, Dorthy Barry, Josephine Prather, May Tenn, Elise Pickney, Marguerite Reese, Virginia Barry, Charlotte Bolgiano, Ronnie Cunningham, Mary Bolgiano, Mary-Margaret Edmonston, Marie Gibson, Mary Beth Hughes, Ethel Mevay, Lila Zalipsky and Bernice Susser. In the finale of the first act of their pantomime, a choir composed of members of Mme. Zalipsky’s vocal studios was heard from behind the scenes.

Evening Star, Washington, D. C., June 4, 1935, page B-20

And the clue that ran me down this rabbit hole? the Bekefi-Deleporte Institute of the Dance presents the “Nutcracker Ballet” on June 20, 1935 at Lehmann Hall in Baltimore, Maryland:

Dozens of Dancers Whirled and pirouetted on the stage of the Lehmann Hall last night as Theodore Bekefi, a former soloist with the Diaghileff Ballet Russe, brought a company of his dancers from Washington to perform the “Nutcracker Ballet.”

The story, a fantasy of Christmas Eve, told a tale in dance of a nutcracker toy, which came to life, killed the king of mice after a duel, and then journeyed through the land of snowflakes to the palace of sweets. The dancing throughout was smooth and expert, especially in the snowflake scene.

R. L. W., “Nutcracker Ballet,” Baltimore Sun, June 21, 1935, page 10.

So there you have it… a new first Nutcracker in America, this one performed nearly a decade before the commonly-accepted first complete Nutcracker in America and five years before the Ballet Russe in New York.

A Christmas ballet. In June. At a Jewish Community Center. In Washington, D. C. Maybe that’s why nobody noticed…