Speaker: James Steichen, Lecturer, Stanford University
Topic: “Broadway does it more naturally” –On Your Toes and the Making of an American Ballet
Rodgers and Hart’s 1936 On Your Toes has long been seen as a pivotal moment in the history of “integrated” musical comedy (in particular regarding the role of dance as a vehicle of plot development), and George Balanchine’s work on the show has been regarded as the first time that dance on Broadway merited the distinction of “choreography.” Drawing on archival material made available in recent years, this talk lays out a more expansive meaning for the dances of On Your Toes, arguing that they served as a rich site of experimentation for not just Broadway form but the development of Balanchine’s uniquely American choreography. The virtuosic, comedic, and tragic dances of On Your Toes seamlessly blended Tin Pan Alley song with Gershwin’s symphonic idioms and playfully juxtaposed tap dancing and Russian ballet, acts of creative exchange underpinned by unacknowledged and problematic racial and gender dynamics. This blending provided an inadvertent blueprint for the elusive idea of “American ballet” sought by Balanchine and his patron and champion Lincoln Kirstein in Depression-Era America. For us today, the dances of On Your Toes allow us to see more clearly the popular roots of Balanchine’s neoclassical style.