1937

American Negro Ballet was Founded

On November 21, 1937, the American Negro Ballet, alternatively called the von Grona Ballet, debuted at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem. The company’s showcase was conducted by Dean Dixon. The music featured was a mixture of ballet staples and modern contemporaries of the time. Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird” was heard along with choreographic pieces set to the scores of W.C. Handy and Duke Ellington.

 

In 1934, German dancer and choreographer Eugene von Grona (1908-2000) formed the American Negro Ballet Company(ANB). As a child from Berlin, von Grona frequently traveled to the United States and was quickly inspired by black American influence. He was fond of both the cakewalk and minstrel shows. Eugene von Grona along with his wife Leni Bouvier, a dancer as well, made the move to the United States in 1925. The Harlem Renaissance was booming and the German duo were dazzled by the artistic ingenuity of the era.

In 1935, Eugene von Grona, who trained under German dancer and choreographer Mary Wigman, began dancing and choreographing ballets for the Roxy Theater.  In Upper Manhattan, he submerged himself into the nightclub scene where he looked for black dancers. “I want them black, black, all Negro” von Grona is quoted to have said. He scouted them by promoting the company, offering scholarships, and more. Out of hundreds of applicants, Eugene von Grona chose twenty dancers. Two notable dancers in the ANB were Lavinia Williams and Al Bledger. A pillar of the American Negro Ballet was that Eugene von Grona wanted to illustrate that black Americans could be respectable dance artists aside from the jazz dance genre.

 

On November 21, 1937, the American Negro Ballet, alternatively called the von Grona Ballet, debuted at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem. The company’s showcase was conducted by Dean Dixon. The music featured was a mixture of ballet staples and modern contemporaries of the time. Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird” was heard along with choreographic pieces set to the scores of W.C. Handy and Duke Ellington. The ANB’s premier was well received by both critics and audience members. Unfortunately, the American Negro Ballet Company struggled to keep afloat and disbanded in 1938. Eugene von Grona revamped the ANB, but branded it as “ Von Grona’s American Swing Ballet”. In 1939, the new and improved  company were featured in producer Lew Leslie’s “Blackbirds” as well as other engagements.

 

References:

The New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division- American Negro Ballet Scrapbook:

http://archives.nypl.org/scm/20924

Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at University of Virginia via Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC)- American Negro Ballet Entry:

http://socialarchive.iath.virginia.edu/ark:/99166/w6b893xf

STANDS4 LLC via biographies.net- Eugene von Grona biography:

http://www.biographies.net/people//en/eugene_von_grona

Time Magazine Nov. 29, 1937 excerpt via blackgirllonghair.com- American Negro Ballet blog post (with pictures):

http://blackgirllonghair.com/2016/03/pics-rarely-seen-photos-of-the-first-american-negro-ballet-of-1937/

 

Other Happenings in 1937

American History

  • Jan 20 Franklin Delano Roosevelt is sworn in as The President of the United States for the second time
  • May 6 The German airship Hindenburg explodes in New Jersey as WLS radio announcer Herbert Morrison states the infamous line, “Oh, the humanity”.
  • May 27 The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco opens
  • July 2 Amelia Earhart is reported missing on her iconic transatlantic flight

 

World History

  • Dec 12 USS Panay is attacked and sunk by the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War
  • Dec 13 “The Rape of Nanking” occurs when the Chinese capital Nanking falls to Japanese control during the Sino-Japanese War
  • May 12 George VI and Lady Elizabeth are crowned king and queen of the United Kingdom

 

Arts and Sciences

  • Feb 6 Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is published
  • May 28 The automobile company Volkswagen is founded
  • Oct 4 Blues singer Bessie Smith dies in an automobile accident near Coahoma, Mississippi
  • Dec 21 Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles

 

Human and Civil Rights

  • Jan 11 A riot during a sit-down strike at the Fisher Body Plant No. 2 breaks out when General Motors auto workers are denied food by the police.
  • Mar 18 The Consolidated School of New London Texas is destroyed by a natural gas explosion

 

Sports

  • Jan 23 Franklin Delano Roosevelt writes letter to the Baseball Writer’s Association commending their craftsmanship
  • Jun 3 Josh Gibson of the Negro League’s Homestead Grays hits a ball 580 feet in Yankee Stadium
  • Jun 22 Joe Lewis wins the world heavyweight championship in Chicago’s Comiskey Park becoming the first African American champ since Jack Johnson

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