Sharon Skeel’s biography of Catherine Littlefield underlines the fragility and ephemeral nature of dance careers, schools and companies. During the course of her short life, Littlefield, building on work begun by her mother, became Philadelphia’s foremost ballerina, teacher and choreographer. She headed up her own ballet company, the Philadelphia Ballet, which toured widely in North America and even to Paris, Brussels and London, and her school provided several dancers for Balanchine’s inaugural class at School of American Ballet. Since she died aged 46 in 1951, her contribution to the development of ballet in the United States has largely faded from memory.

This thoroughly researched book tells the story of the Littlefield family enterprise, with an extensive cast of characters stretching back to the 1850s when Littlefield’s great grandparents emigrated from Germany. It is a reminder that American ballet did not begin with Balanchine, or even with the early post-Revolution Russian émigré dancers who travelled the world in the 1920s and 1930s and set up their own studios in new countries. Littlefield’s mother, Caroline, was organising dance classes in Philadelphia as early as 1908, and she sent her eight-year-old daughter to classes with C. Ellwood Carpenter, ballet master for the Philadelphia Operatic Society.

In New York, Littlefield trained with Luigi Albertieri, who taught in the Italian tradition and was a protégé of Enrico Cecchetti, but Russian influence on Littlefield was also significant: she attended Lubov Egorova’s classes in Paris (as did Zelda Fitzgerald), and in later life kept Egorova’s photograph on her dressing table. Her dancing was described as being light and clean-cut with strong pointe work, quick precise turns and a sweeping arabesque line, and the style of the Littlefield school in Philadelphia emphasised ‘turnout, footwork, well-arched feet, high extensions, batterie and pirouettes’, although according to Balanchine the dancers lacked speed.

Littlefield’s career in commercial theatre included dancing in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway and choreographing for ice shows and television. Her ballet choreography included the American themed ballets Barn Dance (1937) and Terminal (also 1937, which premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées).

Littlefield’s life bears testament to the huge difficulties that dance companies face just to survive, and how easily dancers are forgotten. She made mistakes, losing engagements by unwisely parting with the manager of her successful European tour, and she relied heavily on the fortune of her first husband, whose sister later accused him of throwing away half a million dollars on the ballet.   However it was the bombing of Pearl Harbour in the 1941 and the subsequent enlistment of her male dancers in the military that forced her to disband her company. The Littlefield School was sold in 1950, and the new owner gave it up three years later. Without the company or the school, there was nothing left to carry on her name, and today both she and her work are largely forgotten.

Skeel’s lively book brings Littlefield back to life, interweaving her biography with social and theatrical history. Carefully referenced, and written in a sometimes surprisingly informal style (Anna Pavlova is described as ‘Egorova’s former schoolmate’!), it casts a refreshingly different view over the development of American ballet, which on this side of the Atlantic, at least, is often perceived as originating in New York under Balanchine. When so many dance companies and dance careers are at risk today because of the pandemic, this book is a warning of how easily we can lose and forget our dance heritage.

Maggie Watson

28th August 2020

Skeel, Sharon (2020)  Catherine Littlefield: a Life in Dance  Oxford University Press

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