Ritz Carlton Hotel/University of the Arts, Terra Hall: Ritz Carlton Hotel houses distinguished guests
201 South Broad Street
Philadelphia hosted two performances at the Metropolitan Opera House by the famous Ballet Russe during the company’s 1916-1917 US tour in March and November 1916. The March engagement took place from Monday, March 27 through Saturday, April 1. The troupe arrived on Sunday, March 26 at the Broad Street Station on a special train from Washington, DC. Most of the dancers stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, 201 South Broad Street (Broad and Walnut), one of the most luxurious hotels in the city. The brainchild of Philadelphia millionaire and society leader George Widener, the Ritz Carlton opened in December 1912 boasting luxurious guest rooms, ballrooms and several restaurants. Unfortunately, Widener perished on the Titanic in April 1912. He was reportedly returning from a trip to France where he had traveled to engage a French chef for the hotel, among other things. The Ritz Carlton was very popular, and in 1914, it was enlarged with additions to the main building and two new top floors.
Led by Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev and composed principally of Russian dancers, Ballet Russe fused dance, music and art into a new form that enthralled audiences. Its works included music by contemporary composers such as Igor Stravinsky (Rite of Spring, Firebird and Petrouchka) and Claude Debussy (The Afternoon of a Faun) and sets designed by artists Leon Bakst and Pablo Picasso. The dancer/choreographers Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky and Leonide Massine incorporated different kinds of movement into their works, changing standard ballet steps and stories.
The Ballet Russe’s Philadelphia engagement in March did not include Nijinsky, renowned for his high leaps and acting ability. He was detained in Europe for political reasons related to World War I and did not join the US tour until April 1916. Nevertheless, the city awaited the company’s appearance. The Philadelphia Evening Ledger edition of Saturday, March 25, 1916 ran several stories about the Ballet Russe and the upcoming program “What You Will See And Hear At The Ballets Next Week.” It included an article by Fokine describing the liberating nature of the company’s works in which “the dramatic action is expressed by dances and mimique in which the whole body plays a part.”
The March program reflected the Ballet Russe’s diverse repertoire that ranged from spectacular large productions, often with exotic themes, like Scheherazade and Cleopatre, to romantic pieces such as Les Sylphides and La Spectre de la Rose, to the avant-garde L’Oiseu de Feu (Firebird) and Petrouchka. Among the dancers were Adolphe Bolm, Enrico Cecchetti, Lydia Lopokova, Leonide Massine and Lubow Tchernichewa.
When the company returned to Philadelphia in late November 1916, Nijinsky was with them. The program included the newest and last work Nijinsky had choreographed, Til Eulenspiegel, to the opera music composed by Richard Strauss. In addition to noting the impressive costumes and sets, a critic from the Philadelphia Public Ledger wrote on November 24 that Nijinsky “’revealed a mimetic power that is remarkable’”. The Evening Public Ledger edition of Friday, November 24 advertised that night’s performance of Sadko, Les Sylphides and Scheherazade and the Saturday November 25 matinee (the last performance) featuring Til Eulenspiegel, Thamar, La Spectre de la Rose and Carnaval.
Americans in 1916 were not strangers to ballet or new dance forms. The Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova had already appeared across the United States as had the modern dance pioneers Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan. Yet, at that time, Americans viewed dance in general, including ballet, as more entertainment than art. The Ballet Russe US tour was significant for showing America (and Philadelphia) in Fokine’s words, “an intimate collaboration between the composer, the choreographic designer, the painter and the musician.” These Russians, and others who came to America after World War I and stayed here, inspired and trained the first generations of US ballet dancers. Those dancers in turn were the foundation of an American ballet tradition that emerged in the mid 1900s.
The Ritz Carlton Hotel was a fitting temporary home for the Balllet Russe in Philadelphia. After its life as a hotel and an office building, the site was acquired by the University of the Arts in the 1990s. Restored to look more like its original self, it is now known as Terra Hall and includes the Caplan Center for the Performing Arts, home to the theater and music schools, a recital hall and a theater.