Classical ballet may have been born in the French courts of the 17th century, but Chicago ballet truly began with Ruth Page, a visionary artist who believed dance could and should be accessible to all. Born in Indianapolis and trained in New York, Page was already an accomplished ballerina when she settled in Chicago in 1924. At the time the eclectic Pavley-Oukrainsky Ballet, an affiliate of Chicago Grand Opera, was making waves with its endorsement of avant-garde European techniques such as eurythmics and pantomime. As a dancer and choreographer Ruth Page went a step further, championing the integration of ballet with modern dance techniques and with everyday movements inspired by sports and popular dance. She found inspiration in the most populist of American themes, from flappers to football players. Her West Indian-themed La Guiablesse featured a mostly African American cast from the South Side; a 1937 piece, American Patterns, examined the lives of women as mothers and wives, and is widely considered the world’s first feminist ballet. Beginning in 1955, she toured the United States with her own company, Chicago Opera Ballet, and she choreographed and staged a Nutcracker that was a staple of Chicago’s holiday season from 1965 until the mid-1980s. Upon her retirement she established the Ruth Page Foundation, which now runs the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, a dance school, studio, and performance space on the Gold Coast.
Page, who died in 1991, was the driving force behind Chicago ballet for decades, founding or championing companies such as the Ravinia Opera, the WPA Dance Project, and Chicago Opera Ballet, the dance arm of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. After her retirement, Chicago ballet foundered a bit. The Balanchine-trained Maria Tallchief, the country’s first Native American prima ballerina and herself a former principal with Chicago Opera Ballet, founded her own company, Chicago City Ballet, in 1974, but that company folded in 1987 under financial pressures.
Ballet Chicago, a professional training program teaching Balanchine technique, formed around the time Tallchief’s company closed. And in 1988, former Bolshoi ballerina Elizabeth Boitsov, whose Boitsov Classical Ballet School has been teaching classical Russian technique in Chicago since 1980, founded her own troupe, Boitsov Classical Ballet Company. While world-renowned touring companies such as American Ballet Theatre regularly pass through Chicago, it wasn’t until 1995 that the city once again claimed a world-class classical ensemble, when, under the direction of Gerald Arpino, the Joffrey Ballet relocated from New York City to Chicago.
The Joffrey, founded by choreographer Robert Joffrey in 1956, is in many ways a fitting inheritor of Ruth Page’s legacy. Considered by many the quintessentially American ballet troupe, the company showcases the youth and vigor of its dancers with a repertory that ranges from lyrical Romantic pieces by Sir Frederick Ashton—and Joffrey’s own popular Nutcracker—to aggressively angular modern works, like Kurt Jooss’s German Expressionist antiwar classic "The Green Table."
And, like Ruth Page, the Joffrey has embraced popular culture and modern dance. Consider "Deuce Coupe," a signature work by the modern choreographer Twyla Tharp set to the music of the Beach Boys and originally staged for the Joffrey in 1973. In it, a solo dancer demonstrates the basics of ballet vocabulary—tendus, pirouettes, fouettés—while around her a corps of brightly clad dancers twist and jive their way through movements inspired by popular 1960s dances like the Swim and the Monkey."Deuce Coupe" was the first piece to capture the pop cultural revolution of the ’60s (the set was repainted every night by graffiti artists) and explicitly represent the tension between classical ballet and the movement revolutionaries of modern dance. Tharp herself has described it as being "about teenagers," in all their energetic, exploratory glory.
Today, contemporary Chicago companies such as the athletic Hubbard Street Dance Chicago embrace ballet traditions in their work and training, fusing them with modern techniques and popular dance styles. Ruth Page would be proud.