Adeline Genee (1878-1970)
(Atlanta Constitution [USA] - 15th December, 1907)
GREATEST DANCER IN THE WORLD TO CAPER IN THE UNITED STATES
Special cable - London, December 14
One evening towards the end of November, 1907, I was talking to Mme. Katti Lanner in her Corner on the prompt side of the stage at the Empire. A young girl in a conventional costume of the prima ballerina passed us, and the veteran maker of balets said to me: "I want to present you to our new first dancer, Mlle. Genee." I saw that the newcomer was quiet and self-possessed, and when we had exchanged a few words and she was moving up stage I noticed that she walked very lightly and gracefully and remarked as much to Mme. Lanner. "Genee is one of the best dancers we have had here for a long time." remarked my old friend; "go back to the front of the house and see her, for she Will only be here six weeks."
Six weeks! Ten years have passed since that night, and Adeline Genee has not succeeded In outstaying her welcome. Year by year she has added to the number of her admirers, season after season has found her strengthening the appeal of ballet, and impressing the beauty of the prima ballerina's art upon those who believed that it was dead, and that the spoils of ballet had been divided between the skirt and serpentine dancers. In another six weeks New York is to claim London's favorite dancer, but only for a little time; she will come back to town with the spring, and one hopes and believes that the return will not be less pleasant to her than to us.
Tiny Girl as Dancer
On the wall of my study there hangs the portrait of a tiny girl dressed in dancing costume and wearing a cap covered with sequins. This portrait is signed: "From the little Genee," and is one taken perhaps twenty years ago, when the child was starting her life work under the direction of her uncle, Alexander Genee, and his wife, both famous dancers of a past decade.
While with them the young Adeline, who comes from Copenhagen, made her debut as a dancer, pleasing the cultured audiences of many a continental city. Her training was very thorough. She learned before she was in her teens that no success can come to the dancer who does not practice assiduously day in, day out, and that the most difficult "ballon" movements, the most intricate "pas," can be mastered only by those Whose physical fitness is complete. Even today, when the tendency of modern ballet is to make first-rate dancing necessary, when a prima ballerina is asked to appear in high-heeled shoes or boots - in short, when her art is neglected, and only her personality is taken into account. Adeline Genee continues to practice as hard as she did in the years when her most elaborate steps would be criticised by an understanding and appreciative audience.
"It may come back," she says simply. "There are still ballets that respect the traditions, and they are the only ones I really care about." And so she continues to work, with a perfect faith in the future of her own art, and an unflinching, though not always successful, opposition to work that she regards as second-rate.
The Task of a London Dancer
While her sisters of the continental theaters and opera houses are not required to dance for more than three or four nights in the week, Adeline Genee must appear every evening, but none has known her to perform as though true dancing were other than a labor of love.
What is the secret of her success, or, to speak more accurately, what are the secrets? First and foremost comes the natural aptitude, the gift that makes great artists in the world of singing and painting and playing, the natural inclination to do certain work, the innate capacity to do it well. Then early training must be considered - the teaching that enabled Adeline Genee, when newly in her teens, to delight the connoisseurs of Berlin, Stockholm, and Copenhagen.
Add to this her complete understanding of the art of gesture, the ability to express emotion in dumb show, so that it conveys even more than the spoken word. This branch of dramatic art is shamefully neglected today. I believe it has even been dropped at Mr. Tree's academy, where the greatest living exponent of the art, Mme. Cavallazzi Mapleson, was giving distinction to the pupils.
Adeline Genee has studied gesture since she was a little girl, and is hardly less an actress than a dancer. The next secret underlying the charm of her work is its spontaneity. Those of us who know something of the difficulty belonging to certain steps will wonder when we see the dancer execute them so easily that they seem to grow out of the movement of which they are a part.
Finally, she is never tired, she is never slack; the joy that underlies her every movement is the expression of her mind. She does not offend with the hackneyed smile of the "prima ballerina absoluta," but smiles because she is never quite so happy as when she dances, never feels so completely content as when she is accomplishing work that has been reached by the way of hours of labor.
Success unparalleled in our generation has done nothing to spoil her; she regards it as a tribute to the art rather than the artist.
I am not going to appear In orthodox ballet in New York, she said a few days ago. "I don't think America wants real ballet yet. I don't even know," she added simply and seriously, "that the Americans want me, though of course I hope they do. If they will persuade themselves that they want me, and I can persuade them that they want real ballet, I shall be quite happy."
But shall we be equally content if New York will mount real ballets for the sake of the first dancer of our time? A hundred times, No. At the time of writing several London houses are making offers, and, as the Empire is still negotiating with its favourite there is at least a sporting chance that she will return to the house in Leicester Square, whose directors have given her work so many beautiful settings.
London can dispense with many of its greatest entertainers. A Melba goes to America, but a Tetrazzini comes to Covent Garden; a Joachim passes away, but a Mischa Elman arises. The art of the dancer is in no wise inferior to that of the singer and player; It speaks to the soul through the eye as music speaks to the soul through the ear. But we cannot replace Adeline Genee, and consequently, whether it be to Empire or Palace or Alhambra, she must come back to us. Her art adds to the joy of life, and none but herself can be her parallel.
(from 'Dancers and Dancing of Today', by Caroline and Charles H. Caffin, Dodd Mead and Co NY, 1912)
The first years of the present century showed little promise of the brilliance of the present renaissance of the Art of the Dance. Those graceful waltzers, Kate Vaughan, Letty Lind, and Sylvia Grey had left no successors in their dainty bon-bonniere art. The skirt and serpentine dances became less and less a matter of dancing and more and more one of clever manipulation of mechanical contrivances. Not that the artistic possibilities of the combination of these floating fabrics and coloured lights has yet been fully utilised. But the thing lacking was the actual dance spirit that would use the contrivances only as a means of additional expression. So, too, with the wonderful flying ballets. Since they required of the performers little save ability to maintain a graceful pose, as they were moved through the air by means of ingenious mechanism of wires, they can hardly be considered as dances of expression.
More expressive, but even less commendable, were the whirls of high kicks and limb-contorting stunts that did duty for dancing in most of the stage ballets of the period. Like all expositions of skill this form of dance easily degenerated into a mere personal matter of agility and ingenuity. The appeal of the performer was, "Look at me, I can kick higher and faster than anyone you ever saw before;" the dancer looked out to the audience to make sure that they were looking at her. The atmosphere, thus created, is deadly to dignity and false to art. It is permeated with the essence of sophistication and reeks of the limelight and rouge-pot and all other disillusionment that art should make us forget.
Into this artificial patchouli-scented atmosphere there floated one day a bright sunbeam, wafting with it an air sweet and fresh and cool as the dawn on a dewy meadow. It was as though a window had been opened in an overheated conservatory, and in the refreshing breath of the pure morning air the poor withering plants lifted up their heads and bloomed once more. It was Mademoiselle Adeline Genee who, through the fragrance of her presence, first in England, then in America, assured us that the ballet was not, after all, a dead thing, that the conventional technique under the control of an artist might still be made to yield sincere and vital expression.
A Dane by nationality, born in Jutland, this little lady made her first appearance in Copenhagen as a child-prodigy at the age of nine. Continuing her studies under her uncle, a famous ballet master, and his wife, a Hungarian dancer, Mile. Genee appeared again with ripened talent at the Royal Opera House of Copenhagen and at those also of Munich and Berlin. Then she went to London and for thirteen years was identified with the Empire Music Hall.
There, as when she later appeared here, the environment in which she found herself was not on the plane of the Royal Opera Houses, hitherto the scenes of her triumphs. Her audiences were, as a rule, not looking for art, but for amusement, and had not even learned to expect art from a dancer. Undismayed, she set herself, therefore, to restore the Cinderella of the Muses to her rightful sphere. And for this she was royally equipped. She had, to begin with, a technique which was flawless. The most difficult exercise she performs with the insouciance of a frolicking child. Added to this is the charm of purity and fragrance which one associates with childhood, combined with that artistic sincerity which makes her appeal impersonal and abstract.
It was the appreciation of this lovely child-spirit in her that caused Arthur Symonds, that poet-critic of English drama, to send to Mlle. Genee a basket of penny china toys, and with them some nonsense verses entitled "Homage of the Penny Dolls to the Illustrious Lady Adeline Genee." They read as follows:
"We are penny Dolls; we bring
To fair Genee welcoming.
Venice made us of her earth,
We are but of humble birth,
We can crow and grunt and sing
For fair Genee's welcoming."
It is true that there is nothing profound in her art; but do we chide the little brook, brawling over its rocks and murmuring amid its mosses, because it is not the ocean? Are there not infinite delight and variety in its windings and hurryings and cool still pools and splashing little waterfalls? So, in the exquisite miniatures which Mile. Genee discloses there is a charm none the less genuine because its range is not boundless nor its depth overwhelming.
(The Evening Post [Christchurch, NZ] - 25th October, 1913)
GENEE - GRACE PERSONIFIED - FAMOUS DANCER IN WELLINGTON
In their efforts to give an adequate idea of Adeline Genee writers have exhausted the English language, and produced ecstatic descriptions of daintiness, grace, the poetry and charm of dancing.
Only to see the famous dancer off the stage, one would say at once that the descriptions had been in no way exaggerated. She is dainty, petite, charmingly unaffected in manner, and delightfully simple in her dress. In a hurried interview with a pressman to-day, she spoke of her experiences at home and on tour. She received her early training at the Theatre Royal, Copenhagen, in the land of her birth. The education of a ballerina is commenced at an early age, say, six or seven, and is very arduous. In Russia, Denmark, Italy, and Germany dancing is an international art, and girls, with the Imperial ballets as the great prizes, are offered some inducement to attain perfection.
Mile. Genee has performed before most of the crowned heads of Europe, and modestly admits that she is a favourite. In America she has also attained great success. The American people, she says, found great difficulty in pronouncing her name correctly, and Australians were little more successful. In fact, in Melbourne they gave up the attempt, and called her "Jinny." "Shenay," with the "sh" soft, and the accent on the latter syllable, is an approximation to the correct pronunciation. Mlle. Genee finds no such difficulty in the English language, which she speaks almost entirely without foreign accent, and with a very fair display of idiom.
She has found much pleasure in her trip to the South, and thinks Australasian people very attractive. In New Zealand she is particularly interested, for her husband, Mr. Frank Isitt, is a relation of the Isitts of Christchurch. Mlle, is also interested in all forms of native dancing, and was rather disappointed that in Australia she was unable to witness the strange wild dances of the aborigines.
Of her art Genee does not speak much. The life is an exacting one, and three hours daily practice is necessary. She has made up her mind to retire after a farewell season in London, and will then live quietly with her husband. A pair of ballet shoes lasts her for one night only, and for her long seasons in Australia she had to be equipped with great cases of footwear.
"Are your feet insured?" she was asked by the pressman. She replied that she had often thought of insurance, but each time the stringent conditions put before her deterred her from completing the proposal. "When Paderewski proposed to insure his hands the condition was made that he should protect them by wearing a muff. Now just fancy me hobbling round in a foot-muff," she said quaintly. Mlle. hobbling in any way would be quite impossible; one could more easily conceive a swallow waddling. But accident has never happened yet, and Mlle. does not anticipate it. She is, as she puts it, just "terribly healthy."
With these resources, in spite of the handicap of unworthy surroundings, Mile. Genee came and conquered. Soon the public was asking: "Is it necessary that the dancer's art shall be displayed amidst vulgarities and inanities? Does it not belong to the realm of beauty?" The little lady by her own sincerity and fragrant sweetness had made some of her public think. She achieved this marvel by being true to her art and her own ideal, continuing to give of her best and not stooping to a lower standard. So, though her art is of the most joyous, dainty, gossamer texture, it proved to have in it some of the gallant spirit of the Fairy Prince, who could right the wrongs of the neglected Cinderella of the arts.
But the conditions of her appearance, especially in New York, were a rather significant commentary on the ways of our purveyors of public entertainment. For here was a public which, as subsequent events proved, possessed a latent taste for the artistic rendering of the dance, and here also an artist most capable of giving it to them. But the purveyors, by trying to attract a public which had neither taste nor discernment, succeeded in repelling some of those who were most ready to greet the dancer with real appreciation.
But the banalities and vulgarities of her surroundings never touched Mlle. Genee's art. Above it all, she shone, clear and bright, no more contaminated than is the moon by the gutter which its silver beams illumine. Her dancing is a revival of the classical style, and again and again we are reminded as we watch her of the old prints of Taglioni. The very style of her dress, worn usually a little longer than the modern French ballet skirt, gives her something of the elegance and demureness of the Victorian period. Her technique is of the French School, accomplishing with perfect grace and precision all the conventionalities of toe-dancing, pirouetting, balancing and the rest. But through all runs a sprightly elfishness and gaiety which infuses life and originality into everything she does. The purity and innocence of her face, with its soft cluster of yellow hair pushed back to each side of the rather high forehead, and the candid, friendly eyes, the lithe, straight limbs, the arching smile of her mouth all help in the impression of fresh and happy sanity.
Of all her dances the one most characteristically her own is the Hunting Dance. Clad in full riding paraphernalia, habit, hat, boots, high stock and hunting crop, she bounds down an incline with a beautiful forward leap of the body that is full of suggestion of the buoyant hurrying onward motion of the eager game. And how certainly one feels the action of a spirited highly-bred horse the trot, the gallop, the canter! All are suggested rather than mimicked, and there, too, is the rider seated on a side saddle, swaying lightly to the rise and fall of her mount. There is something in the restive patter of the feet, something in the toss of the neat little head, and the light but firm poise of the hands which tells you all that is necessary to start the imagination picturing horse and rider both. It does not need the dogs, handsome though they be in their spotting of colour, to give you the whole "field" on a bright morning at the beginning of a good run. And at the close of the dance, when she stands whip uplifted and the smile of triumph lighting her piquant face, one shares the exhilaration that has ever made the hunt a bond, knitting together all lovers of the horse, be they high or low, since woods gave place to open country.
Nor is her gaiety at all lacking in dignity. In the Empire Dance, the dainty poise of her head, the firm supple straightness of figure, the arch of the wrist all confirm a suggestion of gracious courtliness, as of one who has dropped the reserve of formality, yet clings to certain inherent stateliness of breeding, even in her gaiety. Mile. Genee was seen in one drama-dance during her visit to this country. It was more in the nature of a French "ballet d'action" than that of the naturalistic dramas depicted by the Russians. Its theme is a repetition of the often-told story of a dryad, loving a mortal who swears to be true to her and her alone. The tryst at which his love is to be proved is forgotten by him and he comes to the spot accompanied by a new love. The dryad returns to imprisonment in her tree, while the faithless swain remains ignorant of her fate. The poignancy of this rendering of the story lies in the innocent soullessness of it and in a wistful longing for the deeper things of life. The actual note of anguish is hardly touched; but there is pathos in the appealing figure, light and fragile as a snowflake, which melts at contact with the rough human world. The spectacle of outstretched arms and slowly retreating figure, posed with hardly a touch of the toe on the ground, is exquisitely ethereal and lovely.
Indeed it has well been said of Genee that she merits the words of Paul St. Victor, written of another dancer: "Her movements might inspire a designer of fine and dainty ornament. All she does is exquisite, minute and delicate as lacework." Her latest appearance has been at the London Coliseum in a ballet which has not yet been seen in America. It is a dance-drama entitled "La Camargo," being based on an episode in the career of that famous queen of the ballet, who captivated the vagrant heart of the fifteenth Louis, was extolled in verse by Voltaire and painted by Lancret. Established in one of the apartments of Versailles, she is discovered trying on a new dancing costume. A bouquet is handed to her, accompanied with a note, couched in terms of insolent gallantry. While she is smarting from the affront, an old friend of her early life enters in distress. Her son, a playmate of La Camargo's girlhood, now one of the king's guards, has been arrested for striking his officer; death is the penalty. Will La Camargo intercede for him with the king? It was a scandalous remark affecting her reputation which had angered the youth, and the traducer, it transpires, was no other than the writer of the insulting note. La Camargo accepts the opportunity of humbling him. The king enters, she dances for him, and in the thrill of his pleasure claims the pardon as a reward. He cannot condone the insubordination; she dances again, and yet again, putting forth all her skill in the invention f fresh steps and combinations. The king, though fascinated, remains obdurate; it is only when he has been shown the note that he grants the pardon. La Camargo is revenged and the youth goes free. But the sight of him has recalled the memories of her youth, and she sighs for the freedom of the country life and realises that, notwithstanding all her triumphs, she is a lonely, loveless prisoner in a gilded cage.
No theme could be fitter as a medium for the display of Genee's particular qualities. Her art is a product of the tradition which La Camargo herself did so much to establish; moreover the little modern artiste's charm consists largely in its mingling of a studied precocity of style with a spirit so fragrantly natural. If, then, this new ballet, as a production, is somewhat disappointing, the fault is scarcely hers. It is to be attributed rather to the spirit and method exhibited by the author, producer and designer, Mr. C. Wilhelm. He represents the Teutonic spirit and method as contrasted with those of the modern Russians, and it is for this reason that it has seemed worth while to allude to this particular production. The difference can be summed up in two words, the Teutonic, E as represented here, is based on mimicry; the Russian, on interpretation.
When, for example, Genee urges the king to sign the pardon, she has been instructed or encouraged to wriggle her wrist in the air, as if she were writing. This is but a sample of innumerable little futile mimicries employed to tell the story to the audience, who thereby are treated as if they had but little intelligence and no imagination. Many of us are disposed to hurl back the affront across the footlights and assert that it is a lack of intelligence and imagination which characterises the production. The effect, indeed, upon the student and lover of the modern dance-drama was one of dissatisfaction, as with something uninspired and rather commonplace, and this, notwithstanding the charm of Genee, whose art seemed robbed of much of its freshness and originality by contact with such ill-considered and unimpressive matter-of-factness.
The point is worth enforcing, for there seems to be little doubt that the dance-drama is destined for a better fate than to be a fad which will shortly be superseded by some other "latest thing." It is so firmly rooted in the past that its future is assured, and is so much a product of human instincts that its hold upon the popular imagination will increase. Accordingly, it is well to note that there is a higher and a lower form of the art. The latter is illustrated in the example we have been considering, which, notwithstanding its elaboration and refinements, is fundamentally akin to primitive dance-dramas in its reliance upon the mimetic instinct: the rudimentary faculty of imitating and the rudimentary delight of reorganising imitation.
On the other hand, the higher gift is the faculty of interpretation, while the higher capacity of appreciation is concerned chiefly with expression. The art which involves these qualities is creative it is born of and appeals to the imagination. Now it is in this direction that the Russians have advanced the dance-drama. They have lifted it into line with the modern developments in the sister arts of painting, sculpture, music and literature. Even when their dance-drama is most naturalistic, it is more than that. It is not satisfied only to represent certain facts, it also invests them with suggestions that stimulate the imagination to abstract enjoyment. In pursuit of this higher purpose the Russians have evolved a new language of choregraphic expression. It has a vocabulary, idioms and a style of its own, properly belonging to it, because derived from the genius of its own art of dancing. It does not exclude the mimetic element, but has absorbed it into the more abstract and conventionalised language of the purely dance form. Meanwhile, the conventionalisation through the infusion of the mimetic is saved from being merely formal.
The language has thus become an elastic medium of expression, a living language. The artist who has learned its vocabulary and idioms can use it as a musician does his medium. He can play upon the endless permutations which the vocabulary and idioms involve, and create his melodies and harmonies of movement in response to the creation of his own imagination. His body thus becomes an instrument of living and inexhaustibly varied expression. He depicts the theme of the dance, but with a wealth of beautiful suggestion that raises one's imagination to high levels of abstract enjoyment. We revel in the sheer beauty of this labyrinth of moving harmonies and rhythms, controlled by and interpreting the dancer's intellectualised conception of the theme. For cultivated intelligence and taste, as well as perfection of bodily technique, are prerequisites of this new language of choregraphic expression. By the time that we have fallen under the spell of this rich and varied art-form, the mainly mimetic form, with its scanty fringe of conventionalised steps and gestures, seems very threadbare and unsatisfying.