San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



December 1962

Heifetz, Hindemith, Mozart, Milhaud
Follies Foreign and Domestic
The Limits of Post-Stalin Art
Debussy and Stravinsky
White House PR
Ballet and Bartok
Brecht’s Philosophy
The Increasing Appreciation of Early Music
San Francisco’s Ballet School




Heifetz, Hindemith, Mozart, Milhaud

We drove back from Yosemite Valley through the golden autumn to the last of the Heifetz-Piatigorsky concerts, which, unlike most of my colleagues, I enjoyed thoroughly.

My intellectual friends have taken me to task for the unreserved praise I gave this series, but I fear they don’t understand my attitude towards the arts. I do not go to a concert as a professional critic, but to enjoy myself, and in such terms I write for the paper. If a work of art transcends and ennobles the human condition, fine, I’ve been lucky. If it merely embellishes it and whiles away the time pleasantly, I’m still lucky.

Many people seek in the arts what they can find only in religion, and so they end up in the ranks of the disciples of the beatnik Zen masters and the Hollywood gurus, chasing ecstasy through the shelves of the pharmacy. Those who seek ecstasy in the arts eventually find only sterile sensationalism.

Judged by the highest critical standards, all but a very little of the world’s art is a failure. As a method of salvation it is all a failure. So I read a book of poetry or go to a concert or a museum for pleasure and rest content.

I am well aware that with very few exceptions the Heifetz-Piatigorsky people raced through everything they played as though they had to make the late plane to L.A. Maybe they did. Maybe it was just that the leader was a violin virtuoso. I am old enough to remember when the standard approach to Mozart was that he should be played very fast indeed. This gave their C Major Quintet a curiously old-fashioned air. I felt that I was back with my parents in some Vienna concert hall during the reign of Franz Joseph.

So I enjoyed it, more or less. Everybody else thought it was awful.

It is true that the best numbers were those with Fleisher or Lateiner on piano, not just because they both played superlatively, but, I suspect, because they helped set a slower tempo.

So with the Cappella di Musica concert at the Hall of Flowers, I liked it all except the Mozart and the Martinu — but specially I liked the Hindemith.

The great trouble with Martinu (who since his death, as is always the case, is being played far more widely than he ever was while alive) is that he has an incorrigibly mediocre imagination. In comparison with the very few powerful minds of modern music — Satie, Bartok, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, possibly Vaughan Williams — musical composition does seem to attract second-rate intellects nowadays. But Martinu is exceptionally mediocre.

In contrast, Hindemith was a man who early realized his limitations and started writing witty music, sprinkling whimsical accidentals over a Bach-like line. So he compares favorably with the lighter paintings of Paul Klee, of which he always reminds me. This is no small achievement, and its very modesty permits him to rise on extremely rare occasions when he is profoundly moved to considerable grandeur.

One thing about not being a critic, you are never afraid to say what you think. I think some Mozart is perfect music. The Jupiter Symphony is one of the major achievements of the human race. I love The Magic Flute and all the comic operas. But I find Don Giovanni insufferably tedious and pretentious.

And there is one aspect of Mozart I can’t bear at all. Being a devoted Teutonophobe, I suffer when I have to listen to pieces derived from German folk dance melodies. That Ach Der Lieber Augustine, Where Oh Where Has Mine Leedle Dog Gone, musical idiom just gives me the meemies. Sometimes, as in his bassoon piece, Mozart makes fun of it and then it is mildly amusing, but when it is supposed to be taken seriously I am transported to Munich in high festival or to the sweaty cabarets of Yorkville and North Avenue, and I just don’t want to be there.

The only place I could ever take numbers like the Oboe Quartet was the old Staten Island Ferry of a Sunday morning, long, long ago, with the pinafored kids skipping about the deck to the music of the Katzenjammer band.

Madelaine Milhaud is one of the world’s best readers of poetry to music. The only person who comes near her in this very special talent is Vera Zorina. Darius Milhaud’s use of the tone and timbre of her voice and her uncanny ability to adjust to his music were a marvel to hear. I do wish we had more opportunities to hear her.

As the year draws to a close I guess this will be the last of many tributes all over the world to Milhaud on his seventieth birthday, so, once again, “Happy Birthday, dear Darius, happy birthday to you.”

[December 2, 1962]



Follies Foreign and Domestic

Sometimes as a columnist I just bog down under an embarrassment of riches. Sometimes I wish I were on the philately beat and had nothing to write about except clear and definite facts — the issues of new postage stamps — and then — lo and behold, the confused values that prowl the wilderness of our lack of standards, seeking whom they may devour, invade of all things the collecting and issuing of postage stamps!

Here for instance is a vast country, India, in which homeless cows and monkeys are better off than most human beings. Its people are in mortal danger. For all anybody knows, its invader may have at least one or two atomic bombs up his sleeve and may be prepared to use them. Yet the leader of this country finds it necessary to insult not once, but again and again, before his parliament, the only people who have come to his aid.

Meanwhile to the north in Pakistan, his neighboring leader, head of a state born and reared in bankruptcy, threatens to go over to the other side, because aid to their common opponent offends his nationalistic sensibilities.

I’m not taking sides in this dispute — I’m just pointing out the infantilism of behavior. On the other hand, notice that there is nothing whatever infantile about the behavior of Mao and Chou.

Over all this mess, like Marx’s specter that haunted Europe, broods one horrible fact. If India fulfills to the letter her economic plans for the next five years, she will be behind where she is now in terms of human welfare for all the people. It is impossible without massive outside aid to even hold the line.

And this is not due to imperialism or colonialism or capitalism or any of those bogeys of oratory. It is due to cows, communalism, caste, chronic malnutrition and, some might add, Congress. (Their party, not our legislative body.)

Meanwhile at home the body hired by the taxpayers to plan the highways of California and at the same time preserve the beauties of the state, goes ahead, in the face of what seems to be universal disapproval, with a scheme to blast a freeway through the Marin coastline.

Closer still, the city administration, crying “Get it on the tax rolls!” prowls about, seeking what it may devour.

I suggest they let up on the historic and beautiful buildings and open spaces of the city, and put the City Hall up for auction. With a bang-up advertising campaign, the populace could be persuaded to give up chicken for pigeon soup, and somebody could make a mint of money running the place as a pigeon coup.

The same thing is going on everywhere in almost all our cities. I shudder to think of what the high-rise apartment boys plan for the Statue of Liberty.

Two possible column topics that fell out of the hat, and that hat, like China, is just as full as ever.

[December 5, 1962]



The Limits of Post-Stalin Art

Stalin’s technique was murder. Khrushchev throws tantrums. This is certainly an advance for civilization, but it would never do to think that his nursery school outbursts are spontaneous eruptions of his folksy personality.

When Harry Truman let fly a haymaker at the critic who panned his daughter, he endeared himself to the country. It didn’t have anything to do with Art, it was just a good old-fashioned father, responding to a situation in a good old-fashioned way. Khrushchev loses his temper strictly according to the dictates of well-considered public policy.

His outburst at the show of abstract art in Moscow is not just the slightly demagogic appeal to lower middle class taste which is demanded of the Royal Family, and which was exhibited by the Prince Consort at the recent British Exhibit in the San Francisco Museum. It is an important part of the general strategy of the controlled thaw that has been going on in Russia since Stalin’s death.

The commentators have made much of the poetry of Yevtushenko, whom they like to portray as the Russian Ginsberg, and of the recent autobiography of Ilya Ehrenburg. They are both supposed to represent a new freedom to criticize the regime. They do nothing of the sort; in fact they do quite the opposite. They criticize the regime of Stalin.

Further, they do that strictly within the limits laid down in speeches by Chairman Khrushchev in the days of panic following the Polish, East German and Hungarian revolts. “Taking everything into consideration, Stalin was a good Bolshevik and made Russia great, although at a terrible price.”

Nobody notices that this is precisely Stalin’s estimate of himself. He loved to be compared to Ivan the Terrible.

Yevtushenko points out, in catchy verse riddled with slogans, the faults of the minor echelons to whom it is given to carry out the Line of the regime — the same faults that are held up to scorn in Pravda, Izvestia or Komsomolskaya Pravda or the Literary Gazette.

Ilya Ehrenburg, one of the slipperiest characters ever to touch a typewriter, weeps for the treacheries and false witness of his lost youth. He is doing a fair job of burying the past and at the same time extricating himself. A fair job, that is, for those who don’t know the record. What he is doing essentially is answering by proxy the intrepid soul at the 20th Congress who asked, “If all this is true, Comrade Chairman, why are you still alive?”

So it must be realized that the new freedom in Russia is a very limited freedom. There is no freedom of purely individual self-expression unless it is innocuous. Pasternak was free to write about sparrows in the rain for 30 years. When he turned his attention to the moral foundations of Bolshevism the State intervened.

There is only limited stylistic freedom. Socialist realism, which means stuff like Upton Sinclair writes here at home, is still the official style. The only deviation permitted is a vague influence of Mayakovsky in the work of Yevtushenko.

Mayakovsky symbolizes a return to the unalloyed principles of Leninism.

This is why Chairman Khrushchev, who, I’m sure, couldn’t care less about art, deliberately goes to a show of abstract painting and blows his top. Abstract art, good, bad or indifferent, opens the door to individual self-expression, which may not be so abstract once it gets going. However, don’t expect a murderous crackdown all along the line in the arts of the sort that used to occur after a speech by Zhdanov.

Art flourishes under despotism, if the despots have good taste. Artists are not only notoriously venal, they can be bought for very little, for what in the end amounts to technical freedom — freedom of technique, the right to add a sharp to a fifth, to put lemon yellow alongside bottle green, to alter an iamb to a spondee.

I prophecy that abstract art from Mondrian to Jackson Pollack will soon be absorbed into the repertory of styles available to the mass persuaders of Moscow, just as it has long since been absorbed by Madison Avenue.

Never forget, that is what all Russian art since 1927 has been — commercial art. In the bourgeois world we have a mass culture, conformist and commercial, and over against it a High Art, usually at loggerheads with the reigning values of the society at almost every point. This has been true ever since the French Revolution. It has never been true of Russia once the Bolsheviks consolidated their control. There it is all commercial art and is to be judged strictly according to the canons we would apply to the advertising pages of Harper’s Bazaar. The influence of abstract expressionism, purely as a stylistic device, penetrated the Bazaar years ago.

Watch and see, in the months to come, the Russians will, in the words of Stalin, “overtake and surpass” the Wrigley’s chewing gum ads and the window of Saks.

[December 9, 1962]



Debussy and Stravinsky

Contrary to what many had feared, this has not so far been a lame duck season with the San Francisco Symphony. In fact, the first two concerts have been noticeably better than last year.

Partly, I think, this has been due to the extremely safe programming. It would be a pretty hopeless orchestra that couldn’t play the Franck D Minor or the Mendelssohn Scotch Symphonies. On the other hand, it takes a lot of specific know-how to do Debussy’s Blessed Damozel as she should be done.

This is early Debussy, when he was still tuneful, and very Wagnerian. In fact, it sounds rather like Puccini at his most Wagnerian. But it isn’t Wagner, nor Puccini; it is already clearly French Art Nouveau.

With the possible exceptions of the makers of Tiffany glass and the architects Gaudi and Sullivan, Debussy is certainly the greatest artist of this style, the popular modernism of the prewar (1914) period. The gay world has taken the style up and bottles that used to go for 5 cents in second-hand shops now sell for $75. And the boudoirs of the leading female impersonators looks as though they’d been bathed in pink and green treacle. (So I hear, I’ve of course never entered such a boudoir.)

Art Nouveau isn’t all that trivial. Debussy deserves more than chic. His music is one more deep perspective into the human condition, just like Beethoven’s or Schoenberg’s or Couperin’s — but his own special insight. As such, it is not a surface glitter, but truly illuminating.

All of which is just to preface the observation that last week Dorothy Warenskjold, Margot Blum, the UC Chorus, and the Symphony did a splendid job of The Blessed Damozel, characterized by insight, taste and power.

The less said about the Mendelssohn the better. It was unobjectionable, but why play it? Mendelssohn is so meager a musician harmonically; he is plain tiring to listen to at length. If you want to see what I mean, get the score of his and Busoni’s settings of the Bach “Chaconne” and compare them. It’s a brief and shocking musical education in itself.

The Brahms D Major Concerto is best played with great elegance. I wouldn’t say elegance was the word for Christian Ferras’s performance, but next to elegance is taste and dignity and ordonnance, and he certainly gave it all three.

Finally, to round out the week, the Stravinsky birthday testimonial concert at the Legion was a pure joy. The program included examples from most of his career, but best of all was the Story of the Soldier. This is one of the major works of the greatest composer of the 20th century. It is the most important composition to use the material of popular dance music. Played, as it was, with the original tiny orchestra, it is the most extraordinary example of complex and novel tone color from conventional instruments I know of. Performed this time with hand puppets, it was also great fun.

Leon Kolimos tells me the San Francisco Ballet hopes to do it with designs by Estaban Francis. This should really be something. I’m all agog.

[December 12, 1962]



White House PR

Looking over all the nation’s press in the last two weeks, it is only too apparent that, to put it bluntly, the most responsible editors do not have much confidence in the White House statements on the Adlai Stevenson case. Most cynical have been, not the rock-ribbed Republican papers, but the staunch Democratic ones — the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Louisville Courier-Journal, for instance.

If this cynicism is to be pushed to its logical conclusion, that conclusion could only be that the Alsop-Bartlett story was a White House set-up, or to use a less kindly word than “set,” a frame-up. Faced with this conclusion everybody has been backing away.

The common opinion now is that the story was built on an uncontrolled leak from a bitter anti-Stevensonite in the White House circle. And the moral of that is that a controlled press of necessity produces uncontrollable leaks, and that the whole commotion, which has certainly done no one any good — least of all the United States in the United Nations — should be a lesson to the Administration.

One other observation, and not too pleasant a one — the informed opinion in the country apparently considers the President unusually vengeful. The donkey now, like the elephant, has become an animal that never forgets or forgives. From Robert Meyner and Chester Bowles to Jimmy Hoffa and Adlai Stevenson himself, there are a good many people who, for a wide variety of reasons, the Administration is, to use the term it has made so fashionable, very hard-nosed about.

I don’t suppose this is of major importance, but it does give the White House a bit of a Byzantine air. But then, it’s been that way in a good many Administrations, especially the more liberal ones. Wilson, I suppose, set an all-time record for disingenuous vindictiveness.

At least one thing has stood out with great clarity. Many people in the country may not agree with Adlai Stevenson, but they respect him and they think he is doing a good job in the United Nations. If the story was planted by the anti-Stevenson faction, it has certainly boomeranged.

The other day I was in a supermarket and my daughter Mary pointed in horror to a copy of a TV magazine with a cover picture of the President’s wife in what was unmistakably a garish mauve fluorescent lipstick. This got me curious and I started shopping on newsstands for the Jackie stories in the more sensational magazines. I hadn’t even begun to organize a column in my mind when the President complained about the undignified coverage his wife was receiving. Rightly so, he surely is to be commended for having spoken out, loud and clear.

That should be the end of it. There should certainly be no attempt to exert any kind of official pressure on the sensational magazines unless they become libelous. The important thing is to let the public know that these stories are not “inspired” by some White House PR man.

After all, the Kennedy family has been given the celebrity treatment by its own publicity men, all through the campaigns, and even now to a lesser degree. Alas, if you permit yourself to be turned into a celebrity you have to take the dirty with the clean, along with Liz Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Françoise Sagan and all the others, even Princess Margaret.

Here I am at the end of the column and I haven’t said a word about art, or have I? I guess I have. The editorials have not said the last word, because they have talked about the issues. What I have really been talking about is the style.

We all know Pierre Salinger hereabouts, and we have always looked on him as a sort of whiz kid, the young Orson Welles of newspaperdom, gaudy but with a real albeit loud style. Maybe it’s not his fault, but the White House PR is getting a little inept around the edges. We don’t need Cal Coolidge to dress in Sioux war bonnets and locomotive engineers’ striped overalls but we do need clarity. And maybe a little less pushing in swimming pools and more forthright statements of policy.

I guess it is OK to be hard nosed and OK to be a celebrity, but it is an exceedingly difficult stunt to be both at the same time. Only Greta Garbo ever managed it and she wasn’t elected President.

[December 16, 1962]



Ballet and Bartok

Don’t miss the Actor’s Workshop production of Brecht’s Galileo. It’s wondrous and wonderful. I’ll write at length about it come Sunday, but I want to get in a plug as soon as possible.

* * *

Dancers are certainly the most obsessional people in the arts and it’s something of a strain having one growing up in the family. Mary is going to class and to rehearsals for the Nutcracker and Beauty and the Beast. She has to be watched or she will hop up between courses at dinner and do plies and pirouettes.

The other night in the rain we passed the Bridge movie house and the marquee said “Cinderella, The Bolshoi Ballet” and nothing would do but we had to go that night in the midst of the storm. As usual with the Bolshoi it was on the aesthetic level of the Ice Carnival of 1873.

Marge Scott did a number with a cobra that if she had been asked to do by George Balanchine, she would have quit and filed a complaint with the NAACP. I don’t wish the Russians any hard luck but I do wish this girl were in one of our companies. She has a suppleness and easy grace that are unequaled by any dancer anywhere.

* * *

Bartok last week at the Symphony and I got to thinking about the extraordinary musician and the legend that has grown up about him. First, what makes him so great? Why is he head and shoulders above everybody else in our century except Stravinsky? Simplicity of material. As a craftsman he always takes the most direct line between two points. This means honesty, there is no adulteration or trickery.

He starts right off at the beginning saying what he wants to say. This stark, massive deployment of forces is none too common in music. It was the outstanding virtue of English music long ago when it was great. Both William Byrd and Henry Purcell remind me of Bartok.

And then I got to musing about the myth of his death in America, outcast, unknown, friendless, unappreciated. With typical American self-depreciation we love to repeat this tale about our inhospitality to one of the greatest artists. It simply isn’t true. I have known about Bartok for just about 50 years and ever since I’ve been in man’s attire I’ve had no doubt whatever about his importance, and I’ve never known a competent person who didn’t agree with me.

The fact is that the fall of Europe seems to have broken Bartok’s heart and in America he became more and more withdrawn until finally he refused not only all musical engagements but all social ones as well and saw only his friend Tibor Serly. Still the legend will not stay put down — we prefer it, even though it distorts the meaning of his whole career.

[December 19, 1962]



Brecht’s Philosophy

I get tired of saying, “This is the best piece the Actor’s Workshop has done to date. This is the finest interpretation of Robert Symonds’s career.” Still, what else is there to start off with? The job they’ve done on Bert Brecht’s Galileo would be superb in any theater in the world. Brecht himself or Piscator, back in their heyday, couldn’t have done any better.

Many consider Galileo in its final form to be Brecht’s greatest play. There is considerable indication that he thought of it as his philosophical and moral testament. It is the one play in which simple conviction suddenly starts removing the mask, or rather series of masks, behind which Brecht hid his integrity. Galileo and the gruesome The Measures Taken (which I do wish they’d get around to doing at the Encore) are Brecht with the heart laid bare.

Brecht used to tell the naïve that the fundamental principle of his philosophy was duplicity. In the New York production Brecht on Brecht continuity is provided between the episodes selected from all of his work by the projection of a blown up news photo of his slyly grinning face accompanied by a direct tape recording of his mocking testimony before McCarthy. That’s Bert Brecht all right, as anyone who knew him could tell you. But it is only the mask of a mask.

Deep underneath was an elaborately hidden and yet carefully revealed Bertholt Brecht, a man of limitless wisdom, compassion and sorrow — and scorn.

Over and over again in all the plays Brecht says, “It is the Jurassic Age. Everywhere great reptiles fly in the air, swim in the sea, and browse the jungles of the earth. Fanged and armored monsters weighing many tons tear each other to pieces and gobble up their defenseless plant-eating relatives. Meanwhile, unnoticed through millennia, the temperature drops, snow falls a little more each year somewhere on earth. Finally the marshes freeze and one by one the great beasts go from history. But somewhere a few wily ones have learned to keep out of the way, grow fur, keep their own blood warm and carry their babies inside until they can fend for themselves.”

This seems to be a very simple lesson, as they say in the Tenderloin, “Keep your nose clean and don’t volunteer.”

Was this in fact Brecht’s philosophy? Of course it was not. True, his plays survived and he survived, all through the Stalinist epoch. He made tragic drama of the years of the destruction of Trotsky, the Moscow Trials, the murder of the Spanish Republic, the Hitler-Stalin Pact. He lived through to do it and died in bed and hundreds of artists and writers did not. But to this day one play of his has played more hours in San Francisco than all of his plays put together have played in Russia.

True, the mammals that survived to one day put the bones of the dinosaurs in museums and take their children to gawk at them were more cunning than reptiles — but it would seem that what keeps them going now that they have become men is courage, integrity, and good sense.

Also — we must not forget that the Moscow Trials were not an isolated phenomenon, the result of Stalin’s possession by the Devil. They were only one startling historical manifestation of a terrible moral imbecility that is everywhere in our time. You don’t have to cross oceans and steppes to find doubles of Stalin, Vyshinsky, Bukharin — their moral analogues can be found any morning in the divorce courts of San Francisco.

The corruption of politics in our time is only the corruption of the heart projected on a vast screen. This it is that gives Brecht his universal meaning. If we were not all Galileos the play would not be a tragedy, but a pageant.

I’ve said nothing about this production except that it is excellent — that should be enough for now, except to mention that the decor by Judith Davis is certainly one of the most accomplished first jobs — and I think it is her first chance at a major job of stage design — I have ever heard of. This girl should go far indeed.

R.G. Davis’s Mime Troupe do a carnival interlude straight out of Bosch and Breughel that is guaranteed to fray your nerves — but I think Brecht would have approved of it. And last, there is a glow of nobility about everything, acting, costume, setting, music, that haunts the play, and that surely is what Brecht wanted, because what he says is, “In the end, and behind it all, man is noble, at least a little, and that little is enough.”

[December 23, 1962]



The Increasing Appreciation of Early Music

One of the subjects I talk about often in this column is the change of taste that has taken place in America in the years since the Second War. Presumably it is a change for the better. Certainly it is an obvious symptom of the maturing and deepening of our civilization.

Recently, once again financed by lots of Foundation money, some professors have discovered that there are more intellectuals at large today in the USA than baseball fans. More people have listened to the madrigals of Monteverdi or read the terror tales of Franz Kafka than have watched a golf championship game.

The art, music, book and drama critics of at least the San Francisco papers would have been thought a trifle highbrow for the Dial back in Babbitt’s twenties.

I was never more forcibly reminded of this than last week at the chamber music concert in the Hall of Flowers. It was the Renaissance-Baroque Ensemble in a program of 16th and 17th century music. I am by way of a specialist in this subject and if I had ever heard of three of the composers, I had forgotten them. The music was beautifully performed, with a most just sense of the style of the period. For instance, the two girls who sang, Nancy Brown and Beatrice Murphy, divided the program between them, with an accurate sense of the change in vocal technique in a 50-year period — 400 years ago.

That was all very well, but what was extraordinary was that the place was packed. I’ve said it was packed before, but this time it was packeder. A considerable number of social figures who had never been before turned up — including the Very Honorable George Christopher, looking most distinguished. The plain fact is that the most highbrow program so far in the life of the Chamber Music Society brought out the largest and most appreciative audience.

How times have changed! I remember when you had to send to Canada for any Bach records except the Air for the G String. I remember a pilgrimage with my parents to the home of Arnold Dolmetsch, the founder of the revival of ancient music, and the man for whom the word martinet was invented. I remember his first tour with his family, cowering like galley slaves under his wild eye, sawing away on the viols and thumping the virginals. I remember the first tour of the English Singers, piping in their veddy veddy British accents “It Was a Lover and His Lass.” I remember coming home for Christmas with their first record album, produced by of all people, Elbert Hubbard, the Roycrofter.

I remember Boulanger’s first performance of Monteverdi, with a woman I will always love, Princesse Nina de Polignac, née Singer Sewing Machine, financing the show and Comtesse Jean de Polignac singing. All the world was there including Joyce, Picasso and Hemingway. But no mayors. Even in France it would have been political suicide.

I think it’s just fine that at last the leading MEN of the American cities, from business, politics, the professions, show up at musical, art and drama openings and give every indication of enjoying themselves. Take Culture Away From Mom, I say.

[December 26, 1962]



San Francisco’s Ballet School

The Christmas season performances of the San Francisco Ballet this year have been the best they’ve ever done. Sally Bailey and Jocelyn Volmar were beautiful and gracious as ever, and my favorite dancer amongst the younger girls, Sue Lloyd, has advanced another notch up the long ladder of a dancer’s career and is now an étoile, and a very bright one.

Although Mike Smuin is gone, the men this year, Robert Gladstein, Richard Clarke and Thatcher Clarke, have formed an exceptionally fine team of noble dancers. All performances, including an additional one, have been sold out.

These big Christmas shows are not just the San Francisco Ballet Company properly so called, but are showcases of the entire ballet school connected with it. Since this is the case, it seems to me an appropriate time to raise some important questions. The company has often been criticized because it is dependent on the school. This is its principal source of income and from it come most of the dancers.

Perforce the school must be more or less of a private enterprise — it must make money. On the other hand, the company by its very name claims to represent San Francisco as a kind of public enterprise like the Opera or the Symphony. As such it also lays claim to public support, both civic and from the big Foundations.

In this process other ballet schools and other dancers who consider themselves an important part of the community’s artistic life are ignored or at least passed by. It is hard indeed to see how this can be avoided. Certain teachers, for instance Alan Howard and Sergei Temov, are excellent, both as dancers themselves and as instructors.

Years ago, most of the ballet schools in the city used to share in one Christmas show, usually the Nutcracker. It was embarrassingly ragged, an annual moment of utter provincialism. For a company to achieve true excellence, it must not only have a school, but it must be able to form most of its dancers from about the age of 5.

Today the San Francisco Ballet is one of the 10 best in the world. I know it is fashionable in the more beat highbrow circles to put it down, but on questioning the putters down always turn out to know nothing about dancing and to have seen few or no other ballet companies.

Surely there should be some way to incorporate this company securely and solidly into the community culture?

To approach the problem from the opposite angle — some years ago I was at a party at the home of one of the leading dancers hereabouts, and as she went pirouetting about from one admiring male to another, her father said to me, “Look at that! Isn’t she lovely! For the same price I could have got six doctors.”

How true. It’s not just the cost of the dancer’s training, it’s also the immense amount of trouble and confusion.

Besides her regular public school education, a well-rounded dancer has to take music, art, design, French, possibly Russian, special physical education — e.g. tumbling and swimming, and drama. This is a bare minimum of extra courses. She should play piano well enough to run over a score and she should know musical theory and history and be able to recognize the style of the major composers on hearing a few bars from a record.

This is quite a curriculum, especially since it should begin early in grammar school. Nobody gets anything like this in America. Any attempt to approximate it means that practically from infancy the unfortunate child wastes hours and hours shuttling from one special school to another — music, conservatory, pool, French class, ballet school, grammar school.

I am all for a rigorous process of elimination in dancing, but this is too much of a good thing. What happens all too often is that girls simply give up everything but ballet and never get beyond high school and pay little attention to the schooling they do get.

In England, at White Lodge, the Royal Ballet school, in Copenhagen, in Leningrad, in Moscow, it is possible to get an amazingly broad education, all in one spot, which is why they turn out such superlative dancers. Properly centralized, a dancer’s education turns out to be not all that complicated. Once you eliminate the autobuses, you have time to develop a well-rounded young lady as well as a dancer.

This is what we need, and what, if we ask hard enough, we can have in San Francisco.

I propose that we seriously consider incorporating the San Francisco Ballet Company and School into the educational structure. Make it part of San Francisco State College and its associated grammar school, Frederic Burk, and of the nearly new Lowell High School. End of statement, as my daughter Mary says.

I invite correspondence and discussion, to me at the paper, and on my KPFA yak show. It is certainly an important enough issue, at least to quite a few people.

[December 30, 1962]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Previous Month   Next Month

Index of the Columns

Rexroth Archive