DANCE. Since the turn of the century, dance as a performing art has had a steady growth in Cleveland. Cleveland's initial exposure to dance was through international touring artists who performed in local theaters. Over time Cleveland created support for dance through patrons of the arts, local arts organizations, colleges, and universities. Today there is a wide selection of dance performances available to Cleveland audiences. Both ballet and modern dance have joined the other arts as active components in the rich cultural fiber of northern Ohio.

Ethnic, social, and recreational dance have always held an important place in Cleveland's multicultural setting, but it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that dance became recognized and supported as a fine art. The growth of business and industry in Cleveland created a base to support a variety of cultural arts. During the first 25 years of the century, Cleveland's financial awakening led to the establishment and rapid growth of music, dance, theater, literature and the visual arts. This support was manifested in the founding of institutions such as CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART, CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA, CLEVELAND INSTITUTE OF MUSIC, and CLEVELAND INSTITUTE OF ART. Also, as a result of this cultural blossoming, a local audience developed for both ballet and modern dance.

Two local personalities were instrumental in the development of this Cleveland dance audience: Cleveland's cultural visionary, ADELLA PRENTISS HUGHES, and local arts impresario, GIACOMO BERNARDI, who brought to the city the most famous dancers and dance companies of the time. Anna Pavlova, the renowned ballerina of the early 20th century, appeared in Cleveland five times between 1910 and 1922. The internationally famous Diaghilev Ballets Russes appeared in Cleveland in 1916 during their first U.S. tour. The company returned in 1917, featuring the spectacular premier danseur, Vaslav Nijinsky.

During the time these RUSSIAN dancers were making a considerable impression on American audiences, the revolutionary American modern dancer, Isadora Duncan, was making an equally significant impact on the ballet of IMPERIAL RUSSIA. As an American in Russia at the turn of the century, Duncan influenced Pavlova, Fokine, and Diaghilev and established her reputation throughout Europe as a new creative force in dance. It was Anna Pavlova who convinced Sol Hurok, the national impresario, to book the tour that first brought Duncan to Cleveland. Duncan's solo performance at Public Auditorium attracted an audience of 9,000. In 1923, the year after Isadora performed in Cleveland, Doris Humphrey appeared with the Denishawn Co. at Keith's Palace, linking the city with the pioneers of Modern Dance in America. The trailblazing performances of Anna Pavlova, Diaghilev Ballets Russes, and Isadora Duncan were integral to the emergence of dance in Cleveland. Several generations of performers, teachers, choreographers, writers, patrons, and presenters trace their roots back to these early dancers.

By the early 1920s the local audience had developed enough to support the first dance classes and schools in the area. A character dancer with Pavlova, Russian-born Sergei Popeloff began teaching ballet at his studio in Cleveland's Carnegie Hall and continued to train dancers for over twenty years. He founded the first CLEVELAND BALLET (also known as the Popeloff Ballet) in 1935. In 1925 a group of wealthy society women brought Russian dancer Nicholas Semenov (see NIKOLAI SEMENOFF), former dancer with the Bolshoi and Diaghilev companies, to teach at the Martha Lee Dancing School. Four years later, Semenov opened his Russian Imperial School of Ballet in Cleveland's Carnegie Hall. In 1932, as a protest against what he considered the ugliness of modern dance, Semenov committed suicide by leaping into Niagara Falls. Following Semenov's death, a group of parents brought Serge Nadejdin to take his place. Nadejdin, a graduate of St. Petersburg Imperial School, was Pavlova's contemporary and Semenov's teacher. For 25 years he operated the Serge Nadejdin Imperial Ballet School in the Hippodrome Bldg.

During the 1930s, as the arts flourished in Cleveland, dance found new audiences and continued support of area patrons, local dance schools, and an involvement in schools both at the high school and collegiate level. In 1930 Adella P. Hughes engaged Doris Humphrey and her partner, Charles Weidman, two foremost exponents of American modern dance, to perform at a dinner party at the home of Mrs. William Mather. The following year, Humphrey and Weidman were invited to head the new modern dance department at the Cleveland Institute of Music, which was the first at any music school in the country. Busy with their company, they recommended their student and friend, Eleanor Frampton. Frampton taught at CIM until 1942, when she became director of dance at KARAMU HOUSE. Writing for the PLAIN DEALER for 35 years, she was also Cleveland's first dance critic.

In addition, 1931 brought two other international pioneers: Martha Graham, American high priestess of modern dance, and Mary Wigman, German expressionist modern dancer, to perform at the new SEVERANCE HALL. Also in 1931, Eleanor Buchla, the first local dancer to gain a large audience, began performing her own choreography. Her dances were a highly musical mixture of modern dance and Hungarian folk dance. A strong proponent for dance in the schools, she not only opened Cleveland's first modern dance studio but also began a dance curriculum in the city's summer playgrounds. Buchla was instrumental in cultivating the first Modern Dance Assn., which was founded in 1934. Seventy-five dancers started the organization to promote local talent and to sponsor dance concerts by outside artists. Eleanor Frampton was elected chair and Buchla and Margery Schneider, dance instructor at Oberlin College, were on the executive committee. From 1936-42, Marjorie Witt, who had studied modern dance under Schneider at Oberlin, directed a group of AFRICAN AMERICANS at the Playhouse Settlement. In 1939, as the Karamu Dancers, they performed at the New York World's Fair.

Ballet also continued to flourish in the 1930s, and several new schools and groups emerged. Mme Bianca (Froehlich), a native of Austria and former prima ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera Co., opened a ballet school in downtown Cleveland. She presented many ballet programs striving to organize a local civic ballet. In 1945 Marguerite Duncan, New York-trained and a former Popeloff student, established her school and founded Cleveland Civic Ballet Co., the first nonprofit dance company in Cleveland. In 1983 the name was changed to North Coast Ballet Theatre.

During the years of World War II there were no significant developments in dance, as our country focused on the war effort. The 1950s brought a fresh surge of energy and interest for dance through the 78 dance studios, 8 downtown, offering a variety of dance classes to Greater Clevelanders. One of them, Ruth Pryor's Ballet Russe, brought Alex Martin to town in 1954. English born and trained, Martin had danced in the Sadler's Wells Ballet. In 1958 he opened his own studio, Cleveland Ballet Center, and founded the Cleveland Ballet Center Co., a nonprofit, semi-professional group that joined the National Regional Ballet Assn. In 1963 this company merged with Dance Horizons Inc., a company formed in 1960 by a group of local dancers led by John Begg. Begg, a Canadian, had danced with De Basil Ballet Russe, Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and on Broadway. He arrived in Cleveland in 1959 to teach at Ruth Pryor's studio. The new company became the Ballet Guild of Cleveland.

In 1956 another generation of Cleveland dancers formed the Cleveland Modern Dance Assn. (CMDA) (see DANCECLEVELAND) to further the study and appreciation of modern dance as an art form. This organization was the driving force for modern dance in Cleveland for the next 25 years. In 1961 Mark Ryder, former Martha Graham dancer, was brought to build a dance program at the new JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER in CLEVELAND HTS. During his 4-year stay, Ryder organized the first Cleveland Dance Festival, establishing an esprit de corps among dancers. In 1961 Joan Hartshorne, a Jose Limon dancer, became dance director at Karamu, where she carried on the Humphrey-Weidman tradition until 1981.

In the late 1960s Jan and Ron Kumin founded the Fairmount Center of the Creative and Performing Arts (see FAIRMOUNT FINE ARTS CENTER), which spawned FAIRMOUNT THEATRE FOR THE DEAF and Fairmount Spanish Dancers. In 1969 the Dance Theatre of Kathryn Karipides and Henry Kurth and the CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIV. Modern Dance Co. was created to give students an opportunity to work in a professional-like company, and to build a dance department at the university. For 10 years it offered Cleveland audiences highly theatrical dance productions. Kelly Holt, at the time a member of the Erick Hawkins Dance Co. and a regular guest artist with the CWRU company, joined the faculty in 1975. The graduate dance program, housed in Mather Dance Center (formerly Mather Gymnasium), awarded its first MFA degree in 1975.

In 1973 Alex Martin of the Ballet Guild of Cleveland turned his attention to his studio, the Cleveland Institute of Dance in SHAKER HTS. His partner, John Begg, directed his efforts to teaching at the CLEVELAND MUSIC SCHOOL SETTLEMENT, Karamu, and Cain Park. Begg was artistic director for Canton Ballet 1971-76, returning to direct the dance department at Fairmount Center for the Creative and Performing Arts in Cleveland Hts. Meanwhile, in 1972, IAN HORVATH, a Cleveland native, and Dennis Nahat, a colleague at American Ballet Theater, acquired Ruth Pryor's studio, then located at Masonic Temple. By 1976, with support from the CLEVELAND FOUNDATION and the Ballet Guild trustees, they established the Cleveland Ballet School and the second Cleveland Ballet. During the 1970s Cleveland revived PLAYHOUSE SQUARE to house the performing arts. CMDA moved downtown to be a presenter and in 1979 became known as DanceCleveland. In 1976 Alice Rubenstein, a CMDA member, founded FOOTPATH DANCE CO., Cleveland's first professional modern dance company. Several other companies sprang up but survived only briefly. In 1986 Tom Evert, a Cleveland native who had danced in the Paul Taylor Company, started a company to showcase his choreography. Another grass-roots company, the Repertory Project (later known as Verb Ballets), was formed in 1987 by Susan Miller and Colleen Clark to bring to Cleveland the work of a variety of contemporary choreographers. In 2014, the third Cleveland Ballet was founded by Gladisa Guadalupe and her husband, Michael Krasnyansky. The ballet is based at Playhouse Square, and, as of 2024, is now led by Timour Bourtasenkov, who was educated at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.

From Pavlova's first performance in 1910 to the present wide variety of dance classes and performances available in Cleveland, dance has become an enriching artistic element integral to the cultural network of the city. In 2019 local companies included the Cleveland Ballet, Tom Evert Dance Company, Mary Verdi-Fletcher's Cleveland Ballet/Dancing Wheels, North Point Ballet, Verb Ballets,and a regular visitor, Akron's Ohio Ballet. Several dozen ethnic and folk dance companies and a number of liturgical dance groups enrich the community. CWRU, CLEVELAND STATE UNIV., and CUYAHOGA COMMUNITY COLLEGE continue to support dance. Touring companies are presented by DanceCleveland, Playhouse Square Center, Tri-C, and Cain Park. Smaller companies and solo artists are presented by Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Public Theater, and Mather Dance Center. Cleveland's influence on the fine art of dance goes far beyond its borders, with many artists who trained here now performing, teaching, and creating work throughout the world.


Judith Diehl

Diehl Consulting Services

Updated by the ECH staff

Kathryn Karipides

Case Western Reserve Univ.

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