Ziegfeld and His Follies

The producer who made the showgirl a star

The Follies rehearse with Florenz Ziegfeld (bottom left).

In the “Blushing Ballet” number of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1916, the curtain opens on a replica of the dance tableau in Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides. Moments later, this high-art vision, saturated with old-world European sophistication, changes: Heavyset comedian Sam B. Hardy plods across the stage as the femme fatale Zoebeide from Schéhérazade—another Fokine creation. The Jewish songstress Fanny Brice belts, “I am gonski, when he [Nijinsky] does the Faunski.” Lavishly and seductively dressed chorus girls descend on diagonal staircases. The great Ballets Russes has been spoofed.

This fusion of high art, sex, fantasy, comedy, satire and showgirls was characteristic of the Ziegfeld Follies. And the visionary behind the shows, Florenz Ziegfeld (1876–1932), became the boldest producer during the Jazz Age. His revues and Broadway shows transformed American theater and shaped an industry devoted to the leggy and sultry showgirls we know today.

The Chicago-born Ziegfeld came of age at a time of strict division between classical and popular entertainment. He was the son of the Chicago Musical College founder, but he rebelled against his father’s elite world. Instead, he was captivated by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show of the 1880s. Ziegfeld’s youth was marked by his love of dancing, and early on he won ballroom dancing contests and arranged cotillions.

At 17, Ziegfeld made his first mark as a producer while working as his father’s assistant, helping to organize classical music concerts for the then-failing Trocadero Theatre company. Ziegfeld signed strongman Eugen Sandow as the headlining act—a risky move since Sandow was hardly an artiste. But the show, Trocadero Vaudevilles, became wildly successful, touring 32 cities in under a year, and made Ziegfeld $250,000—the equivalent of more than $5 million today.

A subsequent trip to London changed Ziegfeld’s life, when he met and married the European singer-actress Anna Held in 1896. Held suggested that the Folies Bergère, a Parisian revue featuring scantily clad showgirls and ethnic specialty acts, might serve as a template for Ziegfeld’s own revue-style production. In 1907, the Ziegfeld Follies premiered, with director Julian Mitchell weaving theater skits with chorus girl choreography and musical numbers. A new Follies production was unveiled each year (with a few exceptions) until 1931, with Ziegfeld at the helm. He conceived the ideas (and integrated those of the choreographers and designers), cast the shows, ran rehearsals and often refined the material based on audiences’ reactions.

The acts within the Follies—a brew of ballet and soft-shoe tapping, sentimental ballads and comedy—became an expression of the American melting pot. Ahead of his time, Ziegfeld broke the color line, hiring black entertainer Bert Williams for the 1910 production. In 1928, Time magazine put Ziegfeld on its May 14 cover. He told Time there are “three themes for musical shows—sex, adventure, romance.” But this tidy summation of his productions was overly simplistic. He continuously sought story lines in which the lead tried to transcend his identity. The acts showcased a topsy-turvy world where the poor become rich, the amateur grew into a professional and the chorus girl metamorphosed into a goddess.

Ziegfeld is credited with branding the showgirl’s specific physical dimensions, making a then uncommon body type—the hourglass figure with long legs and little body fat—the sought-after ideal. He enshrined (and consequently objectified) women’s bodies, especially when his lighting simulated nudity. The costumes, however, were always couture. One of the most memorable was worn by showgirl Rose Dolores, who appeared in the 1920 Follies as a white peacock with iridescent plumage, fanning open to form a gigantic halo around her svelte, silk-wrapped body.

Today, the extravagance and wit of Ziegfeld’s Follies live on through the Radio City Rockettes and fashion shows, and it is commemorated as camp in the works of choreographers Larry Keigwin, Matthew Bourne and Richard Move. In the 2008 biography Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business, Ethan Mordden wrote, “The Follies inspired so much imitation that it never really closed.” Its exaltation of the beautiful girl, the opulent image and the clown will always be in style. DT

Famous Follies

THE GIRLS

  • Fanny Brice: The Jewish comedienne performed in seven Follies, and the movies Funny Girl and Funny Lady, both starring Barbara Streisand, were based on Brice’s life.
  • Louise Brooks: She appeared in the 1925 Follies. She trained with American modern dance pioneers Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis and Martha Graham. She also toured with the Denishawn Dancers.
  • Ann Pennington: Only 4' 11", this tiny triple-threat trained with choreographer Ned Wayburn and became famous for her versions of the “Shake and Quiver” and the “Black Bottom” dances, both taken from black vernacular dance.
  • Sophie Tucker: A chorus girl who was neither lithe nor graceful, Tucker was used in routines as a comic foil to the more feline-looking dancers. The anti-chorus girl had a big, brassy voice and became a hit with audiences.

THE MEN

  • Bert Lahr: A comedian known for his role as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, Lahr first appeared in Ziegfeld’s 1932 musical Hot-Cha!
  • Will Rogers: The Wrangler, who told political and topical jokes while also performing lasso tricks, became part of Ziegfeld’s artistic inner circle. Ziegfeld gave Rogers complete control over his act in the Follies and in Ziegfeld’s Broadway revue Midnight Frolic in 1921.
  • Julian Mitchell: The nearly deaf choreographer was responsible for creating some of the first chorus girl numbers in the Follies. He helped establish the chorus line style, which demanded synchronization and precision. Mitchell worked on more than 75 Broadway productions, and he was the inspiration for the character Julian Marsh in the stage and film versions of 42nd Street.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Books and Articles:

Mordden, Ethan. Ziegfeld, The Man Who Invented Show Business. New York: St.

Martin’s Press, 2008.

Redness, Lauren. Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton. New York: Harper

Entertainment, 2006

Stratyner, Barbara. Ned Wayburn and the Dance Routine: From Vaudeville to the

Ziegfeld Follies. Madison, Wisconsin: The Society of Dance History Scholars, 1996.

Ziegfeld, Richard and Paulette. The Ziegfeld Touch, the Life and Times of Florenz

Ziegfeld, Jr. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992.

Latham, Angela J. (December 1997) “The Right to Bare: Containing and Encoding

American Women in Popular Entertainments of the 1920s.” Theatre Journal, Vol. 49,

No. 4, pp. 455-473.

Films:

The Great Ziegfeld (1936), MGM

 

Rachel Straus holds degrees from Purchase College Conservatory of Dance and Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

 

Photo from the Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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