Ballet Memories at The Grand Theatre

By Karen Downham, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

One of the best things about working in Local and Family History is the wide variety of topics that we can deal with, and not knowing what you will be asked on a day to day basis. It is always rewarding to help people find what they are looking for, and solve a few mysteries, and the story below is definitely one of those occasions! It’s a particularly nice enquiry that links together a personal story, Leeds history, and development of dance.

We were contacted by a gentleman who, whilst moving his mother-in-law, Margaret, age 91, to a care home, came across a charcoal sketch drawn by her whilst a 19 year old art student at Wakefield Art College. The students were on a trip to the Grand Theatre in Leeds to make sketches of rehearsals by the Ballet Jooss.   Margaret gave us a short account of her visit, and asked us if it was possible to find out more information. Margaret’s sketch and account are shown below:

ballet-jooss-crop

I was a student studying painting at Wakefield College of Art and in 1944, aged 19, we were fortunate that our tutor Mr Bland, was an ardent follower of ballet. He arranged a visit to the Grand Theatre, Leeds, with permission for a small party of students to sketch backstage during rehearsal.  A party of 12 were taken to the Grand on the bus and we were given a small area backstage in the wings. We didn’t communicate with anyone. Kurt Jooss was seated in the stall directing. Hans Zullig is the main figure in the sketch. I have no idea which ballet it was but we had 2 hours there and there and it was a wonderful experience. The water colour was added later at college.

As a result of this visit, Mr Bland and a close friend of mine, Roland Strange, left the college to try their luck in London. Roland was a dancer and Mr Bland did stage design. Roland had a successful career and appeared in the 1948 film “The Red Shoes”. There is a shot of him coming out with the other dancers as Moira Shearer is going in for her first interview.

Margaret Downhill (now Oakes) 7th November 2016.

We were of course delighted to let them know that we do indeed hold programmes for the Grand Theatre for that period, and were able to send scans of these to Margaret. The programme of 15th May 1944 gives details of next weeks’ performances on the front and back of the programme, and showing a very full schedule for the dance company, including Jooss’ popular work The Green Table, and his other works The Big City and Company at the Manor on contemporary themes.

Programme for The Grand Theatre, advertising Ballets Jooss.
Programme for The Grand Theatre, advertising Ballets Jooss.

ballet-jooss-preview-crop2-copy

The above list shows what a full performance schedule the company were set to perform.

It is interesting to note the section on the front about Air Raid Precautions – especially the Red and Green “Alert” and “Raiders Passed” signs at the side of the stage, and if the request was made for people to leave the theatre this would have been accompanied by the warning “Don’t leave your gas mask behind on leaving the theatre”!

The Grand continued to open with business as usual throughout the War, and indeed benefitted from wartime theatre restrictions in London, when a number of productions were forced to transfer from the West End to Leeds.

The extracts below, from the inside and back of the programme, show the cast lists for each production. In The Green Table, Hans Züllig, the dancer in the centre of Margaret’s drawing, is dancing the part of The Profiteer.

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ballet-jooss-p2

At this point we thought it might be interesting to find out more about the ballet company and the productions they were rehearsing during Margaret’s visit.

Ballet Jooss

Ballet Jooss was one of the dance companies set up by Kurt Jooss, famous ballet dancer and choreographer, and widely regarded as the founder of dance theatre, or German Tanztheater, expressive dance dramas combining modern dance movements with fundamental ballet techniques.

Jooss was born in Germany in 1901, and in 1920 studied under Rudolf von Laban, developer of dance theory. Jooss further developed the work of Laban, forming the dance company DieNeue Tanzbühne. At this time he also met Fritz Cohen, the Jewish composer, who worked with him on much of his famous pieces.

In 1925 he joined with Sigurd Leeder, the German dancer and choreographer to produce the ballet Dance of Death, criticised at the time for being too avant-garde. He became Director of the Essen Folkwang School of Music in 1927, and Ballet Master at Essen Opera House in 1930.

Kurt Jooss liked to work with themes addressing moral issues, using naturalistic movement and characterisations, and this can be seen in his most well-known work, The Green Table. The ballet won first prize in an international competition held by the Archives Internationales de la Danse in Paris in 1932, with a strong anti-war statement, just one year before Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933. The group became known as Ballet Jooss at this point, and embarked on a world tour during 1933/34.

In 1933 Jooss was forced to flee Germany, along with Leeder, Cohen and others, after refusing to dismiss Jews from his company. They fled to the Netherlands before resettling in England, and opening a dance school at Dartington in Devon. During this time new works were added to the repertoire, including Pandora in 1944, with disturbing images of human tragedy and disaster.

Jooss returned in 1949 to Essen, where he taught and choreographed for 19 years until his retirement in 1968. He died in 1979 aged 78. His works are still performed by many companies today, including the Joffrey Ballet, with his daughter Anna Markard supervising performances until her death in 2010.

The Green Table

This ballet is Jooss’ enduring masterpiece on the futility of war, especially the peace negotiations of the 1930s. It comprises eight scenes of stark images, opening with The Gentlemen in Black, a group of politicians debating heatedly around a table covered with a green cloth, and at the end of the scene, war is declared.

green-table-4

The ballet then progresses with six scenes – The Farewells, The Battle, The Partisan, The Refugees, The Brothel, & The Aftermath, featuring soldiers, women, profiteers and patriots. All fall prey to the Death character, who enters each scene, quickly claiming a life, and not caring which life is taken.

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The final scene returns to the politicians around the table again, continuing in their arguments and negotiations, signifying the futility of war.

We can only imaging the impact this must have had on audiences, being performed in Leeds whilst the Second World War was in its’ final stages.

Hans Züllig

Hans Züllig was born in Switzerland, and was an actor-dancer of distinction, taking on many leading roles in Ballets Jooss. He studied with Kurt Jooss and Sigurd Leeder, and became Jooss’ favourite dancer, with an ability to interpret him easily. He danced the part of The Young Soldier in the 1929 production of The Green Table. Züllig was said to be small and with a compact build, and able to transform himself into any character.

In 1943 he began rehearsals with Jooss in Cambridge, and in 1944 toured the provinces with a repertoire including Prodigal Son, The Big City, Spring Tale, and Company at the Manor – the ballets they would have been rehearing when Margaret made her visit to The Grand Theatre. After the war he returned to Germany, teaching and performing at Essen, Zurich. and Dusseldorf. After a short period during 1956-61 at the Chilean University in Santiago, Züllig returned to Essen, where he continued to teach right up to his death in 1992.

Sigurd Leeder

Sigurd Leeder was a German dancer, choreographer and educationalist, born in Hamburg in 1902, He worked with visual artist Rudolph Laban in 1923, and with Kurt Jooss in 1924, developing a close collaboration with Jooss that was to last 23 years. Whilst teaching in Paris in 1935, he was invited with others to England,  where the Leeder-Jooss School of Dance was formed in Dartington, Devon. Leeder was interned in the early part of the war, but in 1940 was involved in the re-forming of the Jooss-Leeder Dance Studio in Cambridge. In 1947 he moved to London to set up his own company.

From 1959 to 1965 he directed the dance department at the University of Santiago, Chile, then taught at the Grete Muller school in Herisau, Switzerland,  from 1965 until his death in 1981.

The Grand Theatre

grand-theatre-1936

The Grand in 1936, http://www.leodis.net

The Grand Theatre is situated on New Briggate, and was designed by George Corson, the architect who also designed the Municipal Buildings, now Leeds Central Library. It opened on 18th November  1878, having cost £21,102, with facilities including an assembly room seating  1,200 people, in addition to 2,600 in the auditorium.

The Theatre underwent extensive refurbishment in two phases between 2005 and 2008. It now boasts two large rehearsal rooms in addition to an improve interior, and connects to the Opera North building next door. The Assembly Rooms, closed since 1985, are now reopened and in use by Opera North. The venue is now capable of holding large shows and West end musicals. You can find out more about the history of Leeds Theatres on our Discovering Leeds pages.

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Recent photograph of the Grand Theatre lit up at night, http://www.leodis.net

References

  • The Grand Theatre – The first 100 years – Wilkinson. LQ 792 WIL
  • Grand Memories – The Life & Times of the Grand Theatre & Opera House, Leeds – Patricia Lennon & David Joy. L725.8
  • Ballet Guide – Walter Terry, Music Library, W 792.8 TER
  • International Dictionary of Ballet, Vol 1, Music Library, WQ 792.8 INT
  • Modern Ballet – John Percival, Information & Research, 792.8 PER
  • History of Ballet & Modern Dance – Judith Steeh, Music Library, 792.8
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