A History of Jewish Theatre in Leeds

  • by Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library.

Milim 2017, the second Festival of Jewish Words for All in Leeds, is currently in full swing, and the diverse programme of events has so far included a Jewish History in Leeds workshop at Central Library last Tuesday.

Among the many materials we shared with our group were examples from the library’s huge collection of local theatre playbills. Within these, references to Jewish life and customs can be traced back to 1818, when a Mr. Mallinson performed a comic song called “Miss Levi, Miss Abrahams and Miss Moses, or: Jewish Courtship” at the Hunslet Lane theatre. Of course, performers on the city stage were often not local and would generally tour the country, so this and similar productions are unlikely to have reflected life in Leeds itself. Likewise, they almost certainly wouldn’t have been aimed at a Jewish audience. It’s not until the late 19th Century, when larger numbers of Jewish people had begun to live and work here, that the city saw the rise of a genuine Jewish theatrical movement.

This probably didn’t take the form you would expect. For years, I’ve come across references to a Jewish community theatre active around the late 1800s/early 1900s, centred on a place called Alexandra Hall – the location of which I’ve never been able to establish. Its purpose seemed to be to act as a ‘safe place’ (to use current lingo) where Jewish immigrants, facing poverty in their living conditions and hostility from other residents, could share and address their problems. If you think about it, this chosen medium – built as it is around coming together, collaboration, creativity and emotional release – was probably an apt and powerful one, and as familiar and traditional as communal worship.

In collecting resources for the workshop, I came across Edward Burgess’s 1925 series of articles for the Yorkshire Evening News, entitled The Soul of the Leeds Ghetto (shelfmark: LQ 296 B912). Here, finally, was a written description of the Alexandra Hall, including its location – Cookridge Street – and a picture:

Taken from “Part IX: The Drama”, 31 January 1925

Professional productions of Jewish theatre in Leeds go back to at least 1911, with the mounting of what would become known as Yiddish Repertoire Week. Its main star Fanny Waxman (1878-1958) was a well-known Jewish actress, who was active on the London stage for forty years until her retirement in 1930. The demanding programme involved a different play every night at 8pm, and our playbills collection includes examples from 1911 and 1916, some of which are written entirely in Yiddish.

The first Leeds Jewish Amateur Stage Group, the Proscenium Players, was founded in 1948. Its original remit was to mount four productions a year at the Albert Hall, which later became the Civic Theatre. After decades of diverse and successful shows – in the hands of several generations of ‘Pross’ players – the company took their final bow in the 1990s, and their venue was later transformed into the current City Museum on Millennium Square. For a complete history, read John Fisher’s book, An Audience of Curious People, available in the Local and Family History Library (L 792 FIS).

One of the Players’ most iconic pieces was the 1950 original play They Came to Leeds, co-written by well-known local historian Louis Saipe. The story, set in the Leylands area in the 1880s, deals with the early years of Jewish immigration to Leeds. In 1955, the group tackled a play called Two on an Island. Although the premise is a light romantic comedy, in which the central couple meet only at the end, the production required no less than eleven elaborate sets representing famous New York landmarks – including Broadway, the Metropolitan Museum of Modern art and, finally, the top of the Statue of Liberty. Thankfully, critics agreed that the society had pulled it off spectacularly.

The Players’ Jean Tordoff took the demanding lead in 1961’s Roots, made famous by Joan Plowright on the London stage. The story deals with the growing maturity of a young woman living in Norfolk and requires its cast to deliver lots of local dialect in an authentic accent.

The Proscenium Players’ 1962 production of Crime and Punishment cast a young Ronald Pickup (then a student at Leeds University) in the central role of Raskolnikoff, the murderer. The young actor was universally acclaimed by the local press and went on to a very successful career on stage and screen. He recently appeared with Judi Dench and Bill Nighy as one of the main characters in the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel.

These and other playbills are currently on display in the Local and Family History Library throughout the rest of March. You can uncover more about our books and other materials on Jewish history in Leeds through our Research Guide. For more information about upcoming Milim 2017 events, see the online programme. And, finally, you can read more about very early Leeds theatre here at the Secret Library in Famous Last Words.

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.

ballet3

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.

green-table-2

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.

grand-at-night

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

New Research Guide: Game of Thrones

  • by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

Following on from our recent stock pop-up based on the Game of Thrones series and some of the real-world history that inspired its author, George R.R. Martin, we present the latest in our Research and Collection Guides series. Entitled ‘Tomes of Thrones’, this guide lists many of the books used to create that exhibition and is designed to give the interested reader a solid starting point for delving deeper. Click on the image at the end of this article to view the full collection.

The exhibition was intended to connect Martin’s influences and sources to the remixed forms they take in his writing, as well as the subsequent TV series based on that work. One example of this process is maps.

Maps are an essential part of the Game of Thrones experience, central to the books and the opening credits of the TV series. And rightly so; for an invented world to be truly immersive, it requires the reader or viewer to have a realistic sense of the geography that the people, places and events are situated within.

The world created by Martin is no different – only, as always, the author has been very careful to connect that fantastical world to our very real one. One pleasure for keen followers of the series is the realisation that the continent of Westeros most obviously resembles that of Great Britain with Ireland turned upside down and placed at its most southerly end.

imqtfdy

From ‘Game of Thrones’ Westeros is Really Just Britain and An Inverted Ireland‘: http://brilliantmaps.com/westeros

None of this would have been possible without pioneers of the cartographic art, such as Matthew Paris’s 13th Century map of Great Britain and Christopher Saxton’s monumental Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales (1579) – the first Atlas ever produced. On display at the pop-up were a 1928 reproduction of Paris’ maps, a copy of the first map of Leeds, from 1560, and a 1936 facsimile of Saxton’s work (the library is additionally honoured to hold an original copy of Saxton’s Atlas, one of only a handful still in existence).

britannienkarte_des_matthew_paris

Reproduction of one of the four Matthew Paris maps of Great Britain still in existence and held at the British Library

If the guide whets your appetite for more, keep your raven’s third-eye open for a full repeat of the event later in the year.

tomes-of-thrones-front-page