Catherine Littlefield

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Catherine Littlefield
Born 1908
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died 1951
Residence Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Occupation Ballerina, Choreographer,
Artistic Director
Spouse(s) Philip Ludwell Leidy (1933–1947), Sterling Noel (1948-1951)
Parent(s) James and Caroline Littlefield

Catherine Littlefield (1908 — 1951) was an American ballerina, choreographer, and artistic director. At the age of 27, she founded the famous American ballet school, The Littlefield Ballet (later known as the Philadelphia Ballet) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1935.[1] It was the first American ballet company to achieve fame at both the national and international level. Littlefield’s establishment was the first American ballet company to tour in Europe and produce the first evening-length (or three-act) edition of the musical The Sleeping Beauty.[2] Littlefield was also known for her production, “My Bicycle Girl” as a part of the American Jubilee spectacle at the New York World’s Fair of 1940.[3] In 1987, Littlefield became one of the first inductees into the National Museum of Dance’s Hall of Fame. [4]


Early Life[edit]

Catherine Littlefield was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1908. Catherine was the oldest of three siblings: Jimmy, Dorothie, and Carl. Her father, James Littlefield, was a newsreel pioneer[5] and her mother, Caroline Littlefield was a concert pianist. Her mother also opened a dance school after gaining dance experience at the Philadelphia Civic Opera Company by “walking on” in opera ballets. Caroline trained with the traditional European ballet master, Romulus Carpenter, and began landing actual roles and solos in ballets. The dance school that Caroline started was originally for recreational classes of a local women’s club. Caroline could not hire a professional to instruct the classes, so she became the teacher. The school grew and began training dancers for the Philadelphia Civic Opera Company.


Education and Experience[edit]

Catherine began training in her mother’s studio at the age of three.[6] As she grew older, she worked with a variety of remarkable teachers of the time. When Catherine was a teenager, she danced in Philadelphia Junior League’s presentation of Why Not, directed by her mother, Caroline Littlefield. The Broadway impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., provided the costumes for the show and stayed to watch the production. Impressed by Littlefield, Ziegfeld brought Catherine to New York and gave her a role in the Broadway production, Sally, in December of 1920.[7]

Catherine stayed in New York to sharpen her ballet technique. She studied with Ivan Tarasoff, a Russian ballet master. Between 1922 and 1925, Littlefield starred in five more of Ziegfeld’s productions: Follies (1922, 1923), Kid Boots (1923), Annie Dear (1924), and Louie the 14th (1925).[8] While Catherine was away, her mother Caroline was making waves with the Philadelphia Junior League. After her outstanding production of Aida, she became new ballet director of the Philadelphia Civic Opera. Catherine became her principal dancer and assistant choreographer. Catherine was prepared for this role because while she was in New York, she also studied theater dance with Luigi Albertieri, an Italian master of ballet. Her studies focused on the choreography opera ballets at La Scala in Milan, Italy.

Every year, The Littlefiled family vacationed in Paris, France for the summer. While in Europe, Catherine studied with Leo Staats, the ballet director of the Paris Opera. She also studied with Lubov Egorova, a former Imperial Russian ballerina. In following years, she returned to Paris to study more with Egorova. Through her studies, she also became close friends Lucienne Lamballe, the leading ballerina of the Paris Opera Ballet.


Career[edit]

Starting in 1928, Catherine and her mother staged movie prologues in the Fox, Earle, Mastbaum, and Stanley theaters in Philadelphia.[9] In 1932, Catherine was given her first opportunity as a choreographer in the production H.P. (horsepower), which was composed of ninety-seven dancers and hosted by the Philadelphia Grand Opera.[10] This role challenged Littlefield to collaborate with Mexican composer, Carlos Chavez and artist, Diego Rivera. The ballet was about Mexican-American trade relations. The work she did earned her an invitation from New York’s Roxy Theatre as a choreographer.


Littlefield Ballet[edit]

In 1934, Catherine and her mother began planning opening their own company.[11] Her mother, Caroline, would be the director, Catherine would be the choreographer and the leading dancer, and her sister, Dorothie, would be the first soloist. The company, called Littlefield Ballet, was founded in 1935.[12] The first performance was on October 25, 1935 at Haverford High School in a suburb of Philadelphia that the family lived in. The next year, Caroline became the executive director and Catherine became a director, “ballet mistress”, and “premiere danseuse”.[13] In the first few months, the company produced three brief story ballets called: The Minstrels, The Snow Maiden, and Die Puppenfee (The Fairy Doll). Three months after opening, the company was renamed to The Philadelphia Ballet, but was changed back to Littlefield Ballet in 1940.[14]

After a year in business, the Littlefield’s produced eighteen complete ballets and twenty-two divertissements. The dances were mostly choreographed by Catherine and the productions were funded by her husband. In 1937, the Littlefield’s performed the first American production of Sleeping Beauty.[15] This was one of the highlights of Catherine’s career. It was the first three-act version of the musical. Littlefield choreographed the musical and performed as the main character, Princess Aurora. John Martin, a critic from New York Times described the production “charming within its limitations.”[16] Two of Littlefield’s most well-known productions were Barn Dance, Café Society, Ladies’ Better Dresses, and Terminal. In spring of 1937, the company toured Europe to perform the routines.[17] They traveled to Paris, Brussels, The Hague, and London. The Littlefield Ballet was the first American ballet company to tour in Europe. Catherine’s production earned the medal of the Archives Internationales de la Danse. The Philadelphia Academy of Arts and Sciences also honored the company when they returned to the United States.


Bicycle Ballet[edit]

Catherine was also recognized for putting ballet on wheels. In 1940, Catherine was asked to choreograph dances for the Oscar Hammerstein II-Arhur Schwartz musical production, American Jubilee, during the New York World’s Fair.[18] One of her most notable routines was called “My Bicycle Girl” and was literally a ballet for cyclists. It was a story that began with a boy asking a girl to join him on a carefree bicycle ride, “as life rolls on,” begging her to be his “Bicycle Girl.”[19] The number consisted of seventy-five male and female cyclists. “Littlefield created figured movement in three registers of dance: within the bodies of the cyclists, in the air with extended limbs and elevation assisted by the use of pedals and handlebars, and in elaborate ground maneuvers by the company.”[20] Though the dance began in the pouring rain, the dancers didn’t forget a step on stage. Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, described the routine as “A clear if complex blending of human anatomy, solid geometry, and acrobatics offered as a symbolic demonstration of manners.”[21] The routine was the peak of Catherine’s career.


Personal Life[edit]

Catherine enjoyed being in the public. At one point, she was named one of the country’s ten best-dressed women for her simple yet tasteful style. She was always full of energy, both in and outside of work. Offstage, she was remembered for having a warm personality and a great sense of humor. She was also described as persuasive, witty, and purposeful. One of her contemporaries described her, “She was dry ice-fiery and cool.”[22] In 1933, Catherine returned to Philadelphia and married Philip Ludwell Leidy, an attorney. He was the son of Helen C. Leidy, the principal benefactor of the Philadelphia Grand Opera.[23] They never had any children. Leidy showed great support and supplied generous amounts of money to her projects, such as the salaries and transportation of dancers. In 1947, Catherine filed for divorce. In 1948, she married the editor of the Sunday edition of The New York Journal-American, Sterling Noel.[24]


Legacy[edit]

Unfortunately, Littlefield’s company only lasted until 1941.[25] The second European tour was cancelled due to many of the male dancers enlisting in the War Effort. Littlefield decided to shut down the company until the war ended, however it was never reopened.

Catherine continued contribute to musical theatre. She helped choreograph ice shows, even though she never knew how to skate. The shows included: It Happens on Ice (1940), Stars on Ice (1940), Hats Off to Ice (1944), Icetime (1946), Icetime ’47, and Howdy, Mr. Ice (1948). She also helped choreograph Broadway dances including Firebrand of Florence in 1945 and Sweethearts in 1947.[26] Walter Terry, a famous dance critic, remarked “Take skating, dancing, or theatre entertainment in any form of motion as your criterion, and you will be convinced, I think, that Catherine Littlefield is becoming a theater figure of the first rank, a girl who is leaving her mark in the revue, in the ballet and on ice.”[27]

During the late 1940’s, Catherine’s life was cut short.[28] While she was preparing for Hollywood Ice Revue in Chicago, she lost her battle to liver cancer at the age of 47. However, Littlefield’s legacy lives on. Her achievements are still as remarkable as they once were. She is remembered for introducing ballet as an American art form.

In May of 2010, the Perelman Theater of Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center hosted the Philadelphia Sinfonia performance that highlighted one of Littlefield’s ballets.[29] An orchestra of students, conducted by Gary D. White, performed in a concert that was accompanied by a documentary featuring pieces of Littlefield’s Café Society.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Catherine Littlefield (1908-1951)". National Museum of Dance. 
  2. ^ Aloff, Mindy (May 2, 2010). "In Philadelphia: The Littlefield Ballet Lives for an Afternoon- Ferde Grofé’s Café Society". Explore Dance. 
  3. ^ Liebman, Elizabeth (2013). "Catherine Littlefield’s Bicycle Ballet and the 1940 World’s Fair". Dance Chronicle 36 (3): 326–351. 
  4. ^ "Catherine Littlefield (1908-1951)". National Museum of Dance. 
  5. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  6. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  7. ^ Friedler, Sharon; Glazer, Susan (2014). Dancing Female: Lives and Issues of Women in Contemporary Dance. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis. p. 24. 
  8. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  9. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  10. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  11. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  12. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  13. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  14. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  15. ^ Aloff, Mindy (May 2, 2010). "In Philadelphia: The Littlefield Ballet Lives for an Afternoon- Ferde Grofé’s Café Society". Explore Dance. 
  16. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  17. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  18. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  19. ^ Liebman, Elizabeth (2013). "Catherine Littlefield’s Bicycle Ballet and the 1940 World’s Fair". Dance Chronicle 36 (3): 326–351. 
  20. ^ Liebman, Elizabeth (2013). "Catherine Littlefield’s Bicycle Ballet and the 1940 World’s Fair". Dance Chronicle 36 (3): 326–351. 
  21. ^ Liebman, Elizabeth (2013). "Catherine Littlefield’s Bicycle Ballet and the 1940 World’s Fair". Dance Chronicle 36 (3): 326–351. 
  22. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  23. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  24. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  25. ^ Aloff, Mindy (May 2, 2010). "In Philadelphia: The Littlefield Ballet Lives for an Afternoon- Ferde Grofé’s Café Society". Explore Dance. 
  26. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  27. ^ "Catherine Littlefield (1908-1951)". National Museum of Dance. 
  28. ^ Hering, Doris (2010). Catherine Littlefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  29. ^ Aloff, Mindy (May 2, 2010). "In Philadelphia: The Littlefield Ballet Lives for an Afternoon- Ferde Grofé’s Café Society". Explore Dance. 


Bibliography[edit]

  • Friedler, Sharon E., and Glazer, Susan B.. Dancing Female: Lives and Issues of Women in Contemporary Dance. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2014.
  • Hering, Doris. “Catherine Littlefield.” American National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.