This article was brought to you in collaboration between ArtsATL and Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library. The “Memorial Drive” series explores the cultural history of Atlanta.
Sunlight filtered through tall pines on a warm Friday afternoon in May 1933, when hundreds of kindergartners, dressed as elves, fairies and other woodland folk, streamed along trails of Atlanta’s Peachtree Creek Memorial Park, their cleanly executed movements fresh and spontaneous. An older child beckoned them toward an enchanted forest, where spirits of their forebears would awaken.
The spritely brigades arrived at a grassy plot banked by a crowd of about 6,000 people, who watched breathlessly, as the elementary and high school students, led by members of the Dorothy Alexander Dance Art Group, reenacted General James Oglethorpe’s landing and impersonated illustrious Georgians, from Chief Tomochichi to Lyman Hall to Frank L. Stanton, then poet laureate of Georgia. Scientists, historians and artists seemed to rise up from the earth in succession. Hundreds more children sang in chorus as the characters shared their virtues — among them, courage, beauty and love of Nature. With each dance, the audience broke into thunderous applause, and tears filled the eyes of some spectators on Heirs of All the Ages.
Dorothy Alexander had created the dance drama, which launched a project to plant a small forest on that land, running on either side of Peachtree Creek from Northside Drive to Howell Mill Road. Each tree would honor a great Georgian from the state’s 200-year history. A collaboration between the city’s parks department, Alexander’s Dance Art Group and the Atlanta Public Schools, where Alexander taught, Heirs was a giant step in Alexander’s lifelong mission to make a place for dance in Atlanta.
The scope of Heirs was unprecedented in the Southeast. It had a foothold among outdoor pageants of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn of the Denishawn School where Alexander studied. Its movement in response to the natural environment — a floor of grass, trees, rushing water and sky as scenery and the sunlight as the light source — hearkened Isadora Duncan.
It was also a precursor of today’s site-specific works, and perhaps a form of placemaking. Alexander conceived and created Heirs for the plot of land where more than 4,000 Union and Confederate troops had died 69 years earlier in the Battle of Peachtree Creek. Yes, Heirs had trappings of a Civil War memorial, and such events have fallen largely out of favor, for good reason. To Alexander’s credit, she avoided re-enacting death and suffering, and instead opted to create new mental associations with the land. The innocence of children and the enchantment of fairy tales animated the space. Within that charged atmosphere, Heirs reinforced pride in the larger span of history these youngsters would inherit. Planting a small forest would symbolize rebirth.
Themes of death and rebirth and nature as inspiration ran the course of Alexander’s career, as she became an individual artist and teacher, and founded what would become the longest continuously operating American ballet company, Atlanta Ballet. Eventually, she would host the first regional ballet festival, launching an American dance movement.
Early on, life experiences taught her never to spend her energy recreating tragedy, but instead to recreate beauty. From the Blue Ridge Mountains to Manhattan, from the Piedmont Driving Club to the banks of Peachtree Creek, Alexander enlivened the spaces where she danced as much as those places — and the mentors she encountered there — shaped her path.
A Celebration of Living
The Unaka Springs hotel stood near a railroad bridge that crossed the Nolichucky River as it rushed between steep, rocky mountainsides shrouded in trees. Like other resorts in eastern Tennessee, the Unaka Hotel had opened after railroads provided access to these remote mountain areas around 1890. It was a relatively affordable retreat where Atlantans and others could escape the summer heat. The three-story wood frame hotel had a front porch that overlooked the property’s natural healing springs; guests could walk out the door to mountain paths that led to higher vistas, offering views of fiery sunsets and purple dusk, with the distant mountains fading into the mist.
In this setting, Dorothy had her first experience with dance, albeit under challenging circumstances. Born in 1904, the third of four children in an upper-middle-class Atlanta family, Dorothy was six or seven when her parents gave her daily ballet lessons in Unaka Springs as rehabilitation from hip surgery. Mrs. Dan Noble, said to be a former Paris Opera ballet dancer, taught Dorothy and her older sister, Mina. Mrs. Noble used a graded system that required her pupils to correctly execute certain steps before they could move on to the next class level. When it came time for exams, Dorothy had to execute bourrées, a step in which both the legs draw together like scissors, and the weight is on the tips of the toes or the balls of the feet, which cross with one in front of the other. Dorothy had to maintain this posture while taking tiny steps, very fast, to create a gliding effect. Every time Dorothy tried to bourrée, her hips locked painfully — because her bones had not fully healed from surgery. The physical limitation frustrated Dorothy, and she refused to perform the step.
The pain of trying to execute bourrées must have frustrated the child; it created a crisis in her life. Mrs. Noble understood and allowed Dorothy to work at her own pace; eventually, the bone grew back to its normal size. It’s easy to imagine a ballet teacher instructing a small six-year-old, practicing perhaps at a wood porch rail or in a common room with windows on the natural scenery. And to imagine how the beauty of the surroundings might have imprinted the child’s irrepressible urge to move. Likely, she would have felt her movement connected to the surging river, wind whistling through the trees, clouds passing overhead and new life bursting from the earth. Dorothy had learned to dance without a handicap, and no longer walked with a limp, proving the doctors wrong. From then on, she understood that dance was more than just therapy — it was a celebration of living, and in many ways, of life itself. If she could discipline the body to the degree that she could move in tune with nature, with the breathing pulse of the universe, then she would feel part of a divine plan. Concentrated effort, pain and perseverance would ultimately bring her closer to God.
New Horizons over the Hudson
Dorothy was about 17 years old when she arrived in New York at Michel Fokine’s studio. She had studied with Mrs. Noble for six consecutive summers and had undergone numerous defining moments in her life, with dance as her constant expressive and creative outlet. Dorothy had made dance programs at home and at school, and even helped raise money for local charities by dancing in parlors at Silver Teas around Atlanta. She was just 11 when tragedy struck and her mother committed suicide. Her father sent her to a convent school, and Dorothy created productions there. At the age of 16, another tragedy fell on Dorothy and her three siblings — their father passed away. It was then that Dorothy went to live with a guardian family, who continued to support her dancing.
Dorothy studied with Senya Solomonoff, an effervescent Russian émigré who’d trained with the Imperial Ballet in Saint Petersburg and had toured for several years with Anna Pavlova’s troupe. During a stint in the Army near the end of World War I, Solomonoff had come from New York to Atlanta via Camp Gordon. By December 1919, he had a studio at Cable Hall and a strong following. When Michel Fokine opened his school, it’s probable that Solomonoff suggested Dorothy seek his instruction.
When Dorothy entered Fokine’s four-story townhouse at 4 Riverside Drive, a butler often greeted her at the door. She stepped into an entry hall where a wide, white stone staircase with carved balustrade swept upward toward the studios. After a barre warm-up in a small fourth-floor studio, Dorothy and others would descend to the second floor to study with Mr. Fokine in the ballroom, a high-ceilinged space with a crystal chandelier, parquet floor and French windows overlooking the Hudson River. Mirrors were scarce, for Fokine wanted dancers to develop a “third eye” — an inner sense of the body that simultaneously enabled them to sense the way they looked from any angle. “Arms are not pictures on a wall, but horizons,” Michel Fokine often said to his pupils.
A pianist played Chopin’s lilting waltzes as Fokine taught students the soft arm motions, buoyant leaps and flowing lyricism in his masterpiece, Les Sylphides. Through this and another repertoire, he imparted a way of dancing that eliminated stilted mannerisms in favor of fluidity and relinquished frontal orientation for three-dimensionality. Fokine was known for teaching choreography in musical phrases rather than steps; he valued movement quality over technique, saying, “Dance must be beautiful, or it is nothing.”
Dorothy trained mainly in classical ballet, and she enjoyed mastering new skills and vocabulary. As she matured, she sought more freedom to express her ideas and emotions. At about age 17, Dorothy broke free from ballet’s restrictions with The Crystal, a solo set to music by Alexander Glazunov about a girl who played with a Pure Gum rubber ball, which represented her future. Frivolous at first, she laughed and played with the ball. Then the crystal became vague and disappeared, leaving her to search. She grew serious and realized she had to contemplate and plan a pattern for her future, and this realization caused the ball to reappear in the form of definite aim and purpose. Through dance, Dorothy came upon one of life’s important lessons. She had pushed beyond ballet’s restrictions, but she still had to figure out what that future would be.
Where Fokine sought truth to natural feeling on stage, many of his contemporaries sought inspiration outdoors in the natural world, and Dorothy found freedom and expressiveness in this American “classic” or “aesthetic” style of dancing.
It had started in the late 19th century, when women of upper and middle classes shed restrictive clothing for loose-fitting classical tunics; they left stuffy parlors for fresh air outdoors, often seeking exercise and artistic expression in Delsarte technique — a system of disciplined movement and expressive gestures that viewed the body as the “mirror of the soul.” In addition, or as an alternative, some studied ballet, which was largely a European import.
Isadora Duncan emerged from this milieu as rebel and early innovator. Classical Greek art gave shape to her modern ideas, and nature inspired her. Duncan often quoted Walt Whitman’s The Open Road, and the idea that the rise and fall of motion in the natural world could give voice to human emotions that were otherwise inexpressible.
At the time, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn popularized their own brand of aesthetic dancing across the United States, drawing from Delsarte, ballet and various Eastern philosophies as well as Miss Ruth’s charisma, spirituality and taste for myth and the exotic. In addition to concert dancing, the couple toured the vaudeville circuit and appeared with the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1915, they founded Denishawn, a school set in an outdoor pavilion at St. Denis and Shawn’s Los Angeles home, where young ladies in pink silk jersey leotards practiced natural graces. Hollywood actors and actresses were among their students, and. D.W. Griffith cast Denishawn dancers in the Babylon scenes of his 1916 epic Intolerance. Shawn envisioned the school as a base for dance in America, equivalent to Russian training but built on democratic principles.
Shawn carried the Denishawn School to New York in 1921, the same year Fokine opened his studio there. During summers, Dorothy studied with both quite diligently. She studied technique with Shawn and philosophy with St. Denis. At the Fokine school, she continued to study classical ballet. While she learned to express herself more freely through these and other teachers, she considered herself one of the first modern dancers.
The Crystal had opened the door to modern dance, but what of its subject — the need to define a life plan? At the time, most professional dance opportunities were in New York and Los Angeles. Dorothy had no interest in moving away, perhaps because her family had separated while she was at a critical age, or because she loved Atlanta’s lush natural environment and wanted to stay close to home. The answer came to her one September evening in 1922, when her older brother William invited her to perform a solo at an evening in honor of the Sulgrave Institute, an organization based in England that was dedicated to promoting friendship between people of English-speaking countries.
The talks took place at the Piedmont Driving Club. It was 1922, just two years after architect Neel Reid had designed and built the club’s grand entry hall and ballroom. Just walking into the foyer, the space’s 16-foot ceilings ornamented with sculpted white flowers, its walls decorated with French gold-leaf mirrors and oil paintings evokes Reid’s idea that classical principles could form the basis for modern citizens to aspire toward grace, graciousness and cultural sophistication — ideas that dovetail with the American “classic” dance philosophy. In the airy grandeur of Reid’s ballroom, where talks were most likely held, Reid’s double colonnade with galleries on either side, crystal chandeliers and blonde parquet floors may have reminded Dorothy of Fokine’s studio, itself designed with Beaux Arts elegance. It’s easy to surmise that the experience in that space sparked an idea in Dorothy’s mind, that she could recreate the beauty she experienced dancing in New York here in Atlanta.
After she danced, Dorothy stayed for the talks, which emphasized the idea of art as a universal language and the importance of art in people’s lives. She came away inspired and intoxicated by two ideas — to use dance as a medium of communication that could cross language barriers, and to help create an atmosphere in which all American children would have a chance to experience the magic she had experienced through the art of dance. Dorothy now knew that she was going to trail-blaze a dance career, not in New York, but in the verdant beauty of her hometown. At that moment, anything seemed possible.
On the Wing
The call to dance came loud and clear. But how would Dorothy make a dance career where no dance companies existed? She had seen professional dancing, and many different styles and genres had impressed upon her indelibly. The Metropolitan Opera had performed in Atlanta one week every year since the early 1900s; vaudeville troupes were plentiful. As a child, Dorothy had seen Anna Pavlova perform in Atlanta; Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, too. Dorothy continued to study in New York during summers. When she came home from studying out of town, she felt isolated in her pursuits.
As early as that year, 1922, Dorothy began teaching at an Ansley Park home on Barksdale Drive. In exchange for rent, she gave two scholarships and earned her college degree “on the wing,” picking up courses at the Atlanta Normal School and Oglethorpe University. Meanwhile, she performed at concerts and private parties, touring the region in an old Ford automobile with her dance partner, stage manager, and accompanist. She performed The Crystal. Senya Solomonoff taught her a gypsy dance to be viewed from all sides, indoors or out.
By 1926, Dorothy had completed an education degree at Atlanta Normal School and was sharing living space on Fourth and Williams streets with Mary Holder, her college art teacher. Dorothy began teaching elementary school but had a larger vision, that it was every child’s birthright to have a healthy body, “happily correct” posture and the ability to move with “efficiency and grace.” She would found a Dance Enrichment program in the Atlanta Public Schools, and this would provide her with a cast of thousands for Heirs of All the Ages. But before she could produce a work on that scale, she needed a mentor.
“I would have done anything for Lucile.”
One summer evening, under a full moon, about 70 dance students convened in the Octagon amphitheater at the University of Georgia to present Fountain of Light, a dance-drama based on Milton’s Comus. The scene was set in the court of the god, Jove — scenery borrowed from an opera production evoked the celestial court. White clouds floated by, followed by a comet, then Saturn, whirling planets and the Milky Way. It was story of a princess, Lucia, ensnared in the woods by a decadent sorcerer. Aided by Jove’s messenger, Ariel, and the queen of Sea Nymphs, Lucia’s two brothers come to her rescue.
Fountain of Light was created by Lucile Marsh, a dance educator, scholar and critic, about five years Alexander’s senior, who directed a dance program at UGA for several summers starting in 1927. When she was a student at Barnard College, Marsh had studied theater, dance and Dalcroze Eurythmics, a system for training music students in rhythm by translating sound into physical movement. Marsh later taught at Smith College and in New York. For several summers, Dorothy studied with and assisted Marsh at UGA.
Marsh had co-authored an innovative text on dance education with her sister, Agnes. They wrote that dance education evolved from military-style training, such as calisthenics, toward the use of dance as a vehicle for the individual to grow mentally, socially and morally, so that the young person would learn to interact within a group — and ultimately, to participate in a democracy. The book included dance studies with music accompaniment as well as instructions and references in sculpture, painting and literature. Value shifted from group uniformity to the individual’s creativity and expression — from following orders to making intelligent and creative contributions to a joint effort. In Marsh’s method, collaborative art-making offered model experiences for young people to develop into responsible citizens.
In her article, “Five Ways to Modernize Your Teaching,” Marsh wrote, “Give up drilling children on mere routines and do some real creative teaching of movement. Discard grown-up dances and encourage the children to dance their own interests. Give the children dances with a real background of worthy thought and feeling. Give the children only movements that make them happier, more gracious children. Teach the children to move truthfully, easily and beautifully and to enjoy doing it.”
Marsh encouraged students to leave their studio walls in the summer so they could find inspiration in the natural environment and architecture around them. Photos from this time reflect Marsh’s aesthetic. One image features several women in short classical tunics posed on rocks on the bank of a body of water that is so still the dancers’ images are reflected in the water. The figures show respect for formal classical values while incorporating and responding to their surroundings.
A second photo shows dancers outdoors in classical poses, styled as if on a Greek vase.
The images do not show whether or not these were part of larger outdoor performances, and if, in fact, they fit the criteria for what we now call “site-specific” dance. But they indicate a desire to relate the architecture of choreography with outdoor spaces. Neoclassical and Beaux-Arts styles of architecture on the Athens campus created ideal settings for this dance aesthetic.
Dorothy once confessed in a letter to Marsh that she had an “adolescent admiration” for the teacher; when they first worked together, Alexander had come from a year-long marriage to architect Marion Alexander, which ended quickly in divorce. Dorothy assisted Marsh for several years at UGA and later appeared with the Marsh Concert Group at the McMillian Theater in New York. Marsh would continue to help Dorothy realize her vision.
In 1927, Dorothy started a Dance Enrichment program in Atlanta Public Schools. She infused her teaching with an understanding of dance, not as an isolated physical activity but as an integral part of living and community. At her studio and in the schools, Alexander’s young charges learned as much about creative expression as they did about correct postural alignment and social responsibility.
Dance Art Group
An air of mystery and exoticism filled the atmosphere of the Atlanta Woman’s Club auditorium, May 28, 1930 at 8:30 p.m. César Cui’s “Orientale,” played on the piano, lent an air of mysticism and a hint of Middle Eastern exoticism. Inspired by an ancient Egyptian astral ceremonial, dancers moved in symmetrical patterns of crisscrossing lines; then a pair of dancers split downstage center, knelt on one leg and lifted their arms as if they held up the universe. Dancers whirled through curved pathways — then stopped abruptly to show the earth’s stability, all the while forming arm gestures to represent the signs of the Zodiac. The dance, Awalim, opened the concert debut of Dorothy Alexander and Dance Art Group. On this evening, a 16-member company, plus an 11-member junior company, presented a program of varied works, including classical, modern and pieces inspired by distant cultures. Dorothy performed The Crystal, and the group offered a series of dances set to poems, starting with The Dance to verses by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Alexander had founded the company months earlier in 1929, on the belief that the future of American dance lay in developing dance groups in communities across the country. The Dance Art Group would become Atlanta Civic Ballet and later the Atlanta Ballet.
The period from 1927 to 1934 were especially fertile years for Alexander and the Dance Art Group. Alexander was a founding member of an assembly of artists of various disciplines who had workspaces in the Studio Arts Building, the former home of J.K. Orr, at Peachtree and Fourteenth Streets. Mrs. Lafayette Butler had established the program. Her niece, Hazel Roy Butler, had studied extensively with Fokine and Denishawn; she opened a dance school modeled after the Denishawn school and offered classes in interpretive dance and Dalcroze Eurythmics.
At the top of each season, the assembly gave a formal opening that combined works of the various artists. Steffan Thomas, a respected Bavarian sculptor, had a studio in the carriage house adjacent to the Studio Arts Building, and evidence of past collaborations remains in his sculpture of Dorothy. The svelte bronze figure stands about three feet tall, poised modestly in a ballet sous-sus position, just as Dorothy stood when she first learned to bourrée. With arms outstretched and head bowed slightly, the figure is reminiscent of a Winged Victory angel, but soft.
In the summer of 1932, in the North Georgia mountains, young dancers in flame-colored tunics would sing to the dawn. In the “mystic light” of evening campfires, they would dance as symbols of different virtues, such as courage, freedom or humility. Dorothy assisted Marsh at Camp Chattooga, a girls’ camp. The respect for nature taught there seems to have fueled Alexander’ Heirs of All the Ages, produced the following spring.
The pageant at Atlanta Memorial Park concluded with God’s gift to the children — a love of nature. In the evening’s last rays of sunlight, dancers representing each of the four seasons presented their gifts to a child. A girl of about ten in a fey chiffon tunic with gossamer wings uttered:
“When I am glad,
There seems to be
A toy balloon
Inside of me —
And when I walk
Along the street
It almost sweeps me
Off my feet.”
She stepped forward, carefully at first, then faster and faster until she was leaping and turning, crisscrossing the space. She waltzed in circles, like a floating balloon. She ran, she leapt high above the ground with sylvan buoyancy — then perched in an arabesque and slipped away, as if a gust of wind had blown her into flight.
It was 11 years since Dorothy felt the call, to build a dance career in her hometown. She had started alone but soon developed a studio following. She had spread her message across the region and had planted the seeds of dance throughout her community. By 1934, Dance Magazine called Atlanta “New York of the South.”
Today, 83 years after Heirs of All the Ages, the park remains dotted with trees. Some have been there since before the Civil War. Others, planted in 1933, have grown to heights of 80 to 100 feet. A live oak spreads sheltering branches about 100 feet across. And a path leads down to Peachtree Creek, where descendants of those “Honor Trees” — maple, white oak and sycamore — crowd along its bank. Their trunks lean over the creek as swirling currents hasten toward the Chattahoochee River. Tree limbs bend toward the flowing water as if they, too, want to join the dance.