Martha Graham. American Ballet Theatre. Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble. Water ballet. A production for Swedish royalty. The list goes on … dance icons and delights have graced the Open Air Theatre since it opened June 24, 1914, joining the thousands of performers who have presented beautiful music, drama, dance—and a great deal more—in this spectacular garden venue. Come June 12, BalletX will take the Open Air Theatre stage with an exemplary program inspired by the culture of Spanish Harlem, film noir, and street dance … a program worthy of the ages and perfect for the starry-skied setting of our Open Air Theatre.
Dance enjoys a long, storied history in our Gardens. Longwood’s founder Pierre S. du Pont delighted in the performing arts, and though he purchased Longwood in 1906 to save its historic trees, he also wished to make it a place where he could entertain his friends. When du Pont and his future wife, Alice Belin, visited Italy in 1913, the outdoor theatre at the Villa Gori in Siena served as inspiration for his own outdoor theatre … which he set in motion almost immediately upon their return. Du Pont decided to build a larger version at Longwood after tearing down an old barn on the site, bringing in stone to form retaining walls around a 68-foot-wide stage, and planting the wings on either side with hemlock (now arborvitae) to serve as a venue for grand garden parties and entertainment.
The Open Air Theatre made its debut at the fifth garden party hosted by Mr. and Mrs. du Pont. It was a resounding success. Three hundred guests dined around small tables on the then-flat auditorium lawn following which the newspaper noted: “Just after dark electric lights were turned on, simultaneously illuminating the stage in front and sides, and a spot light discovered four couples descending from the terrace above the stage to the classic strains of Beethoven’s music. The dance was performed on the stage and its gorgeous costuming finely executed, dignified figures elicited hearty applause….The finale was a frolic by the harlequins, who, much to the surprise of the guests, danced among them, throwing confetti and garden roses, then winding their way out in a path of light, finally disappearing amid the trees.”
Two weeks after that first garden party, du Pont began installing simple fountains into the stage, which were then first incorporated into a 1915 garden party performance danced by the Florence Noyes School of Rhythmic Expression.
Several hundred performances took place under du Pont’s sponsorship until 1954, usually to raise funds for charity, with great emphasis on dance during the Teens and Twenties and such iconic performers as Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Doris Humphrey, and Martha Graham, assisted by numerous ensemble dancers.
New York impresario John Murray Anderson performed in 1914 and again in 1916, and later produced four dance spectaculars (1926, 1927, twice in 1928) at Longwood. He wrote in his 1954 memoir Out Without My Rubbers, “There were no private parties quite so wonderful as Mr. du Pont’s. He engaged a large company of players, and usually an orchestra of almost symphonic size and quality. Everyone, from the stars to the electricians, was Mr. du Pont’s guest at the hotel in Wilmington….The entertainments themselves were more of the serious or classical kind. Martha Graham was one of his favorite performers and my ‘Nightingale and the Rose’ appealed to him very much, done as it was to perfection in the open on a starlit summer night.”
In 1938 the Mary Binney Montgomery Ballet staged an entertainment in the presence of the Queen of Sweden and her son Prince Bertil, in honor of the 300th anniversary of the Swedish landing in Wilmington, with the evening ending with a water ballet of dancers silhouetted against the lit fountains. In the 1960s, American Ballet Theatre and the Pennsylvania Ballet twirled on stage, while more recent performances have welcomed the Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, Paul Taylor 2, the Brandywine Ballet, the Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble, Savion Glover, PHILADANCO, and many more.
Which brings us to today. BalletX, Philadelphia’s premier contemporary ballet company and resident dance company of The Wilma Theatre, returns to the Open Air Theatre on June 12. Challenging the boundaries of classical ballet, the performance begins an exploration of Spanish Harlem culture with Darrell Grand Moutrie’s Vivir, transitioning to the stirring Gran Partita by Jorma Elo, inspired by film noir classic Touch Evil. The performance concludes with Lil Buck’s Express, combining elements of street dance with classical technique. Tickets are available; join us for an incredible evening.