TBT: Lucia Chase, Who Was “Happy Simply to Be Able to Dance” But Became One of ABT’s Longest-Serving Directors

June 16, 2022

As part of Dance Magazine’s 60th-anniversary issue in June 1987, then–editor in chief William Como wrote a retrospective on American Ballet Theatre to accompany a series of photographs (including the one above) of the oft-covered company’s early years. It had been just over a year since one of its earliest and longest-serving directors, Lucia Chase, had died at age 88.

Chase was an original member of the company, which grew out of Mikhail Mordkin’s troupe in the late 1930s and gave its first season, under the direction of Richard Pleasant, in 1940. Though she was often misidentified as ABT’s founder, Chase was quick to correct the assertion in interviews: “Through the years people have persisted in saying that I did, but I cannot claim the honor,” she told us in the August 1971 issue. “In the thirties, I was young and irresponsible, and I was happy simply to be able to dance. I knew nothing about company administration, and I had no ambitions.” She became co-director with Oliver Smith in 1945, continued as a company member until 1960 (though she would still appear, memorably, in character roles for the rest of her directorship, particularly as the Prince’s mother in Swan Lake) and remained at the helm until her retirement in 1980.

She was one of ABT’s earliest and staunchest financial backers, and sought, in her 40 years with the company, to promote and protect the notion of a truly American ballet company with an eclectic and theatrical repertoire that had animated its founding. ABT had visited every state in the continental U.S. by 1954 (adding Alaska and Hawaii in 1965), was the first American ballet company to dance in the Soviet Union in 1960, and became a hub for both homegrown and international ballet stars.

“We have endured because of love and respect,” Chase said in 1971. She received a Dance Magazine Award in 1957 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.