Adolph Rudolphovich Bolm (1884–1951) was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. After a rocky beginning learning ballet, Bolm was chosen at the age of ten to attend the Russian Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. In 1903, Bolm graduated, receiving first honors in dancing, painting, music, and academic studies. He continued as a member of the Imperial Ballet corps of the Maryinsky Theatre where he danced with famed Russian ballerinas Anna Pavlova and Thamar Karsavina. Early in his career, Bolm was motivated by the Russian choreographer Michel Fokine’s vision to extend the artistic boundaries of the Russian state and aristocracy. Bolm’s drive to showcase Russian ballet for the world came to fruition when he organized a small company to tour Europe, spotlighting Pavlova as his partner. This tour marked Pavlova’s first appearances outside Russia, and both she and Bolm gained favorable reviews.
In addition to his work with the Maryinsky Theatre, Bolm began to dance for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, becoming a permanent member in 1911. During his years with the Ballets Russes, Bolm performed in some of the most momentous ballets created during the early twentieth century. His roles included the Chief Warrior in Prince Igor and Pierrot in Carnaval. He was credited with restoring a sense of masculinity to men’s roles in classical dance.
Bolm was very involved in the first two Ballets Russes tours of America. Due to the outbreak of war, several of the main dancers and choreographers, including Michel Fokine and Vaslav Nijinsky, were unable to join the 1915/1916 tour. At Diaghilev’s urging, Bolm trained a new company and recreated a repertory of twenty ballets, which received positive reviews. The second American tour in 1916 and 1917 of the Ballets Russes was equally successful but contained more drama within the company. Diaghilev, unable to travel to America to manage the tour, gave his job to both Nijinsky and Bolm. Bolm became injured during his performance in Thamar—an accident rumored to be a result of Nijinsky’s incipient mental breakdown. Bolm decided to leave the company and stay in America to pursue choreographic and performing opportunities.
In 1917, Bolm received his American citizenship and began working in New York City. He staged Rimsky Korsakov’s Le Coq d’or at the Metropolitan Opera and Ziegfeld’s Miss 1917 on Broadway. Bolm created his own dance company, Ballet Intime, and set out for the Midwest and smaller American cities not previously exposed to ballet and classical dance. In his memoirs, he commented that “We are going to visit towns that heretofore have only been names to us. We shall cross the Mississippi. We shall see the high rugged mountains and the painted plains. We shall come to know America and America will come to know the spirit of the new dance.”
In the early 1920s, in an effort to create a production that was solely American, Bolm choreographed and starred in a contemporary experimental production entitled Krazy Kat: A Jazz Pantomime, based on the newspaper cartoons of George Herriman. Another of Bolm’s major contributions to American dance was his filming of Danse Macabre. This production was danced and synchronized to a live performance of the Camille Saint-Saëns piece of the same name and is noted as the first ballet captured on film.
From 1919 to 1927, Bolm lived in Chicago, worked for the Chicago Opera, and formed the Chicago Allied Arts, an organization modeled roughly on the Ballets Russes. In 1931, he created The Spirit of the Factory, also known as Ballet Mécanique, set to the music of Aleksandr Mossolov’s The Iron Foundry and performed at the Hollywood Bowl to broad acclaim. While in California, Bolm also created the choreography for several films including The Mad Genius (1931), The Affairs of Cellini (1934), and The Men in Her Life (1941). In 1932, he founded the San Francisco Opera Ballet, considered the oldest ballet company in America.
Over the course of his career, Bolm, as dancer, choreographer, and director, was considered to be one the pioneers of American ballet. In addition, as a teacher, he changed American dance by mentoring a number of well-known dancers such as Cyd Charisse, Janet Collins, Lester Horton, and Ruth Page. In a 1937 radio program, Bolm summed up his thoughts on the identity of American dance: “In America today, we find so many expressions in the Dance, because of the varied influences from visiting and touring foreign dancers, because of America’s great passion for this art, and because of their own creative ability. It may still be in an experimental period, but it is quite significant. Like Russia in the past has been enriched by the cultures of other nations and subsequently found its own, so will, I do not doubt, America and the American Ballet.” [View Bolm Gallery]