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Bessie Clayton


Bessie Clayton was the mother of the fusion between classical ballet and stage dancing, that American tradition of movement associated with Broadway. Trained in European technique by George W. Smith, she premiered at age fourteen in "A Trip to Chinatown" (1894), replacing Loie Fuller and performing Fuller's famous "Butterfly Dance." Speedy, flexible, and lithe, Clayton won instant fame for the elegance of her dancing and her expressiveness.

She began choreographing dances while in her teens, exploiting her suppleness, abandoning the ramrod straight spine of 19th century classical dance. Balanced on one toe, she could back kick and touch her head. She could pirouette en pointe down stairs. Her innate sense of balance was so great that she could accordion fold to the floor in one direction and re-ascend in the other in slow motion.

Clayton's talent at comic characterization made her a fixture in the Weber & Fields musicals of the 1890s, but her skill in classic technique (refreshed by tutelage under Madame Bonfanti) enabled her to convey moods more serious and idea-inflected. Her husband, director Julian Mitchel, favored this emotive dimension of her dancing particularly, featuring it in her performance in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1909. Clayton became the prototype for the Ziegfeldian stage dancer, embodied in Marilyn Miller and Harriet Hoctor, who synthesized "toe dancing" with expressive features emerging from ballroom dance in the style of Irene & Vernon Castle. More athletic and quicker than either Miller or Hoctor, Clayton's technique prefigured the kind of female dancing that George Balanchine would create in his broadway works, beginning with “On Your Toes." David S. Shields/ALS