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Cole Porter, ballet, Princeton University, and the immigration ban

By Simon Morrison

The attempted Trump administration “ban” on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim nations threw lives into chaos, sparked mass protest, sewd confusion, consumed lawyers, and generated anguished debate about just how much love the United States truly has for the “tempest-tost” of the world. Yet as with the slogan “America First,” we have been here before in history. And artists have responded.

After World War I, immigration rose dramatically, fueling the fear that refugees (especially from Southern and Eastern Europe) would seek out new opportunities in the United States. In concert with a rank pseudo-scientific racism, wholly endorsed by the U.S. government through the Dillingham Commission, Congress distinguished between those who were deemed more or less likely and able to assimilate to American culture. In 1921, the House passed a bill enacting a two-year moratorium on all immigration, but the Senate refused to support a complete ban. Instead, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 slashed immigration into the United States from Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, and New Zealand, setting strict quotas based on the 1910 census to ensure an unchanging ethnic and religious population. Immigration within the Western Hemisphere was not limited (California and Texas relied on cheap agricultural labor from Mexico) and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had already banned Asian immigration. Under the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, ships bearing would-be immigrants were turned away from U.S. shores. Three years later Congress passed the National Origins Act, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, which fixed and froze immigration quotas by racial groups to preserve the “pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock” of the United States, as one Senate supporter explained. Only in 1965 was this racially discriminatory immigration policy repealed.

The American composer Cole Porter, now revered as a Broadway genius but at the time still an ambitious young songsmith, mounted a response in the form of an acerbic, staged-on-the-cheap pantomime-ballet first called Landed, then, in response to the new immigration laws, named Within the Quota. The ballet, to a scenario by Gerald Murphy, was premiered in Paris the Ballets Suédois before itself emigrating to the United States.

There is no real plot, just a series of encounters that culminate in a caustic satire of a modern, American happy ending: It’s not love but fame and wealth that conquers all. Choreographer and dancer Jean Bӧrlin took the lead role, playing the part of an immigrant who, upon passing through Ellis Island, meets various clichéd American types extracted from the silent screen. The would-be hero is number thirteen within the immigration quota, a number he wears as a tag on his ill-fitting town suit. Arriving in the United States, he first encounters a bejeweled heiress, a role taken in 1923 by the glamorous Klara Kjellblad, whose role today could be played by Ivanka Trump. Next appeared a strutting racist caricature: a “colored gentleman” in natty attire, a throwback to Zip Coon from the minstrel stage. The part, performed in blackface by Kaj Smith, inspired the catchiest music in Porter’s score and sated a noxious, perverse fascination among the French ballet-going public with American minstrelsy. A posh “jazz baby,” inspired by the mercurial femme fatale actress Pola Negri, enters next; the role was danced in a slit gown by the black-haired, pale-skinned Ebon Strandin. Lastly a deeply tanned, constantly squatting cowboy comes to the stage. He’s the antithesis of the inner-city types, the coastal elites, the Hollywood liberals who compose the rest of the cast. The series of encounters with American stereotypes leaves immigrant number thirteen confused and frightened, especially because each clichéd character encounters the forces of repression and hypocrisy. A prohibitionist drinks the bottle that he confiscates, then there’s a tax collector, a sheriff, and finally a film censor. The censor follows the appearance of a movie star in long curls, pink ribbons, and heart-shaped necklace pendant representing the silent film comedienne Mary Pickford.

Titled “The Sweetheart of the World,” the rhapsodic tune that accompanies Pickford’s appearance at the end of the ballet almost begs for a crooner to perform its unwritten lyrics in a smoky cavern somewhere. The gorgeous musical twinkling is the sonic equivalent of the now-standard Hollywood practice of blurring a love scene with a pulled-back, expanding shot accompanied by swelling strings, and so on. 

Mary Pickford herself tended to portray pathetic immigrant characters (and she was from Canada) on film in the 1920s. In Within the Quota, the Pickford-esque sweetheart and Bӧrlin’s immigrant perform a miniature pas de deux, ballet’s corseted emblem of romantic ecstasy, as the cameras click and the light-bulbs flash, and as the upper strings rise heavenward. The real America has let the immigrant down, terribly, so he selects La-La-Land. The show ends with him not lost in the New World, but lost in the stars. The rest of the characters dip and spin as the curtain descends. Within the Quota concludes somewhere between the real and the fantastic, no longer within the quota of either. 

To look for the steps and gestures Bӧrlin created for Within the Quota is to confront an abyss. Such is the haunting oddness ballet, past and present: it is an ephemeral art, it disappears, the dreams it conjures evaporate. Once the immigrant lands in the U. S. and finds the forces aligned against him, he dissolves into the Hollywood illusion that America denied him after he someone made it across the border. The illusion is preferable to the real in the plot. “Can we do better?” Cole Porter asked in ragtime rhythms in 1923. Shouldn’t we in 2017?

On May 4, Princeton University will presented a 21st century version of this work, allegorized as an act of resistance to the policies of the current Trump administration. It was performed in Richardson Auditorium by the students of the Princeton University Ballet, in an arrangement of the music prepared by Simon Morrison and London-based Penguin Café Orchestra, whose ten members are traveling to Princeton for the performance. Funding was provided by the Music Department, the University Center for Human Values, the Lewis Center for the Arts, the Humanities Council, the Department of African-American Studies, the Department of English, the Program in American Studies, and the Program in Latin-American Studies.