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WITHIN THE QUOTA—A 1923 BALLET FOR OUR TIMES PART 1

COLE PORTER IS best known for his contributions to the Great American Songbook. Among them: “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love;” “Just One of Those Things;” “You’re the Top;” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin;” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy;” “You’d Be Nice To Come Home To;” and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.”

But he also wrote what might well be among the Great American Ballets, up there with Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, and Billy the Kid. Written in 1923, Porter’s Within the Quota is exuberant, quintessentially American, and especially timely these days.

Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits about “Within the Quota” linking it to American immigration history, les Ballet Suédois, Paris in the Jazz Age, lost manuscripts, Penguin Café, and a 2017 revival.

We’ll talk about its origins and musicality today. We’ll get around to the ballet’s plot, manuscript mystery, and the rest tomorrow.

The Emergency Quota Act. Following World War I, the U.S. Congress passed an Emergency Quota Act (1921), also known as the Per Centum Law. This was in response to a large influx of Southern and Eastern Europeans seeking a new life away from war-torn homelands.

The law, albeit with exceptions, limited any country’s annual U.S. immigration to 3 percent of the number of that country’s U.S. residents recorded in the 1910 U.S. Census. Professionals were exempted. The law set no limit on immigration from Latin America. And the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917 had already taken care of Chinese immigration.

In light of those deemed less-than-desirable already counted in the 1910 Census, the Immigration Act of 1924 reduced the annual quota to 2 percent of those recorded in the 1890 Census.

To bring matters up to date for this “Emergency” act , as cited in Wikipedia, “The use of such a National Origins Formula continued until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 replaced it with a system of preferences based on immigrants’ skills and family relationships with U.S. citizens or U.S. residents.” Wikipedia references also cite Trump Executive Orders of 2017.

An American Ballet. Planning a U.S. tour in 1923, the Paris-based les Suédois Ballet wanted to include a ballet composed by an American. Darius Milhaud, one of the French Les Six,, suggested Cole Porter.

Cole Albert Porter, 1891–1964, American composer and songwriter. Born to a wealthy Indiana family, Porter defied his grandfather’s wishes by studying music and becoming a classically trained professional.

Milhaud described Porter as “this elegant young American, who always wore a white carnation in the buttonhole of his immaculate dinner jacket and used to sing—in his grave, husky voice—songs he had written himself and which possessed the exact qualities that de Maré [les Suédois Ballet patron] was looking for.”

The Jazz Age in France. It was Porter who introduced Yale pal/cubist artist Gerald Murphy and his wife Sara to the French Riviera. These ex-pats, along with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein, were part of the 1920s’ Jazz Age in France.

Cole Porter: Overtures, John McGlinn conductor, London Sinfonietta, EMI Classics, 1991.

Porter sought a designer of costumes and sets for his ballet, and Fernand Léger suggested Murphy. In notes for the EMI Classics CD including the ballet, Robert Kimbal gives details: “It was in the summer of 1923, while the Porters were living at the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice, that Cole and Gerald Murphy collaborated on the work that, first titled Landed, became Within the Quota. The orchestration was by the well-known French composer Charles Koechlin.”

The Immigrant, one of Gerald Murphy’s costumes for Within the Quota. Image from “Mini Books of Art.

What a World Premiere Double Bill! Within the Quota has its premiere on October 25, 1923. It shared opening night with Milhaud’s Création du Monde.

Fernand Léger’s design for Création du Monde.

Critics celebrated Quota as “music worthy of a great composer.” Monde was described as a succès de scandale, in part because of cumbersome costumes designed by Léger.

A month later, Quota opened in New York City. Critic Deems Taylor wrote that Porter’s music comprised “some very good jazz and some polytonal dissonances that were evidently meant to be as funny as they sounded.”

A musical tidbit: Both Quota and Monde predated George Gershwin’s jazz-influenced Rhapsody in Blue, which made its debut on February 12, 1924.

Robert Kimball notes, “After its New York appearances, the Swedish Ballet toured America until March 1924, Within the Quota being performed 69 times. A year later, the company disbanded and Porter’s score disappeared.”

We’ll pick up on the Quota tale tomorrow in Part 2.

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020

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