Even though the city of New Orleans was founded in 1718, it wasn’t until the late 18th Century that truly “refined” entertainment, such as opera and ballet, made its way to New Orleans. With the influx of French refugees from Saint-Domingue during that island’s revolution, the 1790s were a time of cultural growth for the Crescent City. Opera comes to New Orleans in 1796, and ballet follows shortly thereafter.
That ballet would come to New Orleans was quite logical. Opera became quite popular in the beginning of the 19th Century, with two local houses hosting local productions, as well as touring companies. European opera companies often came to Havana, then would sail over to New Orleans, possibly even continuing further into the United States, particularly in the summer months.
The language aspects of opera were as much of a challenge then as now. Operas in languages such as Italian and German had a limited appeal in a city where those languages were not common. Ballet, on the other hand, had a more universal popularity. Ballet relies on the dancers joining with the orchestra to present the story without words. This made ballet, in some ways, more “accessible” than opera.
The first ballet offered to the citizens of New Orleans was in 1799. Ballet grew in popularity from there, so that, by the 1820s, the Théâtre d’Orléans regularly presented ballets. The theater’s owner, John Davis, took over the troubled theater in 1819, organizing an opera company. Davis regularly traveled to Europe to recruit for his company, which he took on tour in the summers, so they could escape the heat in New Orleans. Davis encouraged popular dancers as well as singers to join his company and perform at his theater. In 1824, Jean Rousset, one of the best-known dancers in Paris at the time, came to New Orleans from Havana to perform “Annette et Lubin” and “La Fille mal gardée,” both by Jean Dauberval. The presentation of “La Fille mal gardée” in New Orleans is believed to be the first performance of the ballet in the United States.
As interest in ballet grew, other touring companies from Europe regularly added performances in New Orleans to their schedules in the antebellum period. Ballets and operas were presented at the Théâtre d’Orléans, as well as Caldwell’s St. Charles Theater, and later, the French Opera House, on Bourbon and Toulouse Streets. The French Opera House was a focal point for ballet, until it burned down in 1919. The Great Depression slowed down the activity of traveling companies in the 1930s. The New Orleans Opera House Association was formed in 1943, initially presenting operas outdoors, then moving to the Morris F.X. Jeff Municipal Auditorium in the 1960s. The New Orleans Opera Association often presented ballets double-billed with operas in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1969, Harvey Hysell, a New Orleans native who was the first male in the U.S. to receive a bachelor of fine arts degree in ballet, presented Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” as part of a collaboration with the New Orleans Concert Choir. The production was a success and was the spark for the opening of Ballet Hysell, a school on Magazine Street, in 1971. Hysell’s school thrived, and in 1976, the ballet company was re-named the New Orleans Ballet. The company folded in 1983, due to artistic differences within the company. The New Orleans City Ballet rose from that split, formed as a partnership with the City of Cincinatti, lasting to 1991, when debt forced that company’s closure. The New Orleans Ballet Association was formed after that closure, and continues to this day.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Hysell was a major influence on ballet in New Orleans. Hysell focused on his school, operating Ballet Hysell until 1998, when he and his associate, Dianne Carney, closed the school, and taught at the New Orleans Dance Academy. Harvey Hysell passed away in 2008.
Today, the New Orleans Ballet Association continues to thrive, presenting several ballets a year, continuing the over 200-year love affair the city has with dance. This Friday, Feb. 27 to Sunday, March 1, Loyola University New Orleans hosts the Fleur de Lis Semi-Finals of the prestigious Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition, in which student and professional dancers from all over the world compete. For more information and tickets, visit Loyola’s website or the website for the competition.
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is also author of Legendary Locals of New Orleans. Branley’s latest book, New Orleans Jazz, is now available in bookstores and online. Edward is also the NOLA History Guy, online and on Twitter (@NOLAHistoryGuy).