Catherine Littlefield (1908-1951)
Catherine Littlefield's brief lifespan - 43 years - makes her achievements seem all the remarkable today, when she is still remembered for helping establish ballet as an American art form. She was only 27 when she founded the Littlefield Ballet, which was later to become the Philadelphia Ballet. Before she was 30, she had mounted the first full-length American production of The Sleeping Beauty. In the same year she choreographed Barn Dance, which would eventually join the repertory of Ballet Theatre. And at roughly this same time she was training dancers who would form the nucleus of both Balanchine's American Ballet and the fledgling Ballet Theatre.
Barn Dance proved to be the first of a number of Littlefield's American ballets. Others went by such intriguing titles as Café Society, Ladies' Better Dresses (a garment industry ballet) and Terminal (set in an urban train station). Perhaps Littlefield's taste for the vernacular had been developed during her days in the Ziegfeld Follies, but her everyday stories had a firm foundation of ballet technique which she had refined in Paris. She possessed a simple classical style and an unusually clean technique. Offstage, she was known for her sense of humor and her warm magnetic personality.
Littlefield was also famous for putting ballets on bicycles and ice skates. The bicycles made their appearance at the 1939 New York World's Fair, where she choreographed American Jubilee, and transferred the problem of balance from the toe shoe to the two-wheeler. Critic Walter Terry noted that, "occasional looks of stark terror as curves were rounded only added to the charm of the occasion."
In 1940, Littlefield was again breaking ground in choreographing an ice show at New York's Center Theater, It Happens on Ice. Walter Terry's review is a poignant reminder of Littlefield's promise and of her life cut short. "Take skating, dancing or theater entertainment in any form of motion as your criterion, and you will be convinced, I think, that Catherine Littlefield is becoming a theater figure of the first rank, a girl who is leaving her mark in the revue, in the ballet and on ice."