The image of Lucia Chase most familiar to Washingtonians was her portrayal of the Queen Mother in American Ballet Theatre's production of "Swan Lake" -- a figure maternal and regal, substantial and diminutive, resolute, magisterial, at once aloof and warm. That's how we'll remember her. Those qualities were not only right for the part, but real attributes of the person. What's more, the same characteristics define Chase's historic role -- she was, if you will, the sovereign mother of American ballet.
Chase's death at 88 in New York Thursday deprived American dance of one of its pioneers. It was Chase, as a founding member of ABT and its codirector for 35 years, who led the company to renown as one of the world's leading classical ballet troupes. It was Chase, more than any other individual, who recruited the dancers and choreographers, built the repertory and guided the progress of the company through thick and thin. It also was she who time and again saved the company from economic collapse by her personal generosity, discreetly contributing amounts reckoned in the millions to keep the troupe afloat.
"In the darkest time she could force the sun to shine," said Mikhail Baryshnikov, the celebrated dancer whom Chase welcomed into ABT the year of his defection from the Soviet Union and who succeeded her and Oliver Smith as artistic director of the company six years ago. "She stood by us all with love and a will of iron and a heart like a lion," he said.
And Jerome Robbins -- now co-ballet master in chief of the New York City Ballet, whose ballet career was launched when ABT produced his "Fancy Free" in 1944 -- said of Chase: "Without her, the development of dance in America would be unimaginably poorer."
Unlike the female pioneers of modern dance in this country, such as Martha Graham or Doris Humphrey, Chase was not a choreographer and had no stylistic axes to grind. Rather, it was her calling to discover and nourish talent in others and to keep the peace among rival factions. In this she had few peers. Under Chase, ABT enjoyed as a company a family feeling that was one of its distinguishing marks.
The movies paid homage to her in the 1977 film "The Turning Point," in which the character of Adelaide was modeled, in somewhat caricatured fashion, after Chase. The real-life Chase was reticent about her accomplishments. She once told an interviewer: "Let me say . . . that ABT has never been my company. But you ask what I do there, well, I like to say that I'm head of the complaint department."
Agnes de Mille, another American choreographer who found a supportive berth with ABT from its early days, described Chase's personal traits in 1979 when Chase announced her retirement as company director:
"She can be stern, but she's often had to be. Her taste isn't always impeccable, but it's a normal, healthy common-sense taste that people can subscribe to -- all the other companies have gotten attached to one person, one point of view. Lucia's always kept a balance.
"And she's given America its greatest gift -- a first-class international ballet company, with the most catholic repertoire of any company in the world. The list of her choreographic discoveries and the dancers she's brought to light is simply without comparison."
Chase tried a number of times to set the historical record straight about her part in the establishment of ABT (originally called Ballet Theatre and renamed in 1957). Frequently, she's been referred to as the company's founder, but that credit actually belongs, she insisted, to Richard Pleasant (1909-61), who was the business manager of the Mordkin Ballet, predecessor to ABT.
"People say I founded the company," Chase said, "but I never dreamt of such a thing -- it was all Dick's idea . . . He had this vision of making a really American ballet company on a scale with the great European troupes. 'American in spirit, international in scope,' he used to say, and that's what we've tried to follow ever since." Chase and Smith took the company reins in 1945.
Chase was born to a wealthy Connecticut family in Waterbury on March 24, 1897. She was educated at Bryn Mawr College and moved to New York in search of a career as an actress, though she studied dance as well. The death of her husband Thomas Ewing Jr. in 1933 changed the direction of her life. She dedicated herself to ballet and renewed her studies under Mikhail Mordkin, a Bolshoi Ballet dancer and a partner of Pavlova who settled in this country and established his own school and company. Chase danced the title role in "Giselle" with the Mordkin troupe and continued dancing with Ballet Theatre through its early years, later restricting herself to nondancing character roles.
Under Chase's leadership, the ABT seriously contemplated a move to Washington as a "permanent" home in 1962, but the project came to nought. In 1971, however, when the Kennedy Center opened, the troupe was named the "official" company of the center, and it has been the backbone of Washington's visiting ballet series ever since. Hence this city, like the nation and the world, will long continue to be a beneficiary of Chase's immeasurable legacy to dance.