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A Ballet Troupe's History Recaptured : Dance: Joseph Rickard's First Negro Classic company got its start in 1947. Now his archives are at the Huntington Library.

September 20, 1994|BARBARA ISENBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The time was 1946. Dancer Joseph Rickard saw an African American child turned away from classes at a Los Angeles dance studio just because she was black. That didn't seem right to him.

Rickard, who was white, decided to do something about it. Opening a studio himself in the black community, he trained that child-- and her mother--and sought other black students who wanted to learn classic dance. And then, aiming to provide a place for them to perform, as well as a chance to choreograph, he launched the First Negro Classic Ballet in 1947.

Not many people remember the First Negro Classic Ballet, which predates the Dance Theatre of Harlem and is believed to be the nation's first black classical ballet group. But thanks to the persistence of former Rickard student Kathy Ho and her serendipitous meeting with a Huntington Library curator, Rickard's personal archives have landed at the San Marino research institution.

Rickard's papers, photographs and other memorabilia came to the attention of the Huntington last year when Ho presented a paper on the First Negro Classic Ballet at a Cal State student research competition. Not only did Ho win first place, but her topic intrigued one of the judges--Mary Robertson, the Huntington's chief curator of manuscripts.

A year later--and just weeks before Rickard died of pneumonia in late August at 75--Rickard's personal archive made its way to the Huntington. The collection's 270 items include many black-and-white stills of dancers rehearsing or performing, as well as musical scores, large color drawings of set designs, programs, newspaper clippings and correspondence.

The clippings include several reviews of the company, says Sue Hodson, Huntington curator of literary manuscripts. "They're wonderful because they tell us how the public viewed them--good and bad. They also provide historical material on race relations."

Rickard dedicated most of his life to teaching and choreographing dance for that company and others locally. He studied with Russian dancer/choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, says family friend Sunny Asch, and trained his own dancers in classical, Russian-style ballet. The company played to good crowds here and on tour before being disbanded in 1959.

But memories fade. Former student Ho, recalling all the photographs and tales Rickard shared with her over the years, was surprised to find no mention at all of the First Negro Classic Ballet at a major exhibition in 1991 on Southern California dance history. The omission got her started researching the company through oral history and documents.

After the Huntington showed interest, and Rickard responded favorably, Ho and Rickard began assembling his holdings into order. Together they collected and organized the material, pulling it together from closets, cupboards, file cabinets and even under beds at his Highland Park home.

Ho continues to chronicle the company. Later this year, she'll present her ongoing research, which she plans to publish, at the Congress on Research in Dance (CORD) national conference. And she's hoping some former dancers with the company will surface and add to the library's materials.

Curator Hodson, meanwhile, has begun processing and cataloguing the collection and expects to be done in 1995, at which time it will be made available to scholars. The Rickard archives essentially launch the library's dance collections, and Hodson says she hopes one day to do a public exhibit at the library on dance.

"The collection documents a group whose story otherwise might not have been told," says curator Hodson. "Too often, organizations outside the mainstream tend to be forgotten."

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