A seminal work of American dance, Filling Station was a product of Ballet Caravan, Lincoln Kirstein's vision of an experimental troupe dedicated to creating a new repertory based on American subjects with music and decor by American artists. Shortly before its premier, Kirstein had published the pamphlet Blast At Ballet, his infamous attack on the Euro-centricity of classical ballet. Filling Station was America's answer to Swan Lake. Set in one of America's most recognizable locations, a gas station, it was immediately familiar and accessible to American audiences.
The young and controversial American painter, Paul Cadmus designed the boldly scaled set in the neon and chromium fantasies of 1930's American pop, with costumes in the style of comic strip figures of the time. "The set was the kind of a place," Kirstein said, "that Jimmy Cagney would be at home in."
The ballet's quick pace, irreverent humor, and eccentric characters had much in common with the Hollywood screwball comedies which depicted the antics of the irresponsible and hard-drinking upper class. Filling Station proved that ballet could be as entertaining as the silver screen, unencumbered by pretentious artiness yet alive with showmanship and vaudevillian humor.
The music for Filling Station was commissioned from the American composer Virgil Thompson who described the witty score as evoking "the absolutely middle-class America of its time." The score includes a panoply of American music from hymns to honky tonk syncopations, movie chase music and delightfully irreverent quotes from popular songs of the day all intended to evoke roadside America as pop art.
Synopsis: The curtain rises to reveal the interior of Mac's station. It is late at night and Mac is whiling away the time reading a tabloid. The station's large 1930's gas sign can be seen through the window. Mac (originally danced by Christensen) puts down the paper and begins to dance, displaying his youthful and characteristically American exuberance. He moves about the stage executing virtuosic leaps and turns.
He is interrupted by a lost motorist dressed in loud checkered pants, a straw Panama hat, and smoking a big cigar who has stopped for directions. As Mac unfolds a large map to set the motorist straight his two buddies, rough and tumble truck drivers Roy and Ray sneak into the station to greet him. The three dance an athletic pas de trois which is cut short by the arrival of a state trooper who accuses the truck drivers of speeding. The men adamantly deny the charge and the trooper leaves them with a stern warning.
The motorist returns, this time accompanied by his nagging wife who towers over him berating him at every opportunity and their young daughter, a constantly whining brat who desperately needs to use the rest room.
The henpecked motorist, relieved as his wife and daughter retire uses the opportunity to entertain Mac and his buddies by displaying his golf technique. The wife and daughter are not gone long enough, however, and the beleaguered motorist escorts them back to the car.
Next, a rich and obviously intoxicated young couple (whom Kirstein called "vaguely F. Scott Fitzgerald") stagger in after a long night at the local country club. The girl, near collapse insists on dancing. Her companion, also near oblivion, happily obliges and the couple dance an intricately choreographed "drunken" adagio as the boy attempts to support the girls nearly lifeless body.
Mac and his buddies join in and the girl is tossed from one man to another and thrown high into the air. The girl lands in the arms of the unhappy motorist just as his wife enters.
All join to dance the "Big Apple" (once as popular as the Charleston) but the celebration is unexpectedly interrupted by the entrance of a gangster. He lines everyone up and demands that they place their jewelry and cash in a bag. Everyone nervously complies except for Mac who cleverly sneaks away and turns out the lights.
The stage erupts in confusion and the scene is filled with darting flashlight beams as Mac and the others attempt to track down the gangster. Blinded by their flashlights the gangster shoots.
As the lights come up it appears that the girl from the country club has been hit. Everyone gathers around shaking their heads at her lifeless body. The state trooper arrests the gangster and hauls him off to jail. The girl's limp body is lifted high and carried off in a solemn procession. Just as the scene is about to reach a tragic conclusion the girl, who has only fainted from inebriation, wakes and waves at Mac as the cortege proceeds from the station. Mac, taking this as all in a days work, dances briefly and returns to his paper.
Filling Station premiered on January 6, 1938 in Hartford Connecticut with Christensen dancing the leading role of Mac, the self-reliant, down-to-earth American working man. The two rough and tumble vaudevillian truck drivers were performed by Eugene Loring and Douglas Coudy. Eric Hawkins played the gangster.
Six weeks later Filling Station debuted at City Center and was the hit of Ballet Caravan's New York season. Edwin Denby wrote that "an American kind of ballet is growing up, different from the nervous Franco-Russian style... our own ballet has an easier, simpler character, a kind of American straightforwardness that is thoroughly agreeable." Dance Magazine praised Christensen's skill in composing a narrative of "remarkable economy- not a single character is superfluous, nor is one missing."
Filling Station was performed more than three hundred times during the next four years becoming the most popular ballet in Ballet Caravan's repertory and was the centerpiece of the company's prestigious five month tour of South America.
In 1953, on its fifteenth anniversary Filling Station was given its New York City Ballet debut at City Center theater with Jacques d'Amboise dancing the role of Mac. B. H. Haggin wrote in The Nation: "... the audience delighted in the moment to moment operation as a work of art. Filling Station takes its place with Loring's Billy the Kid and Robbins' Fancy Free as one of the classics of American ballet--brilliant in its observation, its dance invention, its organization." Filling Station proved to be the success of the New York City Ballet season. The following year Max Lieberman presented Filling Station on his Sunday night NBC television series "Spectaculars" making it one of the first ballets aired on national television.
Christensen was not yet thirty when he created Filling Station, striking out in largely unexplored territory. Although an early work, it embodies many of the qualities that make Christensen's ballets so popular: a wry, intriguingly eccentric comic imagination, a deft sense of characterization, an utter lack of pretension, and an ability to create first rate theatrical entertainment without relinquishing classical dignity. Olga Maynard wrote of Filling Station in her pioneering overview American Ballet. It was with Filling Station that Christensen both "showed his distinctive style--a commingling of the playfulness and sharp clarity that seems essentially American, with a sense of design and deportment derived from the classical tradition--and emerged as an American choreographer of the first rank."
Photograph: Dennis Marshall in the opening scene of the San Francisco Ballet performances of Filling Station (1978).
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