Group’s founder remains involved
had the rare opportunity begin her ballet studies with a former dancer from Russia’s famed Maryinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, an emigre artist like many others who fled the Stalinist regime.
“I was very fortunate to have a family interested in the arts,” said Carson recently. “And I had excellent classical ballet training early on, which many (of my peers) did not.”
Carson soon lit out for New York City, joining her brother who sang with the Metropolitan Opera company and her sister who performed on Broadway. Carson pursued her dance studies at the School of American Ballet, the institution founded by Russian-born now-legendary choreographer George Balanchine, who is credited with popularizing ballet in this country.
“I was very fortunate that Balanchine was still teaching when I was (in New York),” Carson said.
She danced with the New York City Opera Ballet, among other com- panies. “I was lucky I got roles classical ballet and didn’t have to go into musical theater the way so many of my friends had to in order to just get work.”
Then the young ballerina married David C. Carson, a psychologist and fifth-generation Texan. And well, Texans always move back to the Lone Star State.
The couple landed in Austin in the late 1940s.
Like many ballet dancers, the habit of regular practice — regular class, as balletomanes call it — never abates. The ballet barre always calls. Though she now had three young children, Carson found a class to join in Austin.
“Well, it was a sort of ballet that was taught, at least,” Carson said. “It wasn’t as rigorous as what I was used to.”
After all, classical ballet wasn’t as popular in the early 1950s as it is now.
With its origins as an elite art performed at aristocratic European courts, ballet’s combination of orthodoxy, luxury and sensuality was at odds with America’s democratic origins and puritanical sense of simplicity.
At the time, American children — and their aspirational parents — likely had visions of the ballroom suave of Fred Astaire or the perky cuteness of Shirley Temple, not the pristine artifice of classical ballet. (“Shirley Temple wasn’t a great dancer,” Carson says with a laugh.)
“But I wanted something more than a place to teach little girls poise and grace and charm,” Carson said.
And so in 1953, she began the Carson School of Ballet. And she set her standards high.
“I auditioned students before I admitted them to my classes,” she said. “Ballet training takes a certain aptitude and a focus in order to get something out of it.”
She also set up introducing the broader Austin community to ballet. Carson had a spot hosting a segment on a local television show on which she talked about fitness and exercise for women. “I used to talk about the benefits of classic ballet training, and how classes that just offered tap or acrobatics were not the best places to get really serious dance training. In fact, I probably irritated a lot of people by talking about (ballet) all the time!”
Ballet nevertheless gained momentum in this country in the 1950s. And in 1958, when CBS beamed Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” live across the nation on Christmas Eve, a new holiday tradition was born.
In Austin, Carson’s perseverance paid off, even if she had to literally step in at times.
Carson herself danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in 1960 when Texas’ first full-length “Nutcracker” was staged at the then-new Palmer Auditorium, now the Long Center. (Though Ballet Austin is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its “Nutcracker,” the ballet wasn’t staged every year.)
With no professional adult male ballet dancers in Austin, Carson had to hire Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer George Zoritch to dance the lead role of the Nutcracker prince. But when Zoritch refused to dance opposite any students, Carson had to take the lead female role.
Carson’s high standards and New York connections continued as the company grew. In 1964, she brought Maria Tallchief — the first American Indian prima ballerina, Balanchine muse and the choreographer’s third wife — to Austin to teach a master class. But she didn’t ask Tallchief to perform.
“Oh heavens, we weren’t ready for Maria Tallchief to perform with us!” said Carson. “I was very particular about not doing something we weren’t ready to do.”
“I was willing to go slowly,” she said. “And building the company slowly was the best thing to do, in hindsight.”
Carson left Austin in 1967 as her husband’s career took the family first to Washington state, then to Wisconsin. The family returned to Texas in 1979, and Carson resumed her involvement with Ballet Austin, this time as a supporter and as a teacher.
While now her involvement with the company she started is limited to the occasional appearance, Carson’s love of ballet still beckons.
“I can’t ever remember not doing barre work,” she says. “I still have a barre in my hallway that I use.”
In 1964, Maria Tallchief (center), the famous American Indian ballerina, visits Ballet Austin to lead a master class. Tallchief visited at the invitation of Barbara Carson, (left), who founded Ballet Austin. On the right is Eugenia Orusso, director of the American School of Ballet.
Dancers in a mid-1950s class at the Austin Ballet Society, the organization that would become Ballet Austin. Ballet classes were held at the Texas Federation of Women’s Club historic mansion in the West Campus neighborhood.