Cole Porter's Pro-Immigration Ballet Gets A Trump-Era Revival

May 23, 2017

In the early 1920s, before he became an icon of the American songbook, composer Cole Porter wrote the score for a protest ballet. The production, called Within the Quota, criticized restrictive immigration laws that had been passed by Congress. According to Princeton music professor Simon Morrison, who rediscovered the score two years ago in Yale's Porter archives, the show opened in New York at a time of fearful backlash against Polish, Greek and Australian immigrants arriving in the U.S. after World War I.

Now, to protest President Trump's anti-immigrant stance, the Princeton University Ballet is reviving the production. Morrison, who produced the show, says after the election, "[I] looked again at the score and thought about its context and thought, Oh my God, this is actually what it was about. These things were real and actually we're feeling them again now."

The updated ballet emphasizes the parallels between the political climate of the 1920s and that of 2017. "To my mind, the issues are frightfully the same," Morrison says. He explains that in both eras, anti-immigrant hostility was rooted in "fear about people losing their jobs, fear about American culture being diluted."

According to The New York Times, the 1920s production of Within the Quota was the first American-themed ballet set to music by an American composer. At the time, Porter was based in Paris and relatively unknown in the U.S. "He was not even established in New York," Morrison says.

The original production tells the story, in dance, of a newly arrived immigrant who meets various American characters — an heiress, a movie star, a "jazz baby," a cowboy — as well as dark forces who want to kick immigrants out of the country.

The Princeton revival, which was choreographed by student Julia Jansen, updates the characters to include an heiress who suggests Ivanka Trump and a Lady Liberty dancer who takes selfies. The set is also an update of the 1923 production, which included large posters of newspaper headlines; instead of posters, the revival projects satirical political headlines onto the back of the stage.

The show's finale, a number called "Sweatheart of the World," hints at the signature style Porter became famous for decades later. "The musical language is 100 percent Cole Porter," Morrison says. "If you added lyrics and put it in a smoky bar somewhere, it would sound 100 percent 'Night and Day' Cole Porter."

The London-based orchestra Penguin Café performed the music — Porter's only score for ballet — at the Princeton debut. Daren Berry, who plays percussion, violin and ukulele, says, "It's an incredible piece of work. ... It's not designed to be listened to; it's designed to be watched."

Earlier this month, there was a packed house for the show's opening night. Producer Simon Morrison says Within the Quota will eventually tour the country, as it did in the 1920s. "This work, which was nothing but a bunch of yellow manuscript paper, is back and is very, very relevant," Morrison says. "I think there's something really magical in that."

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With songs like "Anything Goes" and "I've Got You Under My Skin," Cole Porter was one of America's greatest songwriters. But unlike those classics, Porter's more political work is rarely performed. Nearly a hundred years ago, he wrote the score for a ballet that took on U.S. immigration policy. The work is called "Within The Quota." And now a U.S. dance troupe has teamed up with the British ensemble Penguin Cafe to bring it up to date. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLE PORTER'S "WITHIN THE QUOTA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One, two, three, four.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: That's Cole Porter. He was practically unknown when he wrote the music for a ballet designed to protest the restrictive immigration laws passed by Congress in 1921.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLE PORTER'S "WITHIN THE QUOTA")

AMOS: Then, it was a backlash to European migrants, says Simon Morrison. He's the Princeton music professor who rediscovered the score two years ago in the Porter archives. Now, he says, this revival is an act of resistance against President Trump's anti-immigrant stand.

SIMON MORRISON: And when the election took place, which for a lot of people, was very devastating - and looked again at this score and thought about its context and thought, oh, my God. You know, this is actually what it was about. These things were real. And actually we're feeling them again now.

AMOS: Today, the focus is on security and economics. Morrison sees parallels between the anti-immigrant climate of the 1920s and 2017.

MORRISON: What set it off was the same things that are happening now. It was this kind of fear about people losing their jobs, fear about American culture being diluted or watered down or disappearing.

AMOS: So these were Germans and Greeks and Italians.

MORRISON: And Irish and Australians, yeah - and on boats that were frequently turned away.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLE PORTER'S "WITHIN THE QUOTA")

AMOS: The original production tells a story and dance. A newly arrived immigrant meets various American characters - an heiress, a movie star, a jazz musician - and dark forces who want to kick him out.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLE PORTER'S "WITHIN THE QUOTA")

AMOS: In the revival, the heiress is Ivanka Trump. The Lady Liberty character now takes selfies, and the musical finale, "Sweetheart Of The World," hints at Porter's style decades later.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLE PORTER'S "WITHIN THE QUOTA")

AMOS: The Penguin Cafe, a London-based orchestra, perform the musical update, interpreting the complex syncopations, Cole Porter's only score for dance. Daren Berry plays percussion, violin and ukulele.

DAREN BERRY: There are still the melodies, and they would stay with you all day. It's an incredible piece of work. It makes sense when you watch it. And it's not designed to be listened to. It's designed to be watched.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLE PORTER'S "WITHIN THE QUOTA")

AMOS: A packed house watched a student dance company perform the update of Cole Porter's "Within The Quota" this month at a Princeton University auditorium. Again, Professor Morrison.

MORRISON: And the lesson of this piece is that, you know, he's dead, but his works are ours now. And this work, which was nothing but a bunch of yellow manuscript paper, is back and is very, very relevant. I think there's something really magical in that.

AMOS: He says the production will tour the country as it did in the 1920s. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "I GET A KICK OUT OF YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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