Clara Rideout Noyes touched my life because of what she did for the community-at-large. Her death on April 15, 2005, triggered memories of my father and how I came to associate that date with people of passion in public affairs. An oddity, I know, when April is the time to ruminate on nature’s rebirth.
My father was a Lincoln buff. April 15 was a day of reflection in our household, on the consequences of actions of a person consumed by a singular passion. “The United States became a different place the day John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Passion, like fire, is powerful. It’ll burn down a village as easily as it’ll cook a feast that brings people together.”
Clara Noyes’ passion for ballet shaped Indianapolis’ cultural identity. How did she come to her life-long love of ballet? Was it growing up in San Francisco, where ballet was part of the arts as early as 1933? Clara Rideout would have been 18 years old at that time. Did the example of her birth city’s ballet and its school travel with her as a young bride following her marriage to Evan Lilly Noyes in early 1942?
Clara Noyes’ personal memoir dated April 16, 2003, gives no clues. It’s a chronological narrative itemizing heady national connections and illustrating unwavering dedication to build a ballet company and maintain a school, separate from Butler University, whose dance department was achieving a national reputation at mid-20th century. The Ballet Society of Indianapolis, formed in 1957, which was connected with the Jordan School of Fine Arts, also sponsored performances by touring U.S. dance companies.
Commenting on the origins of Ballet Internationale, Noyes wrote, “This wonderful ballet company began as a gleam in the eye of two people, master photographer Noble Bretzman and housewife/ballet fan Clara Noyes.”
C. Noble Bretzman, born in Indianapolis in 1909, was the son of well-known portrait photographer Charles Bretzman. Noble went to New York City, where he gained recognition for his stunning photography of the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. Noble returned to Indianapolis in 1934 after the death of his father, bringing his distinctive style that set national photographic fashion trends, including “The Ayres Look.”
Noyes recalls, “While I was president of the school board in the early 1960s, we decided to start a Civic Ballet Company. There were then a number of these in the U.S.” Bretzman was president, Noyes, vice president, “and a small group including Allen W. Clowes as board members and patrons. Our aims were two: to encourage artistic growth and to raise money for a professional company. It was slow going. ... Years of hard work followed.”
Once or twice a year the company performed in Clowes Hall or in high school auditoriums. Marguerite de Anguera, a former assistant to Agnes de Mille, was engaged to direct the first production. George Verdak (an international ballet star and colleague of Robert Joffrey) was serving as director of Butler’s ballet department when he became the part-time artistic director of Civic Ballet.
What’s so amazing is the audacity of taking an-all student company to compete in festivals. Noyes recalls, “They met, performed before and conferred with nationally known teachers and directors like George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Lincoln Kirstein and Harold Turner of London’s Royal Ballet.”
Civic Ballet performed and held classes at the Athenaeum and Civic Theatre. At Arsenal High School, “Thousands of school children were bussed in for half-hour ballet performances that brought good publicity and built audiences ... reaching 40,000-50,000 children per year.
“When Noble Bretzman’s health began to fail, I became president from the 1970s until the 1990s. We had our struggles.”
The Ballet Theatre School closed in the 1970s, but the company survived, changing its name to Indianapolis Ballet Theatre. In 1984, Dance Magazine featured IBT in an article titled “Dance Muscles in on the Indy 500! Indian-no-place No Longer!”
Eldar Aliev arrived in 1993; IBT became Ballet Internationale, with a company of dancers drawn worldwide. When the now thriving ballet school was renamed the Clara R. Noyes Academy of Ballet Internationale in the spring of 2003, the community was recognizing her 40 years of un-abated passion. Clara Noyes used hers to create and maintain a feast, destined to succor audiences worldwide for many generations.
What she set in motion made Indianapolis a different kind of place. My father would have added her to the list of positives on April 15. Perhaps they will meet.