From impassioned speeches to interminable filibusters, congressional oratory is a performing art. But performance doesn’t end inside the House Chamber. The Capitol steps and grounds have set the stage for a number of unlikely recitals, from dancing “modern wood nymphs” to operatic House Pages.
“Graceful and artistic,” the Pemberton Dancers glided and posed by the Capitol in this 1930 House Collection photograph. The young women attended the Pemberton dance school in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, and gave performances around the city. Led by Stafford Pemberton, these upper-class ladies danced in a classical style. Their carefully draped costumes evoked Greek chitons, particularly when they performed in front of the Capitol. During some dances, they personified Art, Virtue, Romance, and Cupid; in others, they posed as what the Washington Post called “modern wood nymphs caught at play.”
Pemberton, their instructor, had been a famous New York performer, clad in a leopard-print tunic, until a broken leg stifled his dreams of interpretative dance. A “husky young Atlas,” he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1921 and opened a dance school. Occasionally dancing alongside his prodigies, Pemberton starred as Adam in a popular production of “The Dance of Adam and Eve,” while his students portrayed Eve, Virtue, and the Spirit of Evil.
Pemberton Dancers often took advantage of the city’s natural spaces and architecture, dancing alfresco. Pemberton’s neoclassical Greek style of dance mirrored the architecture of the Capitol. Modern classicists believed that ancient Greeks lived “on equal terms with nature,” as scholar Fiona Macintosh explained, “and through their political system (however imperfect), they were able to live on equal (democratic) terms with one another.” Classical dancing in front of the Capitol served to emphasize the democratic ideals of the United States. Draped in an American flag, gazing up at the Capitol dome with a proud smile, the central Pemberton dancer linked ancient Greek art and democracy with modern Washington politics.
There was talent in both dance and music at the Capitol. Adolph Turner served as a House Page by day and singer in the Washington Opera Company by night. Holding sheet music, Turner belted out a tune by the East Front of the Capitol in 1928. He sang in productions of “Rigoletto,” “La Boheme,” “Faust,” and “Romeo and Juliet,” among other operas. Although his roles remained minor, newspapers noted that Turner “contributed also to the general pleasure of the evening.”
The young divo lent a helping hand during a 1936 debacle of operatic proportions. The National Opera Association was about to begin a performance of “Lakme” at Constitution Hall when Mrs. Albion, the producer’s wife, attempted to pay the orchestra with a check instead of cash. The musicians refused to play until they got paid in Benjamins. Although the opera singers were ready, the performance stalled, and the crowd of 1,500 Representatives, Senators, ambassadors, and society patrons grew agitated. As the musicians stayed silent, the “sedate, bewhiskered gentlemen, elderly, gray-haired women—all formally clothed for the opera—stood up beside their seats and booed,” hissed, shouted, and stamped their feet, reported the Washington Post. Faced with striking musicians, hissing audience members, and a delayed opera, a melodramatic Mrs. Albion cried, “This is the most terrible thing that has ever happened in the history of music!”
But since the show must go on, Mrs. Albion found a small portable organ and wheeled it onto the stage. She asked for volunteers. A music teacher agreed to play the barely audible instrument, improvising an entire musical accompaniment for the opera. Young Turner, with a can-do attitude, offered to conduct. Despite the setbacks, the opera went on with Turner directing, finally concluding after midnight.
In Congress, performance usually takes place inside the House Chamber. However, with heartfelt arias and interpretative ballets, inspired dancers and singers have given capital performances all around the Capitol.
Sources: Fiona Macintosh, “The Ancient Greeks and the ‘Natural,’” Dancing Naturally: Nature, Neoclassicism and Modernity in Early Twentieth Century Dance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Washington Post, January 22, 1936; Staunton News Leader, May 31, 2003.Follow @USHouseHistory