Discover Cole Porter’s forgotten ballet, Within the Quota

Cole Porter, 1930s

While researching works by William Bolcom and Darius Milhaud, I discovered an arrangement for band of Cole Porter’s (1891-1964) ballet, Within the Quota, published by Keiser Southern Music. Cole Porter wrote a ballet? Yes, turns out this ballet has a unique history, working both as a critique of nationalism, a celebration of immigrants, and creates a newly unique American musical identity one year before the premiere of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Cole Porter went to Paris during WWI to work in the French Foreign Legion. He stayed in France after the war ended and was encouraged to study serious music. Porter enrolled at the Schola Cantorum and studied orchestration and counterpoint with Vincent d’Indy. In 1923, Porter set out to write a ballet based on the an immigrants experience arriving in the United States. Working with the artist Gerald Murphy, he created Within the Quota, a critique of the restrictive Emergency Quota Act of 1921. This ballet is loosely based on the life of Charlie Chaplin and its characters are movie tropes: cowboys, sweetheart, heiresses, etc. Charles Koechlin, who at this time was an up and coming composer, created the orchestration.

The Immigrant costume, by Gerald Murphy, for Within the Quota ballet, Paris, 1923 from the “Mini Book of Art”

The ballet premiered on October 23rd, 1923 at the Theatre des Champs- Élysées, Paris with the Suédois Ballet. Porter shared the premiere with Darius Milhaud’s La Création du Monde. Critics ended up praising Porter’s ballet and critiqued Milhaud’s as a succès de scandale.” Next month Within the Quota debuted in New York at the Century Theatre. After this initial run, the ballet was disappeared until the 1960s.

In 1966, Porter’s wife discovered the original 4 handed piano arrangement for the ballet. The Koechlin orchestration, originally considered lost, turned up at the International Museum of Dance in Stockholm. The curator refused to allow the score to leave the museum so to revive the ballet, the Cole Porter Trust approached Darius Milhaud and William Bolcom to prepare a new edition of the ballet. Bolcom created a new four handed piano arrangement for the American Ballet Theater, which premiered on July 1st, 1970.[1]

In 1991, the Koechlin arrangement was released from the museum and John McGlinn and the London Sinonietta recorded the ballet for EMI. I had a difficult time finding audio clips of this recording, but here is a radio station in France that includes the ballet on an episode along with other American composers like John Alden Carpenter who is also listed in the database. Within the Quota begins at the 1h 42mn mark. Listening to this recording, it’s difficult to hear whether or not a saxophone is included in the arrangement. The manuscript is now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. But given the circumstances around this work, it’s possible the saxophone was included on the premiere of the ballet.

Since this recording, the ballet has found new life on the stage. Its subject of immigration–premiering one year before the restrictive 1924 Immigration Act which limited who could emigrate to the United States–is relevant and timely given the recent anti-immigrant sentiments on the far right. Princeton and Table Top Opera staged this ballet in 2017. Cole Porter who is known for catchy melodies, lighthearted musical comedies finds himself the center a political debate still raging on. His message almost 100 years ago was clear, will we listen this time?

[1] By, ANNA KISSELGOFF. 1970. “Ballet by Cole Porter to be Danced here.” New York Times (1923-Current File), May 05, 57. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/ballet-cole-porter-be-danced-here/docview/118982526/se-2?accountid=12390.

Published by Mary Huntimer

Saxophonist, teacher, opera and silent movie enthusiast. All opinions are my own.

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