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."