The Gift of the Arts

It was Dec. 21, 1965, only four days before Christmas closed the city for a day of much-needed holiday cheer. At 8:15 p.m., the curtain of the Municipal Theatre rose to reveal the first scenes of Mobile Civic Ballet Company’s Christmas Performance. A recently hired conductor, James Yestadt, led the ballet orchestra that evening for the first time.

With dynamic skills that gained him standing ovations as conductor of the Mobile Symphony and Civic MusicAssociation and the Mobile Opera Guild, Yestadt’s direction of Strauss, Schubert and others had to be perfect and true to the greatness these composed pieces demanded. And yet there was a difference to this rendition.

Yestadt shared center stage with a collaborator. His name was Duane Dishion, artistic director and choreographer of the ballet troupe. Interrupting his career in the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo to serve in the South Pacific during World War II, Dishion afterwards resumed a life in the performing arts arena, eventually making his way to Mobile. In his third season at the creative helm of Mobile’s ballet company, Dishion presented spectators with five original dance compositions, the centerpiece being Ballabile, “a danced interpretation, or reflection, of the rhythmic impulses and melodic curves of the music.” In a decade of unparalleled social and political turmoil that drastically changed the face of America, the choreography echoed the chaotic times in which it was conceived. However, the beauty and the fluidity of the work were widely embraced by the evening’s sponsors and crowd.

Almost 50 years later, the brilliance of the event has faded. Yet today, the program designed by Robert E. Carter Studios remains. An illustration from its pages, above, highlights the artistic expression of the men whose vision brought a Christmas gift to our city. It is a small, historic reminder that not all presents come in boxes; perhaps Yestadt and Dishion’s production was a way of saying, “Merry Christmas, Mobile, and to all a good night.”

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Jacob Laurence

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