Cole Porter’s Immigration Protest… Ballet

Before he was famous for witty Broadway fare, Hoosier composer Cole Porter dabbled in political critique with a little-known production inspired by an anti-immigration law.

A century ago, after years of welcoming immigrants, the U.S. government hung a “no vacancy” sign on the doors of the American dream by passing the Emergency Quota Act, inspiring Indiana’s own Cole Porter to use his art for activism in the form of a rare protest ballet, Within the Quota. The 1921 law capped the number of immigrants based on country of origin and targeted Southern and Eastern Europeans, among other “undesirable” factions. It was deemed an effort to save the American culture and workforce—familiar rhetoric used by the Trump administration, which saw the rate of legal immigration into the United States halved during its tenure.

Like modern immigration laws, the Emergency Quota Act inspired a wave of pro-immigration activism, and Porter, who was born to the state’s wealthiest family and lived abroad after graduating from Yale, was part of it. Within the Quota is a ballet scored for four pianos, with a storyline and satirical stage set by fellow expatriate and Yale graduate Gerald Murphy and orchestration by French composer Charles Koechlin. Porter’s only symphonic composition, Within the Quota is void of the typical clever lyrics that later made him famous. He wrote it while living in Venice, years before he was a household name, and the ballet debuted in Paris in 1923, performed by Swedish modern dance ensemble Les Ballets Suédois. The one-act sketch soon jumped the pond for an American tour of nearly 70 shows before its final curtain call in 1924.

Listeners waited another four years before Porter’s enduring melody “Let’s Do It” was a hit, and Anything Goes wouldn’t open for a decade. Yet unlike the lyrics, the score from Within the Quota is completely Cole. “It’s infectiously great and there are consistencies [with his later style],” says music historian and Princeton professor Simon Morrison, who found the ballet in the archives at Yale several years ago and revived it for a Princeton dance troupe in 2017. He also notes its modern relevance. “The ballet pantomime score draws on the ragtime tradition and blues, and those inform [Porter’s] later parlor songs. The harmonies are sophisticated, but you find the same kind of ironic twists and turns that are satirical and built with odd key changes,” just as in the composer’s better-known work.

Morrison says that the quotas were certainly used as pretext, but the ballet rather deals with the clichés of American reality. The story follows an immigrant in New York City, who encounters every Yankee stereotype, from jazz baby to cowboy to heiress to movie star, and is repeatedly interrupted by an American Puritan working against him. It plays on the idea that our top commodity is pop culture and mass entertainment, and in the end, the hero immigrant is embraced by Hollywood as a movie star.