Jay Leyda and Si-Lan Chen Leyda Papers

Date Range: 19131987
Survey Conducted: Mon, 2008-10-27
Creator: Leyday, Jay; Leyday, Si-Lan Chen

History: Si-Lan Chen was a dancer, choreographer and actor who pioneered the use of Chinese dance elements in modern dance and films such as “Anna and the King of Siam” (1946) and “The Keys to the Kingdom” (1944). Chen was born in Trinidad in 1905 to parents of African and Chinese descent. In 1912, she moved to London, where she studied dance at the Stedman Academy. In 1926 she moved to China to join her father, who had become secretary for Sun Yat-sen as well as Foreign Minister of the Canton government. However, after Chiang Kai-shek took power in 1927, the family fled to Moscow, where Chen enrolled in the Bolshoi Ballet School. She soon switched to Vera Maya’s school, finding Maya’s approach, which included both traditional ballet and more loosely organized “plastic dance,” more suitable to her own style. Chen gave her first important recital in 1930 at the Moscow Conservatory. Shortly after, she was widely recognized as the first modern Soviet dancer.

In 1933, she met Jay Leyda, an American film historian and filmmaker attending Moscow State Film School. They were married in 1934, and throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s toured the U.S., Mexico and the West Indies performing in benefits for China relief. In the mid-1940s Chen worked in Hollywood as a choreographer, dance instructor and occasionally appeared on film. Her career was complicated by her long struggle to obtain U.S. citizenship. Chen’s biography, Footnote to History, was published in 1984.

Summary: The collection contains the combined papers of Jay Leyda and Si-Lan Chen Leyda, including correspondence, clippings, scripts, research files and articles. Of particular significance are files in Series III (Chinese Cinema), containing Leyda’s clippings, correspondence, film scripts and research notes. Also included is a typescript of his book Dianying; an account of films and the film audience in China (1972). The Si Lan Chen Leyda papers, contained in Series VI through IX, document her dancing career and personal activities. The small biographical series contains her FBI file, and documents related to her travels. Si Lan Chen’s correspondence, contained in Series VII, is principally with her family and Jay Leyda. There is also correspondence with Pearl S. Buck and Langston Hughes, and a file relating to immigration issues. Her dance career is documented in Series VIII by programs, flyers, dance notations and drawings, a scrapbook, and radio interview transcripts. Series IX contains her writings, including the typescript of her autobiography, Footnote to History (1984), a diary, autobiographical notebooks and unpublished writings.

Total Size: 15.25 linear feer
APA-related Size: 3.5 linear feet
Languages of materials: English
Arrangement: alphabetical
Location: Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University
Bibliographic Control: finding aid
Finding Aid Link: http://dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/tamwag/leyda.html
Conditions Governing Access: Contact repository for detailed information on conditions governing access.

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