Eugene Von Grona, (January 23, 1908 – March 29, 2000) was a German professional dancer and choreographer. He was born in Berlin. As a child he visited the United States quite frequently, where he became enamored with the cakewalk and minstrel shows. By the 1920s he finally made his move to the United States with his wife Leni Bouvier. Both dancers, they were fascinated by the new artistic innovations of the Harlem Renaissance. He enjoyed the sounds of Duke Ellington and other ragtime favorites. Von Grona began dancing and directing ballets at the Roxy Theatre in 1935.
Quickly he was confronted with racial boundaries, as many American theaters were segregated by law or custom. Performing opportunities were extremely limited to black dancers, and many ballet studios would not accept black students. He decided that the dancers at Roxy were too light and stated, "I want them black, black, all Negro."
Not long after, Von Grona established the First American Negro Ballet. He wanted to blend the ballet technique with Harlem. He began by advertising in newspapers and even offering scholarships to prospective dancers. His all-black company was composed of 20 dancers.
The company debuted on November 21, 1937, at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. The dances, including The Firebird, were accompanied by an all-black member symphony, and included musical selections by W. C. Handy, Ellington, and Stravinsky. Under Von Grona's direction his dancers, regardless of race, were finally presented as true artists.
Although the company's premier was a critical moment for the future of dance in America, its success wasn't sustainable. The American Negro Ballet Company survived for barely a year and ended in 1938. Thanks to Von Grona's artistic motivation many other choreographers followed in his footsteps by bringing black Americans to the stage. Just a few years later, the First Negro Classic Ballet premiered in Los Angeles, and by 1954 the New York Negro Ballet was already touring internationally.
Firebird, one of Eugene Von Grona's most famous works, was performed in 1937 at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem by the First American Negro Ballet. The work was a ballet composed of two scenes, lasting for 45 minutes.