American Ballet Theatre

New chapter in our ongoing series of Ballet History articles. This time we look at ABT, in light of its current London tour.


American Ballet Theatre (ABT) has always been associated with blockbuster ballets, touring in large theatres and big ballet stars. The name immediately brings to mind legends of the past like Baryshnikov, Kirkland, Bujones and Makarova and, before them, Alicia Alonso, Nora Kaye, John Kriza, as well as international artists like Anton Dolin, André EglevskyAlicia Markova and Igor Youskevitch. ABT is nowadays home to famous dancers like Marcelo Gomes, David Hallberg, Julie Kent, Gillian Murphy, Veronika Part and Daniil Simkin, and to one of the most important ballet choreographers of recent times, Alexei Ratmansky.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in Les Sylphides. Photo: MIRA / ABT ©

The Company

The foundations for ABT were laid in the twenties. Mikhail Mordkin, former dancer with the Bolshoi and Ballets Russes first came to North America with Anna Pavlova in 1910 and later decided to tour the country with his own troupe, the “All Star Imperial Russian Ballet” (1911-1912). Mordkin would eventually settle in the US (1924) after the breakout of the Russian Revolution. He became a U.S. ballet pioneer when he staged the country’s first complete production of Swan Lake in 1927.

In 1937 Mordkin decided to create “the Mordkin Ballet” with students from his New York school. One of his students, Lucia Chase was to become the company’s leading ballerina, performing title roles in Giselle and The Sleeping Beauty. With the restructuring of Mordkin Ballet in 1939, Chase stepped in to provide financial backup while former Hollywood agent Richard Pleasant took over management. Both had big plans for the new company – renamed “Ballet Theatre” when Mordkin stepped out – which was to become “a gallery of dance rather than the vision of a single choreographer”.

Lucia Chase’s plans for Ballet Theatre included developing a rich repertoire of well-known ballets alongside new works. The company’s first (lossmaking) season featured none less than Mikhail Fokine, Anton Dolin, Agnes de Mille, Bronislava Nijinska and Antony Tudor.

Left: Ballet Program. Met Season 1942. Right: Lucia Chase as the Eldest Sister in Tudor's Pillar of Fire. Photo: Maurice Seymour / ABT ©

ABT: Evolution

1940 - Ballet Theatre’s first season at Rockefeller Center. Eighteen works are presented over four weeks.

1941 - After financial losses, a more modest second season is presented at the Majestic Theatre with new works shown at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Richard Pleasant leaves; the company tours the more popular Russian classics under impresario Sol Hurok.

1942 – 1948 - Chase continues to develop the repertoire adding works that would shape the American ballet style: Robbins’s Fancy Free (1944), Balanchine’s Theme & Variations (1947), de Mille’s Fall River Legend (1948) as well as Tudor’s Pillar of Fire (1942), Romeo and Juliet (1943) and Undertow (1945).

Craig Salstein, Sascha Radetsky and José Manuel Carreño in Fancy Free. Photo: Gene Schiavone / ABT ©

1945 - The company had kept performing throughout World War II. In the post-war Hurok steps out and Oliver Smith becomes co-director with Chase.

1957 - The company changes its name to American Ballet Theatre and decides to focus on ballet classics after further financial issues.

1960 – 1970 - With favorable financial conditions & private funding, ballet now booms in the US. ABT turns its focus to recruiting big “stars”, including Soviet defectors Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova. Company legends of this period include Fernando Bujones, Cynthia Gregory, Gelsey Kirkland, Kevin McKenzie, Kirk Peterson, Marianna Tcherkassky, Martine Van Hamel, with Erik Bruhn, Carla Fracci and Toni Lander as guest stars.

Left: Fernando Bujones in La Sylphide. Right: Gelsey Kirkland in Giselle. Photos: MIRA / ABT ©

1977 - ABT has its first (spring) season in the Metropolitan Opera House, its new official home.

1980 - Mikhail Baryshnikov takes over as AD and adds contemporary works by Merce Cunningham, Mark Morris, Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp to the repertoire.

1989- 1992 - Baryshnikov is replaced by Jane Herman and Oliver Smith, followed by Kevin McKenzie in 1992. McKenzie succeeds in keeping the company afloat through increasingly cash-strapped times.

1990 – The McKenzie era is associated with new ballet stars like Julio Bocca, Angel Corella, José Manuel Carreño, Alessandra Ferri, Paloma Herrera, Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel.

Cynthia Gregory as Odette and Rudolf Nureyev as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, Act II Photo: Martha Swope / ABT ©

ABT: Today

Kevin McKenzie’s tenure has prioritised full-length narrative ballets in order to satisfy the demands of traditional ballet audiences. As such, one of ABT’s recent acquisitions is John Neumeier’s story ballet Lady of the Camellias. During Met season the company stays true to its reputation of a vehicle for big ballet stars; audience favorites like Berlin Staatsballett’s Polina Semionova, the Bolshoi’s Natalia Osipova and The Royal Ballet’s Alina Cojocaru are all scheduled to appear this season.

In January 2009, after a long period without an in-house choreographer to follow from Tudor and Robbins, McKenzie appointed  former Bolshoi AD Alexei Ratmansky as “Artist in Residence”, a title that allows Ratmansky the flexibility of working with other companies while creating and staging works for ABT.

On the Dnieper 2

Veronika Part, Marcelo Gomes and Paloma Herrera in Ratmansky's On the Dnieper. Photo: Gene Schiavone / ABT ©

Since joining ABT Ratmansky has created ballet hits like On The Dnieper, Seven Sonatas and a new production of The Nutcracker. The Bright Stream, a ballet he originally choreographed on the Bolshoi, has also been successfully brought into the company’s repertoire and staged in Washington.

Today ABT continues to try and reach new audiences via extensive touring. Throughout its 60-year history, ABT has appeared in 126 cities spread around 42 countries. Every year the company has a spring season in the Met, its home theatre.

Although ABT has no associate school it is connected to a small studio company of  younger dancers (aged 16 to 20), ABT II, which feeds into ABT and other leading professional companies.

Hee Seo as Juliet and Cory Stearns as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet Photo: Rosalie O’Connor / ABT ©

Videos

Legends

  • Martine Van Hamel as Myrtha in Giselle [link]
  • Cynthia Gregory dances the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty [link]
  • Eric Bruhn and Carla Fracci in an extract of Giselle [link]
  • Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland in the Act I Pas de Deux from Baryshnikov’s The Nutcracker for TV [link]
  • Natalia Makarova and Ivan Nagy in Swan Lake, Act 2 Pas de Deux [link]
  • Mikhail Baryshnikov and Marianna Tcherkassky in the waltz from Les Sylphides [link]
  • Fernando Bujones and Natalia Makarova in Don Quixote [part 1]  [part 2]
  • Julio Bocca and Alessandra Ferri in the Balcony Pas de Deux from MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet [link]

Natalia Makarova as Nikiya in La Bayadère. Photo: MIRA / ABT ©

The Current Generation

Left: Michele Wiles as Kitri and David Hallberg as Basilio in Don Quixote. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor / ABT ©. Right: Xiomara Reyes as Medora and Herman Cornejo as Ali, The Slave in Le Corsaire. Photo: MIRA / ABT ©

Sources and Further Information

  1. Step-by-step guide to dance: American Ballet Theatre by Sanjoy Roy. The Guardian, March 2009 [link]
  2. Company History at ABT’s website [link]
  3. American Ballet Theatre by Dick Andros via Andros on Ballet [link]
  4. Wikipedia entry for Mikhail Mordkin [link]
  5. Wikipedia entry for Lucia Chase [link]
  6. The Ballet Companion: A Dancer’s Guide to the Technique, Traditions and Joys of Ballet by Eliza Gaynor Minden. Simon & Schuster Ltd, US, 2006. ISBN-10: 074326407X ISBN-13: 978-0743264075
  7. Understanding Ballet by Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp. Outlet, 1976. ISBN-10: 0517526492 ISBN-13: 978-0517526491
  8. Three Choreographers Bound by their Way with a Ballet Twist by Alastair Macaulay. NYT, January 2010 [link]
  9. A “Bright Stream” to Channel Fun by Sarah Kaufman. Washington Post, January 2011 [link]
  10. Down on the Dacha, Farmers showing off Expressive Footwork by Alastair Macaulay. NYT , January 2011 [link]

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.

8 Comments

  • October 29, 2011

    The Lady of the Camellias

    [...] to Stuttgart and Hamburg Ballets, Lady of the Camellias is currently part of the repertory of American Ballet Theatre, Paris Opera Ballet, Bavarian State Ballet, Ballet del Teatro alla Scala and Dresden [...]

  • April 11, 2011

    Emilia

    Hi MaryLou,

    Many thanks for your comment & lovely feedback, unfortunately we don’t have this pic in higher def as we obtained it directly from ABT specifically for the purpose of illustrating this post. However, have you tried searching for Hallberg on Tumblr? Ppl share amazing dance photos there.

    All the best!

  • April 11, 2011

    MaryLou

    Excuse me. I’m a big fan of D Hallberg and I appreciated greatly the DonQ pic you posted, so I was wondering if you had it in a higher resolution or if you could link me your source. I’d soooo love it!
    Congrats for your wonderful blog from a passionate Italian follower! xxx

  • March 10, 2011

    Ratmansky Fever

    [...] Alexei Ratmansky the busiest ballet choreographer in the world? ABT has just announced he is undertaking a new version of The Firebird, while the Paris Opera Ballet [...]

  • [...] wonder if ABT had heard our prayers when they decided to program a London season of mixed bills, leaving the full [...]

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lynn Hayes, Moonbootica. Moonbootica said: RT @theballetbag American Ballet Theatre http://bit.ly/elc7OG [...]

  • February 4, 2011

    Emilia

    @retire – many thanks for your comment & clarification

    Addendum:
    As per retire’s comment, ABT also has a pre-professional division – Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School – with currently over 70 students from all around the world, ranging from ages 10 to 18

  • February 4, 2011

    retire

    Actually, The JKO school is a relative new affiliation to ABT
    http://abt.org/education/jko_school.asp

    A recent performance by students showed dancers of remarkable purity and technique, ready to absorb ant stylistic nuances inherent in a company or by a choreographer.