By Diane Claytor
What do Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalie Makarova, Ethan Stiefel, Gelsey Kirkland, Vladimir Mallakhov and Carla Fracci all have in common (ok — besides the fact that they are well known incredible ballet dancers)? Each of them was a principal dancer with the world famous American Ballet Theatre (ABT).
Considered by many to be one of the great classical dance companies in the world, the New York-based ABT was recognized by both the US Senate and House of Representatives in 2006 as being “America’s National Ballet Company.” At that time, Congress, in its resolution, expressed appreciation for the “cultural and educational contributions of the American Ballet Theatre.”
In 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts presented its very first grant to ABT, calling the company “a national treasure,” and the New York Post recently wrote that “one of the most beautiful sights in dance is American Ballet Theatre in full flight.”
Formed in 1937 by former Bolshoi Ballet dancer Mikhail Mordikin and his New York school students (and known then as the Mordikin Ballet), two years later the company was reorganized and its name changed to Ballet Theatre by co-founder Lucia Chase (one of Mordikin’s students and leading ballerinas) and Richard Pleasant. Their goal at the time: develop a repertoire of classical ballets and encourage young choreographers to create new works. The goal today, according to their website, remains pretty much the same: ABT is “committed to presenting and preserving the great masterpieces of classical ballet as well as nurturing and celebrating the modern masters, thereby ensuring a healthy dance legacy for future generations.”
Pleasant wanted ABT to be a true democracy, representing America in spirit. To implement this, the company used four ballet masters so that one person would not be in control, eschewed the numerous ranks of performers found in the Paris Opera Ballet, recruited choreographers and dancers from all over the world, and demonstrated awareness of the political and social climate of the time.
The Ballet Theatre made its debut performance in January 1940. Chase and set designer Oliver Smith remained at the helm of the company, serving as Artistic Directors for the next 40 years and staging works by both the 19th and 20th centuries’ foremost choreographers, including George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp and Antony Tudor.
Upon her death in 1986, an article on Chase in the arts section of the New York Times stated, “American Ballet Theatre would not be here today if it had not been for Lucia Chase. Nor can one separate the international reputation of the company from Miss Chase’s association with Ballet Theater… [her] penchant for the big picture led her in 1967 to produce – over the opposition of an artistic committee that included Jerome Robbins and Agnes deMille – David Blair’s four-act ”Swan Lake,” the company’s first full-length version of the ballet. Although Ballet Theater always had one-act versions of the classics or their excerpts, this production paved the way for the company’s other full-length 19th-century classics. By creating a home for them in America, Ballet Theater proved that American dancers had as much right as any foreign dancers to these ballets. These were also the ballets that became the most popular entries in the repertory.”
Mikhail Baryshnikov took over as Artistic Director in 1980, continuing in that role for nine years. During his tenure, he worked to redefine the company’s classical repertoire, reworking and restaging many of the classics.
In 1992, former ABT principal dancer Kevin McKenzie was appointed Artistic Director; he remains committed to maintaining the Company’s vast repertoire as well as bringing the art of dance theatre to the great stages of the world.
With a slogan of “Bringing Dance to America and American Dance to the World,” ABT has an annual 8-week season (May-June) at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and tours the world the rest of the year. The company annually performs for more than 600,000 people in the US alone and over the years has made more than 30 international tours to 42 countries, including being the first American dance company to perform in the Soviet Union (in 1960).
Educating Young Dancers
One of ABT’s stated primary missions is “encouraging and nurturing young talent” and it offers a variety of learning opportunities for dancers from a wide range of skills, backgrounds and experiences.
ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School offers classes for children and young dancers at a pre-professional level; its ABT National Training Curriculum, which incorporates elements of French, Italian and Russian schools, teaches dance instructors how to train students to use their bodies correctly, focusing on kinetics and coordination, as well as anatomy and proper body alignment. Artistically, the National Training Curriculum strives to provide dance students with a rich knowledge of classical ballet technique and the ability to adapt to all styles and techniques of dance.
A partnership with New York University offers the first ever graduate program in Dance Education with a concentration in Ballet Pedagogy.
But ABT’s best known education program may be its Summer Intensive, which has earned a reputation for being one of the most thorough and rewarding experiences a student can have. According to Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, “The mission of ABT’s Summer Intensive is to cultivate a universal understanding of the art form at its highest level, emphasizing not only the importance of high quality and brilliant technique, but also dance as an expressive vehicle to create art.” Its 2013 curriculum included classes in ballet technique, pointe, partnering, and dance history as well as jazz, hip-hop, yoga, nutrition and injury prevention.
A recent review in the New York Times said, “To watch American Ballet Theatre today is sometimes to witness ballet history being made. … in Frederick Ashton’s one-act “Dream,” the season’s most illustrious and perfect production, the company is, from top to bottom, at least as good as today’s Royal Ballet …. Ballet Theater, in fact, is often better.”
Diane Claytor, a Chicago native, has spent most of her adult life living in the East Bay and working for several different non-profit organizations. Although admittedly not a dance aficionado, she enjoys all types of music and is probably happiest when she’s plugged into her mp3 player listening to whatever the mood dictates.