Earning their stars and stripes … Julie Kent, Angel Corella and Ethan Stiefel in Le Corsaire
American Ballet Theatre is the Hollywood of the ballet world. A cultural powerhouse with commercial imperatives, it is both image- and audience-conscious, and (in a list that reads like the ballet walk of fame) attracts the biggest stars in the business.
American Ballet Theatre arrived like a bolt from the blue in 1940. Ballet in the US was still considered a Russian art, but Richard Pleasant and Lucia Chase – two Americans with big ideas – decided to form a company of national stature. Pleasant masterminded the concept and Chase, an heiress, bankrolled and managed the company. For its astonishing debut season, the troupe fielded a full 85 dancers who presented three classical revivals, with 15 ballets by 11 living choreographers including Mikhail Fokine (from the Ballets Russes), Antony Tudor (from Britain’s Ballet Rambert) and American Agnes de Mille. Six of these were world premieres.
It was a critical sensation – and a financial disaster. After a much-reduced second season, Pleasant was dismissed, his plans for a “living museum of dance” (with Russian, American and British “wings”, and units for black and Hispanic dances) were ditched, and impresario Sol Hurok toured the company in a more traditional, Russianised guise. Behind the scenes, the company was forging ahead: Antony Tudor continued as the most significant choreographer, Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins made some of the defining works of ballet Americana (Fall River Legend, Fancy Free), George Balanchine created his masterly Theme and Variations, and a generation of American-trained dancers, notably Nora Kaye and Alicia Alonso, emerged.
In 1945, Chase and designer Oliver Smith became company directors. They soon ended Hurok’s “Russian occupation”, but the 50s were a difficult time, marked by heavy touring, precarious finances (a recurrent concern for ABT) and a steady trickle of departures. But Chase pulled the company together again in the mid-60s, focusing on the classics and offering a home to international stars, including Soviet defectors Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Baryshnikov took over as director in 1980. He dispensed with guest artists, raised the technical standard, “Sovietised” the classics and acquired works by modern-dance choreographers such as Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris. It was a direction more or less reversed in 1989, when he was replaced by Jane Herman and Oliver Smith. The company has since been under the steer of former principal dancer Kevin McKenzie, who took over in 1992, relying unashamedly on full-length classical ballets for mainstream audiences and the pulling power of an exceptional “company of stars”.
Watching American Ballet Theatre
Under the current direction, ABT focuses on classical blockbusters (Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet etc), supplemented with “feature-length” new works in an accessible, classical style. The consensus is that the classics are looking great, but the new works are underwhelming (a problem that’s hardly unique to this company). Still, things may look up: Alexei Ratmansky, one of today’s few hotshot ballet choreographers, has just left the Bolshoi to become resident choreographer at ABT.
Whatever the choreography, you will see stars – lots of them – and they will shine and dazzle and bathe you in their light. Which is good enough for most.
There’s another, little-seen side to ABT: during its three-week annual season at New York’s City Center, it presents a more arthouse-friendly programme of historical fare and newer, more experimental works. You may not get the big names, but even ABT’s second-rank dancers are first-rate.
Directors have defined the company. Antony Tudor is the nearest ABT has had to a “house” choreographer, but it’s the dancers who present ABT’s public face. The list includes Nora Kaye and Alicia Alonso from the early years, later Carla Fracci, Erik Bruhn, Cynthia Gregory, Natalia Makarova, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland and Fernando Bujones. Recent stars include Americans Ethan Stiefel, David Hallberg, Julie Kent and Gillian Murphy, Russians Diana Vishneva, Nina Ananiashvili and Vladimir Malakhov, and so many Latin dancers – Julio Bocca, Alessandra Ferri, Angel Corella, Herman Cornejo, Marcelo Gomes, José Manuel Carreño, Paloma Herrera – that some wags have dubbed the company “Latin-American Ballet Theatre”.
ABT’s first star, Nora Kaye (born Nora Koreff, to Russian parents), had a famously strong Brooklyn twang. At her memorial service, Alicia Alonso said in her heavy Cuban accent, “The reason I speak English so poorly is that I learned it from Nora Kaye.”
In their own words
“During that first season, almost every night was an opening night. They had ballets by Fokine, Mordkin and Adolph Bolm. They had premieres by Tudor and Eugene Loring … At the end, everything went into storage. They were hoping they’d have the money for the next year’s rent.” – Agnes de Mille remembers ABT’s opening season, New York Times, 1990
“The most interesting choreographers at that time were modern-dance choreographers, and I opened the door for them.” – Mikhail Baryshnikov on his time as director of ABT
“Let my legacy be one of versatility. Dancers need to be capable of putting on a style the way they put on a suit of clothes.” – ABT director Kevin McKenzie, Dance Magazine, 2003
In other words
“ABT is one of the world’s best-known ballet companies and, since its birth in 1940, has been home to a roll call of international stars.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2009
“ABT don’t offer purist danse d’école but customised, chrome-plated classics …. A bit flash? Absolutely, and all the more exciting for it.” – Luke Jennings, Observer, 2007
“The public identifies the stars with the company and the company with the stars.” – John Rockwell, New York Times, 2006
“Why ask for the moon? We have the stars.”
“I thought it stood for Abs, Bums and Thighs.”
New York City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet (the two other companies forming part of American ballet’s holy trinity of pre-eminent dance companies) and National Ballet of Cuba (founded by one of ABT’s early stars, Alicia Alonso).
Now watch this
Sallie Wilson in a 1973 performance of Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire (1942)
Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn in Giselle, 1967
Mikhail Baryshnikov, Elaine Kudo and Susan Jaffe in Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove, one of ABT’s first modern-dance commissions
Pas de Trois from Swan Lake, with Herman Cornejo, Erica Cornejo, Xiomara Reyes
Where to see them next
See the Amercian Ballet Theatre website for performance dates.