History of Ballet Series; Volume 7, Ballet in America

Here we are at the final entry of our History of Ballet Series. We’ve seen ballet in Europe, we’ve seen it in Russia, we’ve watched it grow from court dance to theatrical spectacle. Now, we round off the history by bringing it to the United States where it continued to grow and develop as a living art form through the 20th century and on into the 21st!

 

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Like so many other things in the ballet world, American ballet can thank the Ballet Russes for laying its foundation. The touring company sparked interest in the American public. Thus it was that in the early 1930’s, a young Harvard graduate named Lincoln Kirstein approached George Balanchine (a Ballet Russes alum) about creating an America ballet company.

GeorgeBalanchine LincolnKirstein

                 George Balanchine                    Lincoln Kirstein

George Balanchine was supportive of this idea, but felt that to start with a professional company would be premature. This is summed up by Mr. Balanchine’s famous quote, “But first, a ballet school.”

The School of American Ballet (SAB) opened its doors on January  2, 1934. In time, it would become the feeder school for the New York City Ballet (NYCB), training some of America’s finest ballet dancers. The parent company, however, was a long way off from its inception.

SAB

Mr. Kirstein’s dream of an American ballet company would eventually come to fruition, but not without many fits and starts. The first company to be formed out of  SAB was aptly named the American Ballet. The nascent company’s short life was fraught with struggle and strife. It’s debut performance was delayed by rain.  It’s first tour  met an untimely demise. It’s residency at the Metropolitan Opera lasted only three years before it ended with disagreements.

 

While American Ballet was in residency with the Metropolitan  opera, Kirstein formed  a small touring BillytheKidcompany with students from SAB and a few dancers from American Ballet. He called it Ballet Caravan. The small company  toured Northeastern America. The most enduring work to come out of the short-lived touring company was Billy the Kid, with a libretto by Kirstein and choreography by Eugene Loring. Once American Ballet broke with the Opera, the two companies merged for a time, becoming the American Ballet Caravan. The merged company toured to South America for five months, but ended up closing down operations following the tour.

In the end, the United States’ first professional ballet company was disbanded for the duration of World War II as Lincoln Kirstein served in the army, and  George Balanchine departed to serve as a choreographer for the Ballet Russes di Montecarlo.

But the dream was not dead.

The School of American Ballet continued to train students, with or without a parent company. The school’s perseverance was the only indicator that Lincoln Kirstein hadn’t give up on his dream. Indeed, once the War had ended, Kirstein and Balanchine rejoined to found a new company. In 1946 Ballet Society was born. The new company presented its works at New York’s City Center for Music and Drama. The performance and repertoire were so well received that the chairman of City Center’s finance committee, Morton Baum, encouraged Kirstein to reform Ballet Society  as a New York City Ballet.

And that’s just what he did.

City Center for Music and Drama City Center for Music and Drama

In 1948 NYCB was officially formed. George Balanchine invited a young Jerome Robbins  to serve as the artistic director. It’s no wonder that with choreographers like George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins headlining, NYCB became a worldwide force in the ballet world. New works were consistently pumped into the company’s repertoire, making it one of the largest repertoires to date, boasting over 150 works!

JeromeRobbinsJerome Robbins 

 

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The company remained the resident ballet company at the City Center for Music and Drama until 1964, when it moved to into the brand new State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater) at the Lincoln Center. NYCB is the theater’s resident company, performing a 23-week season. In the summer, NYCB moves to its resident theater in Saratoga Springs, NY – the first American ballet company to have two permanent venues!

Lincoln Kirstein served as General Director of NYCB until he retired in 1989. Mr. Kirstein died in 1996.

George Balanchine serve as Ballet Master and choreographer for NYCB until his death in 1983.

Following Mr. Balanchine’s death, Jerome Robbins and Peter Martins served jointly as Ballet Master in Chief. As Mr. Robbins’ health declined, Mr. Martins stepped up, taking the reigns of the company in 1990, and running NYCB with competence and confidence ever since.

New York City Ballet has become a repository for the works of Balanchine, Robbins, and Martins. The company’s style focuses on the aesthetic and technique of classical ballet, placing a great emphasis on form. Instead of relying on a storyline to drive the dance, music became the catalyst for many NYCB ballets.  Balanchine’s concept of “pure dance,” or dance for dance’s sake, became the mold for NYCB choreography and pushed the dancers further than even they would have expected. Under Balanchine’s watch, NYCB explored and stretched classical technique more than it had ever been before.

But that’s just the New York City Ballet. The company opened the playing field for American ballet companies, and many have sprung up  in NYCB’s awesome shadow.

One of the most notable is the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Founded in 1940 by  Lucia Chase and Richard Pleasant as Ballet Theatre (it wouldn’t gain its  full name until 1957), the company began as something of a touring library of ballet. To this day, the company prides itself on remaining as strong in revived or revised classics as it is in works of established contemporary choreographers.

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                            Lucia Chase                   Antony Tudor

ABT’s artistic path was a polar opposite from NYCB. At the invitation of Ballet Theatre (before “American” was added), famed English choreographer Antony Tudor moved to America from England and began to shape a new dimension for ballet. Tudor rejected the idea of dance for dance’s sake (a concept that helped NYCB to thrive) in favor of choreography that utilized a psychological element. Under Tudor’s direction, ABT dancers were required to be exceptional actors as well as technical dancers. Tudor dealt with the motivations and emotions of ordinary people, and replaced the stylized poses of classical ballet with natural gestures.  ABT suddenly was presenting ballet that was more organic, a move that set it apart from NYCB  and made room in the same city for another major ballet company.

ABT attracted many major ballet superstars such as Alicia Alonso (Cuba) and Erik Bruhn (Denmark). In the 1970’s Natalia Makarova danced with the company, eventually joined by another Soviet expatriate, Mikhail Baryshnikov.  This constant flow of ballet superstars helped the company to grow and maintain its status as a preeminent purveyor of classical dance.

MikhailBaryshnikov

In 1980 Baryshnikov became the artistic director. Under Baryshnikov’s leadership, ABT experienced a refining and strengthening of classical traditions as well as the restaging and refurbishing of many classical ballets. When he stepped  down in 1990 his successors, Jane Hermann and Oliver Smith, continued in Mr. Baryshnikov’s wake by establishing an agenda dedicated to maintaining the classics of the past while continuing to innovate for the future – an agenda held to by many of the leading ballet companies in America today.

Of the ballet companies that have grown in the United States over the last century, NYCB and ABT are arguable two of the most influential. They built American interest in the art form, cultivated American talent, and created two distinct artistic models on which to build. The history of American ballet begins with these companies.

Of course, these are only two of many major companies across the United States. From San Francisco Ballet to Houston Ballet, from Joffrey Ballet to California Ballet, the plentitude of professional ballet companies is staggering. Americans across the country continue to enjoy, support, train, and revel in classical dance.

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The history of ballet does not end  here. The art form continues to thrive, grow, evolve, and expand as the years progress. New choreographers, new companies, and new dynamos will shape the world of ballet and dance for generations to come. While we end our History of Ballet Series, our coverage of the history of dance has only just begun!

 

 

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