American Ballet Theatre Materials at SF PALM
The American Ballet Theatre originated from the Mordkin Ballet, a performing arm of Mikhail Mordkin's ballet school in New York. In 1939, one of Mordkin's soloists, Lucia Chase, joined forces with the Mordkin Ballet's manager, Richard Pleasant, to form a full-fledged American ballet company. The intent of the new company, initially known as Ballet Theatre, was to increase American appreciation of ballet and to recruit local talent to perform an eclectic mixture of classic and contemporary ballets. Chase and Pleasant also desired to create a national ballet in the tradition of the court theatres of Europe. Building upon the balletomania generated by tours of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Pleasant and Chase set out to create a company which would match the quality of Russian companies, yet provide an American interpretation of old and new works. The first season, which began on January 11, 1940 at the Center Theatre in New York, included a premier of Eugene Loring's The Great American Goof, along with performances of Fokine's Les Sylphides and Mordkin's Voices of Spring. Dancers featured in the performances consisted of soloists from Mordkin's company, along with expatriate Russians and several young Americans. Among the first ballerinas associated with Ballet Theatre numbered Patricia Bowman, Karen Conrad, Viola Essen, and Annabelle Lyon. Male partners included Adolph Bolm, Anton Dolin, Dimitri Romanoff, and Yurek Shabelevsky. Many different choreographers were invited to contribute to the company's repertoire in an effort to present works reflecting different dance traditions, such as classic, Russian, American, Afro-American, Spanish, and British. Despite generous personal support from Lucia Chase, the Ballet Theatre underwent a financial crisis soon after its founding. This led to Richard Pleasant's departure in 1942. Chase then turned to the American impresario, Sol Hurok, to rescue the company from its shaky financial situation. Hurok agreed to manage bookings with the proviso that a more Russian flavor be injected into the company so that it could compete with other groups touring the U.S. He therefore began to recruit choreographers and dancers who could create and perform a repertoire in the characteristic Ballets Russes style. This association lasted until 1945, when Oliver Smith, a well-known set designer, joined Chase as co-director.
During the 1940s, the Ballet Theatre successfully completed tours of the United States and attracted many more well-known dancers and choreographers. New dancers added to the roster included Alicia and Fernando Alonso, John Kriza, Jerome Robbins, Nana Gollner, and Muriel Bentley. A definite Russian influence permeated the company throughout the decade. Massine and Lichine contributed choreographic works and Alicia Makarova, Irina Baronova, Yurek Lazowsky, and Nicholas Orloff left Russian dance companies to tour with the Ballet Theatre. At the same time, however, the company premiered two masterpieces of American ballet, Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free and George Balanchine's Theme and Variations. These two ballets exemplified the two aspects of ballet the company was to become known for: classicism and character dancing.
In the fifties, the Ballet Theatre distinguished itself from Balanchine and Kirstein's New York City Ballet, founded in 1948, by becoming a predominently touring company. While the NYCB became known as New York's resident ballet company, the Ballet Theatre continued to develop its vision to be a national company. To reflect its orientation, the Ballet Theatre eventually changed its name to the American Ballet Theatre in 1957.
1950 marked the occasion of the company's first European tour, under the sponsorship of the State Department. The company also completed a one-year association with the Metropolitan Opera as its official ballet. Several more European and South American tours followed, culminating in a 15th Anniversary Gala. On May 7, 1956, choreographers received a new venue to present experimental works with the establishment of the Phoenix Theatre of the Ballet Theatre Workshop. Among the prominent choreographic works featured numbered MacMillan's Journey and Ross's Pecan. Soloists who continued to perform during this decade included Nora Kaye, Igor Youskevitch, John Kriza, John Taras, and Mary Ellen Moylan. The company also acquired two new soloists, Violette Verdy and Royes Fernandez, for a tour of North Africa and Europe in 1957.
The decade of the sixties opened with a landmark tour to the U.S.S.R., where ABT became the first American company to dance in Soviet theaters. In 1962, ABT formed an arrangement for financial support from the Washington Ballet Guild and moved its headquarters from New York to Washington; this affiliation lasted for one year and then was disbanded due to financial problems. ABT returned to residence in New York and launched a tour of South America and Mexico. At its 25th Annniversary Gala in New York in 1965, the company presented Bournoville's La Sylphide and de Mille's The Wind in the Mountains. The company's financial straits were alleviated in during this same year, when the National Council for the Arts awarded a $100,000 emergency grant to the company. In response to increasing public enthusiasm for ballet, ABT mounted a full production of Swan Lake in 1967. Produced by David Blair, this production featured a recent recruit from the San Francisco Ballet, Cynthia Gregory.
During the seventies, many well-known dancers joined the company as soloists or guest artists. These included Martine van Hamel, Rudolf Nureyev, Ivan Nagy, Gelsey Kirkland, and Fernando Bujones. In addition, two Russian superstars, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov, joined in 1970 and 1974 respectively. Both Makarova and Baryshnikov re-staged Russian ballets, including La Bayadere, The Nutcracker, and Don Quixote. Antony Tudor became an artistic director in 1974 and continued the trend towards presentation of classic works. Many dancers worked their way up through the ranks of the corps de ballet to become principal dancers, such as Clark Tippet, Mariana Tcherkassky, Michael Owen, Bonnie Mathis, Gelsey Kirkland, and Terry Orr. Baryshnikov also revived many "lost" or infrequently performed Balanchine ballets and commissioned contemporary choreographers David Gordon, Mark Morris, and Karole Armitage to produce works for the company.
In 1980, Mikhail Baryshnikov succeeded Chase and Smith as director of ABT. Baryshnikov shifted the artistic policy of the company towards formal classicism and focused upon producing Kirov- derived versions of classic ballets. He also augmented the repertoire with more adventurous works, such as revivals of "lost" Balanchine ballets and commissions from contemporary choreographers such as Choo San Goh, John McFall, and Twyla Tharp. In 1984, Baryshnikov invited Sir Kenneth MacMillan to join the company as artistic associate and John Taras to join as associate director. MacMillan helped to create a lavish production of Romeo and Juliet which showcased such talented soloists as Patrick Bissell, Leslie Browne, Kevin McKenzie, and Susan Jaffe. Baryshnikov also produced several full-length classics, such as Cinderella and Swan Lake. ABT principal dancer Clark Tippett also choreographed several well- received ballets, including Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 and Enough Said.
By the late eighties, ABT faced serious financial problems and debts amounting to $1 million. Executive Director Jane Hermann proposed large budget cuts, as well as the release of Baryshnikov's right-hand man, Charles France. Due to clashes over these personnel and financial directives, Baryshnikov resigned from his post in 1989. In 1990, the Ballet Theatre Foundation appointed Jane Hermann and Oliver Smith as co-directors for the company. They inaugurated a new artistic policy reviving the dramatic values favored by the Ballet Theatre in its early years. Among their promises was the guarantee to revive two ballets per year by such founding choreographers as de Mille and Tudor. ABT's 1990 50th Anniversary Gala featured excerpts from over 30 ballets, as well as archival footage and appearances by de Mille and Tharp.
Unfortunately, ABT has continued to be plagued by financial problems in the early nineties. In 1992, the company cancelled its annual San Francisco residency for the 1993 season and stated that it would not be able to return to San Francisco until 1995. 1992 also marked another change in directorship. Former ABT principal dancer Kevin McKenzie became artistic director and Gary Dunning joined as executive director. To reduce a $5 million debt, McKenzie and Dunning slashed budgets further. Company dancers also took a voluntary reduction in the numbers of weeks covered by their contracts. McKenzie and Dunning also eliminated many tour engagements and limited presentation of new choreographic works to MacMillan's Manon and Holder's Liaisons Dangereuses. To date, ABT still faces many financial challenges but remains devoted to its mission as a "museum of dance," preserving and presenting the best of traditional and contemporary ballet.