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It takes more than pliés to lift a ballet company to great heights. From dancers to conductors, teachers to makeup artists, this blog series features fascinating insight from ABT experts and an intimate look inside America’s National Ballet Company®. Take a spot at the SideBarre each week to get to know the incredible people behind each bourrée of American Ballet Theatre.

Former ABT Soloist Rebecca Wright.
Posted In
Get to know...Mentors
September 15, 2020
Who is your mentor?

"Rebecca Wright had a tremendous impact on my career at ABT."

By Dennis J. Walters

Dennis creates unique ballet experiences for children such as our annual <i>ABTKids</i> performance and workshop.
Dennis creates unique ballet experiences for children such as our annual ABTKids performance and workshop.

In 2000, I joined ABT at age 22, a kid right out of college with a resume that I would now be horrified to share with my interns during resume week!

Somehow, I was hired as the Education Coordinator, and on my first day on the job, my boss Mary Jo Ziesel asked if I wanted to teach the next day’s Make a Ballet class at a High School in Newark, NJ.

I had never taught a class. I had no idea what the curriculum was. The students were only a few years younger than me!

In that moment, I instantly realized that I was going to be presented with opportunities at ABT. Every day I found myself in situations that I had neither the experience nor expertise to handle, but I knew that every uncomfortable situation was an opportunity. Every failure was a kernel of information and a lesson to help me grow and succeed in the future.

Each summer, I volunteered to coordinate one of ABT’s Summer Intensive programs in either Alabama, Texas or California. In the early 2000s, the program was run by former ABT Soloist Rebecca Wright, who had a tremendous impact on my career at ABT. Rebecca was a ball of energy that could light up a dance studio or office. She had the uncanny ability to see talent where others didn’t and then find a way to instill confidence in those that needed it.

She saw something in me from the very beginning, and she was always there to encourage me when I was unsure of myself. It sounds strange, but I feel like I can trace my entire career back to a conversation we had over dinner in California in either 2001 or 2002.

“The advice was so simple. She said, ‘If you can instill change in just two things every year, then that is success and you have been successful.'”

This sentence had a profound impact on me. It made me shift my attention away from my insecurities and lack of knowledge or skills and redirect it to the areas where I was succeeding. I couldn’t fix everything at once, but I could lay the foundation now, and then year after year, build upon that foundation until I have created something much bigger than I could ever have imagined.

These words told me to trust myself. They told me not to wildly swing for the fences but to focus on keeping the ball in play and be confident that good things will follow.

Sadly, Rebecca passed from cancer in 2006, far too early and certainly before I was able to fully comprehend the impact she had on my life and career.

In 2010, I had the opportunity to design ABT’s Internship program, and today I can clearly see Rebecca’s influence throughout this program. Her mentorship meant the world to me, and it warms my heart to know that her legacy is still touching so many lives and careers.

As Director of Education Operations and Director of ABT’s Internship Program, Dennis Walters inspires the next generation of dancers and arts administrators. He celebrated 20 years with ABT in 2020.

Check out our new online learning platform, ABTKids Daily, dreamed up by Dennis and the Education team.

Go to ABTKids Daily
On the cover of Ballet Review, Ethan Stiefel holds up the American flag at the curtain call for Black Tuesday on September 11, 2001. Photo courtesy Carlos Lopez.
Posted In
A Look Back at 80 Years
September 11, 2020
We asked members of the ABT community to remember where they were on September 11, 2001 when terrorist attacks struck New York City and other parts of the United States. Here are their stories.

“The rest of the season that year felt like it had more of a sense of mission to it. We had to rally around—we were American Ballet Theatre."

Where were you on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001? You might remember exactly where you were, what you were doing and who you were with when you learned that a pair of planes careened directly for the World Trade Center. You might have watched helplessly as the Twin Towers fell, one after the other—only 17 minutes apart. We all share the life-defining moments of that tragic, fateful day. Everyone has a story.

These are the stories of seven individuals at ABT, where they were on 9/11 and what happened next. Susan Jones; a Ballet Master in 2001, now Regisseur at ABT. Clinton Luckett, the senior member of the men’s corps de ballet in 2001, now Associate Artistic Director. James Whitehill, who has risen from a member of production staff back in 2001 to Director of Production. Dennis Walters, Education Associate in 2001, now Director, Education Operations. Olinda Cedeno, the longstanding, beloved Company masseuse. Sascha Radetsky, corps de ballet member in 2001 who now Artistic Director of ABT Studio Company. And Carlos Lopez, who joined ABT as a senior corps de ballet member the week before September 11, 2001 and is now Director of Repertoire.

Dennis Walters, the youngest member of the full-time administrative staff back then, was one of the few people who stayed in New York while the Company went on tour. He remembers exiting the Union Square Subway Station, just a few streets down from ABT’s offices and studios at 890 Broadway, confronted with an unusual amount of people facing downtown, looking up at the sky.

“I turned and started scanning the building rooftops trying to figure out what everyone was looking at and then I finally saw the gaping hole in the side of the World Trade Center.”

Dennis remembers looking at the horrific scene before rushing to join his colleagues at the office, who were trying to process any piece of information they could gather. They were together when the first tower fell. They were together when the second tower fell. They were all in utter shock.

The Company gathers for a group picture in front of one of their buses during their cross-country journey on September 12 and September 13, 2001. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.
The Company gathers for a group picture in front of one of their buses during their cross-country journey on September 12 and September 13, 2001. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

The rest of the Company had set out for a three-week tour on September 10, one day before the attacks. They were meant to perform on the evening of September 11 in Kansas City and then fly to the West Coast for the remaining portion of the tour in San Diego, Berkeley, and Seattle on September 12.

Having arrived in New York from Spain just a week before, Carlos Lopez barely had any time in New York City before leaving with the Company on tour. Still jet lagged, Carlos woke very early on the morning of the attacks. He decided to spend some time down in the lobby of the hotel watching TV. He saw the first plane hit.

Sascha Radetsky was doing calisthenics in his hotel room when he heard his now-wife Stella Abrera scream and rushed to the TV to see what was going on.

Susan Jones was up early that morning, and turned on The Today Show, not knowing she would see both planes fly into the towers and watch the events unfold in real time.

Clinton Luckett turned the TV on and thought he was watching a movie. He turned to the next channel, which was oddly playing the same movie, until it struck him—this was real.

James Whitehill received a call from a friend to turn the TV on. He tuned in just in time to see the disturbing images of the North tower on fire, and just moments later the second plane hit the South tower. Now the whole world was watching.

After arriving at the theater, James and the production crew tried to continue working, not knowing what was going to happen and what other events would unfold:

“I was overcome by the eerie feeling of helplessness, anger, horror and disbelief at what we were all witnessing. Then the realization that in the midst of all this I had to get back to work and gently redirect everyone else’s attention to the stage.”

Simone Messmer in <i>Black Tuesday</i>.
Simone Messmer in Black Tuesday.

The dancers began the ritual of morning class in the theater, but everyone was ducking in and out, taking turns to watch the news in a crew room close to the stage. By that point in his career, Jamie had seen thousands of classes, rehearsals and performances.

“One underlying constant,” he said, “is how completely focused and driven the dancers are. During class and rehearsals that day, it was obvious that much of that focus was interrupted by the events at home. There was genuine concern that someone onstage might get hurt in a moment of distraction during fast-paced, tight-knit choreography coupled with moving scenery and changing lights.”

There was a difficult decision to make—should they perform that night? It can be easy to forget, if you live in or near a big city with easy access to the arts, that some people, like the intended audience that night in Kansas City, wait for a long time to see the ballet. As a touring company, ABT held a responsibility that many other companies didn’t—to share ballet with the largest possible audience.

“Apparently ticket holders made it clear that they wanted to come—perhaps to get away from the reality of what had occurred,” Susan Jones said. It was decided that the show must go on. There was just one complication.

In the program that night was Paul Taylor’s Depression-era ballet, set to songs from The Great Depression, Black Tuesday, a cruel coincidence on that fateful day.

There was no chance to replace it with something else. ABT was performing to tape that night, meaning there was no orchestra to play the score to a different ballet. In a bold move led by Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie and the Company Managers, the show stayed intact.

It was clear that there was an appreciation from the audience, an intimate gratitude they had for the presence of performers facing a tragedy at home. But there was also gratitude from the Company for the presence of the audience when they needed something to dance for. Sometime later, Kevin told the Los Angeles Times in reflection of that day,

“There can’t be a question in your mind as to whether or not it’s appropriate to perform. You are part of the healing process. Last night, it was going to be a fun tour. This morning, it’s a mission.”

“The whole trip was unbelievably stressful. This stop was really the only peaceful moment in those three weeks, everyone forced a smile for the camera inspired entirely by a moment of natural beauty and sunshine in an otherwise unbearable situation.” James Whitehill and the production team pictured here in the Rocky Mountains.
“The whole trip was unbelievably stressful. This stop was really the only peaceful moment in those three weeks, everyone forced a smile for the camera inspired entirely by a moment of natural beauty and sunshine in an otherwise unbearable situation.” James Whitehill and the production team pictured here in the Rocky Mountains.

Taylor’s Black Tuesday ends with a powerful solo danced to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, which portrays a WW1 soldier struggling to rebuild his life after coming home. All of the dancers felt sickened throughout the ballet, for standing in the background in every scene, was the New York City skyline. A skyline with two very intact Twin Towers.

The final number was performed that night by Ethan Stiefel. The curtain closed on his powerful performance to a stunned second of silence before the audience erupted into thunderous applause. Ethan joined the cast last for his bow, running out in a heart-wrenching moment, holding an American flag up high.
“I’m getting chills just thinking about it,” Sascha said as he recounted the story to me.

Given that all flights were grounded, ABT’s plans of flying from Kansas City to San Diego on September 12 were out of the question. That morning the entire Company boarded two buses for a two-day, 30-hour bus ride across the country to make it to San Diego by Thursday.

September 11 was an especially grueling day for the production team and the crew. After the crew worked from 9am to 1am and endured a restless and brutal journey, they barely had time to check in to the hotel and shower before heading to the next theater to begin the set up. For others, the trip was unforgiving in other ways. For Olinda Cedeno, it would be the worst bus ride of her life. 


Olinda and I spoke about 9/11 for a long time. Her story is particularly heartbreaking, as is true for many, many families who lost loved ones that day, and it was an honor to hear it. For her, it was one of her closes friends, Captain Patrick Brown, FDNY, of Ladder 3 on East 13th Street. He was a decorated Marine—a Sergeant—in the Vietnam War. He was one of the most highly decorated active members of the FDNY and a role model for every firefighter.

On 9/11, Paddy and 11 other firefighters from Ladder 3 were the first to arrive at the scene. He and his men safely evacuated over 25,000 people from the World Trade Center in one of the most successful rescue efforts in U.S. history. Paddy and his men were on the 40th floor of the North tower when it fell. 5,000 people attended his funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. His was the last funeral of Ladder 3, and nothing could be more fitting for a man who was always, as Olinda put it, “The first one in and the last one out.”

I take this brief detour because there is no way I can do Olinda and Captain Paddy Brown true justice. No matter what, even 19 years later, we must share these stories and remember the great sacrifice that 412 emergency responders took on 9/11. We remember them, along with the 2,977 brave individuals who perished on that day.


 

Captain Patrick J. Brown. Photo courtesy Olinda Cedeno.
Captain Patrick J. Brown. Photo courtesy Olinda Cedeno.

Olinda chose to sit on the noisy bus with the dancers that day. She knew her friend Paddy would be down there at Ground Zero. She knew he would be the first one to run into the burning tower.

“He’s professional,” she remembers thinking, “He knows what he’s doing. He was tough stuff.” As she continued to hear about the 360 some odd firefighters missing, she never thought he could be one of them.

But then the phone rang. Paddy’s dear friend, Robert, was sobbing as he told Olinda that his brother was missing. “Well, where did he go?” she kept asking. “He’s gone,” Robert managed to say before he hung up. She began to sob, burying herself into a pillow she took from the hotel (“I was not going to be on that bus for two days without a pillow!”).

Dancers all around her began asking what was wrong, what happened? She lifted her head for just a moment, long enough to tell them the news.

“It was amazing what happened. I had a dancer jump over the seat to sit next to me. Wherever a dancer could put their hands on my body they did. I felt all these hands all over me. I didn’t even know who it was, but it was so healing, people just touching me.”

She sat through two agonizing bus rides across the country, but not once was she alone.

Reflecting on the return home, Clinton told me, “The rest of the season that year felt like it had more of a sense of mission to it. We had to rally around—we were American Ballet Theatre. Right before the Fall Season began, the entire organization, staff from every single department, gathered in Studio 5 and took a group picture together.”

It was the first time they had ever taken a picture like that. Though the smiles were genuine, they all intimately felt the lasting loss of 9/11. Sascha Radetsky adds:

“There was this remarkable feeling of this bond—of community, of kinship, of kindness with one another, of patience, and under all of that was a sense of mourning and a sense of grief.”

The presence of friends, family and colleagues took on a new importance. The work ABT did had a purpose it didn’t necessarily have before. Dancers have the unique ability to express unspeakable grief through a wordless artform, and sometimes that’s all we need to heal.

In the face of tragedy, horrors no one ever could have dreamed of, New York stood defiantly in a place that no one, no terrorist, could take away. Today, we still stand together. We remember together. None of us will ever forget.


We dedicate this to the courageous heroes and heroines who lost their lives in New York City, to the unimaginably fearless passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 who lost their lives in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, and to the inspiring, hard-working victims at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. We are thankful for your bravery and sacrifice. You will always be remembered.

Special thanks to Olinda Cedeno, Susan Jones, Carlos Lopez, Clinton Luckett, Sascha Radetsky, Dennis Walters and James Whitehill.

The writer, Bethany Beacham, joined ABT in 2020 as Marketing Coordinator.

Posted In
Get to know...
September 8, 2020
Apprentice Kanon Kimura reflects on her two favorite cities, Tokyo and New York City.

"I love being able to call both NYC and Tokyo my home. I get the best of both worlds and have learned so much from these two amazing cities!"

By Kanon Kimura

Hello, my name is Kanon Kimura! I am an apprentice with American Ballet Theatre. I am a native of Tokyo, Japan. I came to New York City two years ago to audition for American Ballet Theatre Studio Company over the summer. To my delight, I got in! I was promoted to apprentice after one year with ABT Studio Company and will be continuing my apprenticeship through the 2020/21 season!

I’ve lived in the USA for six years now; two of them in New York City. I’ve noticed many differences between Japan and America. My first observation is that everything is so much bigger in NYC than in Tokyo! It wasn’t just the buildings. The food is served in larger portions and the people are taller. Way taller than I am! Another difference is how organized and clean Japan is compared to New York. Sometimes New York can be really rough; however, I’ve grown to like the wild and sleepless culture of NYC.

Kanon Kimura and Melvin Lawovi in George Balanchine's <i>Tarantella</i>. © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Kyle Froman.
Kanon Kimura and Melvin Lawovi in George Balanchine's Tarantella. © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Kyle Froman.

In regard to the ballet world, the biggest difference is how big the ballet companies are. There are almost double the number of dancers in ABT than in companies in Japan. In NYC, the dancers come from all around the world – the best of the best! It’s incredible to work among many legends of the ballet world, past and present. ABT also performs a lot more than many Japanese companies.

At the end of the day, I love being able to call both NYC and Tokyo my home. I get the best of both worlds and have learned so much from these two amazing cities!

Kanon Kimura joined ABT as an apprentice in 2019.

Read more about Kanon's time in ABT Studio Company in Pointe Magazine.
José Manuel Carreño, Alicia Alonso, and Kevin McKenzie on stage at the 22nd Havana International Ballet Festival, 2010. Photo by Enrique De La Osa.
Posted In
A Look Back at 80 Years
September 4, 2020
ABT made history in 2010 with its triumphant tour to Cuba, breaking a 50-year cultural embargo between the two nations.

"The tour was a reminder that there is much to communicate through the universal language of art."

Alicia Alonso in her dressing room, 1946. Photo by Roger Wood.
Alicia Alonso in her dressing room, 1946. Photo by Roger Wood.

A national treasure not only in her own country, but around the world, Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso began her career as one of the inaugural members of Ballet Theatre in 1940. No one could have known back then, but the budding star would go on to be a household name for more than just her dancing.

After returning to Cuba for a few years to recover from extensive eye surgery, Alonso headed back to New York, rejoined Ballet Theatre in 1943, and shot to stardom when she stepped into the role of Giselle, replacing the injured Alicia Markova.

The stunning dancer was promoted to Principal Dancer in 1946, and in 1948, when Ballet Theatre hit a financial crisis, she left New York and returned to Cuba to develop her own company, the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company.

When Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959, he turned Alonso’s company into the National Ballet of Cuba (Ballet Nacional de Cuba), which he considered the cultural chef-d’oeuvre of his new socialist state, and with his $200,000 funding to the company, he sought to make the arts, particularly ballet, available to everyone.

When Alonso’s company hosted the first ever International Ballet Festival of Havana (Festival de Ballet de La Habana)from March 28, 1960 to April 2, 1960 at the Pro Arte Auditorium, American Ballet Theatre visited Cuba, reuniting with the beloved Alonso. This would be the first and last time ABT would dance in Alonso’s home country for half a century.

Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch in <i>Theme and Variations</i>. © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Alfredo Valente.
Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch in Theme and Variations. © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Alfredo Valente.

Fifty years later, ABT’s return to Cuba in 2010 received wide-spread national attention. When Fidel Castro rose to power and established his alliance with the Soviet Union and its socialist regime, the U.S. established policies that were intended to isolate the country economically and diplomatically, longer than it has with any other country. The historic return to Cuba was one of a series of cultural exchanges allowed under the Obama administration, who eventually restored diplomatic ties with leader Raul Castro.

The tour almost didn’t happen when the White House drew the line at accepting outside American sponsorship to help pay for it. It was the Cuban government who stepped forward in the end and pledged to accommodate the Company’s members while in Havana at no charge, ensuring that ABT would get to perform in Cuba after all.

Even though the significance of this was rooted in fraught political relations, the artists at ABT saw past this and focused on the unity and goodwill that come from cultural exchanges.

This visit was particularly special, as ABT was personally invited by Alicia herself to take part in the 22nd Havana International Ballet Festival, at which she was being honored.

ABT’s performances were held in the Karl Marx Theatre in the Cuban capital. Within two days, tickets to see the Company perform were sold out, however, ABT’s performances of Billy the Kid, Theme and Variations, Fall River Legend, Jardin aux Lilas, Fancy Free, Les Sylphides and Graduation Ball were broadcast to the entire country.

Everyone was watching as ABT paid special tribute to Alicia with Theme and Variations, a ballet created for ABT with Alonso and Igor Youskevitch in the leading roles, by the legendary choreographer George Balanchine in 1947.

For two ABT dancers, José Manuel Carreño and Xiomara Reyes, the visit meant even more, as it was their homecoming, both having left Cuba as young adults and not returned since.

José Manuel Carreño performing at the 22nd Havana International Ballet Festival, 2010. Photo by Enrique De La Osa.
José Manuel Carreño performing at the 22nd Havana International Ballet Festival, 2010. Photo by Enrique De La Osa.

Reyes left home in 1992 at just 18 years old. In an interview with The Associated Press in 2010, Reyes shared that her anticipation and excitement in the weeks before her return were keeping her up at night, adding, “I am filled with so many emotions: sadness, joy, everything. To be here and see people you haven’t seen in 18 years. It is very beautiful to see that the people remember you.” She was reunited with her half-sister, two nieces, and many people who had worked with her as a young dancer. Carreño told Dance Magazine that Fall that the homecoming “was a dream come true.”

ABT’s presence in Havana was one filled with openness and curiosity. The historic visit allowed American and Cuban dancers to meet, learn from each other’s worlds and come together in the name of ballet. ABT’s dancers took class with Cuban teachers, gaining valuable insight into the Cuban technique.

Students at The Cuban National Ballet School, the largest ballet school in the world, had the rare opportunity to take a two-hour master class with ABT’s Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, where he demonstrated each step full-out. The students were also gifted with 500 new pairs of ballet slippers. ABT’s performances immediately won over the Cuban audiences, who shared their boundless love and appreciation for the American dancers with fervor.

Kevin McKenzie teaching a master class to the students of The Cuban National Ballet 
School, 2010. Photo by Jose Goitia.
Kevin McKenzie teaching a master class to the students of The Cuban National Ballet School, 2010. Photo by Jose Goitia.

The visit proved that sometimes individual people can step out from the shadows of their politically mired nations. That we as individuals can show up for each other despite historic and deep-seated tensions.

None of it could have happened if not for Alicia Alonso, who shared her thoughts at the festival:

“It’s so beautiful to see that we all speak the same language when we are on stage.”

The tour was a reminder that there is much to communicate through the universal language of art. It was reassurance that bonds can form, and ties can be strengthened when we acknowledge and come together through the sameness of our differences.

One day, hopefully one day soon, we will begin to travel the world again and share our artistic language with those overseas. What a great wide world we live in, one that has been forced to put up strict boundaries to keep its people safe. There is so much out there to explore, so many places to go, and it is so much better when you go there dancing for the sake of  humanity, speaking to the soul of mankind.

The writer, Bethany Beacham, joined ABT as Marketing Coordinator in 2020.

Diva Goodfriend-Koven. Photo by Matt Dine.
Posted In
Get to know...Volunteering
September 1, 2020
On May 27, American Ballet Theatre debuted ABT Heals, a bi-weekly music and dance program to provide comfort and the beauty of ballet to patients, physicians and staff at Mount Sinai Kravis Children's Hospital.

"It really gave me a reason to practice, and what we were doing was very worthwhile in terms of outreach and education."

By Diva Goodfriend-Koven

My name is Diva Goodfriend-Koven, and I have been performing in the ABT Orchestra on flute and piccolo since 1976 – I joined just before ABT’s first season at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1977.

Since ABT’s 80th Anniversary Spring Season was cancelled due to the pandemic, I was hoping to have some outlets to continue to make music and be of service somehow. It seemed important during the worst days of Covid-19 in New York City to support the essential caregivers and children during that time. I was sad not to be playing music with my colleagues, and none of us knew, or even know now, when it will be possible for us to work together again as an orchestra.

I was already working on a couple of solo flute videos for the American Symphony Orchestra, of which I’m also a member, when one of ABT’s conductors, David LaMarche, asked if I would be interested in participating in the ABT Heals project. Being involved with live-streaming music to the kids who were patients at Mt. Sinai felt like a great idea. My partner of many years happens to be an Infectious Disease Pediatric Specialist there, so I had been hearing about the troubling cases he was dealing with during the critical months of the lockdown in NYC.

Image from an <i>ABT Heals</i> performance.
Image from an ABT Heals performance.

I had recently joined the ABT Orchestra Committee and found myself being called on to lead some of the Zoom meetings we were having with the management and an All-Orchestra meeting for us to make contact with each other, and see how everyone was doing at home. As a result of my leadership, David asked me to be the emcee for the second ABT Heals show, which was designed around musical families.

I was a bit nervous at first, but it was so wonderful to be introducing my colleagues and hearing everyone play and speak about the music for the benefit of the children that were hospitalized.

It was strange not to be able to see or hear the kids’ reactions or applause, but we were applauding each other! We feel like we’re part of a family of musicians, especially since many of us have known each other and been colleagues for many years. I ended up participating in two more of the programs, and it really gave me a reason to practice and to feel like what we were doing was very worthwhile in terms of outreach and education.

Now that we’re into the sixth month of the pandemic, it’s been getting harder to feel motivated to practice and come up with projects. I’ve done some gardening, cooking, yogurt-making, and like so many others, cleaning and reorganizing my house!

Fortunately I was recently asked to perform some contemporary music solo flute and alto flute pieces for the Locrian Chamber Players (I’m a founding member), and a specially commissioned chamber music piece for another group I belong to, the American Composers Orchestra (all the orchestras I currently perform with start with the letter “A”!)

I’m really hoping that ABT will have some kind of Fall Season that includes the Orchestra, and that we will be able to continue ABT Heals concerts. We heard that there was a great response from the doctors and patients, which was gratifying.

Diva Goodfriend-Koven plays flute and piccolo for the ABT Orchestra.

ABT Heals Press ReleaseABT Heals on Spectrum News NY 1
Judith Jamison and Mikhail Baryshnikov dance together during a 1976 press conference for Pas de "Duke". Photo: James Hughes.
Posted In
A Look Back at 80 Years
August 28, 2020
ABT began as what co-founder Lucia Chase called "the greatest collaboration in ballet history." Here we look back at some of the groundbreaking collaborations that have defined ABT's legacy.

"Ailey’s brilliant choreography and the relationship between Jamison and Baryshnikov captured the elegance and exuberance of Ellington’s jazz music."

Ballet is an ever-evolving art form, now more than ever before. One day, someone will look back at this year and write about how a pandemic and the movement for racial justice changed the face and form of ballet. It’s confounding how an art form dating back to the 15th century Italian Renaissance, defined by fidelity to its heritage and tradition, can change so rapidly.

Ballet has never so urgently needed to adapt for survival, but every day we discover our resiliency in our response to everything that challenges our ‘normal’. Though the depth of what can still, and must, change in the world of ballet—inclusion and opportunity for those who are marginalized, creating significant space for underrepresented stories—American Ballet Theatre has been pushing boundaries and sparking change for years. One needs to look no further for examples than some of the most unlikely but rewarding collaborations in ABT’s history.

Duke Ellington. Photo: Maurice Seymour, courtesy of the NYPL Jerome Robbins Dance Division.
Duke Ellington. Photo: Maurice Seymour, courtesy of the NYPL Jerome Robbins Dance Division.

At face value, jazz is an unlikely genre of music to pair with classical ballet, but for the innovative African American choreographer Alvin Ailey and the great jazz composer Duke Ellington, there was never a question of how rich that partnership could be. The two like-minded spirits, who often challenged the boundaries of convention put upon their respective art forms, both embraced New York City as fertile ground for their creations.

Since the 1950s, Ailey and Ellington had crossed paths a handful of times and admired each other’s work, but in 1970, they were brought together by Lucia Chase to collaborate on a new ballet she was commissioning for ABT. Together they created The River, which ABT premiered at the New York State Theatre (now the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center) in June 1970. Using a river and water as a story-telling anchor in the ballet, it depicts the cycles of rebirth—birth, life and death. Ailey looked back on this collaboration and called the experience one of the most stimulating times of his life.

The artistic relationship between them could not be severed when the great Duke Ellington passed away in 1974, a few weeks after his 75th birthday. Ailey continued to innovate new partnerships, provoking and defying the perimeters of race and ballet, just as Ellington had done with music and race.

In May 1976, for an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater benefit gala at City Center, Ailey choreographed a new ballet to a collection of Ellington’s songs, which was then performed two months later with ABT. Showcasing the extraordinary talents of two of the most celebrated dancers of their time, Judith Jamison and Mikhail Baryshnikov, he choreographed Pas de “Duke”, a ballet that requires an extraordinary girth of technical mastery, stamina and a presence that both equals and highlights each other’s virtuosity. Ailey’s brilliant choreography and the relationship between Jamison and Baryshnikov captured the elegance and exuberance of Ellington’s jazz music. The piece was simultaneously groundbreaking and timeless.

Alvin Ailey directing Judith Jamison and Mikhail Baryshnikov during a 1976 press conference announcing the premiere of their pas de deux. Photo: Jack Vartoogian.
Alvin Ailey directing Judith Jamison and Mikhail Baryshnikov during a 1976 press conference announcing the premiere of their pas de deux. Photo: Jack Vartoogian.

What wasn’t shown on stage were the challenges in the collaboration. Ailey, Jamison and Baryshnikov had only two weeks and a few hours each day to create and rehearse Pas de “Duke”. As Ailey’s muse, Jamison was so well-versed in his choreographic vocabulary that she knew exactly what he was envisioning just by the smallest movement he made. By contrast, Baryshnikov had never done anything like this before.

In a 2006 New York Times joint interview with Jamison, Baryshnikov talked about how badly he wanted to please Ailey and “Judi” (as he affectionately called her), which often led to over-dancing certain steps. “I realized much later that, really, less is more, specially with this music, which is so voluptuous and swingy and brassy. You cannot overpower the music. You cannot overpower Judi Jamison,” he said.

The dynamic duo could not have been more different. From their race, their nationalities, their dance training, these two embodied a unique partnership. At 5 feet 7 inches, Baryshnikov did not have the height that was traditionally suitable for principal roles in ballet. Jamison, at 5 feet 10 inches, had the incredible gift of seeming to grow even taller on stage, a noticeable trait against Baryshnikov’s height.

Such a partnership would have unnerved many male dancers, but not Baryshnikov. Jamison recounted, “I didn’t have qualms about being tall. He didn’t have qualms about being shorter…What he emanated was larger than life. You walk into an Ailey rehearsal, and there’s a welcoming there, but there’s also a walking into a whole different space. That’s why I thought it took a lot of courage for him to do this. He was trying things. He was very brave.”

Judith Jamison and Mikhail Baryshnikov in <i>Pas de Duke</i>. Photo: Beatriz Schiller.
Judith Jamison and Mikhail Baryshnikov in Pas de Duke. Photo: Beatriz Schiller.

Their partnership broke the formula of the classical ballet pas de deux that feature gallant princes who have saved distressed maidens from the evils of the world. In Pas de “Duke”, Jamison does not need to be saved. Baryshnikov does not need to rescue. They are partners in the truest sense of the word; they are equally and uniquely powerful. To discover something like this by trying new things, testing new waters, is an invaluable gift.

We have been forced into an unwanted collaboration with the coronavirus and the disease of systemic racism.

As an arts institution, in order to survive and withstand devastation, we must adapt to our reality, continue to dance, and move forward innovatively and thoughtfully addressing its demands and limitations.

We have pushed back against the challenges of quarantine and systemic injustice with burgeoning ingenuity and ambition for what ballet needs to be right now.

It is unlikely that this is what Lucia Chase had in mind when she founded Ballet Theatre and humbly called it, “the greatest collaboration in ballet history,” but over these last 80 years, ABT has never been an island. The Company has embraced a wide range of choreographers and dancers from around the world trained in different techniques, and ballets with unique viewpoints ranging from beloved classics to thought-provoking new works. We continue to evolve and partner with the good and the bad, against, with, and in spite of what we may come up against, and in doing so we define the kind of pas de deux we dance in 2020, knowing now just how powerful we must be.

The writer, Bethany Beacham, joined ABT as Marketing Coordinator in 2020.

Learn more about Judith Jamison’s life and career on ABT’s Juneteenth Dance Break page.

August 25, 2020
What causes do you care about?

"Working with Candlelighters NYC made me realize that dancing is so powerful and can bring so much joy. It’s so much bigger than ourselves—it’s for the people."

By Virginia Lensi

On March 13, everything closed. From one day to the next, our lives changed. The first week of quarantine, I was trying to figure out what was happening and how very different my life was going to look. It took some time to adjust, but after a few weeks, I changed my mindset to see this time as an opportunity to do things that I wouldn’t have had the time to do while rehearsing and touring with the Company.

During this pandemic, my days are filled with taking ABT Company classes, trying to maintain my mental health, FaceTiming with friends and family and studying the ABT National Training Curriculum. I had originally planned to take the National Training Curriculum course in August, so the fact that I was able to do it virtually a few months early alongside my fellow dancers has been so helpful. During this time, I started teaching ballet classes on Zoom and realized that I really enjoy teaching.

Virginia Lensi volunteering with Candlelighters NYC at a farm upstate.
Virginia Lensi volunteering with Candlelighters NYC at a farm upstate.

I also helped organize my first youth event with the United Nations, the International Youth Conference, which was held virtually on May 30-31. I started participating with the UN at the beginning of this year because one of the themes I really care about is youth involvement in world issues.

One of the things I love doing most is volunteering with the organization called Candlelighters NYC, which helps kids fighting cancer. I started volunteering there in September 2019.  I will never forget when the founder called me on a Sunday at 6 am asking if I was interested in a volunteer opportunity at 7 that morning. I quickly dressed up, took an Uber and met the group, then headed to a farm upstate with all of the kids. From that day, I fell in love with the organization. Everyone is so loving, and there is so much joy and happiness during these moments together. The kids are my heroes: I learn from them every day, and I’m grateful to be part of this whole team of volunteers.

Virginia Lensi and fellow ABT dancers hold an event for Candlelighters NYC at ABT's studios.
Virginia Lensi and fellow ABT dancers hold an event for Candlelighters NYC at ABT's studios.

After six months of working with the kids, I started organizing some dance events for Candlelighters families by bringing together a group of ABT dancers and creating an afternoon dedicated to the kids, dancing and playing together. I’ve always felt that dance could help so many people and be a bridge to connect everyone. Sometimes we tend to forget that and instead focus obsessively on our goals and achievements. Working with Candlelighters NYC made me realize that dancing is so powerful and can bring so much joy. It’s so much bigger than ourselves—it’s for the people.

I had been wanting to volunteer for a while, but I never found the time or the right organization to start. I just felt so strongly that I needed to do something bigger than myself. I love dancing so much, and I’ve always felt that this art form could be of help. The only problem was, How do I start? One day as I scrolled through Instagram, I came across the Candlelighters page, and since that moment I knew that it was the perfect place to start. Since then, I have also participated in ABT’s 80 hours of service project with New York Cares coat drive.

Dance is my life, and I think that it is important that it is connected to all of my other interests because it can shed a light into everyone’s life. I want to dedicate my time to connecting dance to kids that are facing difficult times and help us all smile together.

Virginia Lensi is a member of the corps de ballet. She joined ABT in 2017.

Read Virginia's Q&A in Pointe Magazine
João with his dog, Stan.
Posted In
What gets me up in the morning
August 18, 2020
What gets you up in the morning?

"What fundamentally gets me up in the morning is a lot of optimism."

By João Menegussi

If a year ago you’d have asked me what I thought I’d be doing during the summer, I could never have imagined saying anything other than enjoying every little bit of Met Season; my favorite time of the year. Instead, I’ve found myself in a situation I could have never predicted: in the midst of a deadly pandemic, living at a haunted farm in Virginia built in 1815.

You might figure that in a situation like this, I’d be motivated to get up each morning by the constant cycle of helping with maintaining 11 acres of grass, feeding the 14 animals that live here and helping my boyfriend deliver emu eggs. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Instead of waking up to worldly things such as those, I instead usually find myself jolting awake to the sound of ghostly footsteps (I mentioned the whole haunted thing right?) creaking across the bedroom, shooting upright only to find that it’s my boyfriend trying to quietly work his way to the bathroom. Sigh.

João dancing at the farm in Virginia.
João dancing at the farm in Virginia.

You get used to it. The good news is now that I’m up, I can pursue my two true loves: coffee and a shower. These are my fundamentals, my pliés and tendus of the morning. Act II of the morning is usually to go around and greet (aka feed) the members of the farm.

First stop is usually the dog, Stan. I then make my way out to the barn to say hello to the four (soon to be six!) emus, the horse and the six chickens. Once back in the house, I plop down on the sofa for a quick cool off, and if I’m lucky, Lucky will lay down with me (Lucky being the cat).

For clarity, my boyfriend’s mother owns the farm. We’ve all been in quarantine here pretty much since the start. Country living may yet be in my future, but this is just a trial run. Surprisingly, life here in rural crescent draws interesting parallels to my life in New York.

The days here similarly require a lot of dedication (11 acres is about 6 hours worth of mowing), empathy (the cat bites when she’s hungry, I totally get it) and hustle (Tractor Supply closes at 5pm these days so carpe diem, folks!).

It’s not all far-out metaphors though; many facets of my New York life have thankfully made the trip with me into this quasi-surreal reality of farm living. The feelings of familiarity I experience when getting to see my ABT family each week during meetings, classes and FaceTime calls is something I always cherish.

Simultaneously, however, there were things that couldn’t quite cross the gap. Though I take ballet classes throughout the week, I nonetheless deeply miss the magnetic and unifying energy that dance brings to a room of people.

João with the cat, Lucky.
João with the cat, Lucky.

The transformational and uplifting power of a community in motion is a quality of ABT that I hold sacred, and something I continue to behold in new ways come our unexpected shift to a virtual platform for the time being.

Like easing into a long day of rehearsals, I find the days go by smoothest when I allow myself to just live in the moment. Though I deeply miss experiencing the constant glow of my ABT family in their physical presence, I am simultaneously humbled to be sharing this experience here in the present with this family that I’ve been a part of for the past four years.

With that in mind, what fundamentally gets me up in the morning is a lot of optimism. Though I can’t forget that the potential to cuddle with the cat on the sofa is also a contributing factor; and if I’m lucky, (no pun intended) a hot cup of coffee will also somehow be involved.

Just gotta stick to the basics sometimes, you know?

With love from Virginia,
João Menegussi

João joined ABT in 2017 and is a member of the corps de ballet.

Antony Tudor's Echoing of Trumpets. Photo: Louis Melancon.
Posted In
A Look Back at 80 Years
August 14, 2020
What is art if it does not elicit a reaction in its audience?

"There are two standout ballets performed over the course of ABT’s history that fearlessly tell stories of real people and real events."

Every year, American Ballet Theatre graces stages around the world and performs some of the most famous and beloved classical ballets. The European classics are steeped in tradition and fantasy. These are magical stories of fairies who come to the aid of princesses, of a woman trapped within the body of a swan, and ghosts of betrayed maidens who dance in Romantic-length tutus.

But these are not the lives we live. We do not have magic wands. Rarely do the story arcs of our lives have neat endings. Sometimes things just don’t make sense. Among many, there are two standout ballets performed over the course of ABT’s history that fearlessly tell stories of real people and real events: Antony Tudor’s Echoing of Trumpets and Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table.

A 1967 production of <i>Echoing of Trumpets</i>, printed in a 1994 <i>New York Times</i> review. Photo: Martha Swope. .
A 1967 production of Echoing of Trumpets, printed in a 1994 New York Times review. Photo: Martha Swope. .

Although Antony Tudor’s ballet Echoing of Trumpets was created in memory of the Czechoslovakian village of Lidica, his vision of war is not foreign or inconceivable. Originally choreographed for the Royal Swedish Ballet in Stockholm in 1963, ABT premiered the ballet at University Auditorium in East Lansing, Michigan in 1967. Set to Bohuslav Martinu’s Fantasies symphoniques (Symphony No. 6), the ballet opens upon a desolate village and the ruins of a bridge with three arches, surrounded by barbed wire.

With simple but powerful steps, the dancers enact the horrifying and brutal attacks of the Nazis that destroyed the village in 1942. Over the course of the ballet, the violence breeds more violence. Human suffering is depicted with no gimmicks and no fanfare. As Clive Barnes wrote in a 1964 New York Times review of the work, it is “a profoundly anti-romantic ballet about war—a ballet that is real, terrible, and yet still beautiful in the scarlet way of tragedy.” Tudor wanted his ballet to provoke, to emote, but most of all to answer the question, “What happens after the echoing of trumpets, after the conquering hordes have conquered?”

Scene from <i>The Green Table</i>. Photo: Marty Sohl.
Scene from The Green Table. Photo: Marty Sohl.

The Green Table—the world’s most famous anti-war ballet. It was created in 1932 by Kurt Jooss when he witnessed first-hand the rise of fascism and the wide-spread fear in Germany. If Tudor wanted his ballet to answer the question of what happens after war, then Jooss wanted to examine how a war begins and grows. Set to music by F.A. Cohen and subtitled “A Dance of Death in Eight Scenes,” the ballet uses many stories to expose the senselessness and terrors of war.

The scene opens upon a group of diplomats surrounding a green table. Dressed in suits and grotesque masks, the men are both hollow and affronting. With restraint, the men negotiate, cajole and argue with each other until the scene escalates. With their enormous power, they pull out their guns and shoot. The rest of the ballet depicts the despotism and horrors of war.

“Death” is an ever-present character. ABT first performed The Green Table in 2005, in the time of the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan. Loss, chaos and injustice were felt across many countries. The Green Table may have been created between two world wars that seem long ago, but its message and its truth have not faded with time.

Neither Tudor nor Jooss backed down in the face of painful and complex stories. Instead, they leaned into how deeply ballet can penetrate some of the worst experiences one might face. What is art if it does not elicit a reaction in its audience? In the face of war, art must be loud. It must be distressing. It must be critical. Those qualities are what carry art throughout time, and why a ballet like The Green Table is still called, by The New York Times, an “indisputable masterpiece.”

ABT’s directors have recognized ballet’s power to tell such stories throughout the Company’s history. Since 1940, these raw, revealing works have been gripping ABT’s audiences – alongside the lighthearted fairytale ballets we all know and love.

The writer, Bethany Beacham, joined ABT in 2020 as Marketing Coordinator.

Annellyse Munroe.
Posted In
Get to know...Occupations
August 11, 2020
How did you get your start in ballet and how did it lead you here to ABT?

"I remember seeing Misty Copeland in the hallway, and she instilled in me a measure of hope and confidence that I could be a professional dancer because there was someone who looked like me. My early experience at ABT solidified my aspiration to move to New York one day and become a professional dancer."

By Annellyse Munroe

My connection and love affair with dance began at the age of five. When my father would play the piano, I could not help but dance. Or when Molly from the children’s TV show The Big Comfy Couch would come on, I couldn’t help but do her famous clock stretch, my leg naturally extending to the six o’clock position.

I begged my parents to enroll me in cheerleading, but they put me in gymnastics. Although I excelled in gymnastics, I was told that I was a bit too tall, which led me to ballet.

Annellyse Munroe as a child in one of her first ballet classes.
Annellyse Munroe as a child in one of her first ballet classes.

I remember arriving to my first ballet class in Payless ballet slippers, pink tights and a light pink leotard, with flowers around my messy bun. I was the only Black girl in my class, and I was tall, skinny and introverted. As time progressed, my teacher at South Florida Ballet encouraged my talent. I thank her for believing in me and not treating me differently based on my skin color. She made it clear that talent in ballet does not have a race appended to it.

In middle school, I began to audition for ballet summer intensives, one of them being at American Ballet Theatre. I attended my first summer intensive at ABT’s studios in New York. Again, I was the only Black girl at my level. I remember seeing Misty Copeland in the hallway, and she instilled in me a measure of hope and confidence that I could be a professional dancer because, after all, there was someone who looked like me. My experience at ABT solidified my aspiration to move to New York one day and become a professional dancer.

I continued to pursue my passion for dance at New World School of the Arts in Florida and discovered various dance styles, such as Limon, Graham and Cunningham. When I was in the eighth grade, my family took me to see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre at New York City Center. I remember sitting in the orchestra, watching the curtain rise and seeing Black women who looked like me. It filled me with joy, happiness and admiration for being an African American woman.

It was then that I told my parents of my intention to attend that school. So, I auditioned for the Alvin Ailey Summer Intensive every summer through high school and attended programs at other New York schools including Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) and the Martha Graham School.

Annellyse models skin tone tights and pointe shoes for Gaynor Minden.
Annellyse models skin tone tights and pointe shoes for Gaynor Minden.

While attending DTH, I was introduced to wearing skin color tights and pointe shoes for ballet class. After that experience, I never wore pink tights or dance shoes again. I thank DTH for instilling in me the beauty of my skin color and showing me how amazing my lines look with matching tights and pointe shoes.

I went on to earn a BFA degree in dance from the University of Florida through the conservatory program at New World School of the Arts, graduating Cum Laude in three years.

Soon after, I auditioned for Alvin Ailey and made it to the end of the final round. Although I was not selected, I was asked to return the following day to audition for their second company, Ailey II. I was chosen to join this fantastic organization that I had dreamt of being a part of, and as they say, the rest is history.

I had the honor of traveling the world with Ailey II, doing what I love. I was featured on the cover of Dance Spirit Magazine alongside two of my colleagues. This life-changing opportunity will forever be with me. I lost my mother to cancer before joining the company, and dance saved me during this time. It provided an outlet to for self-expression and helped me learn to find myself, love myself and grow.

Annellyse's <i>Dance Spirit</i> Magazine cover with fellow Ailey II dancers.
Annellyse's Dance Spirit Magazine cover with fellow Ailey II dancers.

At the end of my two years with Ailey II, I auditioned for many companies and Broadway shows. However, I made it to the end of my audition marathon without securing a job. I decided to apply for graduate school and studied for the GMAT test, accepting dance gigs on the side. I randomly received a phone call from my former director, who informed me that a choreographer needed dancers for a televised awards show.

Without hesitation, I showed up at the rehearsal, and a dream I could have never imagined happened: I performed with Beyoncé at MTV’s Video Music Awards.

Upon this opportunity, I signed to Bloc Talent Agency and went on to participate in various engagements, including the H&M x Kenzo New York Fashion Show SS17, Desigual’s SS18 collection at New York Fashion Week and a commercial for Carolina Herrera’s 212 VIP fragrance.

A new chapter in my life opened when I was accepted to grad school at Columbia University. There, a colleague who was a former dancer, informed me of an internship at ABT where he worked. I found myself back at 890 Broadway, interning in the Education and Training department. During my internship, I successfully applied for a position as Resident Manager at ABT.

Upon graduating from Columbia with my Master of Science in Nonprofit Management, I applied for the role of Student Life Coordinator at the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. It means the world to me to utilize my background as a professional dancer and the knowledge gained from my Master’s degree as I help ABT JKO School students find their footing in New York.

Did I stop dancing professionally? The answer is a resounding “no.” In addition to my full-time job at ABT, I am a professional dancer part-time for the NBA. A day in my life begins with waking up at 7 am to arrive at ABT by 9 am, working until 5 pm. I make it to rehearsal 6–10 pm and repeat that schedule daily. On game days, I will come in to ABT in the morning with a suitcase filled with all of my dance necessities and leave early to make it to the arena for court rehearsal by mid-afternoon. I have been doing everything to make this opportunity happen, which sometimes means making up work hours on Saturdays.

I admire everyone ABT because they are willing to work with you as long as you plan out your schedule in advance. I also love how supportive my colleagues are, and some have even come to see me perform. I will say anything is possible if you communicate and plan accordingly. Yes, it is difficult sometimes, but I am thankful to fulfill both of my passions, and that is what drives me to make this unique opportunity work.

Annellyse Munroe is the Student Life Coordinator at the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, as well as a professional dancer herself.

"My teacher at South Florida Ballet made it clear that talent does not have a race appended to it."

"Fun fact: I served as a supernumerary in ABT's Swan Lake and watched their tech rehearsals when they performed at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center."

"I am so thankful to ABT for granting me this job as Student Life Coordinator."

"I hope this inspires other dancers that they can have a full-time job and still perform."