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.
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.
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!
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 joined ABT in 2017 and is a member of the corps de ballet.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"In 1960, American Ballet Theatre was the first American dance company to tour the USSR."
It’s rarely easy to be the first at anything…stepping into the unknown and trying to retain some semblance of certainty is scary. There are the success stories, and of course, the failures. Those who use the latter to rise to greater heights are perhaps a little worse for the wear, but are wiser and more prepared than before.
There is a certain glory and honor in both types of stories, but it is never that simple. A journey is never forgiving enough to allow us to forgo the middle part between embarking on a path and the end result. It is there that we find the true and honorable tale of one’s foray into the great unknown.
In 1960, American Ballet Theatre was the first American dance company to tour the USSR. It was an incredible feat given the political and cultural challenges of the time. Cultural diplomacy was seen as a tool to cross barriers of international tension, and so the United States Information Agency (USIA), the State Department and the CIA worked with arts organizations to arrange international tours.
President Eisenhower established the President’s Emergency Fund for International Affairs in 1954 and gave $2,250,000 to the State Department to support dance, theater, music and sports tours. A Dance Panel was established to make the difficult decision about who should represent the United States. A lesser known part of ABT’s history is what it took to get there and how it almost didn’t happen.
Ever since ABT began as Ballet Theatre in 1940, the Company faced great struggles. Though they were a world-renowned touring company and had already completed 10 international tours, it had taken its toll on the Company. On August 18, 1958, a tour truck transporting costumes, props, sets and items belonging to the dancers and staff went up in flames while on its way from Cannes to Geneva. ABT’s tour around Europe was saved only through the unforgettable efforts to gain back what was lost through loans from other ballet companies and rush orders from suppliers. With this generous support, ABT was able to open in Brussels in the U.S. Pavilion as planned. However, that remarkable turnaround was short-lived when ABT was forced to take a year-long hiatus in 1959 to deal with some long-standing financial troubles.
“While there were a great deal of political and cultural relationships at stake, American Ballet Theatre at last returned to the United States as triumphant and proud cultural ambassadors.”
ABT couldn’t be held down for long. In 1960, the Company rekindled a three-week engagement from April 18–May 7 at the Metropolitan Opera House, in celebration of its 20th anniversary. The performances were not well-received by everyone, however, and John Martin, Dean of American Dance Critics, tore the engagement apart with a personal attack on ABT’s Co-Director Lucia Chase. Martin stated that it would be a profound national humiliation for American Ballet Theatre to represent the United States.
This review was a huge blow to the Company. At a meeting of The Dance Panel on April 21, 1960, it was determined that ABT was in no condition to represent the United States. So, on May 12 that year, ABT set off on their four-month tour that began in Lisbon, with the last leg of the tour in the USSR still hanging in the balance.
It was only at the very last minute, after a representative from the Bolshoi Ballet saw ABT perform in Amsterdam and approved, that The Dance Panel decided to allow ABT to fulfill their engagement in Moscow. The tour ended up as a huge success. During the 10 days of performances in Moscow, Tbilisi and Leningrad, ABT performed to full houses and tickets were hard to come by.
When Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, saw ABT perform on their closing night in Moscow, he invited ABT to return to the USSR as well as raised a toast to the American dancers and to “art and friendship.” It was front page news! While there were a great deal of political and cultural relationships at stake during this tour, American Ballet Theatre at last returned to the United States as triumphant and proud cultural ambassadors.
The writer, Bethany Beacham, joined ABT as Marketing Coordinator in 2020.
Way back in November of 1986, I got a call from the General Manager of ABT asking if I would be interested in conducting some shows of The Nutcracker for the Company at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. I’ve been here ever since, and how could I not? ABT is a fabulous company with amazing theatrical experiences every year.
If I weren’t a conductor, there would be several other occupations I’d like. I adore Homer and all things ancient Greek and Latin. I plan to pursue that in retirement. But I think my true calling might be in geology and paleontology. Last summer, my family and I took a road trip from the Black Hills to Yellowstone, and we detoured off the highway onto an obscure mining road to a place called Devil’s Kitchen near the town of Greybull, Wyoming. After passing a sign that warned, “Enter at your own risk,” we pulled off that road to the brink of a half-moon shaped, half-mile deep canyon of sandstone, mudstone and calcedony, with white gypsum covering the base. Because of its shape and location, it’s a giant natural oven.
It took us a while to find our way down into the canyon as there were no trails or paths, but once we got to the gypsum and poked around for a bit in the sweltering 110-degree sunshine, we found what I had come for – a gastrolith. It is a walnut-sized piece of well-worn porphyry that had once been in the gizzard of a 1,000-pound Cretaceous-era sauropod to aid with its digestion. My family was not as impressed as I was to find a stone that had been in a dinosaur’s stomach, but I still carry the gastrolith with me all the time and am all too willing to talk about it to any interested party.
While on tour with ABT in Oman a few years ago, I had the opportunity to explore something most geologists never see: the most dramatic ophiolite sequence on earth. Undersea vulcanism created massive amounts of pillow lava, automobile-sized balls of lava hardened under millions of pounds of pressure, which are now exposed in the hills of northwestern Oman due to a geological anomaly 90 million years ago in the Gulf of Oman. Nearby, walking the dry creek bed, I found a large outcrop of Hawasinah formation, a rumpled rug of allochthonous, deep-water sediments that were thrust onto the Arabian continental margin beneath the ophiolite.
And it’s not all just rocks – part of the ophiolite sequence, peridotite, actually absorbs atmospheric CO2. There is a tremendous amount of peridotite in Oman, and several geologists are exploring the possibility of CO2 sequestration. It would be fun to join their team one day.