It takes more than pliés to lift a ballet company to great heights. From dancers to conductors, teachers to makeup artists, this series features fascinating insight from ABT experts and an intimate look inside America’s National Ballet Company®. Take a spot at the SideBarre to get to know the incredible people behind each bourrée of American Ballet Theatre.
How did you become a wig and makeup artist for ABT?
"I have always been drawn to the intensity and excitement of the show being live. Even though shows are very well rehearsed, mishaps can happen at any moment, so being alert and a quick thinker is essential."
By Rena Most
At the very young age of two, as my parents recall, I was interested in and loved lipstick, the only makeup my mother used. I regularly wanted to wear it and quickly learned how to apply it. My parents supported this strange fascination and my practice grew.
From painting my sisters’ faces and studying different looks in magazines to getting friends ready for events and eventually getting involved with community theater, I knew I wanted to pursue the makeup industry in my early teens.
My sister’s high school art teacher recommended I take an art class when I got to high school. Reluctantly, I did. At the age of 16, I discovered a new passion and talent. I continued to take various art classes and went on to study Fine Arts in undergrad. After exploring different avenues of the makeup industry, I had decided I wanted to pursue the theatrical realm.
Working with wigs and hair came later, once I was already pursuing professional theater. I had to learn and practice a lot to catch up to my peers who had been doing hair and wigs for years. I am still learning new tricks and techniques!
Working in theater was appealing to me for several reasons. I have always been drawn to the intensity and excitement of the show being live. Even though shows are very well rehearsed, mishaps can happen at any moment, so being alert and a quick thinker is essential.
Theater often happens at a very quick pace, which adds excitement and sometimes chaos! We often have to get talent ready in 10 – 30 minutes, while someone doing the same thing for print or TV may easily have an hour to prep their subject. This forces us to know our craft inside and out, to be able to move quickly without stopping to think and still produce high-quality results.
Working live also pushes you to work with many different teams in a unique way that is not always required in other types of productions. Theater is known for its magic-like quick changes, the “How did they do that?” moments – the answer is, with a lot of practiced hard work and a whole team of people! It is the quickness and talent of the backstage crew that makes it happen.
Working for ABT has included all of those exciting characteristics plus so much more. Working with ABT is unique because of its repertoire and touring itinerary. We are constantly performing different ballets in different cities. Immaculate organization has been crucial for me to be able to efficiently set up our room and get my team ready, no matter where we are and what ballet we are performing.
We often have a day or two to unpack our giant road boxes and set everything up (including translating our notes for our local team of hair and makeup artists, depending on where we are) before our first performance, so efficiency is key. We perform so many ballets with an endless amount of characters to create – some ballets are harder than others.
Whether it is creating a villain, aging 20-year old dancers to look 80, managing 200 wigs or 50 mustaches, the hair and makeup room is never boring! Bringing these characters to life each night is always fun, but working and forming bonds with the talented, hilarious, kind, intelligent dancers of ABT each day is what truly makes this job so special.
This is the story of how ABT conductor David LaMarche solved the mystery of the missing music of Les Sylphides.
"ABT was incredibly excited to be able to bring back this historic score that fall when they performed the ballet at the David H. Koch Theater. "
There are many ways to describe Michel Fokine’s 1909 ballet Les Sylphides, which was thought to be the first non-narrative ballet, one that was crafted with no boundaries to mood and imagination. It is a ballet blanc—a ballet in which the corps de ballet is dressed all in white to represent ethereal ghosts, fairies or transcendent spirits.
Though that could be crafted into a story unto itself, this ballet has no narrative to follow, only the enchanting beauty of the sylphs dancing with a man under the midnight moon’s luminescence.
Though it was a short romantic classic, it was revolutionary and left an indelible influence on 20th-century ballet.
The score, originally composed by Frédéric Chopin, has been orchestrated many times, despite the challenges some see in translating Chopin’s piano pieces into something fitting for a whole orchestra. Maurice Ravel, Alexander Gretchaninov, Gordon Jacob, Roy Douglas and Benjamin Britten all had their go, but it is Britten’s score in particular that is the protagonist of our story.
An Englishman from Lowestoft, Suffolk, Benjamin Britten, born in 1913, showed his musical talent from an early age and attended the Royal College of Music. In 1939, along with his partner, Peter Pears, his pacificism forced him to leave an ever-growing antagonistic Britain facing World War II. With a quick stop in Canada, they ended up in America and settled down in Brooklyn, New York. They resided at 7 Middagh Street, an artistic commune of sorts for intellectuals and creatives, including Oliver Smith.
A scenic and interior designer by trade, Smith began his official collaboration with Ballet Theatre working with Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein on Fancy Free. The year after his scenery graced Ballet Theatre’s stages, Smith became co-director of the Company, along with founder Lucia Chase. But before all of that took place, Smith had a hand in creating one of the first ballets to be performed by ABT, Les Sylphides. He commissioned his friend Benjamin Britten to reorchestrate Chopin’s music for the ballet for only $300, and though that was worth a lot more than it is today, it was still considered tuppence for the task.
Now our story must fast forward 73 years to 2013. Britten’s orchestration of Les Sylphides had fallen out of use at ABT, which had had to use an orchestration by Roy Douglas the few times the ballet had been performed in its later years. It was a perfectly fine score, but never “quite right.”
Not like Benjamin Britten’s score, which was lost, and no one had sought to find it, until 2013.
“I love mysteries,” David LaMarche says as he recalls his venture to find the lost score. With the Company since 1999, David is a conductor, rehearsal pianist and administrator of the Music Department at ABT. A man of many skills, he is the gatekeeper of the music that the Orchestra plays. Indeed, he is the gatekeeper of this mystery. Who better to talk to than the man who solved it?
The second David in our story—David Vaughan, a dance historian and close friend to David LaMarche—asked his friend if he had ever heard the Benjamin Britten orchestration of the ballet when he found out that ABT was planning to perform Les Sylphides that fall. They went to the New York Public Library Jerome Robbins Dance Division in Lincoln Center, Manhattan and thanks to the library’s vast resources, they were able to watch an old performance of the ballet that included Britten’s score.
They both decided that they wanted to find it, bring it back to its home, and back to the stage.
The search began with David LaMarche sifting through ABT’s music office, which was no easy task as there were stacks upon stacks of paper and boxes of music from the Company’s current repertoire. Eventually, David come across a peculiar miniature score that had no name attached to it.
“I started leafing through [the score] and I thought, “‘I remember hearing this in that video tape that I saw at Lincoln Center,”’ David recalls. “This must be the score that goes along with the Benjamin Britten version.”
But he couldn’t be sure. Invigorated by this find, he set off on the next step of his journey to search ABT’s warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. He enlisted the help of this story’s third David, David Carp, the ABT Orchestra librarian, who was just as eager to find the music.
Now reader, if at this point of the mystery you expected a dramatic warehouse quest that spanned many days and sleepless nights, then I must regretfully disappoint you.
Astoundingly, LaMarche remembers, “We just kept pulling boxes out and going through each one to see if we could find it and after about half an hour, we found a folder that had some parts from Les Sylphides and in that folder, there was one card that said ‘Second trumpet, arranged by Benjamin Britten’.”
It was a gift that the search was simple, since ABT’s warehouse is filled with an eclectic array of costumes, sets, props, minutes of old board meetings, and of course, a prolific collection of music.
However, the mystery had not been solved yet. Once this folder was found, the next step was to confirm that it was actually Britten’s score. LaMarche brought it back to ABT and compared it to the unlabeled one he had found in his office. His suspicions were confirmed when, after sending a copy to the The Britten–Pears Arts Foundation in the United Kingdom, they excitedly told David, “I think we can surmise that this is the lost score of Britten’s Les Sylphides.”
ABT was incredibly excited to be able to bring back this historic score that fall when they performed the ballet at the David H. Koch Theater.
So how did it get lost? I asked David.
ABT has a vast library of music for an ever-expanding repertoire. Every year, new works are introduced, and ABT has undergone a lot of change since 1940. At a certain point, the music office could not accommodate the sheer amount of papers they stored, and some of the music was moved to the warehouse, making space for the more modernized classics that were being performed. Though the score could also have been lost because ABT lends out music to other companies.
Once Britten’s score was found, many ballet companies wanted to perform Les Slyphides to the newly discovered music. It was exciting not just for ABT, but for the ballet community at large.
Things get lost, especially when they are at the mercy of the inevitability of passing time; we all know this. Each week on this blog, we look back to reflect and amplify the voices and stories that haven’t been widely shared before.
The hope is to think about the lessons we learned back then, and the lessens that we learn retroactively. There is always something new to gain from the past, and sometimes, we are lucky to get something back that once was lost. As was the case for Benjamin Britten’s score to Les Sylphide, it returned to its home at American Ballet Theatre and we are all the more better for it.
The writer, Bethany Beacham, joined ABT as Marketing Coordinator in 2020.
"Rebecca Wright had a tremendous impact on my career at ABT."
By Dennis J. Walters
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.
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 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.