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It takes more than pliés to lift a ballet company to great heights. From dancers to conductors, teachers to makeup artists, this 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.

Posts in: A Look Back at 80 YearsView All Posts
Lawaune Kennard and an unnamed dancer in Agnes de Mille’s Black Ritual, 1940. Photo: Carl Van Vechten.
Posted In
A Look Back at 80 YearsBlack History Month
February 28, 2021
"My hope is that ABT will try to rebuild the oppressive structures of those that came before us into something new, something better."

The Beginning: The Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre and Agnes de Mille’s Black Ritual

Last year, more so than ever before, ballet’s hard shell around its humanness cracked and revealed the other side to its elusive beauty. Whimsy became relatable, excellence became humble, and one-by-one, our performances were dismantled by a global pandemic. Most importantly, ballet had a wake-up call. Racial injustice hit a national breaking point and became something we could no longer ignore as people or as an art form.

We are coming to the end of Black History Month where we have celebrated and highlighted the Company’s beautiful, powerful Black artists of the past, present, and future. ABT is making strides internally to foster an environment of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The organization is identifying changes that need to be made and is actively committing to eradicating the long-standing racial oppression that has always permeated classical ballet.

However, we cannot look forward without looking at our past, and I was asked to delve deeper into ABT’s = history. Remembering, seeking answers: this is how we make sense of who we are and inform who we want to be. I realized that I was entering into a negotiation with ABT’s past—recognizing achievements and triumphs, whilst acknowledging what went wrong.

So, I went back to the very beginning, to the infancy of Ballet Theatre, to understand how the organization played a part in perpetuating the marginalization and oppression of Black artists. I sought the untold stories of our failures – not to foster shame, not to damage ABT, but because it was the very least I could do.

Lawaune Kennard, Lavinia Williams, Ann Jones, Dorothy Williams, Elizabeth Thompson, Evelyn Pilcher, Edith Ross, Valerie Black, Leonore Cox, Edith Hurd, Mabel Hart, Moudelle Bass, Clementine Collinwood, Carroll Ash, Bernice Willis, and Muriel Cook. 

These are the names of the sixteen Black female dancers who starred in the Ballet Theatre Negro Unit’s only ballet, Black Ritual (Obeah). If you have never heard of the Ballet Theatre Negro Unit, you are not alone.

Dorothy Williams, Maudelle Bass, Muriel Cook, and Lawaune Kennard in Agnes de Mille’s <i>Black Ritual</i>, 1940. Photo: Carl Van Vechten.
Dorothy Williams, Maudelle Bass, Muriel Cook, and Lawaune Kennard in Agnes de Mille’s Black Ritual, 1940. Photo: Carl Van Vechten.

On the tail end of the Great Depression and the precipice of World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), a component of his New Deal to subsidize the creation of live art across the United States. Its purpose was not necessarily an attempt to save the suffering arts, but to provide economic relief and jobs to artists and theatre workers. The result produced The Negro Theatre Project, also known as a series of Negro Units, in 32 cities across the United States, including New York City, at a blossoming new company called Ballet Theatre.

At the inception of the company, Agnes de Mille was recruited by Richard Pleasant to choreograph for Ballet Theatre, but only under the condition that she could not perform in any of her ballets. De Mille agreed to climb on board, but she was not happy with the constraint. This inspired what would become the only ballet produced under the Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre: “Since I was not permitted to perform myself, I avoided comedy altogether in an impulse of stubborn negation and sought to do something as uncharacteristic and surprising as possible—an exotic work for Negroes.”

The ballet, Black Ritual, was choreographed on 16 new Black dancers who had professional and educational experience in dance, despite later claims that they were “unschooled” and “untrained.” De Mille’s frustration that she could not perform in her own ballet turned a choreographic project into something slightly more sinister in her objectification of the dancers and the ominous plot of the ballet, creating a division that formed the “other.”

The plot of Black Ritual was centered around a group of “primitive” women who had congregated to put to death one of the women amongst them, who would carry their collective sorrows and troubles to Hell. In the ballet, they dance to the hills where they have their private ceremony. There the sacrificial girl dances herself into a frenzy in the midst of her executioners, who finally take her down before they rush back into their dark and mysterious forest.

The ballet’s subtitle (Obeah) refers to a type of Afro-Caribbean religious practice, but in presenting the ballet to the public, the company did not go further into specific cultural detail. The evening’s program, which did not name any of the Negro Unit’s dancers, read:

“Every primitive religion contains the ritual of blood sacrifice, such as the killing of the god, or the sanctified victim in proxy for the god. This annual destruction and rebirth compasses the regeneration of Man and Earth…This ritual scene makes no claim to authenticity. Set vaguely somewhere in the West Indies, it attempts only to project the psychological atmosphere of a primitive community during the performance of austere and vital ceremonies.”

Dorothy Williams, Maudelle Bass, and Muriel Cook in Agnes de Mille’s <i>Black Ritual</i>, 1940. Photo: Carl Van Vechten.
Dorothy Williams, Maudelle Bass, and Muriel Cook in Agnes de Mille’s Black Ritual, 1940. Photo: Carl Van Vechten.

Usually, and most evident in this case, the word “primitive” is not assumed to indicate a distance in time between the performance and the audience. The concept is not considered to mean “ancient” or “original”. In this context it defines the cultural “other” through the audience’s understanding that what they were meant to see was something barbaric and crude.

First performed one week into Ballet Theatre’s inaugural season on January 22, 1940, it was the first time Black dancers had appeared in a large-scale production from what was a typically all-white ballet company. Though some may have seen that as a bold move for a new, very different kind of ballet company, it did not stray from what Ballet Theatre was all about. In a letter to the World-Telegram of New York, publicists for Ballet Theatre singled out Black Ritual as an example of Ballet Theatre’s emerging identity: “This is a far cry from some of the traditional ballets being presented in the Ballet Theatre repertoire. But this was how the Ballet Theatre was meant to be—a combination of tradition and ultra-modernity.”

Unsurprisingly, the ballet was received with a wide variety of reviews. Black critics felt it was a meaningful accomplishment, but white critics were more inclined to see it as a novel anomaly in the ballet world, viewing it through the marginalizing lens that classical ballet was not appropriate for “the Negro.” Nevertheless, first-hand accounts, such as one featured in the Chicago Defender, spoke of a triumphant evening:

“When the Ballet Theatre opened its doors for the first time at Rockefeller Center last Monday evening, little did it realize its occupants would behold one of the greatest performances in the history of the ballet—little did it realize that they would really know what it meant to be spell-bound—little did it realize the curtains of its theatre would rise and fall once, twice, ten or even more times, amid shouts of “bravo” and deafening sounds of handclaps while a group of Race girls stood to receive the applause – but that is just what happened.”

Black Ritual was performed only three times over the course of the season, and when the curtain closed on Ballet Theatre’s three-week run at Radio City, the Negro Unit was disbanded. Some say that the Unit lacked a singular artistic vision that would carry it forward. Others say it was to save money.

True, a ballet company in its infancy would always face financial struggles as it wobbled onto its feet, but the dancers in the Negro Unit were paid only a fraction of what their white corps de ballet counterparts were paid—a mere $10 to the latter’s $40. The only certainty of the Negro Unit’s disbandment, however, is that it has disappeared into the forgotten corners of the company’s history with a glaring truth: there was a limit to how progressive and inclusive the company was willing to be.

A confidential, unsigned letter at Ballet Theatre from October 1940 revealed evidence that there were plans to redo Black Ritual with an all-white cast. Although the correspondence petered out six months later with nothing coming to fruition, the messages passed back and forth showed no sign of concern about this casting switch. De Mille was adamant that the ballet should remain in the company’s repertory despite the injudicious changes that would dismantle the ballet’s core.

Along with the rest of the world, each and every one of us shoulder the responsibility of the past—the responsibility to not just recognize and verbalize our history, but the responsibility to do something with the knowledge we gain through self-examination. While learning this story, I sought honesty. I sought the mistakes Ballet Theatre made many years ago. My hope is that ABT will try to rebuild the oppressive structures of those that came before us into something new, something better.

I could never give these dancers and their story the level of justice they deserve. I learned how Ballet Theatre failed the talented, valuable dancers in the Negro Unit. From being left out of the performance’s program to being grossly underpaid, to disbarring the Negro Unit and not giving any of the dancers company contracts, Ballet Theatre failed. It should not have been that way. I can only give these women today, this moment in history, a space to be heard, to be seen, and to be celebrated, but there is more to be done. There is more space to be given, more voices to amplify, more reckoning to grapple with.

We must all remember that change is not finite. It is a journey, a process. Black History Month may only be a small portion of the year, but this is just the beginning.

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

Jennifer Tipton. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.
Posted In
A Look Back at 80 Years
October 9, 2020
This week on SideBarre, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton steps into the spotlight.

"Behind every shining light on stage is a great lighting designer, but Jennifer Tipton doesn’t exist in the shadows. She is a giant in her industry."

Gillian Murphy in <i>The Brahms-Haydn Variations</i>. Photo: Marty Sohl.
Gillian Murphy in The Brahms-Haydn Variations. Photo: Marty Sohl.

Light. For the most part, we just accept it. We don’t question it nor may we even think about it. We take for granted that we are able to see, and that light will continue to allow us to see. There is a reason why darkness can evoke so much fear—light illuminates our world into abundance. Without its presence, so many things just disappear.

There is a certain place that one takes note of the light. In the theater, when the lights dim to signal the start of a show, it brings a collective hush over an eager audience and the late comers scrambling to find their seats.

With the darkness comes a flood of anticipation. We gladly accept ourselves disappearing into the blackness, for the light that appears before us creates another world to immerse ourselves within. It is so seamless that we do not even notice the light that took us there.

Behind every shining light on stage is a great lighting designer, but Jennifer Tipton doesn’t exist in the shadows. She is a giant in her industry, a revered and respected artist who has won too many awards to count: a MacArthur Grant, a Laurence Olivier Award, two Bessies, two Tonys®, two American Theatre Wing Awards to name a few. Jennifer’s work, both in theater and in dance, is known and beloved around the world.

A dancer performs in front of a couple of graffiti artists
in <i>Deuce Coupe</i>
after its premiere in 1973. Photo: Herbert Migdoll.
A dancer performs in front of a couple of graffiti artists in Deuce Coupe after its premiere in 1973. Photo: Herbert Migdoll.

Now a Professor of Design at the Yale School of Drama, Jennifer’s roots began in modern dance. The summer between her junior and senior year of high school in Columbus, Ohio, Jennifer went to the American Dance Festival, where she fell in love with the Graham technique, created by American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham.

She loved it so much that during her senior year, she spent two weeks in New York by herself, studying at the Martha Graham Dance Company studios. Although she transitioned into lighting design after graduating from Cornell University, her dancer’s eye has always remained sharp, intuitive and essential to her lighting.

So how does lighting design work? When working on a new ballet, Jennifer would go see the work in the studio and was often one of the first people to see the whole ballet with virgin eyes. Arriving simply as a viewer, she would ask the choreographer not to talk to her about the piece until she had seen it. “If the choreographer tells me certain things, like [the dancers are] reacting to a ghost at this point, then I will see the ghost” she said. Her independent notions that she then formed about the ballet allowed her to aid the choreographer in their storytelling and give recommendations as to how an intention can be made more present by the light.

Scene from <i>Deuce Coupe</i> in 2019. Photo: Gene Schiavone.
Scene from Deuce Coupe in 2019. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

The next step, moving a work to the stage from the studio, creates a significant difference in how the ballet looks, and it is here that Jennifer works her magic. With the addition of costumes or sets, from the most detailed to the barest, light is the medium through which these elements come together to form a performance.

On stage, light could be its own character, especially in dance, where choreography and light infuse to sculpt and define the movement. The three-dimensional elements of this relationship are the key to perception of breadth and volume, but it must not be obtrusive. As Jennifer explains:

“The lighting designer has to be very careful not to be bigger than the dance.”

It was always her hope that the audience didn’t take too much notice of the light on stage. If one did take note, it could have been for all the wrong reasons (a stage shrouded in an excess of shadow can certainly be a performance-killer). It is the lighting designer’s job to use the light to not just make the dance visible, but to tell a story—one that is fitting and freeing, allowing an understanding and interpretation of the narrative.

Scene from <i>In the Upper Room</i>. Archival photo: Marty Sohl.
Scene from In the Upper Room. Archival photo: Marty Sohl.

Jennifer’s time as a lighting designer was sometimes difficult. It wasn’t a very glamorous job, and she often missed out on the recognition that the dancers, choreographers, costume designers and composers received. She frequently found herself traveling alone, having to fend for herself, needing to be strong. One must weather the bumps and bruises, she told me, to develop a shell, but also needs to stay sensitive to the surrounding world.

Jennifer made it through with her guiding force, “I’ve been just so in love with light, that those other things don’t matter.”

We should all hope to find something in our lives to talk about with as much reverence and passion as Jennifer does about light.

During the Fall 2019 season at the David H. Koch Theater, ABT presented Tharp Trio, a program of three Twyla Tharp ballets: The Brahms-Haydn Variations, Deuce Coupe and In the Upper Room. It was not just an evening of Twyla, but an evening of Jennifer Tipton too.

She had worked with the famed choreographer on all three ballets that spanned three decades. Having them shown together in one evening was a proud and significant moment for Jennifer, a celebration of many years of work.

Herman Cornejo in a recent performance of <i>In the Upper Room</i>. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.
Herman Cornejo in a recent performance of In the Upper Room. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.

The lighting featured in In the Upper Room is particularly striking. The beautiful interference of beaming white lights against semi-transparent fog on stage functions as a curtain through which the dancers can appear and disappear. They do not simply exit the stage, they are engulfed and released, their lingering energy fueling the progression of the dance.

Much has changed in lighting design over the years with new and evolving technology. Computer controls make some things possible that could not have been achieved before, such as the rhythm and dynamics in light transitions. There is an increased fluidity of the light that can be altered and manipulated more so than ever before.

Lights and color filters themselves have changed, and the use of LED lights is getting better, but Jennifer does have one gripe about this: “LEDs are not full spectrum lights, so I really don’t like LED light on skin very much. There are all colors in skin, so it needs a full spectrum—skin of all colors needs full spectrum light to not be flattened out.”

Technology has not threatened the organic creativity of before, for these are just new tools. The most important instruments come from within: “One still needs an eye. One still needs the mind to organize the light. The brain will find a way to organize what it’s seeing, whether you organize it or not.”

In this way, light can be the scenery, the highlighter, the focus, the innocuous presence on stage, but Jennifer hopes that, above all else, lighting designers will always continue to make it about the performer. For what is an empty stage with a set and lighting if there is no one to dance within it?

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

Carmelita Maracci. Photo by Brett Weston.
Posted In
A Look Back at 80 Years
October 2, 2020
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we are recognizing Carmelita Maracci, a ballet dancer, choreographer and teacher influential to ABT's history.

"Carmelita Maracci was the name that everyone should have known, but few did. She was a standout of her generation."

It is rare to encounter a person who has been described with such a wide range of impassioned, fervent adjectives—ones that are only fit for those who have a touch of the extraordinary inside of them. “Phenomenon,” “jaw-dropping,” “a legend”—these are just a few ways dance critics and contemporaries have described Carmelita Maracci.

Hers was the name that everyone should have known, but few did. She was a standout of her generation. John Martin, dance critic for The New York Times in 1937, said she was “manifestly destined for a great career.” Robert Joffrey, a student of Maracci’s, recalled, “There was, and still is, no one like her. She had incredible strength and supreme delicacy. Her technique was astonishing, perfection itself.” It was even said that she “danced with thunder,” but she could have been thunder itself—her talents almost magical.

From her birth in 1908, Carmelita Maracci’s origins were shrouded in mystery, at least for her. Told by her mother that she was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, it was only much later that Maracci’s husband found out and shared with her that she was actually born in Goldfield, Nevada. Her father, both Italian and Spanish, raised his daughter as Spanish, and despite her puzzling background, this had the biggest impact on who she came to be. After Maracci’s family moved to Los Angeles, where she finished her schooling, her parents encouraged her to pursue a future as a dancer, and off she went to New York.

Carmelita Maracci. Photo by Gjon Mili.
Carmelita Maracci. Photo by Gjon Mili.

There she studied with Mikhail Mordkin, who formed the Mordkin Ballet, the predecessor to Ballet Theatre. Eventually, she made her way back to Los Angeles and it was there, in the 1930s, that she met Agnes de Mille. Although they were just a few years apart in age, de Mille studied ballet under Maracci’s tutelage.

From the moment they met, de Mille’s fervent admiration and awe of her teacher solidified a strong bond between the two of them. She could see that Maracci was not just a good ballet dancer.

She created something special when she experimented with blending ballet and Spanish dance, a style she called Hybrid dancing, which she began to bring to audiences on both the East and West coasts.

In the early 1950s, Agnes de Mille urged Maracci to choreograph a new work for Ballet Theatre. She created Circo de Espana, which premiered on April 19, 1951. It was a suite of five serious and comic Spanish dances, and on opening night, Carmelita danced the leading roles in three of the pieces: La Maja y el Euisenor, Fire Dance and Portrait in Raw Espana. It was then planned that Alicia Alonso would take over the roles following that performance opening night.

Despite the talents and stage presence Maracci brought, despite rehearsals of a promising and exciting show, the ballet fell flat. The premiere was not a smashing success, and although critics praised her unfailing, staggering technique, the New York audience was not quite sure what to make of the ballet and had a markedly tepid response.

As the story goes, co-director of Ballet Theatre, Oliver Smith, told de Mille that the piece needed to be adjusted and sent her to give Maracci some words of encouragement to pull the piece back together. Antony Tudor told de Mille that the ballet was “No good,” a message she passed along. When she delivered the news to Maracci, she said it “produced in no time a collapse…because Carmy was always on the emotional brink, Donald Saddler [a Soloist at Ballet Theatre] had to carry her from the theater in his arms. And that wasn’t the first time she committed career suicide.”

Maracci retreated away from the limelight and away from Ballet Theatre. Sadly, there are very few records left of her ballet, Circo de Espana. It was only many years later that a 72-year-old Carmelita admitted the devastation she felt at the time to Los Angeles journalist Donna Perlmutter: “She came to deliver the verdict and then she told me that Tudor always says what he doesn’t mean, that he meant I’m no good.”

Carmelita Maracci was a woman whose dancing was powerful enough to be compared with the elements of the earth—her passion burned, her presence on stage was so grounding that she owned spaces and commanded time. Yet, her gifts came with a deep-feeling heart. She was an artist that prioritized feelings and meanings over commercial success.

It didn’t need to matter that the audience liked her work. That wasn’t the point of it. She wanted to dance real stories because she felt real pain. She had led a relatively privileged life herself, a normal childhood, supportive parents, and the pains and horrors in the world that she spoke of sometimes seemed to belong to another world.  In fact, they belonged to other people and she just felt them deeply.

She refused to dance in fairy tale ballets with otherworldly and mystical creatures: “I could not be a dancer of fine dreams and graveyard decor. So, I danced hard about what I saw and lived.”

Carmelita Maracci. Photo by Brett Weston.
Carmelita Maracci. Photo by Brett Weston.

Most of the world never got to see the greatness that was Carmelita Maracci. Her legacy continues on through her beloved students. Jerome Robbins, Carmen de Lavallade and even Charles Chaplin – as well as ABT’s own Erik Bruhn, Christine Sarry and Cynthia Gregory – owe their early dance education to her. Gregory has given accounts of Maracci teaching in class “on pointe and wearing pink tights, puffing on a cigarette, flicking it out the window and dashing off a fast, furious set of pirouettes.”

The world was perhaps robbed of the opportunity to witness the great Maracci, but her students received an education that few others had access to. She infused her ballet classes with lessons about literature, politics and philosophy. She talked to her students not just as dancers but as people. She left a large impact on many dancers, and although that can be a profound legacy, there are others that still call her career trajectory a “tragedy.”

Carmelita said it best when she denounced the notion that her “unplanned oblivion” was a tragedy. “Save that word for human suffering,” she said, “for wars that kill innocent people, for the devastation of the poor and unwanted, for the corruption and cruelty that cause these things in the world. Mine is no tragedy. If art could relieve misery, I’d gladly sacrifice it.”

She refused to conform to or make way for a lot of things in her lifetime—the commercial side of the dance industry, the conventional structure of a ballet class, the confines of a corps de ballet.

But most of all, she refused to compromise who she was for anyone else. She was unique and she owned that.

Greatness can often come with sadness—but mostly from the people who impose their ideas of greatness upon us, and that comes with a considerable and often unfair burden. Sometimes it can be enough to stand quietly in your convictions, knowing that you do so for yourself, knowing that that in itself is great.

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

Carla Fracci, Paolo Bortoluzzi and Eleanor D'Antuono in Les Sylphides. Photo: Louis Peres.
Posted In
A Look Back at 80 Years
September 24, 2020
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.

Benjamin Britten. Photo courtesy of ClassicFM.
Benjamin Britten. Photo courtesy of ClassicFM.

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.

David LaMarche studying a trumpet part for <i>Les Sylphides</i> arranged by Benjamin Britten. Photo by Yana Paskova for <i>The New York Times</i>.
David LaMarche studying a trumpet part for Les Sylphides arranged by Benjamin Britten. Photo by Yana Paskova for The New York Times.

“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.

Alicia Markova in <i>Les Sylphides</i>, 1944. Photo by Carl Van Vechten.
Alicia Markova in Les Sylphides, 1944. Photo by Carl Van Vechten.

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’.”

Alicia Markova in <i>Les Sylphides</i>, 1944. Photo by Carl Van Vechten.
Alicia Markova in Les Sylphides, 1944. Photo by Carl Van Vechten.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The writer, Bethany Beacham, joined ABT’s Marketing Department in 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poster from ABT's 1960 tour in the USSR.
Posted In
A Look Back at 80 Years
August 8, 2020

"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.

ABT Principal Dancers Maria Tallchief and Erik Bruhn shake hands with Soviet officials in 1960. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library, Jerome Robbins Dance Division.
ABT Principal Dancers Maria Tallchief and Erik Bruhn shake hands with Soviet officials in 1960. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library, Jerome Robbins Dance Division.

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.

The Company on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building, 1962. Courtesy of American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.
The Company on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building, 1962. Courtesy of American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

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.

Letter from Dwight D. Eisenhower to American National Ballet Theatre, March 26, 1953.
Posted In
A Look Back at 80 Years
July 29, 2020
What does it mean to be America's National Ballet Company®?

"As a touring company, Ballet Theatre was on the frontlines of cultural tensions and international unity."

Agnes de Mille in <i>Rodeo</i>. Photo: Maurice Seymour.
Agnes de Mille in Rodeo. Photo: Maurice Seymour.

Perhaps it is fateful that American Ballet Theatre’s 80th Anniversary has coincided with the trials of a dominating pandemic, civil unrest, and political uncertainty. The challenges we have faced so far this year have forced us to ask important and difficult questions:

How do we co-exist in our collective grief, and how do we honor the grief of others? How do we celebrate the small triumphs that will lead us to the other side of this, whilst remembering how far we have to go? What connects us through the frustration of isolation? What does it mean to be an American in times of hardship?

The latter is a question that has been pondered many times before, and one that has always remained relevant to ABT. In the words of Agnes de Mille, American dancer, choreographer, and a charter member of Ballet Theatre at its inception in 1940:

What do we mean by American? I’ve been looking for the intrinsic American. He has a multitude of faces, many names, and many nationalities. Humorous, salty, bold, original, and independent. At times persnickety, at times downright ornery. But we know him.

Ballet Theatre 1953-54 Domestic Touring Schedule, December 27th-February 6th.
Ballet Theatre 1953-54 Domestic Touring Schedule, December 27th-February 6th.

We know him, her, them, xin, and all the variations in between. We are the collection of beautiful, different, and diverse faces. There is no one way to answer, “What does it mean to be an American?” nor could we ever all agree on a single definition. But one thing is for sure, in times of division, we can all find meaning and comfort in works of art.

In the 1950s, Ballet Theatre was no stranger to the turmoil and conflict that had spread throughout the world for decades. Following World War II and into the Cold War, the restoration and healing of many nations relied on the resilience of beloved cultural institutions and artistic inspiration to raise spirits and look towards a peaceful future. As a touring company, Ballet Theatre was on the frontlines of cultural tensions and international unity.

From its inception, Ballet Theatre toured not only the United States but around the world showcasing American culture, a mission that was particularly important during times of conflict.

The intention was to showcase Ballet Theatre’s innovation and traditions with the widest possible audience as well as to build relationships with international cultural institutions that were welcome and celebrated in the United States. Financed by both the State Department and independent funders, Ballet Theatre toured throughout Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa during the 1950s.

Letter from Dwight D. Eisenhower to American National Ballet Theatre, March 26, 1953, in a program for American Ballet Theatre.
Letter from Dwight D. Eisenhower to American National Ballet Theatre, March 26, 1953, in a program for American Ballet Theatre.

In 1956, Ballet Theatre was christened “American Ballet Theatre” by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The president acknowledged American Ballet Theatre’s prominence in cultural diplomacy and his hope that ballet could represent American ideals, inspirations and ethnology to audiences at home and abroad.

ABT has continued to fulfill this hope. In its 80 years, the Company has performed in all 50 states and in 45 countries. ABT’s current roster of dancers hails from around the world, including 15 countries and 25 states.

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

"It is through the universal language of the arts that the free peoples of the world can most readily communicate with each other and attain a truer understanding of the spiritual ideals and aspirations of other nations."

- Dwight D. Eisenhower , Memo from The White House, March 26, 1953

"We in the United States have been the fortunate hosts to most of the world’s great artists and artistic organizations, whose visits have abundantly enriched our cultural life."

- Dwight D. Eisenhower , Memo from The White House, March 26, 1953

"The American National Ballet Theatre sets forth on its tour abroad with our hope that it may convey through the medium of ballet some measure of understanding of America’s cultural environment and inspiration."

- Dwight D. Eisenhower , Memo from The White House, March 26, 1953

Learn more on ABT’s
Google Arts & Culture exhibit,
On “American”: American Ballet Theatre