American Ballet Theater Turns 75

May 16, 2015
Originally published on May 16, 2015 11:23 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

American Ballet Theatre launched its spring season this week at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. It's a season of celebration. The company is marking its 75th anniversary. There will be a gala performance on Monday night and a new documentary about the company is running on PBS. Over the course of its history, ABT has performed in every state in this country and in nations around the world. Their approach to classic and contemporary works has been a benchmark for other ballet companies. Kim Kokich has this look back on its formula for success.

KIM KOKICH, BYLINE: Cynthia Harvey joined American Ballet Theatre in 1974.

CYNTHIA HARVEY: And before coming up, five, step, six...

KOKICH: On a warm spring day, Harvey is putting students through their paces in a rehearsal room in New York City Center.

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KOKICH: This is what Harvey does now after dancing 22 years with ABT, most of those as a principal dancer. Today, she's artistic director of the En Avant Foundation, which holds coaching workshops for young dancers around the world. In her dressing room after class, Harvey talks about what it was like to join American Ballet Theatre at a time when a man who became one of the world's most famous dancers also came to ABT - Mikhail Baryshnikov.

HARVEY: Misha joined the same year I did, I like to say.

KOKICH: Harvey says the company was loaded with talent.

HARVEY: Natalia Makarova, and we had Rudolph Nureyev coming in to guest with us as well. Oh yeah, it was the ABT of the days when Lucia had her stars.

KOKICH: Lucia is Lucia Chase, one of the founders of ABT, training late in life. Anna Kisselgoff, former chief dance critic of The New York Times, explains that it was Chase's desire to dance that helped turn a small company into what would become Ballet Theatre.

ANNA KISSELGOFF: She wanted very much to dance. And she was a dancer in the company and she provided most of the financial support, if not all the financial support. It was a small company then. And she kept funding it even when it became a larger company. But, Richard Pleasant is actually the founding director of Ballet Theatre. And I sort of insist on saying that now because I see he's been written out of history, I think partly by accident, or ignorance, or who knows what.

KOKICH: It was Pleasant who chose the name Ballet Theatre to convey its mission to perform not only the classics such as "Swan Lake," but also the kind of dance drama emerging at the time from the likes of Agnes de Mille, who choreographed the original Broadway productions of "Carousel" and "Oklahoma," and Jerome Robbins, who helped create "West Side Story."

Pleasant left to fight in World War II and never came back. The company continued to grow, but Cynthia Harvey says Lucia Chase's preference for stars made working for her frustrating. When Baryshnikov took over as artistic director, that all changed.

HARVEY: He nurtured. He said, if you come in and you work for me and you show that you pay attention and you can do also some of these basic of things that I expect you to be able to do, then I'll give you things to do.

KOKICH: And the dancers responded. American Ballet Theatre toured relentlessly. The productions became more lavish and partly because ABT has never had its own home theater, expenses started to mount. By the late 1980s when Baryshnikov left, the company was on the verge of financial collapse. Interim director Jane Hermann helped put it back on its feet. And when principal dancer Kevin McKenzie became ABT's artistic director 23 years ago, he kept things simple.

KEVIN MCKENZIE: Present the classics as a standard of measure and create new works to take the art form foreword.

KOKICH: McKenzie says this approach has influenced a lot of other companies.

MCKENZIE: Ballet Theatre was unique in its approach in 1940. Seventy-five years hence, pretty much every ballet company is doing what Ballet Theatre set out to do. And I think the reason they're doing that is it's a formula, if you will, that works.

KOKICH: It's a formula that goes back to Richard Pleasant, to encourage contemporary choreographers while still respecting the classics.

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KOKICH: Associate artistic director Victor Barbee is rehearsing this season's production of "Cinderella." He's been with the company for slightly more than 40 years and still performs character roles. He insists that ABT's dancers not forget ballet's roots.

VICTOR BARBEE: You have to teach them to have respect for the past and use the past to get to the future. They have to understand that you don't learn something and make your changes to it and then teach it to somebody and let them make their changes and then teach it to somebody and make their changes. You always try to go back to the original source and go, this is where it came from, this is what it's about, this is what it was meant to be. You don't take a Shakespeare play and change the words. You say them differently, you express them the way you want to, but you don't say, I think it would read better to say it like this. You don't do that with choreography, either. Learn where it started and then go from there.

KOKICH: But it's a difficult balance to strike, says Cynthia Harvey.

HARVEY: It has that dilemma of not trying to become a museum of ancient ballets. But there are people who still want to see some of those. It's like me, you know, I love the Beatles, I want to hear their music because it's good music, it's not because I'm old-fashioned.

KOKICH: And it's the same for ballet, especially for American Ballet Theatre, which has managed to strike that balance for 75 years. For NPR News I'm Kim Kokich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.