The following is a guest post from Victoria Phillips, Lecturer in History, Department of History and the Donald and Vera Blinken European Institute, Columbia University in the City of New York.
Victoria Phillips will give two presentations about the Music Division’s current exhibit, American Ballet Theatre: Touring the Globe for 75 years, consisting of a High Noon Lecture on Tuesday, October 14 as well as a Gallery Talk on Wednesday, October 15. See the flyer below or follow the links for more information.
In 1940, Ballet Theatre’s opening season in New York heralded the arrival of a new and distinctly American ballet: it was a melting pot of dancers, choreographers, musicians and designers. Although the company presented classical European and Russian works, they were mounted alongside unique choreography made in the United States that would appeal to both elites and the general public. While respecting the Russian-dominated tradition, Ballet Theatre featured original ballets that celebrated the energy and character of the nation. The company pioneered the use of non-ballet trained dancers organized into special “units,” including Spanish and Negro units, which reflected the diversity of the United States. Performances for the first ten days alone included six world and five American premieres. The company performed Les Sylphides, a work in the tradition of nineteenth-century classical European ballet set to music by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849). Bronislava Nijinska (1891-1972), sister of famed dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (ca. 1889-1950), choreographed her version of La Fille Mal Gardée, a ballet originally created by the Frenchman Jean Dauberville in 1789. The Great American Goof was danced to spoken words, written by well-known American dramatist and author William Saroyan (1908-1981). In Billy the Kid (1940), the choreographers turned to the vigor of the American West as a source of inspiration. Collaborations abounded with celebrated composers such as Aaron Copland (1900-1990). The New York Times dance critic applauded the success of the three-week season at New York’s Center Theatre: “It looks very much, indeed, as if the foundations had been laid for a truly popular center for the ballet, reconciling the best tradition of the past with a recognition of the intellectual and emotional necessities of today in America, without reliance upon esthetic snobbery.”
As Ballet Theatre matured and became American Ballet Theatre, it consistently returned to its respect for tradition and dedication to innovation. While staging classical ballets, the company produced works such as Fancy Free choreographed by a company soloist, the now famed Jerome Robbins (1918-1998). It told the story of sailors on shore leave during World War II, with music by the then little-known Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). Robbins used gestures, such as a sailor with his chewing gum and beer toasts, to celebrate the nation. In addition, diversity became a company goal: led by a woman, Lucia Chase (1897-1986), the company worked with female and African American choreographers. It has developed project plié to encourage diversity in dancers. The Jackie Kennedy Onassis School brings new talent to New York and these budding performers will become tomorrow’s leaders.
American Ballet Theatre has consistently remained dedicated to touring and bringing ballet to audiences both nationally and internationally, both under private and box-office funding and under the auspices of the United States State Department. They have performed in small towns and made one-stop performances in middle America, and celebrated full seasons in major cities around the globe. American Ballet Theatre brings diverse dancers and choreographers to ballet, and ballet to audiences, both old and new.
In 2006, Congress named the company America’s National Ballet Company.