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American Ballet Theatre

by Dawn Lille 

American Ballet Theatre (ABT) was born in 1940 as Ballet Theatre (the “American” was added in 1957), the artistic child of Richard Pleasant, who envisaged it as America’s museum of dance. With its roster of both American and foreign dancers and choreographers, ABT has become one of the world’s great dance companies and the only major American dance institution to tour extensively in the United States and the world.

Pleasant was a Princeton trained architect and former Hollywood talent agent who came east to administer Mikhail Mordkin’s three dance studios and ballet company. Mordkin, Bolshoi trained, first came to America in 1910 as Anna Pavlova’s partner and toured with his own troupe in 1910-11. The Mordkin Ballet Company was a small troupe that was an outlet for his advanced students, plus invited guests, who included Nina Stroganova, Vladimir Dokoudovsky, Karen Conrad, and Edward Caton. Pleasant worked closely with Lucia Chase, the company’s leading dancer and financial supporter. He convinced Chase to join him and Rudolph Orthwine, president of the organization behind the Mordkin Ballet, in creating a larger and broader company, using the Mordkin group as a foundation.

The founding aim of the three was to have a company that was not based on one individual and could present the best ballets from the past and actively develop new ones. ABT has offered all the great 19th century ballets such as La Sylphide, Giselle, Coppelia, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty; early 20th century ballets such as Les Sylphides, Petrouchka, Lilac Garden and Gaité Parisienne; and works that were commissioned from Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor, Twyla Tharp, and Alexei Ratmansky, among others.

The original plan was to have four main wings: American, Russian, British, and Fokine. The first year there was also a Negro wing and a Spanish wing. De Mille created a work on the former, Black Ritual (Obeah), with music by Darius Milhaud. It used fifteen black dancers with little or no classical training who were rehearsed separately from the company. It was an artistic and philosophical failure. The Spanish wing never materialized and both were dropped, due to budget cuts.

Fokine was hired in 1939 as the first choreographer. Tudor was recruited from England by Chase, who had no official title other than dancer at the time, but, nonetheless, played a major role in the company’s organization. Andree Howard, another English choreographer, trained by Marie Rambert, was also hired. Each wing of the company had a choreographer in residence: Anton Dolin for the classic, Eugene Loring for the American, Tudor for the English, and Fokine for the Fokine. The company had only two ranks: principals and company. Alicia Alonso, John Kriza, and Jerome Robbins were in the latter rank.

Ballet Theatre opened on January 11, 1940, at the Center Theatre in New York with a four week season of eighteen ballets that included Fokine’s Les Sylphides and Carnaval, Adolph Bolm’s Ballet Mecanique, Tudor’s Lilac Garden, Dark Elegies and Judgment of Paris, Bronislava Nijinska’s La Fille Mal Gardée, Mordkin’s Voices of Spring, Eugene Loring’s The Great American Goof, and two works by Howard, plus Anton Dolin’s abridged versions of Giselle and Swan Lake. ABT also gave some scattered performances in Chicago. Among the new dancers were Patricia Bowman, Nora Kaye, Hugh Laing, Annabelle Lyon, William Dollar, and Donald Saddler.

The second season, at the Majestic Theatre, opened on February 11, 1941. At the end of the season Pleasant resigned and German Sevastianov became director, with Charles Payne as managing director and Antol Dorati as music director. Sol Hurok became the booking agent in November. In April, 1943, J. Alden Talbot became the director of the troupe. When he resigned in 1945 Chase finally acquiesced to taking a formal position, and she brought in the designer Oliver Smith to be her co-director. Tudor was appointed artistic administrator in 1946. When Chase retired in 1980 Mikhail Baryshnikov took over. In 1989 he was replaced by Jane Herman and Smith and in 1992 Kevin McKenzie, a former dancer with the company, became artistic director.

Pleasant conceived of the company as a true democracy. He and Chase wanted it to represent America in spirit and to exhibit its most utopian collaborative ideals. To implement this philosophy they used four ballet masters so that one person would not be in control, eschewed the numerous ranks of performers found in the Paris Opera Ballet, recruited choreographers and dancers from all over the world, and demonstrated awareness of the political and social climate of the time. Some of these ideals disappeared when Hurok took over and attempted to “Russianize” the company, but after his contract was terminated in 1946, they reappeared. There was an artistic committee at different times, which in 1947 consisted of Robbins, de Mille, Smith, Chase, and Aaron Copland.

The management learned, however, that a successful institution must be able to pay for itself and that democracy can often be a luxury. Until 1965 Chase carried most of ABT’s financial burdens, but even she could not sustain the company alone, and ABT began receiving help from the National Endowment for the Arts and other national, state, and foundation support.

The company’s eclectic repertory is the result of attracting some of the world’s outstanding choreographers. It was virtually home to Tudor. Fokine created three new ballets for the company and Balanchine created two. Robbins began his prolific career there. Against the advice of others, Chase put on David Blair’s full length version of Swan Lake in 1967, allowing American audiences to see the classics and American dancers to perform them.

Chase’s open mindedness toward modern works led to a repertory that included works by Birgit Culberg, Herbert Ross, David Gordon, Ulysses Dove, Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor, José Limón, and Merce Cunningham. Baryshnikov brought in Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris. ABT became a home to many dancers from other countries including Natalia Makarova, who defected from the Soviet Union, Erik Bruhn and Toni Lander from Denmark, and Carla Fracci from Italy. Others left the company to find another home: Robbins, Diana Adams, Melissa Hayden, and Eliot Feld. There have been permanent soloists like Fernando Bujones and guest artists like Carlos Costas. The two great American dramatic ballerinas, Nora Kaye and Sallie Wilson, spent the bulk of their careers there, as did the Cuban Alicia Alonso.

ABT tours extensively. Its first European trip was in 1950 under the sponsorship of the State Department, which billed them as the “American National Ballet Theatre.” They were also the first American ballet company to dance in the Soviet Union. They maintain a school in New York City, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, give summer intensives nationally, and run an educational outreach program. ABT II is a small group of young dancers that feeds into the main company as well as into other troupes.

Agnes de Mille wrote that the number of artists – dancers, choreographers, composers, conductors, designers – given to the American theater by ABT exceeds that of any other institution. It has been called the dance version of MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art combined, which would please its founders.

Dawn Lille, trained in ballet, modern dance and labananalysis, has worked with dancers and actors as a performer and rehearsal coach. She has taught internationally, headed the graduate program in dance research and reconstruction at City College and taught dance history at Juilliard for fourteen years. Dr. Lille has written two books, chapters in five books and over one hundred articles in encyclopedias, numerous periodicals and Art Times.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books and Articles


Cohen, Selma Jeanne and A.J. Pischl, “The American Ballet Theatre: 1940-1960,” Dance Perspectives #6 (1960).

Ewing, Alex C. Bravura! Lucia Chase and American Ballet Theatre Gainesville:University Press of Florida, 2009.

Hunt, Marilyn, “American Ballet Theatre: a Living Museum of Dance,” Dance Magazine (June 1, 1997): pp. 70-79.

Payne, Charles. American Ballet Theatre. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.



American Ballet Theatre. Records, 1936-1967, Scrapbooks, 1939-1966. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.