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School of American Ballet - More Resources

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School of American Ballet

By Rose Anne Thom

Since its inception in l934, the School of American Ballet (SAB), located in New York City, has been the preeminent academy for the training of ballet dancers in the United States. Founded by the American visionary Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996) and Russian ballet master George Balanchine (1904-1983), SAB was originally conceived to produce dancers to realize Balanchine’s choreography and to perform in some future American company that he and Kirstein anticipated. The school has fulfilled its mission, which, according to Kirstein, was to “provide dancers as well trained as any other technician, whether it be surgeon, architect, or musician” (www.sab.org), supplying generation after generation of dancers for the New York City Ballet (NYCB), the company founded by Kirstein and Balanchine in 1948, of which SAB is the official school. In addition, SAB has produced dancers, choreographers, teachers, writers and artistic directors for companies throughout the United States and the rest of the world.

Legend has it that in 1933 when Kirstein approached Balanchine about founding an American ballet company, the latter responded, “But first a school” (Dunning, vii). Balanchine knew from his experience as a student and performer at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg (which had a school) and as a choreographer with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (which did not) that a vibrant ballet company required an outstanding school to prepare dancers. Whether his response to Kirstein is mythical or not, 32 students registered for classes at 637 Madison Avenue when SAB opened its doors on January 2, 1934, several months after Balanchine’s arrival in the United States. Less than six months later, at a benefit for the school, its students danced Serenade, the first ballet Balanchine created in the United States. The critic Edwin Denby noted: “He (Balanchine) had to find a way for Americans to look grand and noble, yet not be embarrassed about it…By concentrating on form and the whole ensemble, Balanchine was able to bypass the uncertainties of the individual dancer.  The thrill of Serenade depends on the sweetness of the bond between all the young dancers…The bond is made by the music, by the hereditary classic steps, and by a collective look the dancers” (Taper, 157).

While the many efforts of Kirstein and Balanchine to establish a ballet company were not successful until l948, the school has functioned without interruption since its founding. Balanchine was chairman of the faculty of SAB until his death, when Peter Martins (1946 - ) took over as artistic director and chairman of the faculty with Kay Mazzo as co-chairman. Kirstein remained president until his death in l989. In 2012 over 500 students, of whom 143 were male, were enrolled in the school’s Children’s, Intermediate, and Advanced Divisions.

The school’s first teachers, in addition to Balanchine, included the Russian expatriate Pierre Vladimiroff (1893-1970), the American ballet dancer Dorothie Littlefield, (1912-1953), and Muriel Stuart (1901-1991), who had trained and danced with Anna Pavlova. Over the years the faculty was augmented with teachers of varied experience and expertise: two ballerinas who had danced in Balanchine’s work for Diaghilev, Vladimiroff’s wife Felia Doubrovska and Alexandra Danilova (1903-1997); two former soloists from Russia’s Kiev State Theater of Opera and Ballet, Antonina Tumkovsky and Hélène Dudin; Elise Reiman, who was an original student at the school and a member of the precursor companies of NYCB; the Danish Stanley Williams, a master teacher of the Bournonville style, and Andrei Kramarevsky, who had danced with the Bolshoi. In the 60s, dancers from the New York City Ballet, such as Suki Schorer and Richard Rapp, joined the faculty. 

By 2012 all the teachers at the school, except for Kramarevsky, were former or current NYCB dancers, all of whom received training at SAB. “As part of his mandate to develop new teachers, Mr. Martins started a fellowship program in which company members watch classes at the school and fill in when necessary” (Kourlas, 7). He has also identified potential teachers from within the student body itself and given them opportunities to teach. All of the instruction at SAB honors ballet technique as defined and taught by Balanchine, and embodied in his choreography. In l977, critic Nancy Goldner wrote,

When teachers ask for energy, a high carriage of the chest, high leg extensions, extreme turnout when the leg is in effacé or à la seconde, a taut plié, springy glissades with the accent in fifth, assemblés with the legs together in the air, a straight back leg in preparation for pirouettes, precise definition of all the shoulder and head positions; when teachers work for speed; when they design combinations that develop quickness in weight shifts; and when they ask that combinations be done in reverse so as to develop mental flexibility and to discourage a habit-forming approach to movement  - they are preparing students for Balanchine. (Goldner in Reynolds, 31)

As well as ballet technique, the curriculum at SAB has offered other styles of dance at various times in its history, including modern dance, taught by Merce Cunningham and Anna Sokolow among others, until l969. Character dance, ballroom dance and gymnastics were included in the 2012 curriculum as well as weight training and music. SAB has a support staff that includes medical professionals as well as physical therapists, a psychologist and a nutritionist.

It was in the 1940s that the school first offered scholarships and began a Children’s Division.  In l963 the Ford Foundation decided to “strengthen professional ballet in the United States,” granting SAB millions of dollars to recruit scholarship students from around the country, enhancing the school’s reputation as a national institution and extending its influence beyond New York. Faculty members and dancers from NYCB traveled the country to find talented students who chose to live and study in New York. The school also began outreach programs within New York City.  In the l990s Peter Martins initiated a tuition-free program to bring more boys into the school.

SAB’s New York summer program enrolls over 200 intermediate and advanced students aged 12 – 18 who have been selected through auditions in twenty American cities. As of 2010, auditions also take place in select international cities. A satellite program for 10 – 14 year-olds is held for two weeks each summer in Los Angeles. As a partner school of the Prix de Lausanne, the School of American Ballet accepts talented students selected for prizes by the jury of this international competition held annually in Lausanne, Switzerland. In the summers during the l960s Balanchine used Ford money to offer teaching training courses for teachers from around the country.

A unique component of Balanchine’s l954 production of The Nutcracker was the first inclusion of children from SAB in NYCB performances. His choreography for young dancers was charming and compelling, for his inventive dances were within the children’s capabilities. Over the years children from SAB have also performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962), Harlequinade (1965), Firebird (1970), Coppélia (1974), Union Jack (1976), and Mozartiana (1981) among other ballets. Jerome Robbins choreographed Circus Polka on SAB students and himself for NYCB’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival. As ballet master in chief of NYCB, Martins has continued this vital tradition, casting children in his 1991 production of The Sleeping Beauty and other ballets. From l970 until 1983 NYCB dancer David Richardson prepared students for the roles in these ballets. Garielle Whittle held the position of children’s ballet mistress from 1983 until 2012, when Dena Abergel took over in 2012 as children’s ballet master.

In the 1960s, SAB instituted annual end-of-year Workshop Performances showcasing its most advanced dancers. These public performances provided an opportunity for young dancers to perform works from the 19th century repertoire as well as dances by Balanchine, Robbins and Martins, set and coached by their teachers. Often, the Children’s Division participated as well. Over the years, original works have been choreographed specifically for these workshops by NYCB dancers. During his tenure, Martins has offered opportunities for students to present their own choreography as part of a Student Choreography Workshop and they may participate as dancers and, sometimes, choreographers in the New York Choreographic Institute, an affiliate of the NYCB.  

In the late 80s, the family of the late Mae L. Wien created annual awards for graduating SAB students in her honor and endowed a Faculty Chair in her name.  

Among the many great artists trained at SAB over the years are Tanaquil Le Clercq, Edward Villella, Patricia McBride, Suzanne Farrell, Fernando Bujones, Gelsey Kirkland, Darci Kistler, Peter Boal, Ethan Stiefel, Damian Woetzel, Wendy Whelan, Jock Soto, Tiler Peck, and Sara Mearns.

Over the course of its history, SAB has moved from its original studios to those at Broadway and 82nd on the Upper West Side in 1956, and then to rental space at the Julliard School of Music at Lincoln Center in 1969. In l991, the school took possession of its own space in the Samuel B. and David Rose Building at Lincoln Center. With seven studios, extensive office facilities and a residence hall for 64 out-of-town students, all within steps from NYCB facilities at Lincoln Center, SAB has more than realized Balanchine and Kirstein’s dreams.

Rose Anne Thom, BA, McGill University, has been on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College since l975, teaching courses in dance history, criticism, Labanotation, and pedagogy within the dance department, and courses in dance history as part of the humanities curriculum. She is also a Labanotator and reconstructor; writer/critic for Dance Magazine, Collier’s Encyclopedia, Society of Dance History Scholars, The Forward; oral historian for the Dance Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the School of American Ballet; consultant, New York State Council on the Arts Dance Program; guest faculty, Princeton University, 2003 & 2012; and a former teacher at SUNY-Purchase, Southern Methodist University, and American Ballet Theatre School.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles


Dunning, Jennifer.  “But First a School.” New York: Elizabeth Sifton, 1985.

Goldner, Nancy.  “The School of American Ballet.”  In Repertory in Review.  Nancy Reynolds, author/editor. New York: Dial, 1977. 21-35.

Kent, Allegra.  Once a Dancer.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1997.

Kourlas, Gia.  “Adopting the Classroom as a Stage.” New York Times 30 September 2012, U.S. Edition: AR 7.

Schorer, Suki. Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Taper, Bernard.  Balanchine. New York: NYTimes Books, l984.

Online Resources


New York City Ballet website www.nycballet.com School of American Ballet website www.sab.org

Moving Image


WNET Channel 13: Sunday Arts Profile: The School of American Ballet 6/27/2011, Television. (link)