Maurice Seymour, photographer. Lucia Chase in Les Sylphides, 1940. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00) Photograph by Maurice Seymour, courtesy of © Ronald Seymour

Prior to 1940, the United States lacked a strong tradition in ballet. Ballet Theatre's acclaimed first season in New York heralded the arrival of a new era with a company that presented classical works alongside new American choreography. While continuing to respect the Russian-dominated traditions of ballet, Ballet Theatre's first season also featured original ballets that celebrated the energy and character of the “melting pot” nation. Richard Pleasant (1909–1961) and Lucia Chase (1897–1986), the founding directors, shaped Ballet Theatre as a company dedicated not to the singular vision of one specific choreographer or genre but rather to a diversity of approaches to the art form. As part of its founding concept, the company pioneered the idea of including dancers that did not have traditional ballet training, organized into special “units,” that included a Spanish and Negro unit, which reflected the diversity of dance and dancers in the United States.

Ballet Theatre's First Season

Ballet Theatre's first season celebrated a new approach to ballet by showcasing many different choreographers and styles, including the restaging of the classics and commissioning of new works. Performances for the first ten days alone included six world premieres and five American premieres. 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.”

Advertisement for first week of Ballet Theatre's run at Center Theatre, New York, 1940. Second example. Bronislava Nijinska Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (001.00.00)

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The American West: Billy the Kid

Seeking a new voice for dance, choreographers turned to the vigor of the American West as a source of inspiration. In 1938, Eugene Loring (1911–1985) choreographed a ballet about famed outlaw, Billy the Kid, for George Balanchine's Ballet Caravan. Composer Aaron Copland (1900–1990) wrote the music, which incorporated traditional American music into the score. Believing that the frontier captured the spirit of the nation, Ballet Theatre first performed this work in its Chicago season in November 1940.

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  • Alfredo Valente, photographer. John Kriza in Billy the Kid, 1940. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (006.00.00)

  • Aaron Copland, composer. “The Open Prairie” from Billy the Kid, 1938. Holograph score. Aaron Copland Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (007.00.00)

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The Great American Goof, an American Ballet

This ballet, choreographed by Eugene Loring, brought comedy and raw, masculine energy to the stage. In a new twist, The Great American Goof was danced to spoken words, written by well-known American dramatist and author William Saroyan (1908–1981). It demonstrated the company's dedication to experimentation. Unfortunately, critics and audiences alike considered the work to be an artistic failure when it premiered during Ballet Theatre's first season in January 1940.

Gjon Mili, photographer. Antony Tudor (left) and Eugene Loring (right) in The Great American Goof, ca. 1940. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (005.00.00)

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ABT Co-founder Lucia Chase

Lucia Chase was a visionary co-founder of Ballet Theatre. She was from a wealthy New England family and became the company's first “angel” investor, as well as its de facto artistic director, although her name did not appear on any programs except as a dancer until 1945. Chase negotiated contracts with dancers, chose the repertory, and led the company until her retirement in 1980. This portrait of Chase shows her in costume for Les Sylphides, a work in the tradition of nineteenth-century classical European ballet and performed by ABT during its 1940 opening season. Set to music by Frédéric Chopin and orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov, Les Sylphides, originally premiered in 1907 under the title Chopiniana. In 1909 the work was premiered as Les Sylphides by the Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev.

Maurice Seymour, photographer. Lucia Chase in Les Sylphides, 1940. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00) Photograph by Maurice Seymour, courtesy of © Ronald Seymour

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Bronislava Nijinska, the Russian Connection

One of Ballet Theatre's most important choreographers in its first season was Bronislava Nijinska (1891–1972), sister of famed dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (ca. 1889–1950). She had been a member of the Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev as a dancer and choreographer. Nijinska restaged several works for Ballet Theatre, and choreographed her version of La Fille Mal Gardée, a ballet originally created by the Frenchman Jean Dauberville in 1789, with another version produced in 1903 by the Russian choreographer Alexander Gorsky.

Bronislava Nijinska. Choreographic sketch for La Fille Mal Gardée, 1940. Bronislava Nijinska Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (003.00.00, 003.01.00)

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