Sections: 1940 | Touring | Tradition and Innovation | Striving for Diversity | ABT's Future

Peggy Clark. Sketch for lighting design for Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend, 1948. Peggy Clark Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress (032.00.00)

An important element of ABT’s mission since its founding has been diversity in repertory as well as the inclusion of all types of artists, without regard to gender, race, or homeland. The company has welcomed dancers from around the world. An unprecedented thirty percent of the 150 choreographers that ABT has supported have been women, including Pilar Lopez (Spain), Alicia Alonso (Cuba), Birgit Cullberg (Sweden), Natalia Makarova (Russia), La Argentinita (Argentina), Valentina Pereyaslavec (Ukraine), as well as U.S. choreographers Karole Armitage, Valerie Bettis, Ann Reinking, and Twyla Tharp. In 2013, ABT launched Project Plié to increase racial and ethnic representation in ballet. A network of ballet companies from Texas, Tennessee, California, Ohio, Oklahoma, Florida, and Virginia as well as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America have joined in partnership with ABT to train and support ballet students from underrepresented communities.

A Female Pioneer: Agnes de Mille

Agnes de Mille (1905–1993), American dancer, choreographer, director, writer, and vital force in twentieth-century theater, was a niece of famed Hollywood producer Cecil B. de Mille. In this photograph she is joined by American composer Aaron Copland and set designer Oliver Smith, both of whom de Mille collaborated with on the ballet Rodeo. The ballet premiered in New York in 1942 by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Rodeo, the story about a tomboy who falls in love with a cowboy in the American West, has proved to be one of de Mille's most enduring works. The ballet entered the repertory of ABT in 1950.

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  • Louis Peres, photographer. ABT dancers rehearsing Agnes de Mille's Rodeo, 1960. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (029.00.00)

  • Victor Craft, photographer. Agnes de Mille, Aaron Copland, and Oliver Smith at Tanglewood Music Festival, 1942. Aaron Copland Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (030.00.00)

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Women Collaborate on Fall River Legend

Another popular ballet by Agnes de Mille was Fall River Legend, which she choreographed for ABT in 1948. The ballet tells the story of Lizzie Borden, the nineteenth-century woman accused of murdering her mother and stepfather with an axe. Peggy Clark (1915–1996), a close collaborator of set designer Oliver Smith, created the lighting design for the ballet, with deep reds and yellows that evoked the murderous, lurid theme and emphasized the psychological disturbance of the main character. Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso danced one of the lead roles, just before she moved back to Cuba to establish the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and an affiliated school for young dancers.

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Women Choreographing and Restaging

Dancer, choreographer, and teacher Bronislava Nijinska (1891–1972) is a central figure in the development of twentieth-century ballet choreography. She was invited to join Ballet Theatre as a choreographer for its first season and subsequently provided several new ballets for the company, including the work Harvest Time (1945). Although she was not a costume designer, she often provided sketches of her ideas for various elements of the ballet, as seen in this example.

Bronislava Nijinska. Costume sketches for Harvest Time, 1945. Bronislava Nijinska Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (033.00.00, 034.00.00)

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Twyla Tharp

Demonstrating ABT's dedication to supporting female choreographers and to bringing new works to the company, in 1976 the company commissioned modern dance icon Twyla Tharp (b. 1941) to choreograph Push Comes to Shove for ABT. Tharp's work showcased how the worlds of ballet, musical theater, and modern dance could meet and complement each other on the stage. Since then, ABT has performed the world premieres of sixteen additional Tharp ballets, including her 2008 Rabbit and Rogue.

Gene Schiavone, photographer. Twyla Tharp in rehearsal for Rabbit and Rogue, with Kevin McKenzie, Keith Roberts, Nancy Raffa, Santo Loquasto, and Frederic Franklin, 2008. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (035.00.00) © Gene Schiavone

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The Russian Connection

During the Cold War, several Russian ballet stars defected to the West, beginning with Rudolf Nureyev (1938–1993) in 1961, Natalia Makarova (b. 1940) in 1971, and Mikhail Baryshnikov (b. 1948) in 1974. Makarova and Baryshnikov both joined American Ballet Theatre in the 1970s. They brought technical virtuosity, an expressive theatricality, and Russian classicism to the stage. Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland (b. 1952), an American, partnered together in several important classical productions in the late 1970s, such as Coppélia. Baryshnikov became the artistic director of ABT in 1980, a position he held until 1989. Twenty-nine years later, another Russian émigré, Alexei Ratmansky (b. 1968), became ABT's artist-in-residence. One of Ratmansky's newly restaged works is The Firebird, a ballet first choreographed by Michel Fokine in 1910.

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  • Martha Swope, photographer. Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland in Coppélia, ca. 1976. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (038.00.00)

  • Gene Schiavone, photographer. Misty Copeland in Alexei Ratmansky's Firebird, 2012. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (043.00.00) © Gene Schiavone

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Bridging East and West: Makarova's La Bayadère

In 1980, Makarova staged Marius Petipa's classic ballet La Bayadère, the first time it had been performed outside of Russia. Set in colonial-era India, it established a new standard for lavishness and technical virtuosity for ABT productions. The daring leaps by men, spins and jumps by women, and technical finesse exhibited by the corps de ballet are often seen as litmus tests for any company. Because of its “orientalist” depictions of characters, it has also been criticized for stereotyping the peoples of South Asia.

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  • Marty Sohl, photographer. Anne Milewski and Misty Copeland in La Bayadère, 2009. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (042.00.00) Photo © Marty Sohl

  • Gene Schiavone, photographer. Natalia Makarova and ABT corps de ballet in La Bayadère, 1980. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (039.00.00) © Gene Schiavone

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An International Roster of Men

In the 1970s, male dancers at ABT gained prominence and new ballets were created to showcase their virtuosity. In 1972, Fernando Bujones (1955–2005), a Cuban American, joined ABT after training at Alicia Alonso's Cuban National Ballet in Havana and the School of American Ballet in New York. In 1974, at age nineteen, he became the youngest male principal dancer in ABT's history and appeared in several lead roles, including La Sylphide. Another of the great male dancers in ABT's history is Mikhail Baryshnikov, who joined the company in 1974. During his four years with ABT, he was known for his physical, emotional, and technical skills. In 1976, Mikhail Baryshnikov partnered with Alvin Ailey (1931–1989), who choreographed Pas de “Duke” for Baryshnikov and Ailey's star dancer, Judith Jamison (b. 1943). This duet showcased the intersection of ballet and modern dance. Both dance companies included the work in their 1976 seasons.

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  • Myra Armstrong, photographer. Fernando Bujones in La Sylphide, choreography after August Bournonville, staged by Erik Bruhn for ABT in 1971. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (040.00.00) PHOTO MIRA

  • Alvin Ailey, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Judith Jamison rehearsing Pas de “Duke,” 1976. Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (041.00.00)

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Sections: 1940 | Touring | Tradition and Innovation | Striving for Diversity | ABT's Future