Souvenir program, 1964. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (014.00.00)

In 1942, Ballet Theatre began to tour the United States under the auspices of impresario Sol Hurok (1888–1974). He promoted the company as “The Greatest in Russian Ballet by Ballet Theatre,” luring audiences with popular, nineteenth-century ballets such as Giselle and Swan Lake. Four years later, the company fired Hurok and returned to its original mission of showcasing a diverse repertory, emphasizing a distinctly American style. In the 1950s, Ballet Theatre embarked on international touring under the name American National Ballet Theatre. With the encouragement of President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969), who understood the importance of representing the United States with culture that was distinctly American, the company permanently adopted the name American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in 1957. ABT continues to tour both nationally and internationally, exposing diverse audiences to ballet while providing the company with an important source of revenue.

ABT Breaks through the Iron Curtain

In 1960, American Ballet Theatre became the first major American dance company to perform in Russia under State Department sponsorship. Because of the traditional dominance of the Russians in ballet, American Ballet Theatre encountered a Cold War faceoff. In an era of great diplomatic tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, ABT managed to win over Soviet audiences, garnering enthusiastic responses from Russian dancers and high-ranking government officials, including Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971). ABT returned to Russia in 1965, again, under State Department auspices.

Poster advertising ABT performances in Russia, ca. 1960s. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (013.00.00)

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Representing the U.S. Abroad during the Cold War

During the Cold War, the United States government made a concerted effort to showcase American culture to the world and initiated support to dance companies for international touring. Throughout the 1950s, ABT performed in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa, with some tours sponsored by the State Department and others financed independently.

In 1953, President Eisenhower personally congratulated the company on its important work as a cultural ambassador. In the mid-1960s, ABT had achieved a status as one of the world's top dance companies and had traveled to dozens of nations, as represented by the cover for the 1964 edition of the souvenir program.

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  • Letter from Dwight D. Eisenhower to American National Ballet Theatre, March 26, 1953, in program for American Ballet Theatre. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (012.00.00)

  • Souvenir program, 1964. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (014.00.00)

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America's National Ballet Company

In 1962, ABT was invited to Washington, D.C., to perform at the White House for President and Mrs. Kennedy. ABT was one of the first organizations to receive a grant from the newly-founded National Endowment for the Arts in 1966, attesting to the company's important stature in American culture. In 2006, the United States Congress officially recognized ABT as "America's National Ballet Company."

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  • Program for Billy the Kid, White House performance, May 22, 1962. Aaron Copland Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (016.00.00)

  • The company of American Ballet Theatre on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building, 1962. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (015.00.00)

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Jerome Robbins Explores Urban America

In 1944 during World War II, Jerome Robbins (1918–1998) choreographed Fancy Free, a ballet about three Navy sailors out on shore leave in New York City. Danced by a young cast of junior soloists, Robbins' energetic, “pedestrian” choreography set to an exuberant score by Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990), with sets designed by Oliver Smith wowed audiences used to seeing ballet as an elitist, European genre.

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  • Maurice Seymour, photographer. Jerome Robbins, John Kriza, Michael Kidd, Janet Reed, and Muriel Bentley in Fancy Free, 1944. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (008.00.00) Photograph by Maurice Seymour, courtesy of © Ronald Seymour

  • Leonard Bernstein, composer. “Big Stuff” from Fancy Free, 1944. Holograph score. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (009.00.00)

  • Francesco Scavullo, photographer. Poster for Fancy Free tour, n.d. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (010.00.00)

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