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

Myra Armstrong, photographer. Cynthia Gregory in Swan Lake, 1980s. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (018.00.00) PHOTO MIRA

ABT has always performed the traditional ballet repertory, with classics such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Don Quixote, but it has also stretched the boundaries of ballet by supporting the work of innovative contemporary choreographers. Among the many American and European choreographers whose works have been in the ABT repertory include Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham David Parsons, Mark Morris, and Twyla Tharp alongside Sir Frederick Ashton, Jirí Kylián, Benjamin Millepied, and Alexei Ratmansky. During its seventy-five year history, ABT has performed more than 450 works created by more than 150 choreographers.

Staging the Classics: Swan Lake

One of the most important ballet classics is Marius Petipa's Swan Lake, first performed in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1895. In 1940, ABT performed excerpts from Swan Lake in its first season, and in 1967 it was the first American ballet company to mount the full version of the ballet. In the second week of that season's performances, twenty-year-old Cynthia Gregory was given the lead role of Odette/Odile, dancing both the roles of the good “white swan” and the evil “black swan.” Her stellar performance in that role defined her as a major ballerina. Oliver Smith (1918–1994), scenic designer and co-director of ABT, designed the sets for the 1967 production.

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  • Oliver Smith, set designer. 1/4" scale rendering for Swan Lake, Act IV, ca. 1967. Watercolor. Oliver Smith Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (019.00.00) Works of Oliver Smith © Rosaria Sinisi

  • Myra Armstrong, photographer. Cynthia Gregory in Swan Lake, 1980s. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (018.00.00) PHOTO MIRA

  • Jack Mitchell, photographer. Swan Lake scene with Royes Fernandes, ca. 1967. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (017.00.00) Photo © 2014 Jack Mitchell

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The Female Heroines of Classical Ballet

ABT's repertory includes several ballets that showcase the talents of its female dancers. Ballerinas dream of portraying Giselle, in Giselle, ou Les Wilis, originally choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot in 1841. The beautiful peasant girl's heart breaks when she finds out her love, Albrecht, is a nobleman and has been untrue. At the end of the first act, Giselle goes mad and dies, as portrayed here by principal dancer Julie Kent (b. 1969), who emotionally expresses the last moments of Giselle's life. Another enduring classic in ABT's repertory is Don Quixote, first choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1869 for Moscow's Bolshoi Theater. In 1978, Mikhail Baryshnikov (b. 1948) choreographed his version for ABT, which was subtitled Kitri's Wedding. This lavish production was based on Petipa's libretto and critics hailed its mixture of classical ballet, wit, and exoticism. The ballet is renowned for its virtuosic choreography as demonstrated by principal dancer Paloma Herrera (b. 1975), who portrays the role of Kitri.

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  • Marty Sohl, photographer. Giselle with Julie Kent as Giselle, Karin Ellis-Wentz as Berthe, Jose Manuel Carreño as Albrecht, and Gennadi Saveliev as Hilarion, 2005. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (020.00.00) Photo © Marty Sohl

  • Myra Armstrong, photographer. Paloma Herrera as Kitri in Don Quixote, 1990s. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (021.00.00) PHOTO MIRA

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Supporting New Choreography

In 1947, ABT commissioned a work from Russian émigré George Balanchine (1904–1983), the choreographer who, alongside Lincoln Kirstein (1907–1996), would eventually define the New York City Ballet's repertory. Created “to evoke that great period in classical dancing when Russian ballet flourished with the aid of Tchaikovsky's music,” Balanchine's Theme and Variations showcased his remarkable musicality, the virtuosity of the company's dancers, and the brilliant partnership of Alicia Alonso (b. 1921) and Igor Yousevitch (1912–1994). Although the dancers wore tutus and pointe shoes as in Swan Lake or Giselle, the ballet had no storyline, allowing audiences to experience the raw beauty of classical ballet stripped of pantomime and plot. The ballet has since become a classic and remains in the company's repertory.

Igor Yousevitch and Alicia Alonso in George Balanchine's Theme and Variations, 1947. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division (024.00.00)

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The Sleeping Beauty

The Sleeping Beauty, another ballet from the Russian choreographer Marius Petipa (1918–1910), was first staged in its entirety by ABT in 1976. The sets transport the audience to an enchanted, magical world where the traditional fairytale unfolds. This scene design from the ABT 1973 production is by Oliver Smith, who co-directed the company with Lucia Chase from 1945 to 1980. As part of the 2014–2015 season, ABT resident choreographer Alexei Ratmansky (b. 1968) reinterpreted Petipa's classic for a new generation.

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  • Oliver Smith, set designer. 1/2" scale partial backdrop elevation for The Sleeping Beauty, Act III, 1973. Watercolor. Oliver Smith Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (022.00.00) Works of Oliver Smith © Rosaria Sinisi

  • Richard Hudson, set and costume designer. Preliminary photograph of set model for Alexei Ratmansky's new production of The Sleeping Beauty, 2014. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (023.00.00) Photo © Richard Hudson

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Antony Tudor

Considered one of the most important choreographers of the twentieth century, Antony Tudor (1908–1987) arrived in New York in 1939 to stage three works for Ballet Theatre. By 1980, eleven more Tudor ballets were added to the repertory. Tudor enjoyed a long-standing relationship with ABT and was named associate director in 1974 and, in 1980, choreographer emeritus—a position he held until his death. At ABT, wisdom and knowledge passes through person-to-person exchanges during the rehearsal process. Pictured here, Tudor guides Kevin McKenzie in rehearsal. McKenzie became the artistic director of ABT in 1992, a position he still holds today.

Paul B. Goode, photographer. Antony Tudor with Kevin McKenzie in rehearsal, 1985. Work print. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (028.00.00) Photo © Paul B. Goode

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Tudor's Pillar of Fire

Antony Tudor created Pillar of Fire as a one-act ballet for Ballet Theatre in 1942. Impresario Sol Hurok wanted to cut the ballet in order to emphasize the “Russian” roots of the company. However, Lucia Chase insisted that it be performed. The ballet instantly became a success, establishing Tudor as one of the premier choreographers of the time. The work is noted for its psychological focus on the inner emotions of its characters with an emphasis on themes of passion, repression, and forgiveness. Diana Adams (1926–1993), a principal dancer with ABT from 1944–1950, was known for her interpretations of roles in the ballets of Tudor, including Pillar of Fire. The ballet continues to be an important part of the ABT repertory, as are many Tudor works. This photograph from a 2003 production recreates the exact poses from the 1942 original.

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  • Foto-Semo Photography. Original cast of Antony Tudor's Pillar of Fire with Hugh Laing, Nora Kaye, Lucia Chase, Annabelle Lyon, and Antony Tudor, 1942. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (025.00.00)

  • Marty Sohl, photographer. ABT dancers Marcelo Gomes, Gillian Murphy, Erica Fischbach, Xiomara Reyes, and Carlos Molina in Pillar of Fire, 2003. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (026.00.00) Photo © Marty Sohl

  • Alfredo Valente, photographer. Diana Adams in Pillar of Fire, 1942. Judith Chazin-Bennahum Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (027.00.00)

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