American Ballet Theatre: The Journey Begins

American Ballet Theatre

On January 11, 1940, the curtain of New York’s Center Theatre went up on Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides, the first work presented by a new company known as Ballet Theatre. The mission of the Company, founded by Richard Pleasant and Lucia Chase, was to bring a fresh, American style to the art form, embracing artistic diversity and the American genius for assimilation – drawing on the talents and traditions of the world’s best ballet cultures to create an exciting new brand of dance.

The three-week debut included 18 individual ballets by 11 different choreographers. In fact, the season was so successful it could easily have been extended, if Disney's "Pinocchio" were not already scheduled to open in the theater. In the following pages, journey to that time in 1940 where the first season’s audience takes to its seats, the crackling lights begin to dim, and the dancers in mint-new costumes are poised in the opening tableau. Something sensational is about to begin.

Pictured: Anton Dolin, Nana Gollner, Katharine Sergava, Lucia Chase and Nina Stroganova in Les Sylphides

Les Sylphides
Choreography by Michel Fokine
Music by Frédéric Chopin
Ballet Theatre Premiere: January 11, 1940
Les Sylphides is a one-act, plotless ballet blanc, a romantic style often considered the pure classical form of ballet. Set against a moon-drenched forest, a poet’s romantic reverie evokes ethereal sylphs in an image of classical beauty.

Pictured: Alicia Markova and Erik Bruhn

Voices of Spring
Choreography by Mikhail Mordkin
Music by Johann Strauss
Ballet Theatre Premiere: January 11, 1940
The comic ballet Voices of Spring is set in Vienna’s Belvedere Gardens and reflects an elderly couple’s memories of their romance mirrored in the youthful flirtations that surround them on a lovely spring morning.

Voices of Spring

Choreographer Mikhail Mordkin was one of the first Russian dancers from the Czar’s Imperial Theatres to dance in America. He danced with the Imperial Moscow Ballet for eleven years as a premiere danseur and performed with Anna Pavlova throughout Western Europe. He founded Mordkin Ballet, the precursor to Ballet Theatre, in America as artistic director and choreographer in 1937.

Pictured: Vladimir Dokoudovsky, Karen Conrad and Kari Karnakoski

Giselle
Choreography by Anton Dolin after Jean Coralli
Music by Adolphe Adam
Ballet Theatre Premiere: January 12, 1940
Giselle, a two-act Romantic ballet, is performed by nearly all major ballet companies today and is well-loved by audiences around the world. In the Ballet Theatre premiere, the leading roles, Giselle and Albrecht, were danced by Annabelle Lyon and Anton Dolin. Giselle has been continuously performed by various companies around the world since Jean Coralli originally choreographed the work in France in 1841.

Pictured: Nana Gollner

Giselle

Giselle tells the story of a peasant girl who dies of a broken heart after discovering that her lover, Albrecht, is betrothed to another. Giselle becomes a wili – a spirit destined to dance men to death as a result of unrequited love. When Albrecht becomes trapped by the wilis, only Giselle’s love protects him from their curse. Regarded as one of ballet’s greatest tragedies, the beauty and tenderness of this Romantic ballet has solidified Giselle in American Ballet Theatre’s repertoire.

Pictured: Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin

Carnaval
Choreography by Michel Fokine
Music by Robert Schumann
Ballet Theatre Premiere: January 13, 1940
This ballet typifies the Romantic Revolution in ballet. The work features short pieces performed by masked revelers at Carnaval, a festival before Lent. The work exudes a light, humorous and joyous atmosphere combined with moments of poignancy and satire.

Pictured: Lucia Chase and Leon Danielian

Peter and the Wolf
Choreography by Adolph Bolm
Music and Libretto by Sergei Prokofiev
Ballet Theatre World Premiere: January 13, 1940
Prokofiev's "orchestral fairy tale" for orchestra and narrator was the inspiration for Russian-born Adolph Bolm, former dancer with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. He choreographed the work with narration only in the prologue, allowing the dance itself to be the storyteller.

Pictured: Viola Essen as the Bird and Eugene Loring as Peter

Jardin aux Lilas (Lilac Garden)
Choreography by Antony Tudor
Music by Ernest Chausson
Ballet Theatre Premiere: January 15, 1940
This is the first work Ballet Theatre would present by British choreographer Antony Tudor, who would later be regarded as ABT's "artistic conscience." His ballets are striking in their simplicity of movement, full of subtlety and nuance. Like most of his works, Jardin aux Lilas is a reflection on society and the psychological complexities between individuals.

Pictured: Paula Lloyd, Diana Adams, Muriel Bentley and Hugh Laing

Jardin aux Lilas

Amid a farewell party in an Edwardian garden, this tale brims with tension as young lovers are torn apart by a bride's marriage of convenience to a monied, older gentleman. Performed to Chausson's Poème for Violin and Orchestra, Tudor's choreography reveals vagaries of the human heart through furtive meetings, whispered secrets and gestures of unfulfilled yearning.

Pictured: Antony Tudor, Nora Kaye, Alicia Alonso and Hugh Laing

Goyescas
Choreography by Jose Fernandez
Music by Enrique Granados
Ballet Theatre World Premiere: January 15, 1940
Originally an opera composed by Spanish composer Enrique Granados, Goyescas was inspired by the work of early 19th-century Spanish artist Francisco Goya and his series of 6 paintings portraying the youth of the majismo movement, known for their elegant demeanor and sophisticated grace, coupled with the passionate romanticism of old Madrid.

Pictured: Muriel Bentley and Jerome Robbins

Swan Lake
Choreography by Anton Dolin after Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa
Music by P.I. Tchaikovsky
Ballet Theatre Premiere: January 16, 1940
In this one-act version based on the original two-act ballet, the now familiar story of Swan Lake is condensed, concluding with the Prince's death of a broken heart after his beloved Swan Queen is spirited away by the Sorcerer.

Pictured: Nina Stroganova and Anton Dolin

Black Ritual (Obeah)
Choreography by Agnes de Mille
Music by Darius Milhaud
Ballet Theatre World Premiere: January 22, 1940
Agnes de Mille made her choreographic debut with Black Ritual, created for Ballet Theatre, depicting the psychological atmosphere of an austere and vital ritual ceremony set to Milhaud's blues inspired La Création du Monde.

Dark Elegies
Choreography by Antony Tudor
Music by Gustav Mahler
Ballet Theatre Premiere: January 24, 1940
Referred to as a "symphonic ballet," Dark Elegies joins the movements of the dancers closely with the text of five songs on the death of children from Mahler's song cycle, Kindertotenlieder. The text, written by Friedrich Rückert, expresses the raw emotion of a tight–knit community faced with the inexplicable loss of their beloved children.

Pictured: Barbara Fallis

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