American Ballet Theatre
American Ballet Theatre is a new ballet company, but the nucleus started in 1927. To understand its growth is to trace ABT back to Mikhail Mordkin. Mordkin was born in Moscow 1881. He joined the Bolshoi Ballet immediately after graduation from the school. Mordkin left to participate in Diaghilev's Paris season in 1909, then went with Pavlova. He must have been a very interesting person, because he deserted Pavlova to create his All-Star Imperial Russian Ballet for a tour of America 1911-1912.
In 1917 he was appointed director of The Bolshoi Ballet. He left Russia after the October Revolution, and settled in America in 1924 where he became one of the most important pioneers of the slowly emerging American Ballet. In 1927 he produced the complete Swan Lake.
Mordkin continued to dance in Europe, and in 1937 started another company made up of students from his New York school, Lucia Chase being one of his students. She was his ballerina 1938-1939.
Richard Pleasant, a Hollywood agent, went to New York to manage the Mordkin Ballet Company. Mr. Pleasant, with Lucia Chase, organized Ballet Theatre. According to Anatole Chujoy: I quote "By the summer of 1939 Ms. Chase and Mr. Pleasant had decided that the Mordkin Ballet was too small an undertaking and began to formulate plans for a full-fledged ballet company, Ballet Theatre. In this process, the founder and sole choreographer, Mikhail Mordkin, somehow found himself in the background." Some 40 years later Ms. Chase found herself in the same situation.
The first season opened at the Centre Theatre in Rockefeller Center in 1940. The choreographers for the first season were: Mikhail Fokine, Adolf Bolm, Mickhail Mordkin, Anton Dolin, Anthony Tudor, Howard, Agnes de Mille, Eugene Loring, Fernandez, Bronislava Nijinska, and Yurek Shabelevski.
Among the principal dancers were: Adolf Bolm, Patricia Bowman, Edward Caton, Lucia Chase, Karen Conrad, Leon Danielian, Valdimir Dokoudovsky, Anton Dolin, William Dollar, Viola Essen, Miriam Golden, Nana Gollner, Maria Karnakoski, Nora Kaye, Howard, Eugene Loring, Hugh Laing, Annabell Lyon, Dimitri Romanoff, Nina Stroganova, Mia Shabelevski, Anthony Tudor and Varkas.
Mr. Pleasant left after its second season and our entry into the World War II. Oliver Smith became Co-director with Ms. Chase in 1945.
The first season of Ballet Theatre lasted four weeks and set its sponsors back a considerable amount. Afterward the company gave a few performances in and around New York City. To keep the company intact it became the official ballet company of the Chicago opera for one season. They had the chance to give twelve evenings of ballet.
The next year they started their second season, at the Majestic Theatre. Instead of having a Regisseur-general, the company replaced him with Choreographers-in-residence. They were Anton Dolin, Antony Tudor, Eugene Loring and Agnes de Mille. That summer the company spent time at Jacob's Pillow where they worked on new ballets. Somehow the Company stayed together during World War II. In 1946, they performed in England at Covent Garden, and were a great success. This was before there was a Royal Ballet. On their return to the States, George Balanchine restaged "Giselle" with new scenery and costumes by Eugene Berman.
I was a viewer at the 10th Anniversary that was held at the Centre Theatre. I remember Nana Gollner as one of the ballerinas. What a great dancer she was!!
Later, Ballet Theatre changed its name to American National Ballet Theatre and again in 1957 to American Ballet Theatre. I know it is hard to believe, but at that time ABT had succeeded in creating a definite American style, which defies precise definition. Let's say it was marked by the American urge for self-expression, curbed by a strict classical training.
I once told a board member they should change the name to "International" Ballet Theatre. I consider ABT as a satellite of the Kirov Ballet. Maybe with a new American director it can become an American Ballet Company again.
Those who are past and present members of the company that take class with us: the late Eleonore Treiber, Nansi Clement, Mary Stone-Cover, Carol Foster , Kat Wildish, Cynthia Gregory and Gabrielle Brown.
(First published September 1989)