The Born-Again Balletomane's Blog

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Anyway… January 24, 2013

Filed under: ballet,ballet class — theworstat @ 5:53 pm
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Had to take a little breather after last week’s tragic event.

Prior to that I’d been working on a post that was not about ABT’s current school (the JKO school), but about its past school(s).  There was one in the 1970’s that particularly intrigues me, as I was a ballet student then and recall hearing about it.  There seems to be a huge difference between what I recall hearing and what actually happened, and researching that subject strictly on the internet has proven difficult.  Ask Google for information on “American Ballet Theater School,” for instance, and you get thousands of hits about the JKO school and something called the ABT National Training Curriculum.  It’s as if the far-off-distant past never happened.

I did note that a large number of kids in the current ABT corps spent at least some time at the JKO school, much as most of the corps kids at NYCB spent at least some time at SAB.  The harshest test will be to see if the JKO grads start getting promoted in future years.  This was, as I recall, a big problem with the older school.  Although the bios of a few American ABT principals of the 1980’s show that they spent some time at the old American Ballet Theater School, I remember hearing back in the day that the school was closed not only for financial reasons, but because ABT simply wasn’t hiring or promoting its graduates on a regular basis.  I’ll have to see if I can verify this hearsay.

I also believe, but cannot verify, that the old school was a pre-professional school only.  All the kids who went there got their early training elsewhere.  I do know that entry into the school was quite exclusive and extremely competitive.  Looking at the few videos of the school’s classes now, though…well all I can say is that it’s obvious that times have changed in many ways.  These days, most of the students in the video I’m thinking of would have been encouraged to pursue another profession a long time before trying to enter any elite school.

Contrary to what I heard years ago, both ABT and NYCB started out as school companies run by Russian immigrants.  The huge difference seems to be that NYCB was started and continued to be run by a genius choreographer, Balanchine, who came up with his own ballet language (and now it is run by one of his most avid and talented pupils, Peter Martins), while ABT’s originator, Mikhail Mordkin, apparently did not have gifts that still bind the company together 70+ years later.  (Update: just read that Mordkin was actually fired when ABT, then in its infant form as the Mordkin Ballet, grew into “Ballet Theater” in 1939 under the direction of one of the ballerinas — and a former pupil of Mordkin’s — wealthy socialite Lucia Chase.  Karma paid a visit to Chase some 40 years later.)

I do believe that ABT has spent at least 40 of its 70+ years without a school.  Without a doubt ABT had no school from the mid-1970’s (in spite of the history given in the link below, I swear the old school went out of existence around 1975) until the mid-2000-0’s, if you don’t count the apprentice companies.

I guess this time I’m going to have to do some actual research.  So hang in there if you’ve been looking forward to the school post.

UPDATE:  I may not have to search any further, after all.  Even though some of the information in this link contradicts what I’ve said here (they seem to be counting the various apprentice companies ABT has had through the years as “schools”), it does give a clear and concise history of ABT’s history in regard to the training of future dancers:
JKO School/Kennedy Center

P.S. I have just discovered in my book collection a paperback from 1949 by one George Amberg, entitled Ballet: The Emergence of  an American Art.  The book was left to me by a ballet-loving aunt who died decades ago.  Unfortunately it is so fragile that I can barely open it without a page falling out.  I have found and ordered a slightly later (1954 or so) edition, and will be reading that to try to find any further information I can on the history of ballet training in the big New York companies.

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2 Responses to “Anyway…”

  1. atlantic Says:

    Very interesting post! I think one of the reasons SAB has been a priority for NYCB is that the company wants to maintain a specific style. They want to produce Balanchine dancers, whereas ABT does not really a a specific look. Without the need for a particular look, they may not have had such a need for a school.

    Is it their lack of formal training system why they do not hire many American principals or do they just prefer foreign dancers? Under immigration laws, they cannot pay them a lower wage, so it’s not like its cheap labor (actually it is more expensive due to the cost of getting visas). Do they feel American names don’t sell tickets?

  2. Jennifer S. Says:

    SAB survived because of Balanchine’s insistence that a school was important part of a proper company.

    Most people do not realize the dedication and early committment it takes to become a ballet dancer. American parents have a hard time with the notion of boarding school and especially in the area of arts. Those lucky enough to live in close proximity to professional schools, mainly schools affiliated with SFB, PNB and others aren’t exactly jumping up and down either. I know a few parents who were relieved when their daughters, who were quite gifted and in advanced classes at those schools, decided to stop dancing in their senior year of high school. The sad reality is that in the US being a ballet dancer does not confer the same respect as it once did and certainly not like in Russia where at least it is still a prestigeous career.


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