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American Ballet Theatre’s Homecoming to Rockefeller Center

By Julie Smith SchneiderJul 6 2021

On January 11, 1940, a startup ballet company called Ballet Theatre gave its inaugural performance at the Center Theatre (now closed) at Sixth Avenue and 49th Street. Billed as “America’s first ballet theatre,” they performed with ambitions of “combining the best of the past with the most exciting of contemporary,” as an essay in the opening night’s program explained. This spirit of experimentation and discovery rooted in the rich traditions of ballet still holds true today for the company—now called American Ballet Theatre (ABT). After eight decades of performing on stages around the world, and recently in digital formats, ABT is ringing in a new era of live performance with an eight-city, 21-day U.S. cross-country tour this month called ABT Across America. The tour’s final show on Wednesday, July 21, at the same site as the company’s first-ever performance, will mark a Rockefeller Center homecoming for ABT.

“When we first heard that we were performing at Rockefeller Center, the whole company started clapping. We were also excited because it’s just this iconic New York landmark,” says Anabel Katsnelson, a dancer in ABT’s corps de ballet. “There's nothing like the energy from a New York audience—or a live audience for that matter.” Katsnelson will perform in the upcoming show at Rockefeller Center in Indestructible Light, a piece choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie. Though ABT has found ways to share ballet through virtual performances during the past year-and-a-half—including a partnership with Rockefeller Center for Spring Sunday—the company is eager to be back, sharing the electricity of live dance with live audiences.

Since its founding in the shadow of World War II, ABT has an extensive record of resilience. There was the tour in Europe in 1958, for one, where a truck carrying the scenery and costumes burned. Yet, with signature resourcefulness, the company still pulled off its scheduled shows. “Over the years Ballet Theatre has experienced more ups and downs than a clown on a trampoline,” Clive Barnes, a dance critic for The New York Times, wrote in the book Inside American Ballet Theatre, published by Hawthorn Books in 1977, referencing the company’s financial struggles and search for a permanent base at that time.

In 2020, ABT took some more bounces on that proverbial trampoline. It had to cancel its 80th-anniversary world tour and reckon with the uncertain reality of being a performance-centered nonprofit arts organization during a pandemic. To keep practicing ballet, a collaborative art form, ABT conceived of “ballet bubbles,” which consisted of “pods” of dancers and choreographers cloistered in secluded locations to create new works together. “After two weeks of testing and being negative, they were allowed to take their mask off and dance together,” says David Lansky, ABT’s general manager and staff member of 35 years, his voice choking with emotion. “It was the first time that they danced together in six, seven months.”

Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography

The prolific creative output from the ballet bubbles was remarkable. “We could not have possibly imagined in March 2020 that we would emerge [...] with 21 new works,” says Kara Medoff Barnett, ABT’s executive director. “That’s a period of creative vibrancy and creative output that rivals our very first season. And I think a fascinating parallel is that both of these periods of intense creativity came out of times of tremendous uncertainty and volatility in our country and our world, and yet the artists continued to create.”

New pieces created in these ballet bubbles will be performed for a live audience at Rockefeller Center, as well as other stops on the ABT Across America tour. Indestructible Light is set to music by American jazz greats Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Neal Hefti, Billy Strayhorn, and Chuck Harmony. In a writeup about the work’s creation, choreographer Moultrie said, “Indestructible Light is inspired by where we are now in our lives and how important it is to stay connected to hope, love, and joy.” This piece will be performed at the Rockefeller Center show, along with other works performed by a lineup of 21 of ABT’s dancers: James Whiteside’s New American Romance, set to music by Claude Debussy; an excerpt from Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas with music by Domenico Scarlatti; and Jessica Lang’s pas de deux Let Me Sing Forevermore, set to songs recorded by Tony Bennett. The upbeat popular music that accompanies many of these pieces is meant to be accessible and uplifting to any viewer, regardless of their level of ballet expertise.

Photo: Gene Schiavone

While ABT’s dancers honed their performances, planning the ABT Across America tour required its own sort of choreography and creativity. “It’s just a mind-boggling amount of logistics,” Lansky says, describing the feat as akin to moving a city. Reminiscent of its bus tours of the 1940s and ’50s, the company is traveling on sleeper buses like a rock band and performing outdoors on a portable 40-foot-by-76-foot stage that folds out of an 18-wheeler truck. An all-outdoor tour and using this traveling stage is a first for the company. The three-week tour involves about 50 people total, six sleeper buses, one stage truck, one generator truck, and two support trailers carrying lights, costumes, scenery, and more. ABT has designed a fully turnkey operation that rolls up to the designated outdoor spaces in each city and transforms into a self-contained show, the way a touring musical festival might. “We’re doing rock & roll outdoors with ballet,” Lansky says. “It’s kind of groundbreaking. [...] No one else is doing this.” ABT’s medical advisor Dr. Robert Galvin has taken to referring to ABT Across America as “the Magical Mystery Tour,” in reference to The Beatles, Lansky says. For the Rockefeller Center performance, the dancers will perform on a custom-built stage, since the truck’s stage won’t fit properly into this outdoor performance space, which will be set up on the South Plaza at 49th Street.

“Where we play is part of what we become,” wrote former ABT board member Justin S. Collins in the introduction to Inside American Ballet Theatre. When the dancers move across the stage in each city of their new tour, they’ll become a beacon of hope, an embodiment of the return of the performing arts in America. “I think what’s so special is that ABT has always been an institution grounded in New York, headquartered in New York,” Barnett says, “but it belongs to the nation.” And at their final performance under the city lights at Rockefeller Center, they’ll be home, where it all started for ABT.

ABT Across America is coming to Rockefeller Center on Wednesday, July 21. Sign up for The Center newsletter for early access and ticketing information.

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