New York City Ballet: An American School of Ballet

Classic Arts Features   New York City Ballet: An American School of Ballet
The 75th anniversary of the School of American Ballet - which New York City Ballet will celebrate with a specialperformance Jan. 14 - is in many ways a birthday forthe Company, too.

Only after George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein conceived the idea for an American ballet company did they make plans to open a Manhattan-based school in January 1934. Press releases announcing the creation of the school made no bones about the duo's ambitions. "The purpose of the school is the development of a national ballet, corresponding to the famous Russian Ballet, but essentially American in character, enlisting the talents of American artists, dealing with typically American themes, creating an American tradition," the founders boldly declared in late 1933, before the school had enrolled a single student.

It took but 14 years for New York City ballet to materialize, with 47 of 50 founding members coming from the school, exactly as Kirstein and Balanchine had envisioned. In the ensuing 61 years, the two organizations have grown hand in hand to become preeminent in their fields while maintaining a symbiotic relationship unique in the upper echelon of the ballet world. They are the only affiliated company and school among the world's leading ballet companies to have perpetually shared the same artistic leader: first George Balanchine, and since Balanchine's death in 1983, Peter Martins. With both organizations guided by a singular artistic vision and aesthetic, the Company has been assured of a steady supply of dancers trained in a unified style to meet the demands of the repertoire's constantly expanding wealth of ballets.

For its entire history, New York City Ballet has depended almost exclusively on the School of American Ballet to replenish its ranks. It is one of the few remaining ballet companies in the world to so extensively draw its dancers from its own academy. While most major companies today feature collections of international dancers with dissimilar training backgrounds, 95 out of 101 of New York City Ballet's current members are linked by the instruction they received at SAB.

The school's students enroll at various stages of their development as dancers. Those from the New York metropolitan area may start as children. Other promising talents from around the U.S. and abroad are typically introduced to the school through five-week summer sessions for students between the ages of 12 and 18 and subsequently move into the school's Lincoln Center residence when they are 14 or older to train full-time. All prospective students must audition, and those accepted possess age appropriate potential as well as the physical attributes necessary for a career in classical ballet.

Whenever they arrive at the school's Lincoln Center headquarters, all students are immersed in the fundamentals of Balanchine's aesthetic. Classical ballet technique rooted in the traditions of the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg, Russia (the source of Balanchine's early training) sets the foundation for SAB's training, which is further enriched with the principles set forth by Balanchine. Precision, musicality, control and speed inform the approach to dance in evidence in SAB's teaching studios and onstage at New York City Ballet.

While a number of former New York City Ballet dancers who worked directly with Balanchine at New York City Ballet have followed their performing careers by teaching, SAB features the largest collection of first-generation Balanchine dancers to be found anywhere. Chairman of Faculty Peter Martins, co-chairman Kay Mazzo, Suki Schorer, Susan Pilarre, Sheryl Ware, Garielle Whittle, Darci Kistler, Sean Lavery and Lisa deRibere all trained directly with Balanchine and performed in the original productions of many of his works for NYCB. Other faculty such as Jock Soto and Katrina Killian were among the very last dancers to be hired by Balanchine out of the School of American Ballet. Several newer faculty members (also still performing with New York City Ballet) like Yvonne Borree, Philip Neal, and Jonathan Stafford are already passing on what they learned from many of the school's current and former faculty as well as sharing lessons from their own experiences with NYCB.

When New York City Ballet celebrates the School of American Ballet's contributions to its past, present and future on January 14th, the majority of dancers who take the stage that night will be, as always, former students of the School. But the anniversary celebration will cast light on another aspect of SAB's contribution to the American arts beyond its significant partnership with the Company. SAB's record of training even more students who have achieved professional careers beyond NYCB at other dance companies across the U.S. and worldwide will be spotlighted by the presence of eight guest artists from American Ballet Theatre, The Royal Danish Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Boston Ballet and Carolina Ballet. They will dance alongside NYCB in two Balanchine ballets : Serenade and The Four Temperaments : and all SAB alumni on stage on this special evening will serve as testament to the remarkable fulfillment of Balanchine and Kirstein's original plan.

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