American Ballet Theatre Studio Company is having a moment. Though the Company’s junior tier has been around since the 1970s, its latest iteration, helmed since 2018 by ABT alum Sascha Radetsky, is soaring to new heights. With a roster of dancers aged 17 to 21, ABT Studio Company performs in certain main Company productions and develops the next generation of talent to matriculate into ABT, all while maintaining its own rigorous touring schedule and working with up-and-coming dancemakers. Since Radetsky took the reins, a remarkable 73% of ABT Studio Company’s graduates have made it into the main Company. And his team’s commitment to diversity speaks for itself: Of the 20 ballets ABT Studio Company has commissioned, 70% of the choreographers are women, and 65% identify as BIPOC.
As Radetsky and ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie were gearing up for ABT’s 2022 Fall season—what is, after a 30-year tenure, McKenzie’s last—they sat down together to discuss what has enabled ABT Studio Company’s recent success and what their hopes are for its future. An abbreviated version of that conversation follows.
Since its founding, ABT Studio Company has been through so many changes. What do you see as its mission today?
Kevin McKenzie: It’s about being the bridge between being destined to be a professional dancer, and learning what it actually means to become a professional dancer. If they’re getting into Studio Company, talent is not a question. But they are at a crucial age where they have to figure out how to take care of themselves so that they can develop into being good artists. That’s where I feel we have really hit our stride. Sascha has looked at everything that has worked, and focused it, and moved it forward towards developing the full artist, not just the dancer and their technique.
What skills do you hope that dancers take away from their time in ABT Studio Company?
Sascha Radetsky: It’s important that we develop good citizens who support one another, beyond what they can do onstage. We want dancers who are intellectually curious, whose hunger for knowledge and for experience go beyond dance. A lot of kids their age go off to college and form their values and who they want to be, and we’re getting these dancers at a similar formative period in their development. It’s definitely not something that we take lightly. It might keep me up at night; but that’s the goal.
Are more dancers from ABT Studio Company making it into the main Company now than in the past?
KM: I’d say so. I’ve just been raiding Sascha right and left. He hires someone, and I go, “Oh thank you,” and take them into the main Company!
SR: I think it’s because Kevin and I are so aligned in our tastes. I was forged in the fire of ABT; my tastes were developed there, my palate, too.
In the past few years, two works created for ABT Studio Company—Lauren Lovette’s La Follia Variations and Jessica Lang’s Children’s Songs Dance—have gone on to be performed by the main Company. In terms of ABT Studio Company’s repertoire, how do you strike a balance between new work and ABT’s classics?
KM: I think this is the first time that’s happened, and it’s ultimately a testament to how in tune Sascha and I are. And that was the whole idea of Studio Company: We’re not just incubating dancers, but also choreographers.
SR: We’re also here to prepare the dancers for a wide variety of ABT repertoire. We travel to some locales that are unfamiliar with ballet, so I like to give them bites of all sorts of genres: tap, modern, contemporary, jazz, and sterling, quintessential classical and neoclassical ballet. Versatility is one of our biggest strengths. Our dancers can move and groove, but they can also strap on the “boots” and deliver top quality classical dance.
Sascha, since you took over, ABT Studio Company has toured to nearly 30 cities, with more coming up this year. What have been the highlights of your time on the road?
SR: Kevin has said before that touring is a symbiotic enrichment experience. We’re doing engagement work and learning from communities, and they’re getting something from our performances. Going to the Philippines in 2019 stands out. We had such beautiful and meaningful interactions, and we’re set to go back this spring. And we’re still buzzing from last year’s trip to The Royal Opera House; selling out the Linbury Theatre, and seeing some of the dancers’ longtime idols in the audience.
What are your goals for ABT Studio Company’s next chapter?
KM: That it just keeps going on this track, because they are uniquely positioned, even better than the main Company is, to discover the next brilliant, innovative talent.
SR: I’m presently excited because my wife, Stella Abrera, has just assumed the position of Acting Artistic Director of the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, and I’m excited to see how Studio Company and the School can help one another and work together. Studio Company has to strike that balance between being available to the main Company but also serving as a domestic and global representative of ABT that’s smaller and more nimble. So I want to keep touring and commissioning and finding talent to work with, and maybe playing a little role in their journey as artists and people. I got my start in Studio Company in 1995, so this has been a full circle moment. And it makes me more deeply invested, just by dint of it having been my own springboard.
KM: I feel very much the same way about ABT in general. It’s not where I started, but it’s where I aspired to be at 15, watching the likes of Erik Bruhn and Carla Fracci and going, “That’s where I want to be. I want to do that.” There is something to finding yourself responsible for the very thing that you aspired to be part of that is very humbling.
Chava Pearl Lansky is a Brooklyn-based writer and a contributor to Dance Magazine.