Timeline of American Ballet in the 20th Century

Maria Tallchief

By 1900 the classic ballet of Marius Petipa was in crisis. Soon a movement for choreographic reform was underway in Russia. It was led by Michel Fokine, first choreographer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and continued by Vaslav Nijinsky and others. In America it was promoted by the many Russians who toured and settled here after the 1917 revolution. By 1940, when Ballet Theatre gave its first performances, a pool of native talent existed, along with the beginnings of an American repertory. With the founding of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet in 1948, modernism and neoclassicism became the defining traits of American ballet at midcentury. During the ‘ballet boom’ of teh 1960s and 1970s, the art flourished. Soviet defectors became instant superstars; there were glamorous partnerships and – for the first time – federal dollars. The number of companies grew exponentially, and New York City became a mecca for troupes from abroad. Postmodern choreographers shook up the repertory; revivals augmented it. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Americans found work abroad. Today, as newcomers from Russia and the Spanish-speaking world thrill American audiences, a new generation of artistic directors stands at the helm, guiding their companies into the new millennium.

Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes holds its first Paris season at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 1909.

Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950) shocks Paris in 1912 with his innovative and explicit L’Après-Midi d’un Faune for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. He becomes the most famous male dancer in the world and an icon for generations to come.

Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) unveils California Poppy in San Francisco in 1915 and becomes the embodiment of ballet in America.

Dance Magazine is founded in 1927. It becomes the most influential publication in the field, and by century’s end, the oldest arts magazine in America.

Dorothy Alexander (1904-86) in 1929 forms the concert group that becomes Atlanta Ballet.

George Balanchine (1904-83) arrives in New York City in 1933 at the invitation of Lincoln Kirstein (1907-96); next year he choreographs Serenade, his first U.S. ballet.

Adolph Bolm (1884-1951), a partner of Pavlova and choreographer of Krazy Kat (1922), forms San Francisco Opera Ballet in 1933. William Christensen joins company as ballet master in 1938 and produces first U.S. versions of Coppélia, Nutcracker and Swan Lake. Brothers Lew (1909-84) and Harold (1904-89) later join him to direct, respectively, the company and the school.

Philadelphia Ballet premieres Sleeping Beauty in 1937, choreographed by company founder Catherine Littlefield (1905-51).

Eugene Loring (1914-82) choreographs and stars in Billy the Kid for Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan (1938), the first work on an American theme to remain in the repertory of many ballet companies.

Ballets Russes spin-offs after Diaghilev’s death in 1929 included the popular Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Its American tours from 1938 to 1961 create a national audience for dance with such stars as Alexandra Danilova (1903-97) and Frederic Franklin (1914-).

Ruth Page (1900-91) choreographs Frankie and Johnny with Bentley Stone (1908-84) in 1938 for the Page-Stone Ballet Company; her many tours with her various companies, including Chicago Opera Ballet (1955), make her a vital force in American dance.

Ballet (later American Ballet) Theatre gives its first season in 1940 with Patricia Bowman as ballerina.

In 1942 Ballet Theatre premieres Pillar of Fire by Antony Tudor (1908-87) starring Nora Kaye (1920-87); his repertory becomes a cornerstone of the company.

In 1942 Agnes de Mille (1909-93) creates Rodeo for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, dancing the Cowgirl; next year she choreographs Broadway’s first ‘dream ballet’ for Oklahoma!

In 1944, Jerome Robbins (1918-98) begins his dual career as a successful choreographer for ballet and Boradway with Fancy Free for Ballet Theatre; a musical adaptation, On the Town, follows within months.

Balanchine and Kirstein found New York City Ballet in 1948 with Manhattan’s City Center as home base. In 1949, Maria Tallchief (1925-) stars in Firebird, the work that gains her international stardom and gives NYCB its first box-office hit.

Margot Fonteyn (1919-91) dances Aurora in Sadler’s Wells (later Royal) Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty when the U.S. impresario Sol Hurok imports the London company for a triumphant debut in New York City in 1949.

In 1954, Robert Joffrey (1930-88) starts Robert Joffrey Theatre Ballet; by 1956 the company was touring the U.S. in a station wagon.

Jacob’s Pillow introduces the U.S. to the Bournonville style in 1955 by presenting a touring troupe drawn from the Royal Danish Ballet.

The Ford Foundation establishes a national ballet scholarship program in 1959; controversial grants to ballet companies in the mid-1960s draw protest from modern dance advocates.

Maya Plisetskaya (1925-) and Galina Ulanova (1910-88) are among the stars of the Bolshoi Ballet when Hurok presents the Moscow company in its first U.S. season in 1959. Two years later he brings over the Kirov Ballet.

Defections of great Soviet dancers invigorate Western classical ballet: Rudolph Nureyev (1938-95), who defects in 1961; Natalia Makarova (1940-), in 1971; and Mikhail Baryshnikov (1948-), in 1974. All were members of the Kirov Ballet.

The National Association for Regional Ballet is chartered in 1964, giving rise to one of the most important movements in American dance.

National Endowment for the Arts is established in 1965 and begins providing vital assistance to American dance.

Joffrey Ballet becomes a City Centrer resident company in 1966 and begins reviving 20th-century classics by Massine, Jooss, Fokine, and Ashton.

Former NYCB star Arthur Mitchell (1934-), first African-American to become a principal dancer with a major U.S. company, founds Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 with Karel Shook (1920-85) to create greater opportunities for blacks in ballet.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, legendary partnerships are formed. Among the more famous are: Carla Fracci (1936-) and Erik Bruhn (1928-86) at the American Ballet Theatre; Fonteyn and Nureyev at the Royal Ballet; Peter Martins (1946-) and Suzanne Farrell (1945-) at the New York City Ballet; and Cynthia Gregory (1946-) and Fernando Bujones (1955-2005) at the ABT.

Twyla Tharp (1941-) begins choreographing for ballet companies in 1973, when she makes Deuce Coupe for the Joffrey; her crossover work for ABT begins with Push Comes.

Public Broadcasting System airs its first Dance in America program in 1976, vastly increasing dance audiences.

Balanchine dies in 1983; the Balanchine trust, organized and directed by Barbara Horgan, becomes the major model for preserving a master’s work.

First ‘Dancing for Life’ benefit raises money to fight AIDS in 1987.

Soviet Union collapses in 1991 and a flood of Russian-trained dancers moves to the U.S., greatly affecting professional regional dance.

Julio Bocca’s (1967-) impassioned cavaliers for ABT during the 1990s put Argentina on the U.S. dance map.

Carlos Acosta (1973-) embodies the virtuosity of today’s growing contingent of Latin male dancers with international careers.

Nina Ananiashvili (1963-) exemplifies the new international Russian ballerina who commutes between Moscow, London, Houston, and New York City.

Prominent among the American dancers and choreographers who first became famous abroad are Glen Tetley (1926-2007); John Neumeier (1942-), artistic director of Hamburg Ballet; Richard Cragun, who formed a distinguished partnership with Marcia Haydée at Stuttgart Ballet; and former Joffrey dancer William Forsythe (1949), now artistic director of Frankfurt Ballet, whose works are in the repertories of companies worldwide.

Text by Lynn Garafola and Dance Magazine staff.


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