Ric Burns’ New Documentary American Ballet Theatre: A History Premieres Nationwide on THIRTEEN’s American Masters Series Friday, May 15 on PBS in Honor of the Company’s 75th Anniversary
THIRTEEN’s American Masters series teams up with Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Ric Burns to co-produce a new documentary about the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in honor of its 75th anniversary.
American Masters – American Ballet Theatre: A History premieres nationwide Friday, May 15, 2015 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) and delving into the rich history of one of the world’s preeminent ballet companies, Burns combines intimate rehearsal footage, virtuoso performances and interviews with American Ballet Theatre’s key figures: artists pivotal to the company’s formation, including Alicia Alonso and the late Donald Saddler and Frederic Franklin; contemporary luminaries, including dancers Susan Jaffe and Julie Kent, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and artistic director Kevin McKenzie; past and present stars Misty Copeland, Gillian Murphy, Marcelo Gomes and Hee Seo; dance historian and author Jennifer Homans; and prominent dance critics Anna Kisselgoff and the late Clive Barnes.
“The story of American Ballet Theatre, and the breathtaking rise of dance in the U.S. over the last three-quarters of a century, is one of the most inspiring stories in the cultural world,” says Burns. “Ballet is the most poignantly ephemeral and expressive of all the arts, both earthbound and transcendent. And ABT, indisputably one of the greatest dance companies in the world, has torn down an incredible number of barriers, welcoming choreographers of every kind and dancers from around the world.”
American Ballet Theatre (ABT) is recognized as one of the great dance companies in the world. Few ballet companies equal ABT for its combination of size, scope, and outreach. Recognized as a living national treasure since its founding in 1940, ABT is the only major cultural institution that annually tours the United States, performing for more than 450,000 people. The company has also made more than 30 international tours to 43 countries as perhaps the most representative American ballet company and has been sponsored by the State Department of the United States on many of these engagements.
When American Ballet Theatre was launched in autumn 1939, the aim was to develop a repertoire of the best ballets from the past and to encourage the creation of new works by gifted young choreographers, wherever they might be found. Under the direction of Lucia Chase and Oliver Smith from 1940-1980, the company more than fulfilled that aim. ABT’s repertoire, perhaps unmatched in the history of ballet, includes all of the great full-length ballets of the 19th century, such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle, the finest works from the early part of the 20th century, such as Apollo, Les Sylphides, Jardin aux Lilas and Rodeo, and acclaimed contemporary masterpieces such as Airs, Push Comes to Shove and Duets. In acquiring such an extraordinary repertoire, ABT has commissioned works by all of the great choreographic geniuses of the 20thcentury: George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp, among others.
In 1980, Mikhail Baryshnikov became artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, succeeding Lucia Chase and Oliver Smith. Under his leadership, numerous classical ballets were staged, restaged and refurbished, and the company experienced a strengthening and refining of the classical tradition. In 1990, Jane Hermann and Oliver Smith succeeded Baryshnikov and immediately established an agenda that was dedicated to maintaining the great traditions of the past while aggressively pursuing a vital and innovative future.
In October 1992, former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Kevin McKenzie was appointed artistic director. McKenzie, steadfast in his vision of ABT as “American,” is committed to maintaining the company’s vast repertoire, and to bringing the art of dance theater to the great stages of the world.
Over its 75-year history, the company has appeared in a total of 136 cities in 45 countries and has appeared in all 50 states of the United States. In keeping with ABT’s long-standing commitment to bring the finest in dance to the widest international audience, the company has recently enjoyed triumphant successes with engagements in Abu Dhabi, Brisbane, Hong Kong, Havana, Tokyo and Beijing. On April 27, 2006, by an act of Congress, American Ballet Theatre became America’s National Ballet Company®.
“As we approach our 75th year, it is a tremendous honor to have Ric Burns and American Masters illuminate ABT’s history in such a rich and meaningful way,” said Rachel Moore, CEO of American Ballet Theatre. “I am certain the expertise and care Ric and his team have devoted to this film will offer a fresh perspective on our art form and serve as a fitting testament to this cultural institution.”
American Masters – American Ballet Theatre: A History chronicles the rise of the company from its earliest days as a small, financially struggling collective, to its pinnacle as one of the most respected and revered dance companies in the world. Beginning film production in 2006, Burns was given unprecedented access to the company and shot hundreds of hours of original footage, including dramatic live performances in Paris and Havana, grueling rehearsals at ABT’s flagship studio in New York City and slow-motion captures at Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in Tivoli, N.Y.
The footage from Kaatsbaan features iconic dances by nine ABT dancers, including Copeland, Murphy, Seo, Gomes, Isabella Boylston, Herman Cornejo, Daniil Simkin, Joseph Gorak and Cory Stearns, chosen by McKenzie for their diversity and breadth of talent to illustrate the ABT dancers’ formidable technicality, intricate artistry and nuanced emotion. Shot by Emmy-winning cinematographer Buddy Squires and a 30-person crew using Phantom Flex cameras — which capture up to 2,500 frames per second and brings to life even the smallest of movements — the footage brings a new dimension to the understanding of the extraordinary efforts made in the perfection of form: from the delicate placement of a fingertip to the perfectly executed jeté.
Combined with hundreds of carefully curated stills from archives across the country and rare footage of ballet icons Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Twyla Tharp and Mikhail Baryshnikov, American Masters – American Ballet Theatre: A History provides a comprehensive inside look at American Ballet Theatre and the world of professional ballet.
“Ric has created an entertaining film that will touch and transform both seasoned aficionados and those who never have seen a ballet,” says Michael Kantor, executive producer of American Masters.
American Masters – American Ballet Theatre: A History is a production of Steeplechase Films, Inc. and THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC’s American Masters for WNET. For Steeplechase Films: Ric Burns is director. Bonnie Lafave and Katie O’Rourke are producers. Mikaela Shwer and Emily Williams are editors. Chih Hsuan Liang is assistant editor. Steeplechase Films is the award-winning production company founded by Burns in 1989. Over the past two decades, it has become one of PBS’ most trusted and honored collaborators, making a mainstay of bringing quality programming to public television and redefining the way audiences engage with American history. Director, writer and producer Ric Burns began his career co-writing and producing the celebrated PBS series The Civil War and has since directed over 30 hours of award-winning films, including Coney Island, The Donner Party, New York: A Documentary Film, Ansel Adams, Eugene O’Neill, Andy Warhol, Into the Deep: America, Whaling and the World and Death and the Civil War.
For American Masters: Susan Lacy and Michael Kantor are executive producers.
Funding for American Masters – American Ballet Theatre: A History is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, Rosalind P. Walter, Lewis Ranieri, Madeline Eckett Oden, Ruth and Harold Newman, Jody and John Arnhold, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, Kitty Hawks and Larry Lederman, and The Lewis “Sonny” Turner Fund for Dance. American Masters is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Rosalind P. Walter, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Rhoda Herrick, Vital Projects Fund, Michael & Helen Schaffer Foundation, Rolf and Elizabeth Rosenthal, Jack Rudin, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, Judith and Burton Resnick, and public television viewers.