At the very start of Ric Burns’ duly masterful American Masters documentary American Ballet Theatre: A History, which premieres tonight on PBS, dance historian Jennifer Homans offers up this assessment of the dancer’s experience:
“If you are a dancer and you stand at the barre in these positions which have been prescribed for over 400 years and you go through this ritual — it’s a ritual of repetition, a ritual of physical discipline — you have to focus purely on the body. On what’s going on inside you. As you do that, you sort of end up letting go of all of the other noise in your mind, and so there is a kind of pure concentration … . You lose yourself. And then it’s a kind of transcendent experience if it works.”
Anyone who has ever sat in a darkened auditorium and had their breath taken and their soul stirred by famed companies like the ABT (or by their hometown ballet company like my daughter Chelsey and me and our beloved Milwaukee Ballet) knows that the same can be said for simply watching the fruits of that ritual.
So what is it about ballet that has kept audiences mesmerized for centuries? Nearly 10 years in the making and created to honor American Ballet Theatre’s 75th anniversary, Burns’ deeply moving love letter to both the art form and those who have kept it evolving and flourishing for centuries blends history and evolution, commentary and performance into 90 intimate, insightful minutes that even ballet newbies should find well worth their time.
With Homans — author of 2010’s Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet — serving as its primary commentator, American Masters – American Ballet Theatre: A History deftly tracks the evolution of the art form from its birth as a means of displaying masculinity and social acumen in the courts of Louis XIV through Russia’s cultural and political revolution and finally to the American stage in the mid 20th century.
Called Ballet Theatre at its inception in 1940, the ABT itself was founded by flame-haired Lucia Chase, an ambitious woman with a passion for dance who longed for an American company devoted to classical ballet but not beholden to a single choreographer. Her dancers worked with an international Who’s Who of dance makers and the documentary highlights the contributions of four who best defined the company’s creative breadth:
- Antony Tudor, who created works focused on the expression of raw and difficult human emotion.
- George Balanchine, who eschewed plot in favor of abstraction, preferring Petipa tradition and a return to classical dance, and emotion over acting.
- Jerome Robbins, who brought a palpable American sensibility to ballet, expressing express street life through ballet.
- Agnes de Mille, who felt every dance should tell a dramatic story. Via an archival interview, de Mille recalls presenting Rodeo to dancers who migrated from Ballet Russe. “The Russians would say, ‘This is not dancing’ and I said ‘I didn’t say it was. But it’s what you’re going to have to do.’
But it’s the commentary and interviews with past and current ABT artistic directors Lucia Chase and Kevin McKenzie (Mikhail Baryshnikov, though briefly discussed, is a notable absence); famed dance critics Clive Barnes and Anna Kisselgoff; former ABT dancers including Alicia Alonso, the late Donald Saddler and Frederic Franklin, and Susan Jaffe (now ABT faculty); and current ABT stars Misty Copeland, Gillian Murphy, Julie Kent, Marcello Gomes and Hee Seo that give the documentary its considerable heart.
The passion the now 93-year-old Alonso exhibits for her art form and her still-vibrant memories of the people with whom and for whom she danced is worth tuning in for in and of itself.
And woven throughout, there is plenty for viewers who aren’t so much about the history of ballet as they are the sheer transportive nature of watching meticulously trained human bodies convey that history — and everything it truly means to be human — in a way that speaks louder than words ever could.
Slow-motion footage of current ABT dancers shot by Emmy-winning cinematographer Buddy Squires and a 30-person crew lays bare the complexity and purpose of each split-second movement, the exquisite musculature of the dancers and the sculptural beauty of partner work.
American Masters —American Ballet Theatre: A History premieres tonight at 9/8CT (check local listings) on PBS.