“American Ballet Theatre: A History” Airs Friday on PBS

American Ballet Theatre, in the midst of their 75th Anniversary celebration, opened their spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House this week. But fans unable to make it to New York City need not worry—on May 15, “American Ballet Theatre: A History,” a documentary nine years in the making by Emmy-award winning filmmaker Ric Burns, premieres on PBS stations nationwide.


Burns chronicles ABT’s beginnings as a fledgling troupe spearheaded by the indefatigable Lucia Chase (who, along with Oliver Smith, led the company for 40 years) and its development into a groundbreaking creative laboratory for some of the 20th century’s greatest choreographers. Rare rehearsal footage, as well as interviews with Alicia Alonso, Lupe Serrano and the late Frederic Franklin, offer glimpses into this trailblazing era of American dance. The company raised its international profile as a post-war touring ambassador (its dancers often flying in cargo planes, wearing parachutes!), heralding the great dance boom of the 60s and 70s and attracting major Russian talent. The film briefly touches on ABT’s years under Mikhail Baryshnikov’s direction in the 1980s, and gives insights into Kevin McKenzie’s soft-spoken leadership style. But it also offers an overview of the history of ballet itself, with commentary by esteemed dance scholar and Apollo’s Angels author Jennifer Homans.


In between, Gillian Murphy, Misty Copeland, Hee Seo, Marcelo Gomes, Herman Cornejo and Julie Kent weigh in on their lives as professional dancers. Burns gives ample rehearsal footage of ABT’s current roster of mega-stars, much of it in slow motion using Phantom Flex camera technology. The high-tech camerawork captures every glorious line of these exceptional artists, although at times the slow-motion scenes go on for too long.


In the sneak peek below, Kent talks about Natalia Makarova’s inspiring words that have guided her throughout her career.“American Ballet Theatre: A History” premieres May 15 at 9:00 pm on PBS’s American Masters series (check local listings). The film will stream on the American Masters website on May 16, and is available on DVD on July 14 from PBS Distribution.

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