How the American Ballet Theatre Works

Gillian Murphy, a principal dancer from the American Ballet Theatre, attends a press conference in Beijing.
Gillian Murphy, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, attends a press conference in Beijing.
ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

For the past 70 years, the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) has brought the best in dance theater, both past and present, to people around the world. Each year, more than 600,000 audience members enjoy performances either at the ABT's home, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, or in venues around the world in cities visited by ABT touring companies. Pre-performance workshops and special events for children enhance the performing arts experience.

Almost everyone who is anyone in American dance has worked with or for the ABT since its founding. Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine are among the notable choreographers who have created works for the ABT; artistic directors include Mikhail Baryshnikov, who also danced for the ABT. Classical ballets, such as "Sleeping Beauty," "Swan Lake" and "Giselle" have been reworked by the ABT, while ballets created for the ABT, like "Rodeo" and "Fancy Free" have gone on to become classics themselves.


The ABT's main season in New York takes place during eight weeks in the spring. Dancers in the ABT emphasize the "theater" part of the company's name, using their bodies to express emotions and bring life to the story the dance is telling.

The ABT's dancers include:

  • Principals, the highest-ranking members of the company
  • Soloists, senior dancers who fall below the principals
  • Members of the corps de ballet, who perform together as a unit (to accompany the principals and soloists)

ABT II, another aspect of the American Ballet Theatre, gives promising young dancers between the ages of 16 and 20 the opportunity to hone their performing skills and work up to membership in the main company. The artistic staff of the ABT chooses the 13 dancers for this classical company. ABT II members train for two years before joining either the ABT or another professional company.

In this article, we'll look at the American Ballet Theatre's origins and history, learn about its tough training program for the nation's best young dancers, and see how you can get involved through its membership program.


American Ballet Theatre History

The storied (and sometimes stormy) history of the American Ballet Theatre began as the Great Depression was ending. The ABT began as the Mordkin Ballet in 1937. In 1939, co-founder Lucia Chase and set designer Oliver Smith changed the name to Ballet Theatre and reorganized the company. Their goal: to develop a repertoire of classical ballets and also to encourage young choreographers to create new works. The Ballet Theatre first took the stage in January 1940 at Radio City Music Hall. In 1956, the company changed its name to American Ballet Theatre. The move north to the Metropolitan Opera House followed soon after.

Chase and Smith put their stamp on the ABT by remaining at the helm as artistic directors from 1940 to 1980. During these four decades, the ABT defined American dance, staging works by the 20th century's foremost choreographers, among them Twyla Tharp and Antony Tudor. Groundbreaking works included "Push Comes to Shove" and "Duets." Mikhail Baryshnikov took over as artistic director in 1980 and stayed until 1989. During his tenure, Baryshnikov worked to redefine the company's classical repertoire, reworking and restaging the classics. When Baryshnikov left, Smith returned and became a co-director, along with Jane Hermann. During their two years working together, Smith and Hermann tried to maintain the traditions of the past while creating an innovative future.


Just as the American Ballet Theatre has expanded the boundaries of dance, it has expanded the boundaries of its domain, too. The ABT has undertaken 15 international tours to more than 40 countries. In 1960, the ABT visited the Soviet Union and became the first American company to perform there. The group visited China for the first time in 2000, performing in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Taipei and Singapore were also on the agenda during that trip.

How can you get involved with the ABT? On the next page, we'll discuss how you can help the company, even if you've got two left feet.


American Ballet Theatre Membership

American actress, singer and dancer Allyn Ann McLerie of the American Ballet Theatre dances the role of The Cowgirl in Aaron Copland's "Rodeo" in 1953.
American actress, singer and dancer Allyn Ann McLerie of the American Ballet Theatre dances the role of The Cowgirl in Aaron Copland's "Rodeo" in 1953.
Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The American Ballet Theatre must obtain half of its operating budget each year through donations. It takes a lot of money to keep the ABT dancing and much of that comes from a dedicated cadre of foundations, businesses and individuals who support the performing arts with their donations. It's possible to make one-time donations to ABT or buy into one of several membership options:

  • Dancers' Circle ($75 to $999)
  • Junior Council ($500, for young patrons)
  • Golden Circle ($1,000 to $9,999)
  • Partners ($10,000 or more)
  • Chairman's Council ($25,000 or more)

Members at each level get certain benefits, along with certain obligations. At the highest level is the Chairman's Council, a relatively new program. It requires a three-year commitment of giving, but in exchange, members are given insight into the company's artistic goals and business strategies. Members at the lower levels, such as the Dancers' Circle, get perks such as priority ticketing and passes to a dress rehearsal.


Members of the Premiere Club get to support the creation and staging of one new production a year. In 2010, it's John Neumeier's "Lady of the Camellias." Supporters at this level, which starts at $3,000, are rewarded with sneak previews, rehearsal tickets, performance tickets and an invitation to a post-performance reception with Neumeier and the dancers.

Another way to help the ABT is through the Costume Fund, which helps restore and preserve the amazing costumes the dancers have worn over the decades. Started in 2003, the Costume Fund keeps these wearable works of art in performing condition as well as preserving them for posterity. And in 2005, the ABT began an endowment fund that met its goal of raising $30 million in three years. That money, kept as principal, will yield an annual income of more than $1 million for the ABT. Finally, ballet lovers can make sure their passion lives on by joining the Lucia Chase Society. Named for an ABT founding director, the Society helps members include the ABT in their estate plans.

Maybe it's not money but dance that gets you going. Think you have what it takes to become a member of the ABT? The work is hard and the competition is fierce, but the means are there if you're willing. Keep reading to find out about the equivalent of ballet boot camp and what might be the most rigorous summer break of your life.


American Ballet Theatre Summer Intensive

Encouraging and nurturing young talent is one of the American Ballet Theatre's main missions. The ABT operates the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York City, which offers classes for children and young dancers at a pre-professional level. The American Ballet Theatre also provides advance study programs for dance educators, including an ABT certification program. A partnership with New York University also enables dance educators to obtain a masters degree in dance education with a concentration in ballet education.

But it's ABT's Summer Intensive that inspires fear and awe among young dancers. Summer Intensive is probably the most intense -- and rewarding -- way to spend a school break. Young dancers take classes from current ABT members and alumni, along with renowned guest instructors. Classes range from pointe to hip-hop, with less physical subjects such as dance history and nutrition offered, too.


Summer Intensive at the ABT studios in New York City lasts for six weeks, but shorter programs are offered at various locations -- usually college campuses -- throughout the country. Costs vary depending on the location. The New York City program is more than $2,700, not including housing and food. At the other locations, students are housed and fed on campus. Scholarships are available to help with costs, however. The NYC Summer Intensive is designed for dancers age 12 through 22, while the programs in other areas have an age limit of 18. The ABT also offers a collegiate summer intensive and a young dancer summer intensive.

The young dancers, who are chosen by auditions -- either in person or through submitted DVDs -- take classes for about eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, with some electives and special programs scheduled on Saturdays.

For lots more information on dance and the arts, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • American Ballet Theatre. "Welcome to the American Ballet Theatre." (April 14, 2010)
  • Anderson, Jack. "Through Modern American Ballet History with American Ballet Theatre." New York Theatre Wire. (April 14, 2010)
  • Dunning, Jennifer. "A Co-Director is Leaving the American Ballet Theatre." The New York Times. May 21, 1992. (April 14, 2010)
  • History of Ballet Positions. "History of the American Ballet Theatre." Feb. 10, 2008. (April 14, 2010)
  • The Internet Movie Database. "Plot Summary for Center Stage." (April 14, 2010)