Rex Cooper, Muriel Bentley, Jerome Robbins, John Kriza, Janet Reed, and Harold Lang perform Fancy Free in 1944. (Photo by Hurrell)
From the exhibit: Rex Cooper, Muriel Bentley, Jerome Robbins, John Kriza, Janet Reed, and Harold Lang perform Fancy Free in 1944. (Photo by Hurrell)

View more photos belowGreat dancers. Great stages.

Ballet lovers in Saratoga Springs are very familiar with the New York City Ballet, which has performed each summer at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center since 1966. But how much do we know about other great companies, such as the American Ballet Theatre?

Not enough, concluded Denise Warner Limoli, associate professor of ballet, shortly after joining the Skidmore faculty in 1992. She had been a featured dancer with the ABT—"the world's greatest dancers on the world's greatest stages"—throughout the 1970s.

"This was the time of an unsurpassed repertoire, great American dancers, great European stars, and the great Russian-defector superstars, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov—all together in one brilliant international company," she says. "Lucia Chase and Oliver Smith were artistic directors for 40 years, and this was their crowning decade."

"ABT is a repertoire company that has always featured works of diverse choreographers, with a strong emphasis on the great 19th century classical ballets," she continues. "NYCB was originally formed to showcase and foster the work and stylistic vision of one choreographer, the great George Balanchine, who was also the director. Of course, over time, changes and additions were made to both companies, but the essence of the companies has remained. That is the reason both companies have flourished side by side for so long."

Denise Warner Limoli (photo by Emma Dodge Hanson)
Denise Warner Limoli (photo by Emma Dodge Hanson)

A member of the board of the National Museum of Dance, Limoli started work on the exhibit in the spring of 2010. Showcasing 68 costumes and hundreds of photos, programs, playbills, and other memorabilia, the exhibit opened in July, 2011, and will run through November 18.

Limoli is currently at work on a book on the story of dance in Saratoga Springs, to be published by the History Press next summer. And she is working with Tony Holland, professor of music, on a second ballet and orchestra production to be performed next April in the Arthur Zankel Music Center. "An Evening with the Ballets Russes" will feature her staging of three great ballets from the early 20th century: Les Sylphides (Fokine/Chopin), L'Apres Midi d'un Faune (Nijinsky/Debussy), and Firebird (Limoli/Stravinsky).

How did you approach the challenge of collecting all of this material?

"I approached my colleagues at ABT, and they were thrilled with the project. After clarifying limitations for upcoming productions, I was given complete access to the ABT warehouse, which holds literally thousands of costumes. I made three trips to Secaucus, New Jersey—first to walk through and get an idea, second to actually begin choosing the costumes, and finally to pick up the costumes in a rented truck. I wanted to be sure to have a selection of costumes that represented the complete span of time from 1940 to today and the great original choreographic work premiered by the company. ABT also provided extraordinary scrapbooks compiled by Lucia Chase, the company's original dancer, artistic director, and principal benefactor.

"For photos and programs, I accessed my own personal collection and scoured through archives at the National Museum of Dance. They supplied some wonderful material, including programs and playbills from the debut performance season in January 1940.

"I wrote and edited all the text. My daughter, Francesca, a member of the Class of 2012, helped with unpacking, cataloging, and preparing the costumes."

What did you learn in your research that most surprised or impressed you?

"I found it fascinating to read about the financial challenges and how they changed from decade to decade. (This sounds unfortunately familiar.) I also found intriguing the adjustments the company made during World War II. There were more women than men available for the company, so they had to alter the repertoire. In fact, Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein collaborated on their first ballet, Fancy Free, to celebrate the end of the war. After the war, ABT was sent to Europe, the Near East, and Northern Africa by the U.S. State Department to perform as cultural ambassadors. The result of this exposure was the hiring of several great European dancers and the premieres of many works by European choreographers.

"Currently, ABT is the most international of the great companies—a destination company for dancers from literally all over the world. When asked why an American company added so many foreigners, Lucia Chase said, 'America is a melting pot of foreigners, and there is no company more American than ABT.’”

What should those who visit the exhibit pay closest attention to?

"Pay attention to the continuum. Dancers from every generation have performed the works of the company's great iconic choreographers: Anthony Tudor, Agnes DeMille, Jerome Robbins, Eugene Loring, and hundreds more from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries."

What do you hope visitors will take away from the exhibit?

"American Ballet Theatre embodies the very greatest of the art—dancers; choreographers; composers; scenic, lighting, and costume designers; and a dedicated artistic staff to maintain and nurture the traditions of the ballet in generations of performers. They started with the 19th century romantic and classical ballets, brought the best of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and found the best of the mid-20th century and gave them free rein to create a new genre, ballet theater. Over the decades, this company has continued to represent the best of the past and provoke the best choreographic voices of today. ABT has always been the company of choice for great dancers and choreographers from around the world."

The American Ballet Theatre gave Denise Warner Limoli, associate professor of dance, extraordinary access to its archive and to scrapbooks compiled by Lucia Chase, the company's original dancer, artistic director, and principal benefactor.