We come to American Ballet Theatre to experience magic—beauty, characters, and stories that transport us to new realms of emotion and imagination. The artists of ABT make it look effortless, but there is no sleight of hand in ballet: the onstage enchantment is created by dancers who have devoted their hearts and minds, as well as their bodies, over a lifetime.
“I fell in love with ABT because I’d go to the [Metropolitan Opera House] and watch grown people playing princesses and fairies, wearing beautiful costumes, doing all the things I was doing at home,” says Principal Dancer Skylar Brandt, who grew up in Purchase, New York, and started her ABT training at age 12. “I was like, ‘I can do that!’ Not realizing that there was nuance and technique and demands behind being a professional dancer.”
The majority of ABT’s dancers honed those nuances and technique through the Company’s rigorous, world leading training program, affectionately dubbed “the pipeline.” Many get their first taste at an American Ballet Theatre Summer Intensive, then the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School for full-time training; after advancing year after year through a highly selective winnowing process, a handful are invited to join ABT Studio Company and, finally, the very best might earn a contract with the main Company.
Entry into the pipeline is by audition—more than 2,000 young dancers tried out for the 2023 Summer Intensives, either by video or during the school’s annual 20-city audition tour. Only 600 students, representing 19 countries and ranging in age from 9 to 21, were accepted. “We want to create versatile dancers who can take on any contemporary or classical role,” says Artistic Director Susan Jaffe, who trained at ABT before joining the Company in 1980 and becoming one of its greatest stars.“ Only having the physical capability will not help you. It’s a very deep and intellectual art form. It requires incredible focus and commitment, and the the ability to never stop learning.”
The ABT Summer Intensive offers aspiring dancers a tantalizing microcosm of professional life: three hours of technique class in the morning, then a lunch break followed by wellness coaching, classes in jazz and partnering, and rehearsals of ABT repertoire. “The students are doing a lot,” says Kate Lydon, Artistic Director, ABT Summer Intensives. “They get to see Company class at the Met, and some of them go to performances almost every night.”
So, while fairytales may have been their childhood inspiration, every ABT artist got to the stage through years of discipline, diligence, and humility—qualities they may not have known they had when they started. “I was very wild,” recalls corps de ballet member Tyler Maloney. He started dancing with a competition jazz team at the YMCA in his hometown of Wyckoff, New Jersey, and attended his first ABT Summer Intensive at age 11. At the time, “I had no idea about ballet,” he recalls. “That summer they offered us tickets to the Met, and I thought they were talking about the Mets game. I was so confused!”
Nevertheless, this training showed Maloney his true calling, and he joined the ABT JKO School that Fall.“ [The ABT JKO School] created a different mentality for what I could achieve as a dancer,” he says, and for the next seven years he went to middle and high school in the mornings, then commuted 90 minutes each way to train at the ABT JKO School in the afternoons, doing his homework on the train. “It gave me a foundation of discipline, and it shaped me in such a positive way. And there is a group of us in the Company who’ve been together since we were children.”
Those bonds go beyond friendship—over their years of training, rehearsing, performing, and growing up together, the dancers build deep trust and mutual respect that are rare in the ballet world, another element of ABT’s robust alchemy.
“Christine Shevchenko and I were in [ABT] Studio Company together almost a decade ago,” says Principal Dancer Calvin Royal III, who moved from Florida to join the ABT JKO School at age 17. This season, the two will dance together in Alexei Ratmansky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial, and Alonzo King’s Single Eye. “You spend so many hours getting to know a person in such an intimate environment, and we’re able to put that into the stories we’re telling.”
The dancers’ personal and professional bonds result in saves as well as successes. “Sometimes we’ve rehearsed it one way, but there’s a slippery spot on the stage or we’re late in the music,” Royal says. “Because we know each other so well, we talk onstage under our smiles—‘No we’re not gonna do that!’—You only get to that point when you’ve had that time and that trust.”
Brandt agrees. “I grew up in the ABT building and doing productions with the Company,” she says. “Some of the dancers have known me since I was a peanut. Because of that, there’s that element of being homegrown—you feel supported, you feel loved, and you feel like you’re part of a family.”