The History Behind SAB’s Workshop Performances

Every spring at the School of American Ballet, families, friends, alumni and supporters gather at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Lincoln Center for our Workshop Performances and Workshop Performance Benefit. This annual event showcases the talent of our hardworking and dedicated students and is a highlight of the ballet world.  SAB’s Workshop Performances have been an integral part of the School’s year-round training program for nearly 60 years, but how exactly did this continued and valued tradition come to be?  

Back in 1965, just one year after joining SAB’s faculty, former star ballerina Alexandra Danilova established the very first Workshop Performance as an opportunity for students to participate in professionally staged, publicly performed productions of classic ballet works. Before Workshop, SAB students had relatively limited performance opportunities.

The first Workshop Performance featured the first act of Coppélia, choreographed by SAB co-founder George Balanchine in collaboration with Madame Danilova after Marius Petipa. Danilova and Balanchine were former classmates, and the inspiration for the first Workshop Performances stemmed from the graduation performances Danilova and Balanchine had participated in together at the Imperial Ballet School. Danilova selected Coppélia for the first Workshop Performance to allow as many students as possible to participate in the onstage performance. 

Alexandra Danilova at Workshop Rehearsal for COPPÉLIA (1965)

The initial 1965 Workshop performance started out differently from what we know today. The production took place in a local junior high school auditorium at Joan of Arc Junior High School on West 93rd Street, with musical accompaniment from the West End Symphony. While the initial production may have been relatively small in scale, the event established an exciting opportunity for both the School and the public. 

In the first years of Workshop, Balanchine expressed little interest in showcasing his own choreography. To expand upon Danilova’s presentation of Russian classical ballets, Balanchine began commissioning new works and called on former Royal Danish Ballet dancer and faculty member Stanley Williams to stage ballets by August Bournonville. Balanchine admired and was influenced greatly by Bournonville’s work. The first Bournonville piece to be performed in Workshop was the pas de deux from The Flower Festival in Genzano in 1968


Robert Weiss and Gelsey Kirkland performing in THE FLOWER FESTIVAL IN GENZANO at SAB Workshop (1968)

In 1972, after her retirement from New York City Ballet, Suki Schorer began to teach at SAB after receiving an invitation from Balanchine. It was because of Ms. Schorer that Balanchine started including his own choreography in the Workshop productions, as Schorer recalled:

I had variations class with the advanced ladies, so I, on my own, started teaching them the first movement of Stars and Stripes. And then one day Mr. Balanchine walked into the studio and he said, ‘Show me what you have, what you’ve taught them.’ And I said, ‘Well, we’ve had Stars and Stripes –’ He said, ‘Oh, Stars is good. That will work fine.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said ‘We don’t have enough ballets for the Workshop, and so we’re going to use this for the closer.’ And it was the first Balanchine ballet that had ever been done at the School. And then after that every year we did a Balanchine ballet.” Balanchine’s choreography is now an essential part of SAB’s Workshop Performances and has been included in the production since 1973.

Suki Schorer and Kaitlyn Gilliland rehearsing SERENADE for SAB Workshop (2004)

In addition to the standard Balanchine repertory and Bournonville excerpts, SAB’s Workshop Performances have also included Jerome Robbins’ ballets and other classical masterworks. In recent years, the Workshop program has featured more contemporary ballets by William Forsythe and Justin Peck. The School also commissions new choreography made especially for SAB students, such as 2022’s new ballet Signs by SAB alumna Gianna Reisen. 

SAB students performing SIGNS choreographed by Gianna Reisen at Workshop (2022)

At Workshop, students have the special opportunity to debut roles they will likely go on to perform throughout their careers. Several notable alumni made their pre-professional debut at SAB’s Workshop Performances, including Wendy Whelan, Peter Boal, Maria Kowroski, Paloma Herrera, Megan Fairchild, Sara Mearns, Mira Nadon, Taylor Stanley, Lauren Lovett, Robert Fairchild, Jared Angle, Tiler Peck and SAB’s own artistic director Jonathan Stafford. 

Tiler Peck performing in SERENADE at SAB Workshop (2004)

SAB alumna and current NYCB principal dancer Tiler Peck reflects:

“The SAB Workshop is always the end of an era and the start of a new beginning.” 

Workshop has evolved throughout the decades, but the mission to spotlight SAB’s talented student performers before they enter the next stage of their careers has remained the same. 

We invite you to join us for this year’s annual Workshop Performances. Coppélia, performed at the first Workshop in 1968, will be revisited this year with excerpts from the third act. Our 2023 Workshop will also include excerpts from the spirited classical La Source, the elegant third movement from Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, and the vibrant tarantella and enchanting pas de six from Napoli

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