#SAB90 – 1965: SAB holds first workshop performances

Alexandra Danilova conducting a dress rehearsal for the very first Workshop Performance in 1965; Photo by V. Sladon

Over the past 90 years, the School of American Ballet has contributed immeasurably to the artistic life of America: giving birth to an internationally acclaimed ballet company, shaping generations of finely trained dancers, and establishing an American style of classical ballet that stands alongside the French and Russian classical traditions. Learn more about the School’s history and influence as we share monumental moments in honor of #SAB90.

In 1965, George Balanchine with prominent faculty member Alexandra Danilova established the tradition of a year-end performance for the School of American Ballet’s advanced students, creating an opportunity for them to participate in professionally staged, publicly performed productions of classic ballet works. The premiere “Workshop” performance was held at Joan of Arc High School on West 93rd Street in Manhattan. The program included the first act of Coppélia and closely resembled the graduation exercises in which both Danilova and Balanchine participated at the Imperial Ballet. The next year, Danilova staged Swan Lake for SAB students which was performed at Brandeis High School on the Upper West Side.

The performances found a more formal home at the New York State Theater in 1967, and in the same year, the School titled the event “Workshop,” making it an official end-of-year showcase. While the intention was to give SAB students the chance to demonstrate how their year-long training culminates into a stellar performance, the School’s co-founders, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, were adamant that the event not being referred to as a “graduation.” It was called Workshop to reflect how this performance isn’t the end of our students’ growth and training, merely one milestone on a life-long journey of learning and refining their artistry.

In 1971, the performances found their lasting stage at what is now the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Juilliard. The Workshop Performances continue to be presented there today.

The first time one of George Balanchine’s ballets appeared in Workshop was in 1973. Suki Schorer had just joined the faculty and was teaching Stars and Stripes to advanced students during variations class. Mr B. saw their progress and asked if she would stage the first regiment for the Workshop Performances. Balanchine’s masterworks have been a staple ever since, with beloved ballets like Serenade, Concerto Barocco, and Valse-Fantaisie making frequent appearances alongside classic Bournonville ballet excerpts, Jerome Robbins’ ballets and contemporary works.

From its early years, Workshop has also featured new ballets from burgeoning and established contemporary choreographers and this tradition continues today. SAB students have danced ballets by Justin Peck, Christopher Wheeldon, Gianna Reisen, Melissa Barak, William Forsythe, and more. This includes new ballets made especially on SAB students for the Workshop, which serves as an excellent learning experience for students and a delight to dedicated audiences. This year, SAB alumna Lauren Lovette will premiere a newly commissioned Workshop ballet entitled Tendu, created on a small group of our most advanced students.

What started as a small-scale venture in a high school auditorium, has grown to become an annual highlight of the ballet world. Many of ballet’s brightest stars made their pre-professional debut at the SAB Workshop Performances, like Wendy Whelan, Peter Boal, Sara Mearns, Mira Nadon, Taylor Stanley, Robert Fairchild, Paloma Herrera, Tiler Peck and SAB’s own artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Even though Workshop has grown in scale, it still fulfills Balanchine and Kirstein’s original vision of providing a platform for dancers to demonstrate their developing skills and serves as a crucial stepping stone in a ballet dancer’s artistic journey.

We invite you to celebrate this SAB tradition and join us at this year’s Workshop Performances

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