American Ballet Theatre at Duke University: Making, Thinking, and Presenting Ballet

Stephanie Batten Bland, Sascha Radetsky, and Michaela Dwyer. All photos by Robert Zimmerman.

“You try to teach the dancers without teaching them. You let them guide themselves, or discover things on their own,” shared Sascha Radetsky, artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company.

Much of the three-year collaboration between Duke University—a major research institution—and the American Ballet Theatre—one of the world’s foremost classical ballet organizations—centers around how to think about ballet as much as dance it.

Four days into a two-week residency in the Rubenstein Arts Center this January, Radetsky shared the stage at a Ruby Friday program (presented by Duke Performances Arts & Context) with two other key players in the ABT residency: choreographer Stefanie Batten Bland and Michaela Dwyer (T’ 13), community engagement coordinator for Duke Performances and Duke Arts. This open conversation exploring ballet—past, present, and future—rounded out a series of master classes, open rehearsals, and gatherings offered during this first year of Duke’s unprecedented three-year institutional collaboration with ABT.

Learn more about the ABT Residency

Radetsky teaching a masterclass in the Ruby’s “Cube” dance studio.

“I think I end up learning more from the dancers than the reverse,” reflected Radetsky, who is well-known beyond his career with ABT for his television and film appearances in Flesh and Bone and Center Stage. “We serve the ABT Main Company by providing a pipeline of talented young dancers who are disciplined and have the rigor and the drive to succeed in a difficult profession. We’re also more mobile and nimble than the Main Company, so we try to engage communities that otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to dance. We are ambassadors and representatives of our art form and we foster new innovative choreography.”

For all these reasons and more, the annual two-week residencies bringing together Studio Company dancers and Batten Bland are the creative and artistic research-driven backbone of the Duke-ABT collaboration. The first of these visits took place January 14-27, 2019, and the cohort will return in February 2020 and 2021.

Duke’s Advanced Ballet class, taught by Tyler Walters, is joined by the ABT Studio Company. Video by John Laww / KidEthnic, courtesy of Duke Performances.

While they were in the Ruby, members of the Studio Company (a group of 12 pre-professional ballet dancers ages 16-21) closely followed their typical training schedule of morning ballet class, followed by classical ballet repertory rehearsal. Duke students danced alongside their pre-professional peers thanks to an exchange with Duke Dance professor Tyler Walters and his Advanced Ballet course. Twice a week, Duke students joined the Studio Company’s morning technique class, with Walters teaching one morning and ABT staff teaching the next.

“It was inspiring to engage with the ABT Studio Company dancers in their challenging professional environment,” shared Walters. “Though our Duke Dance Program curriculum is more focused on forward-leaning research and conceptual approaches to artistic practice, this exchange was a great opportunity to encounter the ABT training curriculum and reinforce the classical foundations of ballet.”

Stefanie Batten Bland works with dancers as she develops the first part in a three-part new work. Video by John Laww / KidEthnic, courtesy of Duke Performances.

Each afternoon, the Studio Company shifted gears and donned contemporary dancewear (leggings, socks) to work with New York-based contemporary choreographer Stefanie Batten Bland. Over the course of the three years of this residency, Batten Bland—whose company, Company SBB, produces interdisciplinary dance-theater works—is developing three commissions that explore the idea of monuments and ask which structures, within and outside ballet, are worth preserving and which should be discarded to center more urgent and underrepresented stories. Batten Bland’s work is supported by ABT’s Women’s Movement, a multi-year initiative to support the creation of new work by female choreographers. Duke Music Composition Ph.D. student Brooks Frederickson is collaborating with Batten Bland to develop the score for this new body of work.

“Which landmarks integrate successfully into hundreds of years of living, and which ones do we need to tear down [to] build up new ones?”— Choreographer Stefanie Batten Bland

American Ballet Theatre Studio Company dancers and Duke ballet students train under ABT Ballet Mistress Yan Chen during their two-week residency at the Ruby. Here, Chloe Misseldine, left, ABT Studio Company dancer, and Duke student Kristi Sturgill, foreground, work on technique. Photo by Jared Lazarus.

Under Batten Bland’s guidance, the young dancers worked on developing original movement compositions through improvisational prompts. The work-in-progress resembled a moving sculpture garden. Dancers weighed individual and collective impulses, weaving in and out of each other, gathering in group poses and then striking out on their own.

Boleyn Willis-Zeger, artistic director of the Durham School for Ballet and the Performing Arts, sat in on one of the rehearsals led by Batten Bland. For her, the chance to observe another’s teaching method and process was invaluable, especially how Batten Bland “translated and rephrased” her choreographic asks of the dancers. “That taught me a lot right then and there. There were little thought bubbles popping and growing out of my head for the next four weeks.”

Duke’s Advanced Ballet class, taught by Tyler Walters, is joined by the ABT Studio Company.

Providing the public with opportunities to encounter and experience ABT is central to this project. In 2018–2019, four ABT master instructors—including the Studio Company’s current Ballet Mistress Petrusjka Broholm—visited the Ruby to teach classes for both the Durham dance community and Duke students. This January, Duke Performances opened three of the Studio Company’s classical repertory rehearsals to public observers for a chance to see, up-close, how a dance work gets refined for performance.

“Community engagement programming through artist residency projects is crucial to the mission of Duke Performances,” says Michaela Dwyer. “At Duke we’re fortunate not only to have such a strong Dance Program but also to coexist with the independent choreographers, educators, and practitioners who make up Durham’s vibrant and diverse dance community. Since this is a three-year project, it’s exciting to think both short- and long-term about what might be possible here.” The residency will culminate in Spring 2021. In March 2020, ABT’s Main Company will visit North Carolina for the first time in over 50 years to perform Giselle at the Durham Performing Arts Center as part of the 2019–2020 Duke Performances season.

Open rehearsal with the ABT Studio Company. Video by John Laww / KidEthnic, courtesy of Duke Performances.

As this residency unfolds, students, dancers, and scholars will dig deeper into questions about the future of ballet. More public conversations will explore issues of diversity and racial equity; gender and representation; institutional power dynamics; and labor and funding infrastructures in dance.

One of the highlights from this January was something much simpler: a pizza party. Duke’s student-led ballet company, Devils En Pointe, had a chance to bond with Studio Company dancers during a casual pizza dinner. “It helped me understand [the Studio Dancers] better as people. I could converse with them about their aspirations, as well as explain to them how an institution like Duke lends itself to creating strong professional dancers and administrative employees,” shared rising senior SarahAnne Perel (who is both in Devils En Pointe and in Walters’s Advanced Ballet Course).

ABT Studio Company dancers pose with members of Duke’s student ballet group, Devils En Pointe.

“The technique we learn at the barre helps with discipline and work ethic in life, in any career you choose. I would not be at Duke if it were not for the unique perspective ballet gave me, and I wanted to impart that to the young ABT dancers,” continued Perel. “What we learn from our professors and teachers transcends the studio, whether it be the Ruby or the studios in New York.”

At the heart of the ABT residency at Duke is the exceptional learning opportunity this collaboration offers for everyone in its orbit. It engages the qualities and aspirations Duke and ABT share: intensive and immersive research, creative ambition, alignment with tradition and an eye toward forward-thinking.