American ballet company. Originally known as Ballet Theatre, it was founded in 1940 by several ex-members of the Mordkin Ballet. With the financial backing of Chase, who became co-director with Smith in 1945 and under the initial direction of Pleasant it had its debut on 11 Jan. 1940 at New York Radio City Center Theater, in a season which featured an impressive range of works from Fokine's Les Sylphides and Dolin's Giselle to Tudor's Jardin aux lilas and Dark Elegies, and six premieres including Loring's The Great American Goof. The company's aim was to preserve important works from the past as well as develop a strong new repertory and during the 1940s it was associated most closely with Fokine, Tudor, and de Mille. That decade saw the commissioning of many major ballets including Dolin's Pas de quatre (1941), Fokine's Bluebeard (1941), Tudor's Pillar of Fire (1942), Romeo and Juliet, Dim Lustre (1943), and Undertow (1945), Massine's Aleko and Mam'zelle Angot (1943), Robbins's Fancy Free (1944), Balanchine's Theme and Variations (1947), and de Mille's Fall River Legend (1948). It also nurtured a generation of American dancers including Kaye, D. Adams, and Kidd as well as producing its own classic ballerina in Alonso, though from the beginning it also relied on foreign artists as star principals, including Markova, Dolin, Baronova, Eglevsky, and Youskevitch. Lacking a permanent base in New York, touring played a major part in the company's existence both in the US and abroad (it first appeared in Europe in 1946) and in 1957 it changed its name to American Ballet Theatre.
After the creative push of the 1940s the company had less critical success during the 1950s. Fokine was dead and Tudor had left, though de Mille continued to choreograph new works for the repertory. In the 1960s it acquired Cullberg's Lady from the Sea (1960) and Robbins's critically acclaimed Les Noces (1965), and in 1967 staged its first full-length Swan Lake. In the same year Feld made an important debut as choreographer and dancer, with C. Gregory emerging as a star and ballerina. In 1970 Makarova joined the company and in 1974 staged a seminal production of Act II of La Bayadère which elicited a new classical authority from the dancers. The same year Baryshnikov joined and Tudor returned as associate director, creating The Leaves are Fading in 1975. Other important acquisitions of the 1970s were Tharp's Push Comes to Shove and Robbins's Other Dances (both 1976), and the company's new generation of dancers included Bujones, Kirkland, and van Hamel. In 1977 the company was granted an official home at New York's Metropolitan Opera House and in 1980 Baryshnikov became artistic director. He strengthened the company's classical base, staging Giselle (1980) and Swan Lake (1988), among others, and acquiring MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet in 1985. At the same time he developed a new repertory of works by major modern dance choreographers, including Taylor, Cunningham, Tharp, and Mark Morris. During the 1980s Jaffe and L. Browne were among the new dancers to emerge as principals. In 1989 Jane Herman and Oliver Smith took over as co-directors, followed by ex-principal Kevin McKenzie in 1992. Financial uncertainties—always a problem for the company, despite Chase's injections of money—became acute during the 1990s, forcing the company to perform for only limited seasons each year. However, it maintained a strong roster of principals including Bocca, Carreno, A. Ferri, Herrera, R. and J. Kent, and E. Steifel, and in addition to expanding its repertoire of classics and full-length ballets, such as MacMillan's Anastasia in 1999, it also continued to premiere significant new works such as Tharp's, Known by Heart (mus. various, 1998). In the early years of the 21st century it consolidated a new generation of principals, including Angel Corella, Gillian Murphy, Xiomara Reyes, Marcelo Gomes, David Hallberg, and guest ballerina Diana Vishneva and continues to perform an annual seasons at New York's Metropolitan Opera House and City Center, as well as to tour both the US and abroad. Although its repertory is dominated by full-length classics it has also premiered new works by, among others, Jorma Elo, Morris, and Tharp. Its official school, the American Ballet Theatre School, was founded in 1972 with its own performing group but both were disbanded under Baryshnikov. A new junior ensemble, ABT Studio Company, was started in 1995 and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School was founded in 2004.