By Walter Rutledge
An American Ballet Story is the long-awaited documentary about the rise and fall of the Harkness Ballet. The company and school had an almost mythical two-decade impact on dance and helped changed the artform forever. The 94-minute documentary, which was seven years in the making, tells the unvarnished story of the now defunct and largely forgotten Harkness Ballet of New York.
The sold out New York premiere took place on Thursday April 20, 2023, at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts -Bruno Walter Auditorium. As the audience entered the auditorium the mood immediately changed. We were not just at a screening of the Harkness Ballet film, instead we were at a reunion of the Harkness dance family. Three generations of dancers from the three Harkness Ballet companies from across the United States were there. Many brought multiple family members, others came to represent a “fallen hero”. They hugged, laughed and reminisced about those “Harkness days” it was so warm and festival- it was family.
Writer/director Leslie Streit and production/editor Robin McCain have created a powerful and poignant film that is an exciting and informative combination of a documentary and dance film. From the opening montage of photographs and film clips (set to the rhythmic music score by Lee Gurst) Streit “choreographed” the content through focused and concise editing. This helps turn the documentary into a story ballet.
Instead of an omniscient “Deus” narrator An American Ballet Story reveals the story through the voices of the dancers, choreographers and directors who were there. You could feel the passion in their voices, which made recounting of their experiences even more personal and personable. What remained evident throughout the evening was the respect, admiration and love everyone had for Rebekah Harkness. There wasn’t one negative comment spoken in the documentary or auditorium.
The documentary ends with a performance of Margo Sappington’s Rodin inspired duet The Kiss. The footage performed by members of the Carolina Ballet faded in to the black and white footage of Harkness Ballet dancers Tanju Tuzer and Manola Ascensio. The moving performance crossfades once more into rehearsal footage on the second floor at Harkness House.
The monochromatic haunting ghost-like images transported me back to my Harkness days. Dancing and choreographing in the Grand Salon, as Nikita (Talin) called it, with its Harkness Blue trim and ornate ceiling were some of my most cherished memories. At that moment I wished I could go back, and I know I was not alone.
Dance is the oldest artform. It predates language, written word, visual arts and even birth! (Ask any expectant mother about fetal grand battlements). From ceremony to celebration, reverence to revelry; or be it visceral or sculptural, dance is art in motion.
Bound by time and space dance encapsulates imagery in powerful, yet fleeting ephemeral moments. Regrettably these attributes are also its Achilles heel. Dancers come and go, choreographic aesthetics fall out of fashion, and dance companies (like mighty kingdoms from antiquity) fold and are forgotten. The documentary An American Ballet Story tells the almost forgotten story of the dance world’s Camelot- the all too short-lived Harkness Ballet.
Thank you Mrs. Harkness
In Photo: 1) Leslie Streit 2) Robin McCain 3) The Kiss, Choreography by Margo Sappington, Performers Valentina Kozlova & Sven Toorvald 4) Rebekah Harkness