An American Ballet Story profiles the Harkness Ballet, a revolutionary school founded in 1964 that burst onto the scene, changed the practice and then disappeared seemingly as quickly as it came. Over its lifespan, it ran two touring companies across the globe and an influential school in New York. The performers who learned at the school went on to share their experiences with future generations.
Filmmaker Leslie Streit worked on the film for over four years, collecting a massive amount of interview footage with former students and teachers at the school. She contextualizes the rise of the school with the vast social changes occurring in the 1960s, as women’s rights and racial equality drove the conversation. Rebekah Harkness, the founder of the school, was an oil heiress who put her money into her passion and viewed her potential students only through their skills as dancers. She kept her classes small and was incredibly specific about who she brought into the company. It didn’t matter who the pupil was, what they looked like or from where they came. All that mattered was their talent and potential.
That made the Harkness school a perfect breeding ground for future talent, but it also created problems. Creative passions butted heads with the fact that the funding ultimately came from one woman. Her funding, in fact, was also tied to oil shares and subject to volatility. There’s as much disappointment and frustration as there is triumph in this story. Self-financing a ballet school isn’t always a sound investment.
Streit blends her interviews with archival footage of performances, making this something of a hybrid documentary. Large portions are simply grainy footage of dancers. As someone who doesn’t get a whole lot out of ballet or watching dance, the pacing became a little jarring; it’s really just people telling stories interspersed with dance. Ballet aficionados may get the most out of it.
Still, it’s impressive enough that Streit manages to comprehensively tell the tale of not just how the school rose and fell but what it meant to the people who experienced it. There are millions of stories of places forgotten by a world that never stops moving on, and arguments can be made for why each and every one is significant in some way. We all have times in our lives in which we were deeply attached to places or social groups now long forgotten by the world at large. With her multitudes of interviews and deep archival research, Streit makes a strong case for why the Harkness school was an important moment in time not just for those who lived it but for American dance as a whole.