Anyone ever heard of Lincoln Kirstein? It’s okay if you haven’t; even George Balanchine didn’t know who he was when Kirstein walked up to him in Paris in 1933. In the post-Diaghilev era in Europe, Balanchine was trying to find footing as a choreographer. He had just presented his new venture, titled Les Ballets 1933, to mixed reviews and an unenthusiastic public. He was also in ill health and without decent future prospects. Kirstein was a big barrel of a man, even in his youth—both awkward and imposing. Approaching the slight choreographer, he said, “You must come to America.” “America?” responded Balanchine, “how do I get there?” to which Kirstein responded, “You follow me.”

He did and it would be easy to just say the rest is history, but it wasn’t quite that easy. Kirstein, an heir and aesthete of great means, education, and connections had elaborate aspirations of creating an American Ballet…in Hartford, Connecticut. He envisioned ballets of American folklore about cowboys, Indians, and pioneers. He had plans, patronage, partnerships, and Hartford. Balanchine accepted the patronage and the partnership, but had no interest in Hartford, instead setting his sights on New York City. Together he and Kirstein started a great American story.

Balanchine loved his adopted country, referencing it in works like Who Cares?, set against a painted drop of skyscrapers. Western Symphony showcased plucky cowgirls and rugged cowboys. Stars and Stripes was danced to the rousing marches of Sousa. The Georgian-born “oriental,” as he called himself, often wore a bolo tie and western shirt. He loved Wonder Woman. He savored the energy and athleticism of American physiques. The bustling streets of New York City were fuel for his company, choreography, and aesthetic.

Jerome Robbins was born in Manhattan. A few years before his birth, his parents, Harry and Lena Rabinowitz, emigrated from Eastern Europe. Like countless others escaping war, famine, or persecution, they arrived at Ellis Island to make a new life in the new world. Harry worked in a delicatessen making five dollars a month and sleeping on a shelf behind the cash register. He went on to own the deli and later ran the Comfort Corset Company in Weehawken, New Jersey, were he and Lena started a family and Jerry began his American story. His creations captured the antics of sailors on shore leave during World War II (Fancy Free and On the Town) and the streetscapes and gang wars of Manhattan (West Side Story). Before there was Hamilton, Jerry was defining the Broadway musical and bringing a fresh, uniquely American perspective to dance in this country.

Twyla’s story starts with being named after the winning pig at the town fair in Muncie, Indiana. If you haven’t read her autobiography, Push Comes to Shove, get it. Twyla’s Broadway smash, Movin’ Out, to the infectious songs of Billy Joel, tells American narratives brilliantly, from the Sock Hop to the Vietnam War, with a leather bar and a fitness craze along the way. Twyla’s range as a choreographer is tremendous, but she returns to the American story time and time again through the lens of Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, or R&B legend Allen Toussaint. In Waiting at the Station, Twyla’s 2013 original creation for PNB, we see the story of time and humanity against the backdrop of Toussaint’s New Orleans world. His story, her story, our story intersect in this masterful work.

We all have stories to tell. I love Chris Wheeldon’s. Laid up on his couch in London with a sprained ankle, the young dancer with the Royal Ballet saw an advertisement on television offering free roundtrip airfare to America for the first batch of customers to buy a Hoover vacuum cleaner. Chris knew there was a hardware store on the corner selling Hoovers and grabbed his crutches. A few months later, he landed in New York and never left. From a Brit in New York to An American in Paris!

We asked friends to contribute their American stories for you, and you’ll find them on the pages of this program and on our website. {View the American Stories here.} They come from kids in our School, members of our Company, and leaders in our community. People tell their own and those of others or members of their family. One tells the story of being from an indigenous tribe who lived on this land before it had a name; another tells of a blight in our history when a relative was forced to live in a Japanese internment camp. There are stories of discrimination, acceptance, citizenship, recognition of their marriage, and of earning the right to vote or to change gender. We all have stories that contribute to our community and our country. Telling and listening to each other’s stories helps to create a society of understanding and acceptance. As you watch Balanchine’s abstracted take on American square dancing and the foolish play of three sailors and a couple of broads on leave in New York City and listen to the sweet sounds of a great New Orleans Jazz legend paired with Twyla’s singular struts and thrusts, think about your stories and those around you and let’s celebrate our collective American story.

– Peter Boal

Angelica Generosa, Dylan Wald, Angeli Mamon, Dammiel Cruz and Madison Sugg. Photo by Angela Sterling.
Angelica Generosa, Dylan Wald, Angeli Mamon, Dammiel Cruz and Madison Sugg. Photo by Angela Sterling.

AMERICAN STORIES is June 3-12 at McCaw Hall.

Featured photo: PNB dancers in Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, photo © Angela Sterling.