Diana Adams in “Pillar of Fire,” 1942. (Photograph by Alfredo Valente/Judith Chazin-Bennahum Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress)

In 1939, with the dazzling success of the Ballets Russes in mind, a group of dancers, choreographers and producers formed a venture called “Ballet Theatre.” This was in New York, and they didn’t have Pablo Picasso and Coco Chanel. They didn’t have the sensational Russian star Vaslav Nijinsky. ¶ But they had his sister, and a handful of gutsy refugees looking for a new beginning. Together, they transformed the art of ballet. ¶ The little start-up that would later become American Ballet Theatre began with an audacious premise: to forge an American brand of ballet. And to do it in a country awash in modernism, whose populace knew next to nothing about classical dance. A new exhibit at the Library of Congress, “American Ballet Theatre: Touring the Globe for 75 Years,” offers a look at what became of one of this country’s great artistic success stories. ¶ What could American ballet be? What was American about the arts? What was it to be American at a time of rapid change, here and abroad? These are some of the questions reflected in the exhibit’s 43 artifacts, mostly photographs, decor and costume sketches, musical scores and posters, as well as a short film of selected clips. ¶ The display marks the library’s acquisition of ABT’s archive of more than 50,000 items. It will be on view through Jan. 24 in the library’s James Madison Memorial Building. Afterward, it will travel to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

International flavor

From the beginning, Ballet Theatre (the “American” designation wouldn’t come until 1957) was a combo platter. It welcomed many of the Ballets Russes choreographers, those who had helped turn the Russian émigré troupe originally led by Serge Diaghilev into a major artistic force in Europe. Among them were the Russians Bronislava Nijinska (Nijinsky’s sister), Adolph Bolm and Michel Fokine.

Ballet Theatre also brought in the Englishman Antony Tudor, who rethought the art form, whittling away its ornamental frou-frou to express the inner life in a startling modern way. In one of the photos on display, ballerina Diana Adams is in mid-whirl in Tudor’s “Pillar of Fire,” firmly balanced on pointe though her skirt flies about her. She ruffles up her hair with one hand, and her eyes are half-closed. Part pinup, part mystery, she taunts you. You see the sculpted resistance in Tudor’s use of the body, and the athleticism and sensuous abandon that made Adams so prized by Ballet Theatre and, later, by New York City Ballet.

In addition to its international roster, Ballet Theatre fostered American dance makers such as Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille and Eugene Loring. A photo of bouncy John Kriza in Loring’s “Billy the Kid,” which Ballet Theatre performed in its debut season in 1940 (music by Aaron Copland), makes clear what new waters the troupe was diving into: American folklore, plus raw physicality. The story of a frontier outlaw and his string of murders was far removed from the lofty and exotic subjects of European ballet.

Another Loring work danced in the first season, “The Great American Goof,” broke new ground with its bald comedy, and the fact that it was danced to spoken text, in the experimental style of modern dance. The script was written by the American dramatist William Saroyan, who would win a Pulitzer Prize that year.

Ballet Theatre also opened its doors to female choreographers. According to Elizabeth Aldrich, the former Library of Congress dance curator who assisted with this exhibit, 30 percent of the company’s choreographers have been women. Among them: Nijinska, de Mille, and more recently Twyla Tharp, who has created more than a dozen works for ABT. Even Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, one of the company’s biggest stars, made a ballet in the early years.

Igor Yousevitch and Alicia Alonso in George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, 1947. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division. (American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division/American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division)

John Kriza in “Billy the Kid,” 1940. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. (American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress)/American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress))

Alonso’s technical power caught the eye of George Balanchine, who made “Theme and Variations” for her and her partner Igor Youskevitch in 1947, a year before he founded New York City Ballet. A photo of the two dancers in “Theme” makes plain Alonso’s firm, upright grandeur, and her corporeal energy that overflows the frame.

Some of the most charming artifacts on view are the sketches that still convey bold, creative thinking. So vivid were Nijinska’s ideas for her 1940 version of the old French ballet “La Fille Mal Gardée” (renamed “The Wayward Daughter” the following year) that she inked up her pages to the very corners. She doodled dots, arrows and wavelike formations on hotel letterhead, along with scribbled notes in Russian.

Peggy Clark’s drawing of her blood-red lighting design for de Mille’s “Fall River Legend,” which convicts Lizzie Borden in the ax murders of her parents, is a work of art in itself. Do the colors reflect the loss of life, or the perpetrator’s repressed pain, finally released in the horrific act?

Peggy Clark sketch for lighting design for Anges de Mille’s “Fall River Legend,” 1948. Peggy Clark Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress. (Peggy Clark Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress/Peggy Clark Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress)

A remarkable 1948 Irving Penn photo captures the diversity and breadth of personalities in Ballet Theatre. There is Barbados-born Hugh Laing, the great dramatic interpreter, with his well-muscled, leo­nine intensity; the knowing, seductive Youskevitch; Alonso, in a white tutu with all the dark glamour of a Hollywood star; Tudor, standing slightly behind her, looking shy and wise; Oliver Smith, the set designer who was also the company’s longtime co-director, seated in a beautifully tailored suit with his long legs stretched before him, and Nora Kaye, the great dancer-actress, with a sly, sidelong look. Each person hints at a fascinating life story, and the capacity to tell it. You long to see them in motion.

Contrast that gathering with a more recent photo of the company’s leading dancers, posed in a similar style. They all look much younger, less adult, and either distant or slightly bored. The visceral force of character, which jumps out from their earlier counterparts, is missing.

Theater at heart

For this reason, the exhibit’s earlier artifacts are more interesting than the recent production shots. The depth of feeling in the older images undoubtedly stems from the artists’ stimulating, rich and varied lives, as they shaped something new, struggled to find an audience, traveled from small town to small town, performed along the old vaudeville circuit. Eventually they traveled the world, when the State Department started employing dance as a “propaganda weapon,” as Aldrich put it.

The dancers had fierce creators such as Tudor, de Mille and Nijinska choreographing what approached a complete existence — not simply steps, but the life behind the steps. The American portion of American Ballet Theatre was only part of the equation. At the company’s heart was ballet theater, a physical way of creating a new world onstage. If the scope of that effort has narrowed in recent years, with a reliance on old favorites and warhorses, at least the evidence of its flourishing is preserved under glass.

American Ballet Theatre: Touring the Globe for 75 Years

On view in the foyer of the Performing Arts Reading Room in the Library of Congress’s James Madison Memorial Building, 101 Independence Ave. SE, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Jan. 24. It can also be viewed online at www.loc.gov/exhibits.