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Items From Princeton’s Rich Ballet History Donated to Historical Society Archives

UNMISTAKABLY BEBE: Yes, that’s Princeton’s own Bebe Neuwirth in a treasured image from the archives of the Princeton Ballet Company, which became the American Repertory Ballet (ARB) in 1990. The photograph is among a collection of images and programs donated by ARB to the Historical Society of Princeton. From left to right: Catherine Biewener, Linda Edwards, Ms. Neuwirth, and Penny Kingan in Corelli Concerto.(Courtesy of the Historical Society of Princeton).

UNMISTAKABLY BEBE: Yes, that’s Princeton’s own Bebe Neuwirth in a treasured image from the archives of the Princeton Ballet Company, which became the American Repertory Ballet (ARB) in 1990. The photograph is among a collection of images and programs donated by ARB to the Historical Society of Princeton. From left to right: Catherine Biewener, Linda Edwards, Ms. Neuwirth, and Penny Kingan in Corelli Concerto. (Courtesy of the Historical Society of Princeton).

Archives from the American Repertory Ballet (ARB) and the Princeton Ballet School (PBS) have been added to the collection of the Historical Society of Princeton (HSP).

“We are delighted to have this addition to our archives of the history of Princeton,” says Eve Mandel, HSP director of programs and visitor services.

Among the items is a commemorative booklet celebrating the ballet school’s “First 50 Years,” introduced by a remark from late founder Audrée Phipps Estey (1910-2002): “It is the discipline that goes with the art of dance and the special hard drive that goes into a production that makes the outcome rewarding. In a day of fast-changing values, it is good to remember that something remains constant — the beauty of the young to which we older ones can dedicate ourselves.”

In addition to early photographs of Ms. Estey, donated material includes images of notable students like Bebe Neuwirth and guest artists such as former New York City Ballet dancers Peter Martins and Darci Kistler. There are letters of support from New Jersey governors Thomas Kean and Brendan Byrne; student memoirs, including five pages by Kit Hulit (whose father advertised his Nassau Street shoe store, Hulit’s Shoes, in programs of the day); performance playbills, and press materials such as a New York Times article which dubbed Ms. Estey as the “First Lady of Dance.” Among Ms. Estey’s hundreds of students were Meredith Monk, Douglas Dunn, Diane Partington, and Jennifer Dunning.

According to Lisa de Ravel, former ARB dancer and PBS dean of students, the gift to HSP provides an opportunity to share the school’s impact on the Princeton area. Ms. de Ravel described the process of compiling the historic documents as “a fun and challenging experience. I have gained a deeper respect for the legacy we inherited, and the artistic and educational missions we continue to carry out.”

What is now one of the largest and most respected non-profit dance schools in the nation, and New Jersey’s preeminent contemporary ballet company, had humble beginnings back in 1954 when Ms. Estey founded the Princeton Ballet Society. Before that, she had created classes at the Lawrenceville School, where her husband L. Wendell “Bud” Estey was a teacher

Ballet quickly became a part of the Princeton scene with productions at McCarter Theatre; the first, Cinderella, in 1955, featured Barbara Dilley Lloyd and Elinor Coffee and was followed by a full-length Nutcracker in 1956.

The Princeton Regional Ballet Company, formed in 1963, performed its first Nutcracker in 1964 at McCarter and has been performing it every year since, both at McCarter and at theaters across New Jersey.

In May 1968, Estey was featured in Town Topics as Princeton’s Woman of the Week. As the ballet school and company evolved, there were further name changes. The Princeton Regional Ballet became the professional Princeton Ballet Company in 1978 and then the American Repertory Ballet Company in 1990, the name chosen to reflect “its artistic image and status as a nationally recognized ballet company.” Three years later, it put on an ambitious full length production of Swan Lake.

Ms. Estey retired in 1982. She was succeeded as artistic director by Judith Leviton (1982-1986), Dermot Burke (1986-1992), Marjorie Mussman (1992-1993), Septime Webre (1993-1999), Graham Lustig (1999-2010), and Douglas Martin (2010-present), who was principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet before joining the faculty in 1995

In 1987, the Princeton Ballet Company was named a “Major Arts Institution” by the New Jersey State Council on The Arts. That same year was their first New York season, and in 1989, they began tours of the Mid-Atlantic States.

Other highlights from ARB history include a 1994 production of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are under the direction of then artistic Director Septime Webre, which brought the author/illustrator to Princeton. The company’s repertory has included established masterpieces by distinguished American choreographers George Balanchine, Gerald Arpino, Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp; cutting edge works by Val Caniparoli, Kirk Peterson, Dominique Dumais, Harrison McEldowney, Amy Seiwert, Susan Shields, and Melissa Barak; as well as works by former artistic directors Burke, Mussman, Webre, and Lustig.

Since 1986, Mary Pat Robertson has directed the Princeton Ballet school, which today enrolls some 1500 students a year, ranging in age from three through adult, with studios in Cranbury, New Brunswick, and Princeton. Its graduates have gone on to dance in professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the United States and abroad, including the Alvin Ailey Dance Co., Netherlands Dance Theater, Boston Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem, Twyla Tharp, New York Theater Ballet, to name a handful.

The American Repertory Ballet and Princeton Ballet School archives can be viewed by appointment at the Historical Society of Princeton. For more information, call (609) 921-6748, ext. 100 or email: research@princetonhistory.org.

Artistic Director Douglas Martin will present “An Evening with American Repertory Ballet” featuring discussion of The Rite of Spring and Romeo and Juliet, with dancers performing excerpts from each, in the community room at the Princeton Public Library, Thursday, March 7, at 7:30 p.m.

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