An American Ballet Story raises important questions about the relationship between money and art. It asks audiences to consider the impact wealthy patrons have on artistic institutions. The engaging documentary follows the Harkness Ballet, a short-lived but subversive New York ballet school founded in 1964.
Filmmaker Leslie Streit elegantly interweaves lengthy, eye-opening interviews with former students and teachers at the school with exquisite archival footage of the dancers’ performances. The intimate conversations explore the gender and racial dynamics during the tumultuous 1960s that impacted the rise of the school and its development. The grainy black-and-white archival clips have a romantic feel. They are awe-inspiring glimpses into the technique and incredible talent fostered at the school.
An American Ballet Story dives deep into the founder of the school, Rebekah Harkness, a wealthy oil heiress who used her fortune to fund the school. But Harkness was not just a patron providing the cash, she was highly selective of the students chosen to enroll at her school, she insisted that her own music would be used, and she discouraged modern dance performances. Despite butting heads with some of the choreographers and teachers, they had to deal with Harkness because she was solely responsible for keeping the school alive. Streit uses the revelatory interviews to help the audience understand the high-stakes tensions that ran throughout the company.
Through her mix of candid interviews and archival footage, Streit crafts an edifying documentary about ballet as both an artistic craft and business. An American Ballet Story is a beautiful and honest dance documentary that amplifies the importance of women in leadership roles. Streit paints a fascinating portrait of a fleeting but significant part of the dance world.