SPAC Stories

A Tradition of Innovation

The New York City Ballet Company has presented innovative ballets at Saratoga Performing Arts Center since its first performance there in 1965.  NYC Ballet’s co-founder and ballet giant, George Balanchine, created work that is still performed and revered, decades after he choreographed. To today’s audiences, such work seems to be how ballet has been performed since time immemorial.  But Balanchine was actually quite radical in his day.  He crafted his own ballet technique so distinct that dancers who train as he directed follow what is called the Balanchine technique.  Other choreographers who succeeded Balanchine, including Jerome Robbins and Justin Peck, have continued to bring creative, innovative choreography to the company and to the SPAC stage. With many seen as classics now in their own rights, their works delight audiences year in and year out.

Enter Robbins

Jerome Robbins – best known for his choreography of West Side Story – choreographed for ballet, his first dancing passion, as well as Broadway. In 1948, he joined NYC Ballet.  Within a year he was associate director, but he still had a way to go in becoming the legendary choreographer we know today.  Over his illustrious career, Robbins crafted innovative works, such as “Ives, Songs,” that premiered at SPAC in 1988. “Ives, Songs” was the last work Robbins choreographed before leaving City Ballet after the Robbins Festival in 1990, when he resigned his position as Co-Ballet Master in Chief, a position he assumed with Peter Martin after the death of Balanchine in 1983. [1]

Martha Swope, New York City Ballet rehearsal of “Ives, Songs” with Jerome Robbins and dancers. At center is Russell Kaiser, 1988. Courtesy of the New York Public Library digital collections.

Ives, Songs

SPAC “Ives, Songs” program from the premiere.

Robbin’s 1988 creation, “Ives, Songs,” stands as a hallmark of his late-career work and highlights his trademark originality. [2]  Set to music by Charles Ives, “Ives, Songs” has been described as impressionistic[3] and poetic imagination showcasing Robbins at his creative best.[4]  William James Earle – a Robbins friend for many years – commented that Robbins played recordings of Charles Ives songs “from morning till night,” commenting on what would work or not with the music, and that became the ballet.[5]  A singer, accompanied by a piano, sang from the stage while the dancers performed.  Mortality was a theme of “Ives, Songs,” but Robbins stated the ballet “was not meant as a farewell to dance.”[6]  “Ives, Songs” has been performed many occasions since, often as marker of the later part of Robbin’s extensive career.[7]

Robbins’ SPAC legacy

Other Robbins works, although not SPAC premieres, have been a long-standing part of the company’s summer program in Saratoga. These works include his 1961 choreography for the famous musical West Side Story, for which he won two Academy Awards (choreography and co-direction).[8]  A selection of dances from West Side Story came to NYC Ballet as “West Side Story Suite,” which remains in the company’s repertoire.   In 2008, the SPAC gala performance featured “West Side Story Suite,” introduced by special guest Rita Moreno.  Moreno, who played “Anita” in the original Broadway production and 1961 film – talked about her experiences working with Robbins, ushering in a captivating performance celebrating his work.[9]   Most recently, NYC Ballet performed “Something to Dance About” – another piece of Robbins choreography – at SPAC in 2018.[10]  The legacy of innovative dance continues with performances of Robbins work, as well as rising choreographers carrying on the tradition of innovation at NYC Ballet.  Resident choreographer Justin Peck is attached to the Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story re-make, following in Robbins footsteps as choreographer.

Continuing the Legacy

NYC Ballet dancers in “Principia.” Credit: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

The tradition of innovation continues. Justin Peck and 21st century choreographers continue to premiere works at SPAC.  Last summer, in 2019, Peck’s “Principia” premiered at SPAC, choreographed earlier that year to music commissioned from singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens.[11]  Joining the 2019 season line-up, “Runway,” a contemporary work with wild costumes set to rap music, and the first ballet by choreographer Kyle Abraham.[12]  These innovative works by twenty-first century choreographers are just two of a full evening of performance offered last year.  NYC Ballet and SPAC continue their partnership in bringing innovation to the ballet stage.


[1] Anna Kisslgoff, “Review/Ballet; A Tribute in Roses as the Robbins Festival Ends,” New York Times, June 19, 2020,

[2] Anna Kisselgoff, “DANCE; Jerome Robbins, A Creator From Head to Foot,” New York Times,

[3] Anna Kisselgoff, “Jerome Robbins, 79, Is Dead; Giant of Ballet and Broadway,” New York Times, July 30, 1998,

[4] Anna Kisselgoff, “Ballet: ‘Ives, Songs,” By Jerome Robbins,” New York Times, February 6, 1988,

[5] William James Earle, “Fond Reminiscences of Jerome Robbins by William James Earle,” New York Public Library, March 8, 2018,

[6] Anna Kisselgoff, “DANCE; For Jerome Robbins, a ‘Siege by Terpsichore’,” New York Times, May 29. 1994,

[7] Roslyn Sulcas, “A Feast of Fancies in Three Robbins Works,” New York Times, May 29, 2008,

[8] “Jerome Robbins,” West Side Story,

[9] Jay Rogoff, “NYCB dances beautiful dreams at SPAC Gala,” The Saratogian, July 21, 2008,

[10] SPAC, “July 17-21, 2018” Program.
Another notable Robbins performance at SPAC was “The Concert.”

[11] Brian Seibert, “Review: At City Ballet, More Youthful Invention from Justin Peck,” New York Times, February 1, 2019,

[12] Ibid.

About the Author

The author at SPAC for a NYC Ballet performance in 2019.

Isabel M.R. Long, 21′ is a history major and art history minor at Skidmore College. She dances Balanchine technique at Skidmore, and has fond memories of attending NYC Ballet performances at SPAC as a child, including several Robbins performances. More recently, she enjoyed the SPAC premiere of “Principia” in 2019. She appreciated this opportunity to combine her love and knowledge of ballet, memories, and interest in archives and historical stories for this project.