NEW YORK — MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV'S sudden defection Sept. 25 from American Ballet Theater (ABT) touches off a new artistic cycle in the company's 50-year history. When he announced his resignation in June, the great Russian dancer, who has been ABT's artistic director for nine years, pledged to remain on tap throughout the important 1989-90 anniversary season. But during the summer, tensions rose within the company's administrative top brass over what appeared to be two main issues: the degree of autonomy Baryshnikov would have in hiring and budgeting, and the extent of his personal participation in public fund-raising. Tighter controls over spending were urged by the ABT board and implemented by executive director Jane Hermann, who was hired last spring after several years as a producer of outside attractions for the Metropolitan Opera. Ms. Hermann is known as a box-office-conscious programmer, and she seems determined to cut the company's deficit.
For now, the company wants to celebrate its half-century in splendor, not scandal. Ballets from its illustrious choreographic history are scheduled: Tharp, de Mille, Robbins, Ashton, and Tudor will highlight the roster. But no new ballets have been commissioned other than a forthcoming Tharp. This desire not to make waves may reinforce the power of the front office during the post-Baryshnikov transition.
Anyone who follows the ballet world will recognize the signs of a familiar syndrome here. As costs escalate and audiences must be attracted from a less and less specialized population, the fortunes of big ballet companies are increasingly being controlled by administrators and business types on the boards of directors, rather than by the more unpredictable artists who create the ballet. Ballet survival today means fiscal health, artistic conservatism, and avoidance of risk.
Throughout his tenure with ABT, Baryhnikov has pursued outside dancing and acting assignments, foregoing a salary in return for this independence. By the 1989 season, his presence on stage and on tour was nominal, although he supplied a new version of ``Swan Lake'' for the repertory. A dispute over the status of his assistant, Charles France, apparently precipitated Baryshnikov's final break with the company last month.
In fact, ABT's artistic staff had already been drastically reshaped by the time Baryshnikov and France exited. Though the coaching and teaching staff will be unchanged for the time being, a year from now the company's principal regisseur for the classical repertory, Elena Tchernichova, will become director of the Vienna Ballet. Both the company's resident choreographers, Kenneth MacMillan and Twyla Tharp, have given up their positions as artistic associates.
MacMillan, who was ill last year and has been little in evidence, and is now setting ``Prince of the Pagodas'' for the Royal Ballet in London. Tharp has created a new work for ABT, to be premi`ered in San Francisco in February, and her ballets will remain in the repertory for this season at least. Leadership has now been assumed by Hermann, ABT founder Oliver Smith, and associate director John Taras. The company embarks on the first leg of its winter touring (to Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Houston) this month.