George Balanchine

The Russian-born American choreographer George Balanchine (1904-1983) formed and established the classical style of contemporary ballet in America. His choreography emphasized form rather than content, technique rather than interpretation.

George Balanchine, born Georgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg, Russia, on January 22, 1904, was the son of a famous Russian composer. At the age of 10, he entered the Imperial Ballet School, where he learned the technically precise and athletic Russian dancing style. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Balanchine continued his training in a new government theater. In 1921 he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music to study piano while continuing work in ballet at the State Academy of Opera and Ballet. He used a group of dancers from the school to present his earliest choreographed works. One of the students was Tamara Gevergeyeva, later known as Tamara Geva, whom Balanchine married in 1922. She was the first of his four wives, who were all dancers. In 1924, when the group was invited to tour Europe as the Soviet State Dancers, Balanchine defected.

He was discovered in 1925 in Paris by the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. When Diaghilev's most famous choreographer, Nijinska, left his ballet company, Balanchine took her place; at the age of 21 he was the ballet master and principal choreographer of the most famous ballet corps in the world. It was Diaghilev who changed the Russian's name to Balanchine. Balanchine did 10 ballets for him. When Diaghilev died and the company disbanded in 1929, Balanchine moved from one company to another until in 1933 he formed his own company, Les Ballets. That year he met Lincoln Kirstein, a young, rich American, who invited him to head the new School of American Ballet in New York City.

With the School of American Ballet and later with the New York City Ballet, Balanchine established himself as one of the world's leading contemporary classical choreographers. Almost single-handedly he brought academic excellence and quality performance to the American ballet, which had been merely a weak copy of the great European companies.

In 1934 the American Ballet Company became the resident company at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Audiences were treated to three new Balanchine ballets: Apollo, The Card Party, and The Fairy's Kiss—works that revolutionized American classical ballet style. But Balanchine's daring ballet style and the Metropolitan's conservative artistic policy caused a breach that ultimately terminated the alliance in 1938. His work in the next several years included choreography for Broadway shows and films and two ballets created in 1941 for the American Ballet Caravan, a touring group: Ballet Imperial and Concerto Barocco.

In 1946, following Kirstein's return from service in World War II, he and Balanchine established a new company, the Ballet Society. Initially financed by and limited to subscribers, in 1948 it was opened to the public. The performance of Balanchine's Orpheus was so successful that his company was invited to establish permanent residence at the New York City Center. It did so and was renamed the New York City Ballet. Finally, Balanchine had a school, a company, and a permanent theater. He developed the New York City Ballet into the foremost classical company in America, and to some critics, in the world. Here he created some of his most enduring works, including his Nutcracker and Agon. After the New York City Ballet moved to Lincoln Center's New York State Theatre in 1964, Balanchine added such wide-ranging works as Don Quixote and Union Jack.

Balanchine's choreography was not tied to the virtuosity of the ballerina, the plot, or the decor but to pure dance. The drama was in the dance, and movement was solely related to the music—a perfect dance equivalent to music. For Balanchine, the movement of the body alone created artistic excitement and evoked images of fantasy or reality. He emphasized balance, control, precision, and ease of movement. He rejected the traditional sweet style of romantic ballet, as well as the more acrobatic style of theatrical ballet, in favor of a neoclassic style stripped to its essentials—motion, movement, and music. His dancers became precision instruments of the choreographer, whose ideas and designs came from the music itself.

Balanchine died in New York City on April 30, 1983. Summing up his career in the New York Times, Anna Kisselgoff said, "More than anyone else, he elevated choreography in ballet to an independent art… In an age when ballet had been dependent on a synthesis of spectacle, storytelling, décor, mime, acting and music, and only partly on dancing, George Balanchine insisted that the dance element come first."

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Further Reading on George Balanchine

Bernard Taper, Balanchine (1963), is a popular biography. Balanchine is given extensive coverage in George Amberg, Ballet in America: The Emergence of an American Art (1949); Olga Maynard, The American Ballet (1959); Joan Lawson, A History of Ballet and Its Makers (1964); and Ferdinando Reyna, A Concise History of Ballet (trans. 1965).

Additional Biography Sources

Buckle, Richard, and John Taras, George Balanchine: Ballet Master (Random House, 1988).

Mason, Francis, I Remember Balanchine: Recollections of the Ballet Master by Those Who Knew Him (Doubleday, 1991).

New York Times (May 1, 1983).