(b. 22 January 1904 in Saint Petersburg, Russia; d. 30 April 1983 in New York City), ballet dancer, instructor, and choreographer who by the 1960s was generally acknowledged as the world's greatest living choreographer and whose ballets and teaching style have affected generations of students and professionals ever since.
Born Georgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze, Balanchine was one of three children born to Meliton Balanchivadze and Maria Nikolayevna Vassilyeva. His father, a Georgian, was a composer and failed businessman; his Russian mother, a bank employee. When Balanchine was still small, the family moved to Lounatiokki, now in Finland, and there he began piano lessons. Although his parents had planned a military career for him, he was accepted into the Maryinsky Theatre (Imperial Ballet) School in Saint Petersburg at the age of nine, where he received a free education as well as classical ballet instruction. He graduated in 1921 and was admitted to the resident company the Soviet State Ballet, at the same time enrolling in the Petrograd Conservatory of Music to study piano and composition.
When Balanchine was sixteen he created his first choreography, and during the 1920s he prepared a series of programs to showcase his own ballets. He was joined by Tamara Gevergeva (later "Geva"), his first wife, whom he married in 1922, and Alexandra Danilova, with whom he later lived after Geva had left him. By 1923 the group had so outraged the ballet establishment that it eagerly accepted an opportunity to tour Germany for the summer of 1924. That fall, Serge Diaghilev saw the troupe perform, and in December hired it to dance with his Ballets Russes.
As soon as the troupe joined the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev (who renamed Balanchivadze "Balanchine") asked Balanchine if he could create ballets for the opera "very fast." Balanchine complied, and soon became the company ballet master and chief choreographer. In 1925 he created dances for twelve operas and choreographed his first ballet, Le Chant du Rossignol, to music by Igor Stravinsky. In 1928 he created Apollon Musagète (later, Apollo), and in 1929, the year Diaghilev died, Prodigal Son. Both ballets are still considered masterpieces.
Years after, reflecting on the profoundest influences on his artistic life, Balanchine named two. The first was his training at the Maryinsky, where he was taught its "strict discipline … its classicism, the basis of all ballet [and] its … tradition." The second was Diaghilev, from whom "I learned to recognize what was great and valid in art … and to be … an artist."
In 1933 Balanchine formed his own, short-lived troupe, Les Ballets 1933, and that same year he met Lincoln Kirstein, the wealthy son of a Boston family. Kirstein had dreamed of establishing an "American" ballet company and had already seen several of Balanchine's choreographies. Balanchine was interested in working with Kirstein, but insisted "first, a school," to which Kirstein agreed. Balanchine came to New York City on 18 October 1933; the School of American Ballet opened on New Year's Day 1934. Their American Ballet company began in March 1935, but folded in 1938.
During the following decade, Balanchine created dances for musical comedies and Hollywood films and worked in Europe. He married Vera Zorina (born Brigitta Hartwig) on 24 December 1938 and became a U.S. citizen in 1939. He later divorced Zorina and married Maria Tallchief in 1946, the year that he and Kirstein formed the Ballet Society. In 1948 Morton Baum of New York's City Center saw the company, and asked Kirstein: "How would you like the idea of having the Ballet Society become the New York City Ballet?" Thus in 1948 the group was officially renamed and accorded the status of a public institution.
The New York City Ballet (NYCB), at City Center, thrived under Balanchine's artistic direction during the 1950s. He created at least thirty-seven new dances during the decade, including La Valse (1951), The Nutcracker (1954), Western Symphony (1954), Allegro Brillant (1956), Agon (1957), and Stars and Stripes (1958). The school, generally intended to provide a source of new dancers for the company, also flourished, becoming, as Time magazine noted in 1954, "the best and busiest in the U.S."
By the 1960s the reputations of the company, school, and Balanchine personally were firmly established. In a biography of Balanchine, Bernard Taper said that the company was giving an average of 150 performances a year, up from twenty-four during its first year at City Center. In 1964 music critics Rosalyn Krokover and Harold Schonberg wrote that the NYCB now "dominates the scene to the exclusion of any other group." Another critic added in 1966 that the school was "harder to get into than Radcliffe."
The introduction to a 1961 Horizon interview with Balanchine stated that he was already a "choreographer without peer," and in 1964 British dance critic Clive Barnes said that he was "very possibly the most remarkable creative force ballet has ever known." In 1960 Balanchine choreographed Monumentum pro Gesualdo, called in a 1972 Saturday Review article a "major" work that extended "the range, the scope and the style of formal expressive movement." It was compared to Agon, one of his so-called "plotless" ballets, for which he had been frequently criticized over the years. These two works, along with the now famous Apollo, were all set to music by Stravinsky.
Balanchine's choreography was always cradled in the classic ballet style he was taught at the Maryinsky, and the choreographers who most influenced him—Marius Petipa and Kasyan Goleizovsky—came from this tradition, the latter advocating the art of pure dance and exulting in the potential of the human body. Balanchine expanded this concept. "To him the classical technique was not a constriction but a liberation," wrote Taper, and quoted Balanchine as saying: "I would like to show that these bodies of ours … can be beautiful." Unlike his contemporaries Martha Graham and Anthony Tudor, Balanchine did not feel that emotion or story line was the impetus of dance. He made dance itself the center of his ballets, often eschewing even costume and decor to focus more fully on the dancing.
Music, however, was essential, and Balanchine, a fine musician himself, would choreograph a ballet directly on the dancers only after listening to the music and examining its score. Although he loved Mozart, Balanchine favored modern composers, especially Stravinsky, with whom he often worked. He said about Stravinsky, "(M)usic is time.… I couldn't make a ballet without music [because] I am not a creator of time myself.… Stravinsky is."
In 1963 Balanchine made his first ballet Movements for Piano and Orchestra (again Stravinsky) for Suzanne Farrell, with whom he was obsessed. Although he did not believe in the "star" system of ballet (Tallchief, whose marriage to Balanchine was annulled in 1952, would leave in 1965 over this issue), he did choreograph pieces for his current favorites. He wrote Don Quixote, in which he danced the title role opening night, for Farrell in 1965. In 1969 Balanchine divorced his fourth wife, Tanaquil LeClercq, whom he had married on 31 December 1952, in the hope Farrell would marry him. She did not and soon left the company.
On 16 December 1963 the Ford Foundation gave $7,756,750 to support American ballet, and the bulk, to be distributed over about ten years, went to the NYCB, the School of American Ballet, and other companies and schools with Balanchine connections. Not surprisingly, there was an outcry from other choreographers and companies—most notably, the American Ballet Theatre and Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham, and Ted Shawn—who claimed that "true American dance" was being "crucified." In actual fact, this grant focused attention on the financial needs of American dance in general, and several donors soon stepped in to help those not given Ford money.
The Ford Foundation grant also permitted a number of small, regional, Balanchine-related companies to develop into prestigious organizations such as the Boston and Pennsylvania Ballets, to which Balanchine donated some of his masterpieces, including his first American ballet Serenade (1935), for their own repertories. It also allowed the New York school to continue to offer scholarships—a practice begun in 1941 that helped the dancers Tanaquil LeClercq, Jacques d'Amboise, and Edward Villella to attend in the 1940s. Farrell came to the school on a scholarship, and then joined the company in the early 1960s, dancing with d'Amboise, Villella, Tallchief, Erik Bruhn, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Patricia McBride, Arthur Mitchell, and Violette Verdy.
"It's all yours, George. Take it from here," said Philip Johnson, architect for Lincoln Center's New York State Theater. The laconic reply: "Just what I always wanted." This exchange marked the opening night of the $19.3 million theater, considered by many to be the first expressly designed for a choreographer, on 23 April 1964. The theater did indeed contain elements dear to Balanchine's heart—a vast stage with excellent footing, large practice rooms, and good acoustics. Lincoln Center itself grew out of a desire by the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic Society for new buildings, and Kirstein wrote that if "the Met by itself could have built a new home … there would have been no great need…for Lincoln Center." As it turned out, Kirstein and Balanchine were able to nominate their own architect, for whom they were his "single client," even though the theater was to be shared with the New York City Opera. The three principles agreed "to the smallest detail" on their architectural tastes, and Balanchine was an active participant in much of the design, including the floors of the practice studios, which were woven in a system he developed. Since, as Kirstein added, New York at that time had no appropriate space for welcoming heads of state, the promenade and theater interior were designed with great elegance for just such purposes.
Opening night was celebrated with a full-length Midsummer Night's Dream, which Balanchine had first presented in 1962. Balanchine had always imagined a company like the Maryinsky that could present large, elaborate ballets—a vivid contrast to his many spare, uncostumed choreographies—and he later created such dances as Harliquinade (1965), Don Quixote (1965), and Jewels (1967) for the new theater.
In 1969 Jerome Robbins, whom Balanchine had made associate artistic director in 1949, returned to the company as ballet master, having spent over a decade working mostly in musical comedy. More than thirty years before, Balanchine had choreographed Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1936) for Richard Rodgers's On Your Toes, which had integrated classical ballet into musical comedy for the first time, and he produced a new version of Slaughter for the State Theater. It premiered on 2 May 1968, the same day as his Requiem Canticles, created in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The 1970s brought a mix of acclaim and criticism to both company and choreographer. On one hand, some thought his new ballets inferior and the dancing sloppy. On the other, he staged a week of dances, most of them new, for a 1972 Stravinsky Festival, and his company continued to boast many of the finest dancers in the country, now including Gelsey Kirkland, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Peter Martins. By 1979, 400 students were enrolled in the school, where Balanchine himself continued to teach.
A dark, wiry, always dapper man of immense energy, Balanchine suffered his first heart attack in 1978. By 1982 his health was failing quickly, and he entered Roosevelt Hospital in November. He died there of pneumonia brought on by Creutzfelt-Jakob Disease, a rare, fatal brain disorder that is one of the human variants of the so-called "mad cow" disease. Balanchine was devoutly religious, and his huge funeral was held at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign in New York City. He is buried in Sag Harbor, Long Island.
Balanchine's City and Lincoln Center years represented the apogee of ballet in the United States. He raised choreography to an independent art form, and devotees flocked to see his choreography as much as his troupe's extraordinary dancing. In 1973 Deborah Jowitt hailed Balanchine as a "living national treasure." Six years later Walter Terry observed that "after creating more than 100 ballets for the NYCB and its companies … [Balanchine] would now appear to be an American choreographer." Edwin Denby agreed that he was "more than anyone else, the real founder of the American classic style.… He changed the way we look at dance. Very few people in the history of any art have that kind of impact."
The best full-length biography is Bernard Taper, George Balanchine: A Biography (1984). Don McDonagh, George Balanchine (1983), focuses more on his choreographies than his life. There are essays by Lincoln Kirstein in Portrait of Mr. B.: Photographs of George Balanchine (1984), and interviews edited by Francis Mason in I Remember Balanchine: Recollections of the Ballet Master by Those Who Knew Him (1991). Other books of note are Lincoln Kirstein, The New York City Ballet (1973), and Jennifer Dunning, "But First a School": The First Fifty Years of the School of American Ballet (1985). A plethora of journal and newspaper articles have been written about Balanchine. The best of those dealing most specifically about him in the 1960s and after are Ivan Nabokov and Elizabeth Carmichael's interview in Horizon (Jan. 1961): 44–56; Rosalyn Krokover and Harold C. Schonberg, "Ballet in America: One-Man Show?," Harper's Magazine (Sept. 1964): 92–96; Hubert Saal, "Caution: Choreographer at Work," New York Times Magazine (11 Sept. 1966); Lincoln Kirstein, "Balanchine and Stravinsky: The Glorious Undertaking," Dance Magazine (June 1972); Dale Harris, "Balanchine: The End of a Reign?," Saturday Review (15 July 1972); Deborah Jowitt, "Balanchine & Co. at 40, 20 and 10," The New York Times Magazine (11 Nov. 1973); Walter Terry, "Formidable Balanchine: The Long Reign of America's Ballet Master," Saturday Review (29 Sept. 1979); and "Encounters with Balanchine," Dance Magazine (July 1983). Obituaries are in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times (all 1 May 1983), and in Newsweek and Time (both 9 May 1983).
Sandra Shaffer Van Doren
The Russian-born American choreographer George Balanchine formed and established the classical style (relating to music in the European tradition) of ballet in America.
George Balanchine was born Georgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg, Russia, on January 22, 1904, the son of Meliton and Maria (Vassiliev) Balanchivadze. His father was a composer. Balanchine studied the piano as a child and considered a career in the military, which his mother encouraged. However, at the age of ten, he entered the Imperial Ballet School, where he learned the precise and athletic Russian dancing style.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917 (the rebellion of the Russian people against the ruler of Russia), 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, whom Balanchine married in 1922. She was the first of his four wives, all of whom were dancers. In 1924, when the group traveled to Europe to perform as the Soviet State Dancers, Balanchine refused to return to the Soviet Union.
The manager of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev (1872–1929), discovered Balanchine in 1925 in Paris, France. When Diaghilev's most famous choreographer, Nijinska, left the group, Balanchine took her place. At the age of twenty-one he became the main choreographer of the most famous ballet company (a group of ballet dancers who perform together) in the world. Balanchine did ten ballets for Diaghilev, and it was Diaghilev who changed the Russian's name to Balanchine. When Diaghilev died and the company broke up in 1929, Balanchine moved from one company to another until, in 1933, he formed his own company, Les Ballets.
Work in America
Also in 1933 Balanchine 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 classical choreographers. Almost single-handedly he brought standards of excellence and quality performance to the American ballet, which up to that point 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. Balanchine's style proved a bit too daring for the Metropolitan, leading to a conflict that ended the working relationship in 1938. Over the next several years he worked on Broadway shows and films and two ballets, Ballet Imperial and Concerto Barocco, which were created in 1941 for the American Ballet Caravan, a touring group.
In 1946, following Kirstein's return from service in World War II (1939–45), he and Balanchine established a new company, the Ballet Society. 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 leading 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.
Keys to his success
Balanchine's choreography was not dependent on the ballerina's skills, the plot, or the sets, but on pure dance. The drama was in the dance, and movement was solely related to the music. For Balanchine the movement of the body alone created artistic excitement. He placed great importance on 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 style that was stripped to its essentials—motion, movement, and music. His dancers became 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 (combination) of spectacle, storytelling, décor, mime, acting and music, and only partly on dancing, George Balanchine insisted that the dance element come first."
For More Information
Buckle, Richard, and John Taras. George Balanchine, Ballet Master. New York: Random House, 1988.
Kristy, Davida. George Balanchine: American Ballet Master. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1996.
McDonagh, Don. George Balanchine. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
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."
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).
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). □