George Balanchine, regarded as the foremost contemporary choreographer in the world of ballet, came to the United States in late 1933 following an early career throughout Europe. The son of a composer, Balanchine early in life gained a knowledge of music that far exceeds that of most of his fellow choreographers. He began studying the piano at the age of five and following his graduation in 1921, from the Imperial Ballet School (the St. Petersburg academy where he had started his dance studies at the age of nine), he enrolled in the state's Conservatory of Music, where he studied piano and musical theory, including composition, harmony and counterpoint, for three years. Such extensive musical training made it possible for Balanchine as a choreographer to communicate with a composer of such stature as Igor Stravinsky; the training also gave Balanchine the ability to reduce orchestral scores on the piano, an invaluable aid in translating music into dance.
Balanchine made his own dancing debut at the age of 10 as a cupid in the Maryinsky Theatre Ballet Company production of The Sleeping Beauty. He joined the company as a member of the corps de ballet at 17 and staged one work for them called Enigmas. Most of his energies during this period, however, were concentrated on choreographic experiments outside the company.
In the summer of 1924, Balanchine was one of four dancers who left the newly formed Soviet Union for a tour of Western Europe. The others were Tamara Geva, Alexandra Danilova and Nicholas Efimov, all of whom later became well known dancers in Europe and the United States. All four dancers were invited by impresario Sergei Diaghilev to audition for his Ballets Russes in Paris and were accepted into the company.
Promise of the West
Diaghilev also had his eye on Balanchine as a choreographer as well, and after watching him stage a new version of the company's Stravinsky ballet, Le Chant de Rossignol, Diaghilev hired him as ballet master to replace Bronislava Nijinska. Shortly after this, Balanchine suffered a knee injury which limited his dancing and correspondingly bolstered his commitment to full-time choreography. Balanchine served as ballet master with Ballets Russes until the company was dissolved following Diaghilev's death in 1929. After that, he spent the next few years on a variety of projects which took him all over Europe: choreographing for the Royal Danish Ballet; making a movie with former Diaghilev ballerina Lydia Lopokova (then the wife of British economist John Maynard Keynes) in England; staging dance extravaganzas for Britain's popular Cochran Musical Theater Revues; and working with DeBasil's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (where he discovered young Tamara Toumanova).
Then There Was Lincoln
Returning to Paris, Balanchine formed his own company, Les Ballets 1933, collaborating with such leading artistic figures as Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill (The Seven Deadly Sins), artist Pavel Tchelitchew, and composers Darius Milhaud and Henri Sauguet. During this period a meeting occurred which was to change the history of 20th century dance.
Boston-born dance connoisseur Lincoln Kirstein harbored a dream: He wanted to establish an American school of ballet that would equal — even rival — the established European schools, and he wanted to establish an American ballet company. Through Romola Nijinsky, whom Kirstein had assisted in her research for a biography of her husband, Kirstein met Balanchine and saw in him the means by which this dream could be realized, if only the choreographer could be persuaded to relocate to the United States. Balanchine agreed to come to America that very year, and the first product of the Balanchine-Kirstein collaboration was the School of American Ballet, founded in 1934 (the first day of class, in fact, was January 2 of that year). The School remains in operation to this day, training students for the New York City Ballet and companies throughout the United States and the world. The first ballet Balanchine choreographed in this country — Serenade to music by Tschaikovsky — was created as a workshop for students at the School and had its world premiere outdoors on the estate of a friend near White Plains, New York.
The Road to Permanence
In 1935, Kirstein and Balanchine set up a touring company of dancers from the school and called it the American Ballet. That same year the Metropolitan Opera invited the Company to become its resident ballet, with Balanchine as the Met's ballet master. Tight funding, however, permitted Balanchine to mount only two completely dance-oriented works while with the Met, a dance-drama version of Gluck's "Orfeo and Eurydice" and an all-Stravinsky program, featuring a revival of one of Balanchine's first ballets, Apollo, plus two new works, Le Baiser de la Fee and Card Game. In 1937 these three ballets formed the program when Balanchine directed his first (of three) Stravinsky Festivals; paving the way for the later, larger efforts in 1972 and 1982.
Despite the popular and critical success of the latter program, Balanchine and the Met parted company in early 1938, and Balanchine spent his next years teaching at the school and working in musical theater and films. In 1941, he and Kirstein assembled the American Ballet Caravan, sponsored by Nelson Rockefeller, which toured South America with such new Balanchine creations as Concerto Barocco and Ballet Imperial (later renamed Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2). Then from 1944 to 1946 Balanchine was called in as artistic director to help revitalize the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; he created Raymonda and La Sonnambula for them.
In 1946, Balanchine and Kirstein collaborated again to form Ballet Society, a company which introduced New York subscription-only audiences over the next two years to such new Balanchine works as The Four Temperaments (1946) and Stravinsky's Renard (1947) and Orpheus (1948). Morton Baum, chairman of the City Center finance committee, saw Ballet Society during one of their subscription programs at City Center. Baum was so highly impressed, that he initiated negotiations that led to the company's being invited to join the City Center municipal complex (of which at the time the New York City Drama Company and the New York City Opera were a part) as the "New York City Ballet." Balanchine's talents at last had found a permanent home. On October 11, 1948, the New York City Ballet was born, dancing a program consisting of Concerto Barocco, Orpheus and Symphony In C (a ballet which Balanchine had created for the Paris Opera Ballet under the title Le Palais de Cristal the previous year).
From that time until his death, Balanchine served as artistic director for the New York City Ballet, choreographing (either wholly or in part) the majority of the productions the company has introduced since its inception. Among them were Firebird (1949; restaged with Jerome Robbins, 1970); Bouree Fantasque (1949); La Valse (1951); The Nutcracker (his first full-length work for the Company), Ivesiana and Western Symphony, (1954); Allegro Brillante (1956); Agon (1957); The Seven Deadly Sins (a revival of the original Les Ballets 1933 production) and Stars and Stripes, (1958); Episodes (1959); Monumentum Pro Gesualdo and Liebeslieder Walzer (1960); A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962); Movements for Piano and Orchestra and Bugaku, (1963); Don Quixote (in three acts) and Harlequinade (in two acts), (1965); Jewels — his first and only full-length plotless ballet — (1967); and Who Cares?, (1970). In June 1972, Balanchine staged the New York City Ballet's first festival, an intensive one-week celebration of the music of his longtime friend and collaborator, Igor Stravinsky. Of the 20 works that received their world premieres during the Festival, he choreographed eight: Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Duo Concertant, Choral Variations (on Bach's "Vom Himmel Hoch," Scherzo A La Russe, Symphony in Three Movements, Divertimento from "Le Baiser De La Fee," and new versions of Pulcinella (with Robbins) and Danses Concertantes.
A Lifetime on Many Stages
An authoritative catalogue of his works lists 465 works created by Balanchine in his lifetime, beginning with a pas de deux in 1920 (LA NUIT) and ending with a solo, Variations for Orchestra (though he had used the Stravinsky score for a 1966 ballet, this work was entirely re-choreographed), in 1982. In between he created a body of work as extensive as it is diverse, ranging from the expansive Symphony in C and the lavishly theatrical Orpheus to such small-scale gems as Pavane. Though it is for his ballet choreography that Balanchine is most noted, he also worked extensively in theater and movies. He choreographed numerous musical comedies, including On Your Toes, Cabin in the Sky, Babes in Arms, Where's Charly?, Song of Norway, I Married an Angel, The Boys from Syracuse, The Merry Widow and The Ziegfeld Follies of 1935 and his film credits include Star Spangled Rhythm, I Was an Adventuress and Goldwyn Follies. Balanchine also choreographed numerous opera-ballets throughout his career. He staged many of his ballets (or excerpts) for television, as well as creating works especially for the medium: in 1962 he collaborated with Stravinsky on the original television ballet, Noah and the Flood, and in 1981 redesigned his 1975 staging of L'enfant et les Sortileges to include a wide range of special effects, including animation. Through television medium, millions of people have been able to see the New York City Ballet in their own homes. "Choreography by Balanchine," a four-part "Dance in America" presentation on the PBS series "Great Performances" began in December 1977. Included on the programs have been The Four Temperaments, Tzigane, Prodigal Son, Allegro Brillante, and segments of Jewels and Ballo Della Regina. Balanchine travelled to Nashville with the Company for the video tapings in 1977 and 1978 and personally supervised every shot, in some cases revising steps or angles to be compatible with the camera. The series has been broadly applauded by critics and audiences all over the country and was nominated for an Emmy. In January 1978, the New York City Ballet participated in the acclaimed PBS series "Live from Lincoln Center" for the first time. Coppelia, choreographed by Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova in 1974, was seen live from the stage of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. This presentation also netted Balanchine an Emmy. The Company worked again with "Live from Lincoln Center" eight years later, this time performing Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Balanchine's style has been described as neoclassic, a reaction to the Romantic anti-classicism, (which had turned into exaggerated theatricality) that was the prevailing style in Russian and European ballet when he had begun to dance. As a choreographer, Balanchine generally de-emphasized plot in his ballets, preferring to let "dance be the star of the show," as he once told an interviewer. Nevertheless, tantalizing hints of story color works ranging from Agon to Liebeslieder Walzer, and such ballets as La Valse, Apollo, Scotch Symphony, La Sonnambula, Harlequinade and Prodigal Son — as well as the full-length Nutcracker, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Coppelia — integrate the elements of dancing and narrative.
In 1970 U.S. News & World Report attempted to summarize Balanchine's achievements in the following words:
The greatest choreographer of our time, George Balanchine, is responsible for the successful fusion of modern concepts with older ideas of classical ballet. Balanchine received his training in Imperial Russia before coming to America in 1933. Here, the free-flowing U.S. dance forms stimulated him to develop new techniques in dance design and presentation which have altered the thinking of the world of dance. Often working with modern music, and the simplest of themes, he has created ballets that are celebrated for their imagination and originality. His company, the New York City Ballet, is the leading dance group of the United States and one of the greatest companies in the world. An essential part of the success of Balanchine's group has been the training of his dancers, which he has supervised since the founding of his School of American Ballet in 1934. Balanchine chose to shape talent locally, and he has said that the basic structure of the American dancer was responsible for inspiring some of the striking lines of his composition. Balanchine is not only gifted in creating entirely new productions — his choreography for classical works has been equally — fresh and inventive. He has made American dance the most advanced and richest in choreographic development in the world today.
Balanchine always preferred to call himself a craftsman rather than a creator, comparing himself to a cook or a cabinetmaker (both hobbies of his) and had a reputation throughout the dance world for the calm and collected way in which he worked with his dancers and colleagues.
Balanchine himself wrote:
We must first realize that dancing is an absolutely independent art, not merely a secondary accompanying one. I believe that it is one of the great arts. Like the music of great musicians, it can be enjoyed and understood without any verbal introduction or explanation ... The important thing in ballet is that movement itself, as it is sound which is important in a symphony. A ballet may contain a story, but the visual spectacle, not the story is the essential element. The choreographer and the dancer must remember that they reach the audience through the eye — and the audience, in its turn, must train itself to see what is performed upon the stage. It is the illusion created which convinces the audience, much as it is with the work of a magician. If the illusion fails, the ballet fails, no matter how well a program note tells the audience that it has succeeded.
Igor Stravinsky, once described their association on one particular ballet as follows:
Balustrade, the ballet that George Balanchine and Pavel Tchelitchew made of the Violin Concerto, was one of the most satisfactory visualizations of any of my works. Balanchine composed the choreography as he listened to my recording, and I could actually observe him conceiving gesture, movement, combination, composition. The result was a series of dialogues perfectly complimentary to and coordinated with the dialogues of the music." Hofmannsthal once said to Strauss: "Ballet is perhaps the only form of art which permits real, intimate collaboration between two people gifted with visual imagination."
In the spring of 1975, the Entertainment Hall of Fame in Hollywood inducted Balanchine as a member in a nationally televised Special, hosted by Gene Kelly. The first choreographer so honored, he joins the ranks of such show business luminaries as Fred Astaire, Walt Disney and Bob Hope. That same year Balanchine staged a second New York City Ballet festival, the three-week Homage a Ravel. This celebration produced 16 new works and brought into the repertory such ballets as Tzigane, Le Tombeau de Couperin and Sonatine.
In the six years between 1976 and 1982 Balanchine introduced more than a dozen works into the New York City Ballet's repertory and directed two major festivals, the Tschaikovsky Festival in 1981, and the Stravinsky Centennial Celebration the following year. First came the lavish Vienna Waltzes in 1977, followed by his offbeat bicentennial tribute to the dance traditions of Great Britain — Union Jack. Ballo Della Regina and Kammermusik No. 2 were choreographed in 1978, followed by Ballade and Robert Schumann's "Davidsbündlertänze." That same year Balanchine staged Walpurgisnacht Ballet (originally created for the Paris Opera Ballet) and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (choreographed for Patricia McBride and Rudolf Nureyev as part of a special joint New York City Ballet/New York City Opera performance) for the Company. He contributed four pieces each to the Tschaikovsky Festival and the Stravinsky Centennial Celebration: Mozartiana, Hungarian Gypsy Airs, "The Garland Dance" from The Sleeping Beauty and the Adagio Lamentoso (from the Symphonie Pathetique) for the former and Tango, Elegie, Persephone and a new version of Variations for the latter. A total of 23 new works were produced for the two festivals, of which Balanchine's contributions constituted nearly a third.
During these years Balanchine was the recipient of much official recognition for his contributions to the arts in the twentieth century. In 1978 he was one of five recipients — with Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, Richard Rodgers and Arthur Rubenstein — of the first Kennedy Center Honors, presented by President Carter at the White House The citation read in part, "Each has raised the artistic standards to which successors must aspire, but more importantly each, by talent has raised our hearts." He was also presented by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark with a Knighthood of the Order of Dannebrog, First Class. In 1980 Balanchine was honored by the National Society of Arts and Letters with their Gold Medal of Merit, the Austrian government with its Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Letters, First Class, and by the New York Chapter of the American Heart Association with their "Heart of New York" award. These joined such earlier commendations as the French Legion of Honor, French Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters decoration and National Institute of Arts and Letters award for Distinguished Service to the Arts. In 1983 Balanchine was granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that can be conferred upon a civilian in the United States and the last honor he would receive in his lifetime. President Ronald Reagan praised Balanchine's genius, saying he had "inspired millions with his stage choreography ... and amazed a diverse population through his talents." Soon after, on April 30, 1983, George Balanchine died at the age of 79.
Clement Crisp, one of the many writers who eulogized Balanchine summed up his contribution to the world of ballet:
It is hard to think of the ballet world without the colossal presence of George Balanchine...Now he is gone and, as Lincoln Kirstein said in his brief and infinitely apt curtain speech, "Mr. B. is with Mozart and Tschaikovsky and Stravinsky." But we have not lost Balanchine — not the essential Balanchine, who lives in the great catalogue of masterpieces that have so shaped and refined our understanding of ballet and given it — and us — thrilling life. And we are not without the other essential fact of his work: his school and the training system that has tuned American bodies as the ideal classic medium for his ideal classic vision. We can never be without Balanchine. He is so central to the danse d'ecole in our century, so surely its guiding force, that grief becomes mere self-indulgence. Gratitude and joy must be our feeling for what he gave us, and determination that his work and ideals be honored and preserved, and used to illuminate the future for ballet.
Today, New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet remain dedicated to the preservation of Balanchine's ideals.