George Balanchine, 1904-1983

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 ten 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, ENIGMAS. Most of his energies during this period, however, were concentrated on choreographic experiments outside the company.

In the summer of 1924, Balanchine left the newly formed Soviet Union with three fellow dancers for a tour of Western Europe. They were invited by impresario Sergei Diaghilev to audition for his Ballets Russes in Paris and were accepted into the company.

Diaghilev 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.  Balanchine served as ballet master with Ballets Russes until the company was dissolved following Diaghilev's death in 1929. 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 De Basil's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (where he discovered young Tamara Toumanova).

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 that would change the course of twentieth 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 January 1934. 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 in June 1934 outdoors on the estate of a friend near White Plains, New York.

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 troupe, 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). From 1944 to 1946 Balanchine served as artistic director of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo where he created RAYMONDA and LA SONNAMBULA

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 ORPHEUS (1948). Morton Baum, chairman of the City Center finance committee, was so impressed with Ballet Society that he initiated negotiations that led to the company's being invited to join the City Center municipal complex 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 ballet master of the New York City Ballet, choreographing (either wholly or in part) many 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.

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 1976, 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 "DAVIDSBUNDLERTANZE." 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 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. 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, by 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 its "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.

An authoritative catalogue of Balanchine's works lists 425 created in his lifetime, beginning with a pas de deux in 1920 (LA NUIT) and ending with a solo, VARIATIONS FOR ORCHESTRA 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. Balanchine's style has been described as neoclassic, a reaction to the Romantic "anti-classicism" 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, as he once told a reporter, to let "dance be the star of the show," .

Photo by Tanaquil LeClercq