Vera Zorina in the Water Nymph ballet from the film Goldwyn Follies (1938)
George Balanchine (1904-1983) was the Stravinsky of dance. Like Stravinsky, his most frequent collaborator, Balanchine was a Russian émigré who moved to America via Paris. Both the choreographer and the composer were leading figures in their field – and defining forces of 20th-century art.
The son of a composer, Georgi Balanchivadze was born in St Petersburg. He studied at the Petrograd ballet school and Petrograd conservatory of music, and joined the State Academic Theatre for Opera and Ballet (as the Mariinsky was then known) in 1921. In 1924, he took a small troupe of dancers on a tour of Europe and was spotted by Diaghilev, who asked him to join the Ballets Russes in Paris (and to change his name to Balanchine). Within a year, he was the company’s chief choreographer; it was here that he began his lifelong friendship with composer Igor Stravinsky.
Following Diaghilev’s death in 1929, Balanchine worked itinerantly for four years in London, Denmark and Monte Carlo. He then set up Les Ballets 1933; the company lasted only a season, but was seen on tour by Lincoln Kirstein, a rich young Bostonian who dreamed of creating a truly American ballet, and asked Balanchine to found such a company. Balanchine accepted, with a famous proviso: “But first, a school.”
The School of American Ballet was founded in 1934 in New York, and remains one of the world’s great ballet schools. Founding the company proved trickier. In 1935, Balanchine and Kirstein formed the American Ballet, which lasted only a few performances before becoming the ballet company of the Metropolitan Opera. But Balanchine was not much interested in opera and left in 1938. He made ballets for Kirstein’s short-lived American Ballet Caravan in 1941 and for the (now New York-based) Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but spent much of his time in commercial theatre. His work on Broadway included Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 (in one scene he partnered Josephine Baker) and Cabin in the Sky (1940). His Hollywood work included Goldwyn Follies (1937) and Star Spangled Rhythm (1942).
In 1946, Kirstein and Balanchine set up Ballet Society, which attracted the attention of Morton Baum, who invited Balanchine to form a resident company. And so, in 1948, New York City Ballet was formed. Aged 44, Balanchine finally began to stabilise his position and realise Kirstein’s vision of an American ballet. The company expanded considerably after 1964, when it moved to the new Lincoln Center, which was designed to Balanchine’s specifications. By that time, Balanchine had established NYCB as one of the world’s preeminent ballet companies and certainly the most modern. His reputation and influence as a choreographer had grown to a global scale. Balanchine remained with New York City Ballet for the rest of his life, and all his major works were made for the company.
Balanchine had relationships with several of his leading ballerinas. His first wife was Tamara Geva, then there was Alexandra Danilova (although they were never officially married), Vera Zorina, Maria Tallchief and Tanaquil LeClercq. He fell in unrequited love with Suzanne Farrell, whom he (and many others) considered his ideal dancer. Balanchine’s ballerinas were his creative muses. As Danilova put it: “He marries his materials.”
Balanchine was a prolific choreographer who – like Stravinsky – thought of himself as a practical craftsman rather than an artist-genius. His wide-ranging work, of varying quality, included narrative dramas (Prodigal Son, 1929), classical remakes (Nutcracker, 1954) and Americana (Stars and Stripes, 1958). His iconic works were avant-garde, modernist compositions such as Four Temperaments and Agon, which exemplified his neoclassical style. Based on classical technique, it strips away the 19th-century upholstery of set and drama, leaving a plotless work in which dance is its own subject.
In Balanchine’s work, the music – which ranges from Bach to Webern to Gershwin – is always primary: it provides the form and framework for the choreography, whether in its detailed rhythm or its compositional arc. Balanchine inflected the classical ballet style with jaunty angles, high kicks, rhythm and athleticism. He got rid of preparations and finishes to accelerate the flow of phrasing, and heightened the sharpness and attack of steps. He changed the image of the ballerina from a graceful fairy into a sleek greyhound.
His most distinctive works are the black-and-white ballets (such as Agon), set on a bare stage with dancers in monochrome leotards and tights. There are always undercurrents of emotion, drama and often eroticism in Balanchine, but it is never literal: feeling comes through form. “Don’t worry about your soul,” he instructed one dancer. “I want to see your foot.”
Balanchine made 29 ballets to Igor Stravinsky’s music, and programmed three Stravinsky festivals. Jerome Robbins was a great admirer and became resident choreographer for New York City Ballet. Balanchine’s ballerinas included Tamara Toumanova, Diana Adams, Violette Verdy, Allegra Kent, Patricia McBride and Karin von Aroldingen. Several of Balanchine’s leading men went on to direct major ballet companies: Arthur Mitchell (Dance Theatre of Harlem), Helgi Tomasson (San Francisco Ballet), Edward Villella (Miami City Ballet) and Peter Martins, who succeeded Balanchine at NYCB.
Balanchine once choreographed a ballet for elephants (all in tutus). His Circus Polka for “50 elephants and 50 beautiful girls” was commissioned in 1942 for Ringling Brothers and the Barnum and Bailey circus. Stravinsky wrote the music. It ran for 425 performances in Madison Square Garden. The lead elephant was called Modoc; the lead dancer was Vera Zorina, Balanchine’s then wife.
In his own words
“There are no mothers-in-law in ballet.” (In other words: ballet cannot specify character or plot.)
“See the music, hear the dance.”
“Ballet is woman.”
In other words
“He changed the way we look at dance. Very few people in the history of any art have that kind of impact.” – Edwin Denby, Dance Magazine, 1983
“The bodies were the feeling; the music was the form. Out came the dancing, the soul and the world in one.” – Joan Acocella, New Yorker, 2004
“Balanchine … created his streamlined, stretchy, leggy style by merging old-school Russian technique with modern-art principles and the sex appeal of the Broadway chorus line.” – Sarah Kaufman, Washington Post, 2009
“Balanchine, like his friend and collaborator Stravinsky, knew that an artist stole from the past to invent the future.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2004
“Mr B.” It’s how Balanchine was known by his company and colleagues. You’ll sound like a poser, but at least you’ll sound like an insider.
“Balanchine … Is that French for ‘balancing’?”
The late Merce Cunningham (who choreographed a piece for Ballet Society in 1947) is another American formalist, more rigorously plotless than Balanchine, but with a very different sense of style and music.