George Balanchine



Biography

(choreographer; born January 22, 1904, St. Petersburg, Russia; died April 30, 1983)

George Balanchine was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. At the age of nine, he was accepted into the ballet division of St. Petersburg's rigorous Imperial Theater School and was soon appearing on the stage of the famed Mariinsky Theater in such ballets as The Sleeping Beauty. He graduated with honors in 1921 and joined the corps de ballet of the Mariinsky, by then renamed the State Theater of Opera and Ballet.

Early in life, Balanchine, the son of a composer, had gained a knowledge of music which later far exceeded that of most of his fellow choreographers. He began piano lessons at the age of five, and, while continuing to dance, he enrolled in the Petrograd Conservatory of Music. There, he studied piano and music theory, including composition, harmony, and counterpoint, for three years. He also began to compose music. Such extensive musical training made it possible for Balanchine to communicate with a composer of the stature of Stravinsky; it also gave him the ability to make piano reductions of orchestral scores.
Balanchine began to choreograph while still in his teens, creating his first work as early as 1920. La Nuit was a pas de deux for himself and a female student danced to the music of Anton Rubinstein. Another duet, Enigmas, which was danced barefoot, was performed at a benefit at the State Theater, as well as for some years thereafter in both Petrograd and in the West. In 1923, he and some of his colleagues formed a small troupe, the Young Ballet, for which Balanchine composed several experimental works. However, the Russian authorities disapproved of these, and the troupe was threatened with dismissal. Fatefully, in the summer of 1924, Balanchine and three other dancers were permitted to leave the newly formed Soviet Union for a tour of Western Europe. With Balanchine were Tamara Geva, Alexandra Danilova, and Nicholas Efimov. Seen performing in London, the dancers were invited by Serge Diaghilev to audition for his renowned Ballets Russes and were taken into the company.

With the departure of Bronislava Nijinska from the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev named Balanchine as ballet master (principal choreographer) to replace her. Balanchine's first substantive effort was made using Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortilèges (1925), the first of four treatments he would make of this score. Then came a reworking of Stravinsky's Le Chant du Rossignol, in which 14-year-old Alicia Markova made her stage debut. During his time with the Ballets Russes, Balanchine created nine more ballets, including Apollon Musagète (1928) and Prodigal Son (1929).

Diaghilev’s death, and the subsequent collapse of the Ballets Russes occurred while Balanchine was making a movie with former Diaghilev ballerina Lydia Lopokova (the wife of British economist John Maynard Keynes). Thereafter, he staged dances for Britain's popular Cochran Revues and acted as guest ballet master for the Royal Danish Ballet, where he was engaged by its founder René Blum as ballet master for a new Ballets Russes.

Later, with the backing of British social figure Edward James, Balanchine formed his own company, Les Ballets 1933. For the company's first, and only, season, Balanchine created six new ballets, in collaboration with such leading artistic figures as Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill (The Seven Deadly Sins), artist Pavel Tchelitchew (Errante), and composers Darius Milhaud (Les Songes) and Henri Sauget (Fastes). Though the troupe disbanded in a matter of months, it was during its London engagement that a meeting occurred that would change the history of 20th-century dance.

Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996), a native of Boston and a graduate of Harvard University, harbored a dream: to establish a ballet company in America, made up of American dancers and independent of European repertory. Through Romola Nijinsky, whom Kirstein had assisted in writing her husband’s biography, he met Balanchine after a Les Ballets 1933 performance. It was at that moment that Kirstein outlined his vision to the choreographer, stressing the necessity of Balanchine’s involvement. Deciding quickly in favor of a new start, Balanchine agreed to come to the United States. He arrived in New York in October 1933. Before forming a company, he is famously reported to have said "But first, a school."

Kirstein was prepared to support the idea of a school, and the first product of his and Balanchine’s collaboration was the School of American Ballet, founded in 1934 with the assistance of Edward M.M. Warburg, a Harvard colleague. Training dancers for New York City Ballet and companies worldwide, the School remains open to this day. Created for the School’s students, Balanchine’s first ballet choreographed in America--Serenade, to music by Tschaikovsky--had its world premiere outdoors at Warburg's summer home near White Plains, New York, in 1934. Within a year, Balanchine and Kirstein had created a professional company, the American Ballet, which made its debut at the Adelphi Theater in New York City in March 1935. After a handful of summer performances, plans for a tour fell through, but the American Ballet remained together as the resident ballet company at the Metropolitan Opera. Due to tight funding however, in the American Ballet's three years at the Met, Balanchine was allowed just two all-dance programs. In 1936, he mounted a dance-drama version of Gluck's Orfeo and Eurydice, controversial in that the singers performed in the pit while the dancers were on the stage. The second program, in 1937, was devoted to Stravinsky: a revival of Apollo plus two new works, Le Baiser de la Fée and Card Game. It was the first of three festivals Balanchine devoted to Stravinsky over the years.

The fifty-year collaboration of these two creative giants was unique in the 20th century. On their work together on Balustrade in 1940, Stravinsky wrote, "Balanchine composed the choreography as he listened to my recording, and I could actually observe him conceiving gestures, movement, combinations, and composition. The result was a series of dialogues perfectly complementary to and coordinated with the dialogues of the music." In 1972, Balanchine choreographed a new ballet to the same score, Stravinsky Violin Concerto.

The American Ballet's association with the Met came to an end in 1938, and Balanchine took several of his dancers to Hollywood for a brief period. Then, in 1941, he and Kirstein assembled another classical company, American Ballet Caravan, for a five-month good-will tour of South America. In the repertory were two new works, Concerto Barocco and Ballet Imperial (later renamed Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2). After the tour, American Ballet Caravan disbanded, and for a period of time Balanchine pursued other endeavors in addition to teaching at the School. Between 1944 and 1946 he was engaged to revitalize Sergei Denham's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo after the departure of Leonide Massine. It was there that he choreographed Danses Concertantes (1944), Raymonda, and Night Shadow (later called La Sonnambula, both in 1946), while reviving Concerto Barocco, Le Baiser de la Fée, Serenade, Ballet Imperial, and Card Party (renamed Jeu de Cartes). Many of Balanchine's most important early works were introduced to America by the Ballet Russe, which toured the country for nine months annually.

In 1946, Balanchine and Kirstein formed Ballet Society, presenting to small New York subscription-only audiences such new works as The Four Temperaments (1946) and Orpheus (1948). On the strength of Orpheus, praised as one of New York's premiere cultural events of the year, Morton Baum, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the New York City Center of Music and Drama, invited the company to join City Center (of which the New York City Drama Company and the New York City Opera were already a part). With the October 11, 1948 performance, of Concerto Barocco, Orpheus, and Symphony in C (created for the Paris Opera Ballet as Le Palais de Cristal the previous year), the New York City Ballet was born. Balanchine served as ballet master until his death in 1983.

An authoritative catalogue of Balanchine's output lists 465 works, beginning with La Nuit (1920) and ending with Variations for Orchestra (1982). During the time between these pieces, Balanchine created a body of work as extensive as it was diverse. Among his notable ballets were Firebird and Bourrée Fantasque (1949; Firebird restaged with Jerome Robbins in 1970); La Valse (1951); Scotch Symphony (1952); The Nutcracker (his first full-length work for the company), Western Symphony, and Ivesiana (1954); Allegro Brillante (1956); Agon (1957); Stars and Stripes and The Seven Deadly Sins (1958); Episodes (1959, choreographed with Martha Graham); Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux and Liebeslieder Walzer (1960); A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962); Bugaku and Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1963); Don Quixote and Harlequinade (1965); Jewels (called the first full-length plotless ballet,1967); and Who Cares? (1970). In June 1972, Balanchine staged an intensive week-long celebration of Stravinsky. Of the twenty-one new works presented during the festival, eight were by Balanchine. These included Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Duo Concertant, Symphony in Three Movements, and Divertimento from "Le Baiser de la Fée." Response to the Stravinsky Festival by critics and the public was overwhelming.  Throughout his career he also created work for Broadway and many illustrious film projects.

 

(11/2010)
George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky

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