The Kennedy Center

The Choreographers

George Balanchine

George Balanchine

No choreographer is more deserving of the title “the father of American ballet” than the great master, George Balanchine.  In late 1933 an invitation from Lincoln Kirstein brought Balanchine to the United States after a career as dancer, ballet master and choreographer that took him from Russia throughout Europe.  Kirstein had been impressed by Balanchine’s company, Les Ballets, in Paris and proposed that Balanchine come to the United States to help him establish an American ballet company equivalent to the European ones.

The first result of the Balanchine-Kirstein collaboration was the School of American Ballet, founded in early 1934; an institution that still exists today.  Students of the school performed Balanchine’s first ballet in the United States as a workshop.  Set to music by Tchaikovsky, Serenade premiered outdoors on a friend’s estate near White Plains, New York.

In 1935 Kirstein and Balanchine set up a touring company of dancers from the school called The American Ballet.  The same year brought an invitation from the Metropolitan Opera for The American Ballet to become its resident ballet and for Balanchine to become the Met’s ballet master.  Tight funding, however, permitted Balanchine to stage only two completely dance-oriented works for the Met, a dance-drama version of Gluck’s Orfeo and Eurydice and a 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.

Although Balanchine enjoyed much success critically and popularly with the Met, he left in early 1938 to teach at the school and to work in musical theater and in film.  He and Kirstein assembled the American Ballet Caravan, which made a goodwill tour of Latin American countries featuring such new Balanchine ballets as Concerto Barocco and Ballet Imperial.  From 1944 to 1946 Balanchine helped revitalize the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo by becoming artistic director. 

Balanchine collaborated again with Kirstein in 1946 to form Ballet Society, a company which introduced New York subscription-only audiences over the next two years.  In October of 1948 Morton Baum, the chairman of the City Center finance committee, was so impressed by a Ballet Society performance that he negotiated to have the company join the City Center municipal complex (home to the New York City Drama Company and the New York City Opera) as the New York City Ballet. 

The son of a composer, Balanchine gained knowledge of music early in life that far exceeds that of most choreographers.  At the age of five, he began studying piano and enrolled in the Conservatory of Music and graduated in 1921 from the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg.  His extensive musical training made it possible for him to communicate with Stravinsky, and it enabled him to reduce orchestral scores on the piano and to translate music into dance.

Balanchine defended his technique of deemphasizing the plot in his ballets by saying, “A ballet may contain a story, but the visual spectacle, not the story, is the essential element….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.”  He will always be remembered for the calm and generous way in which he worked with his dancers.

In 1978 George Balanchine was among the first group of artists to receive the Kennedy Center Honors.  Balanchine died in 1983 at the age of 79.

Maurice Béjart

Maurice BejartSon of philosopher Gaston Berger, Maurice Béjart was born on January 1, 1927 in Marseilles (France). He made his debut, first as a dancer and then as a choreographer, in Paris. In 1960, he formed his own company, the “Ballet du XXe Siècle”, in Brussels (Belgium). Twenty-five years later, the troupe relocated to Lausanne (Switzerland) to be renamed “Béjart Ballet Lausanne”. Maurice Béjart puts down roots wherever his work takes him. It was during a tour with the Swedish Ballet Culberg (1949) that he discovered his strength for expression through choreography. Shortly afterwards, while working on a Swedish film production, he met Igor Stravinsky for the first time.

His first great triumph came in 1959, when Béjart created his monumental The Rite of Springfor Maurice Huisman, the new Director of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. This paved the way for the launch of the Ballet du XXe siècle in 1960, which triumphed on numerous worldwide tours. The Rite of Spring was followed by Boléro (1961), Messe pour le temps présent (1967) and The Firebird (1970). Developing a marked taste for cultural diversity, Béjart went on to create works that expressed the lore of different civilizations in the form of dance (Bhakti, Golestan, Kabuki, Dibouk, Pyramide) and illustrated a rich musical repertoire extending from Wagner to Boulez.

A natural teacher, Béjart founded the Mudra school in Brussels in 1970, and in Dakkar seven years later. In 1992, the Rudra school and workshop opened its doors in Lausanne. The transformation of the Ballet du XXe siècle to the Béjart Ballet Lausanne (1987) took place without interruption. In 1992, in order to “rediscover the essence of interpretation”, the size of the company was trimmed to about thirty dancers. This move was followed by numerous ballets created for the new troupe: Ring um den Ring, Le Mandarin Merveilleux, King Lear – Prospero, A propos de Shéhérazade, Le Presbytère... !, Mutationx, La Route de la soie, The Overcoat, Enfant-Roi, Lumière, Tokyo Gesture...

As well as directing plays (La Reine verte, Casta Diva, Five Modern Noh Plays, A-6-Roc), operas (Salomé, La Traviata, Don Giovanni) and films (Bhakti, Paradoxe sur le comédien), Maurice Béjart also writes, and has published a novel, a personal diary and a play. He received the Order of the Rising Sun from Emperor Hirohito of Japan (1986) and was named Great Officer of the Order of the Crown by King Baudouin of Belgium (1988). In 1993, the Japan Art Association awarded him its prestigious Premium Imperial Prize, while soon after the Inamori Foundation gave him the Kyoto Prize (1999). In 1994, Maurice Béjart was elected a Free Member of the Fine Arts Academy of the Institut de France. On December 4, 1995, His Holy Highness Jean-Paul II gave him the Peace Foundation award.

The city of Lausanne granted him the “bourgeoisie d’honneur” on December 3, 1996. In 2001, he received the Laurent Perrier “Grand siècle” prize from the hands of Jeanne Moreau. In August 2002, he created a new troupe for young dancers, called the “Compagnie M”, and his new ballet Mère Teresa et les enfants du monde. It premiered in Lausanne at the Théâtre de Beaulieu on October 18.

In October 2003, he paid homage to Fellini on the tenth anniversary of his death, with Ciao Federico. He received the insignia of the “Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters” from the Ambassador of France to Switzerland. 2004 marked the 50th anniversary of his role as director of the company. He then staged L’Art d’être grand-père together with the young dancers of the troupe. In 2005, he created L’Amour-la Danse, a show featuring over ten scenes of his greatest ballets. Not to mention Zarathoustra, le Chant de la Danse, his most recent major worldwide creation. Maurice Béjart celebrated his 80th birthday in 2006 with the birth of La Vie du danseur «racontée par Zig et Puce».  He died in 2007. 

Jerome Robbins

Jerome RobbinsJerome Robbins is world renowned for his work as a choreographer of ballets as well as his work as a director and choreographer in theater, movies and television. His Broadway shows include On the Town, Billion Dollar Baby, High Button Shoes, West Side Story, The King and I, Gypsy, Peter Pan, Miss Liberty, Call Me Madam, and Fiddler on the Roof. His last Broadway production in 1989, Jerome Robbins= Broadway, won six Tony Awards including best musical and best director.

Among the more than 60 ballets he created are Fancy Free, Afternoon of a Faun, The Concert, Dances At a Gathering, In the Night, In G Major, Other Dances, Glass Pieces and Ives, Songs, which are in the repertories of New York City Ballet and other major dance companies throughout the world. His last ballets include A Suite of Dances created for Mikhail Baryshnikov (1994), 2 & 3 Part Inventions (1994), West Side Story Suite (1995) and Brandenburg (1996).

In addition to two Academy Awards for the film West Side Story, Mr. Robbins has received four Tony Awards, five Donaldson Awards, two Emmy Awards, the Screen Directors' Guild Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Mr. Robbins was a 1981 Kennedy Center Honors Recipient and was awarded the French Chevalier dans l'Ordre National de la Legion d'Honneur. Mr. Robbins died in 1998.
—Amanda Vaill

Paul Mejia

Paul Mejia Paul Mejia was born in Lima, Peru, but was raised in New York. He joined the School of American Ballet in 1958, and had choreographed his first ballets by the age of fourteen. Mr. Mejia joined the New York City Ballet in 1964, and danced principal roles in many of George Balanchine's ballets. In 1972, he joined Maurice Bejart's Ballet of the Twentieth Century where he danced and choreographed throughout Europe; and in 1977, he staged a season of ballet in Guatemala, where he created four new ballets including Romeo and Juliet, the first of his highly acclaimed Shakespearean ballet series.

Mr. Mejia joined the Chicago City Ballet as co-artistic director with Maria Tallchief; and during the next seven years, he created fifteen new ballets, including his full-length version of Cinderella, which toured nationally and internationally to great acclaim. His ballet Eight by Adler, music by Richard Adler, was later filmed for PBS and won an Emmy Award for Suzanne Farrell. From 1987 to 1998, he was the artistic director of the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet, during which time he added thirty-two of his own works to the company's repertoire, including sixteen world premieres. Dedicated to the artistic vision and philosophy of George Balanchine, Mr. Mejia has choreographed dramatic story ballets, as well as works in the neoclassical style; and has choreographed several works for operas, including the Chicago Lyric Opera. He has been a guest teacher and lecturer in various schools and universities throughout the US. In 1984, he was selected by Esquire Magazine as one of the "Outstanding Americans Under 40."

In 1998, Mr. Mejia became the artistic advisor of the Metropolitan Classical Ballet, then Ballet Arlington. He has added many of his own works to the company's repertoire, including three world premieres, and has staged several George Balanchine ballets. In 2001, he assumed the position of executive director for the Company, and in 2002 was named co-artistic director with Alexander Vetrov. He and his wife, Maria Terezia Balogh, and their children, Roman, Isabella and Lazslo, reside in Fort Worth, Texas.