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Ballet + Balanchine = Bravo!

Updated on December 23, 2016


Balanchine Accepting Well Deserved Applause

Balanchine at Work

Video of Balanchine Interview

Being interviewed about his "Symphony in C" and exerpt of rehearsal
Being interviewed about his "Symphony in C" and exerpt of rehearsal

Life and Accomplishments of Balanchine

As I am researching and studying ballet to add to my past experience as a student, I was hesitant to write about Balanchine. I am very familiar with his works as we used some of his ballets/choreographies in school. I was in ballet school while working on my college degrees and was only in ballet school to satisfy my yearning to learn and answer the age-old question..."I wonder if I could do this...?" I particularly remember dancing his "Serenade" and parts of his "Jewels". My favorite being "Emeralds", I joked at the time I wish I could have worn the color red instead of the required green! I hesitated to write about Balanchine because he is considered almost a god in ballet . Respecting him the way I do, I thought it might be difficult to approach him as I have no allusions that he was perfect. He was not. He was human and made mistakes as we all do. Then I thought, "I'm not writing a critique but a summary of his life" so I felt better about using him for one of my articles. When one criticizes someone many worship, it is hard to be totally truthful. I may do a critique at a later time but the basic facts needed to be written about first.


George Balanchine was born Georgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg, Russia, on January 22, 1904. His father was a composer which helps explain his natural talents in music. It begs the question - "Nature or Nurture ?" I believe it is both. I found it amazing that he was accepted into the Imperial Theatre School at the age of 9. He graduated with honors in 1921 though with the changing of the governmental guard, the school had been renamed The State Theater of Opera and Ballet. After graduation he was invited to and did join their corps de ballet.

Being the son of a composer, he began piano lessons at age 5 and sometime between 1919 and 1921, while dancing, he enrolled in the Petrograd Conservatory of Music. No slouch there! He composed music and with the turmoil during and after the revolution he played the piano in cabarets and silent movie houses in exchange for bread. The music experience gave him unusually great abilities to work with composers and to interpret music on his own for his choreography. All education and experience has a purpose as my father used to say.

Balanchine was already doing choreography while a teenager. He created his first work called "La Nuit" around 1920. It was a pas de deux for himself and a female student to the music of Anton Rubinstein. Another early work, performed in bare feet, is called "Enigma". It was performed first for a benefit at the State Theatre and for some years thereafter in various cities in Russia. In 1923, he and some of his fellow dancers formed a small troupe called the Young Ballet. He created several works in what was called an "experimental vein". The authorities disapproved and threatened dismissal if they continued. In Russia, these repercussions could end up with even larger unpleasant results. Thankfully and surprisingly, he and three dancers were allowed to go on a tour of western Europe from which they did not return. No surprise there! Balanchine and the three dancers were invited by Serge Diaghilev to audition for the wonderful Ballets Russe and of course were taken into the company.


Diaghilev was impressed with Balanchine enough to be hired on as principal choreographer after the departure of Bronislava Nijinska. His first major work was "L'Enfant et les Sortileges", (1925). This music by the wonderful Ravel would be reworked four times by Balanchine. From that time until 1929 when the Ballet Russe collapsed, with Diaghilev's death, Balanchine created 9 more ballets and some smaller works. These major works included the popular "Apollon" , "Musagete" (1928) and the "Prodigal Son" (1929). I am happy I can say that I have at least seen the "Prodigal Son". It deserves to be remembered. Also during this time, Balanchine had a serious knee injury which limited his dancing. This undoubtedly contributed to his increasing focus on choreography. As they say, " When one door closes, another door opens"...and what a wonderful door opened!

The next few years were years of flux for Mr. Balanchine. He made a movie with ballerina Lydia Lopokova who happened to be the wife of the controversiasl ecoconomist John Keynes. I almost wish i could say it was an "artistic" pornographic film but no salacious history here. He also began staging dances for Britain's Cochran Revues and acted as guest ballet master for the Royal Danish Ballet. Then Rene Blum hired Balanchine as ballet master for a new Ballet Russes, the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo. He choreographed three ballets for Tamra Toumanova = "Cotillon", "La Concurrence" and "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme".

He left the Ballet Russes due to a personality conflict with a Colonel de Basil who had taken the company away from Rene Blum. Balanchine next formed Les Ballets 1933 with Boris Kochno who was Diaghliev's last private secretary. This ballet had the financial backing of an Edward James, from Britain. In the company's one and only season he created six new ballets in collaboration with various artists such as Brecht and Kurt Weill (The Seven Deadly Sins), Tchelitchew (Errante), and composers Darius Milhaud (Les Songes) and Henri Sauget (Fastes). Though the ballet disbanded after a few months, it was during it's London engagement that Balanchine would have an opportunity that would add to and change the world of dance of the 20th century.

Balanchine's American Sojourn Begins

A young American patron of the arts, a Bostonian who graduated from Harvard named Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996) wanted to establish a ballet company in America that mainly utizilized American dancers and not be dependent on Europe for dancers. While working with Ramona Nijinsky, writing a biography on her husband, he met Balanchine after a Les Ballet performance in 1933. Balanchine instinctively and quickly agreed and supposedly added, "But a school first".

Kirstein agreed and the School of American Ballet was founded in 1934. The first ballet Balanchine choreographed was Serenade, a favorite of mine. The music by Tchaikovsky is magnificent. The school, of course, remains open to this day. Within a year, Mr. B. and Kirstein created the professional company, The American Ballet which made it's debut at the Adelphi Theatre in New York City in 1935. The company got off to a rocky start as it's first your literally collapsed. The company remained together as the resident ballet company of the Metropolitan Opera. Balanchine had little interest in choreographing ballet for opera and the Met had no interest in promoting ballet. In the three years at the Met, Balanchine only was allowed two all-dance programs. In 1936 he created a dance-drama of Gluck's "Orfeo and Eurydice". They were controversial because he placed the singers in the pit while the dancers had the stage. The second program, in 1937, was devoted to Stravinsky. A source he would use again and again with much success. It was a revival of "Apollo" plus two new works: "Le Baiser de la Fee" and "Card Game". This would be the first of three festivals devoted to Stravinsky that Mr. B would devote to Stravinsky over the years.

These two artistic geniuses would have a 50 year collaboration. While working together in 1940, creating 'Balustrade", Stravinsky wrote, "Balanchine composed the choreography as he listened to my recording, and I could observe him conceiving gestures, movements, combinations and composition. The result was a series of dialogues perfectly complementary to and coordinated with the dialogues of the music". In 1972, Balanchine created a new ballet to the same score: "Stravinsky Violin Concerto", another favorite of mine.

The American Ballet's association with the Met ended in 1938. A fact I had never read before is that Balanchine took several of his dancers and went to Hollywood. I guess everyone is attracted to Hollywood at some time. In 1941, he and Kirstein created another company called the American Ballet Caravan and toured South America. At this time he created "Concerto Barocco" and "Ballet Imperial" which was later renamed Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2. After the tour, this company also disbanded. Between 1944 and 1946, Balanchine was engaged to revitalize Denham's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. There he choreographed "Concertantes" (1944), the still popular "Raymonda" and "Night Shadow" later renamed La Sonnambula both 1946. He revived his past ballets including Card Party which he renamed Jeu de Cartes. Many of Balanchines greatest early ballets were actually introduced to America by the Ballet Russe which toured the USA for 9 months.

In 1946, Balanchine and Kirstein formed Ballet Society which was for subscription audiences only. With a performance in October 11, 1948, the New York City Ballet was born which became his permanent home. Other ballets he created at this time included The Four Temperaments (1946) and Orpheus (1948)


It is not my intention to go into great detail of this time in Balanchine's life. Balanchine had well over 400 total works, the majority which were created or reworked during this time frame. One could devote entire articles on just one of his works such as Jewels. I will do a synopsis, which will be lengthy in itself.

From 1948 to his death in 1982, Balanchine serves as ballet master for the New York City Ballet to his death in 1983. God only knows that his artistry and "essence" still has so much influence with this company. From La Nuit to his final work in 1982, Variations for Orchestra which he created as a solo for Suzanne Farrell, his creation of works and contribution to dance is immeasurable. Among his more notable ballets were and are Firebird and Bourree Fantasque (1949 which he restaged with Jerome Robbins in 1970), La Valse (1951), Scotch Symphony (1952). The Nutcracker did not have its' current popularity until his choreography made it a Christmas perennial favorite, The Nutcracker which was 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 which he choreographed with Martha Graham in 1959, Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux and Liebeslieder (1962), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962), Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1963), Don Quixote- in three acts- and Harlequinade (1965), one of my favorites, Jewels - often referred to as the first full length plot less ballet- (1967), and Who Cares (1970). In 1975, Mr B staged a three week celebration to the music of Ravel.

Over the next 7-8 years, he created a number of works including Union Jack (1976) to a new version of Mozartiana in 1980 which he first created in 1933 for Les Ballets. In 1982 he directed the Stravinsky Centennial Celebration. By then he knew he was terminally ill.

On Broadway, he created dances for shows such as Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, On Your Toes and Babes In Arms (1937). Other shows included Cabin In the Sky (1943) and Star Spangled Rhythm (1942).

Wanting to bring ballet/dance to more people, Mr. B. took on television. In 1977, PBS had a five part series "Choreography by Balanchine" created for "Great Performances" I remember as a young tot being mesmerized by this series. When one lives in the middle of a 100 acre farm with few chances to experience ballet, shows like this were like water for a person suffering from severe dehydration. I was fortunate to have parents that promoted the arts when they could. Often Balanchine would rework steps and angles especially for television so the audience would have a better perspective. In January 1978, The New York City Ballet did a "Live From Lincoln Center" which had a live telecast of Coppelia which he originally choreographed with Alexandria Danilova in 1974.

He won much acclimation as time went on. In 1978, he was one of five recipients (with Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, Richard Rodgers and Artur Rubinstein - not a bad group!) at the first Kennedy Center Honors which was presented by President Carter. In 1983, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Unfortunately due to illness, he was not able to attend. This was presented by President Reagan. I particularly feel this award was the most earned and deserved as I strongly feel, in my humble opinion, that nothing makes one feel more free than dance.

Balanchine Near End of His Life- Always Working


Scenes from the ballet Jewels: Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds.

Though a plot less ballet, I can remember when dancing Emeralds and Diamonds in school, one still had to convey emotions as one danced. I did not like Rubies very much until recently. Rubies is considered the American portion due to it's "persona".
Though a plot less ballet, I can remember when dancing Emeralds and Diamonds in school, one still had to convey emotions as one danced. I did not like Rubies very much until recently. Rubies is considered the American portion due to it's "persona".

In the End, Balanchine Says It Best Himself

I would like to wrap this article up with something I read a long time ago that 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... The important thing in ballet is movement itself. A ballet may contain a story, but the visual spectacle... is the essential element. The choreographer and the dancer must remember that they reach the audience through the eye. It's the illusion created which convinces the audience, much as it is with the work of a magician." And that dear reader is an important point: magic. What wonderful magic is created through dance. I can most assuredly say that the 5+ years I took ballet were 5 of the most magical and wonderful years of my life. Even today, I can have had one of the worst days of my life and put on one of my favorite ballets and be lifted, alas temporarily, to a better and brighter world. Mr. Balanchine's contribution to this bright and wonderful world is immeasurable and needs to be appreciated for the greatness that is.


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    • Peter Grujic profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Alexander 

      24 months ago from Pittsburgh

      Thanks for reading the article. Nutcracker was never popular until he took it, choreographed it and it has become a yearly Christmas staple ever since. I do not know if he was gay. He was married 4 times, divorced three times and 1 marriage annulled. Of course there are rumors and innuendo but I think it is wise to focus on his genius.


    • profile image

      Jason Emery 

      24 months ago

      Good article. I saw his nutcracker this month. He was a genius. Was he gay ?

    • Peter Grujic profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Alexander 

      2 years ago from Pittsburgh

      Hi Jackie- Thanks for reading my article - I love the jewelry store story- it is an example of never knowing when and where brilliant inspiration will come from.

      Thanks for reading my article. I am outlining some future stories but time is very scarce right now.

      Take care!

    • profile image

      Jackie Sullivan 

      2 years ago

      Hi Peter- nice article . I have long been an admirer of Balanchine. I love the story how he was inspired for his ballet Jeweks by walking by a famed jewelry store everyday. Keep up the good writing and will read more of your articles . Thanks!

    • Peter Grujic profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Alexander 

      3 years ago from Pittsburgh

      Hello Robert- Thank you for reading my article. I commend you for taking an interest in your daughters entry into the world of dance. I recommend that you buy, rent or take out of your local library one of many great documentaries on dance. I also recommend to you to read the many articles available on Hub Pages to learn. If you ever have any questions, please do not hesitate ask me. Take Care!

    • profile image

      Robert Sullivan 

      3 years ago

      I just read your article on Balanchine. I am no great follower of ballet but I am trying to learn more because my daughter is now in ballet school. I found your article very comprehensive and hope you write more articles on ballet and the choreographers.


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