George Balanchine made his mark in the world of ballet for over 50 years. He gained fame as a young choreographer and was the co-founder, artistic director and chief choreographer of the New York City Ballet. With his over 400 choreographed works, Balanchine transformed American dance and created modern ballet, developing a unique style with his dancers highlighted by brilliant speed and attack. With the School of American Ballet and later with the New York City Ballet, Balanchine established himself as one of the world’s leading classical choreographers. He almost single-handedly brought standards of excellence and quality performance to American ballet, and nearly every ballet company in the world has performed his work. He received several prestigious honors including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed on an American citizen.
George Balanchine was born Giorgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze in 1904 in Saint Petersburg, in the family of noted Georgian opera singer and composer Meliton Balanchivadze, one of the founders of the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre and later as the culture minister of Georgia. The rest of Balanchine’s Georgian side of the family comprised largely artists and soldiers. Balanchine was not particularly interested in ballet as a child, but his mother insisted that he audition with his sister Tamara, who shared her mother’s interest in the art, and viewed it as a form of social advancement. George’s brother Andria Balanchivadze followed his father’s love for music and became a well-known composer in Georgia. At the age of 10, Giorgi enrolled at the Mariinsky Theatre’s ballet school where he learned the precise and athletic Russian dancing style. He graduated in 1921 and subsequently attended the Petrograd State Conservatory of Music, leaving the conservatory after three years. While still in his teens, Balanchine choreographed his first work. In 1923, with fellow dancers, Balanchine formed a small ensemble, the Young Ballet, and used a group of dancers from the school to present his earliest choreographed works.
Balanchine was invited to tour Germany in 1924 as part of the Soviet State Dancers, and at the completion of the tour refused to return to the Soviet Union and remained in Europe. He later joined the impresario Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. After Diaghilev’s most famous choreographer, Nijinska, left the group, Balanchine took her place. At the age of 21 he became the main choreographer of the most famous ballet company in the world. Balanchine did ten ballets for Diaghilev, who insisted that Balanchivadze be changed to Balanchine.
In addition to the major works with Diaghilev, Balanchine also worked with composers such as Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, and artists who designed sets and costumes, such as Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, creating new works that combined all the arts. In 1928 in Paris, Balanchine premiered one of his most innovative ballets, Apollon musagète (Apollo and the muses) in collaboration with Stravinsky combining classical ballet and classical Greek myth and images with jazz movement. He described it as the turning point in his life. Balanchine considered music to be the primary influence on choreography, as opposed to the narrative.
Following the collapse of the Ballet Russes, Balanchine moved from one company to another until he formed his own company, Les Ballets. The American dance aficionado and arts patron Lincoln Kirstein, who wanted to establish a ballet company in America with American dancers, approached Balanchine about collaboration and the two began a 50-year creative partnership, co-founding the School of American Ballet in 1934, less than three months after Balanchine’s arrival in the U.S. The following year, the professional company known as the American Ballet emerged, becoming the official company of New York’s Metropolitan Opera until 1936.
In 1946 Kirstein and Balanchine established a new company, the Ballet Society. The performance of Balanchine’s Orpheus was so successful that his company was invited to establish permanent residence at the New York City Center, which it did and was renamed the New York City Ballet. Balanchine finally had a school, a company, and a permanent theater. He developed the New York City Ballet into the leading classical company in America—and, to some critics, in the world.
Balanchine served as artistic director of the company, based out of New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. He produced more than 150 works for the company, including “The Nutcracker.” in which he played the mime role of Drosselmeyer. The company has since performed the ballet every year in New York City during the Christmas season. With the School of American Ballet and later with the New York City Ballet, Balanchine established himself as one of the world’s leading classical choreographers. Almost single-handedly he brought standards of excellence and quality performance to the American ballet, which up to that point had been merely a weak copy of the great European companies.
In addition to ballet, Balanchine choreographed Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals. He is known for his connection to Igor Stravinsky, where Balanchine created many ballets to his work, some in collaboration with the composer. Over his prolific career, he made over 460 works, which have been performed by nearly every ballet company in the world.
Balanchine created plotless ballets, where the dancing upstaged glitz and storytelling. His work didn’t feature a star, because he believed the performance should outshine the individual. He is credited with developing the neo-classical style distinct to the 20th century. Balanchine’s choreography was dependent on pure dance rather than on the ballerina, plot, or the sets. The drama was in the dance, and movement was solely related to the music. For Balanchine the movement of the body alone created artistic excitement. He placed great importance on balance, control, precision, and ease of movement. He rejected the traditional sweet style of romantic ballet, as well as the more acrobatic style of theatrical ballet, in favor of a style that was stripped to its essentials—motion, movement, and music. His dancers became instruments of the choreographer, whose ideas and designs came from the music itself.
Balanchine served as the artistic director of the New York City Ballet until his death, in April 1983, in New York City. The night of his death, the company went on with its scheduled performance, at Lincoln Center. Clement Crisp, one of the many writers who eulogized Balanchine, assessed his contribution: “It is hard to think of the ballet world without the colossal presence of George Balanchine …”
Balanchine was honored numerous times in his career. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983. President Ronald Reagan praised Balanchine’s genius saying he had “inspired millions with his stage choreography… and amazed a diverse population through his talents. In 1975, the Entertainment Hall of Fame in Hollywood inducted Balanchine as a member, in a nationally televised special. He was the first choreographer to be so honored. He also received the Kennedy Center Honors (1978), Austrian Decoration for Science and Art (1980), National Museum of Dance’s Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame (1987 posthumously) and Induction into the American Theater Hall of Fame (1988). He appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1954. A monument at the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre was dedicated in Balanchine’s memory. A crater on the planet Mercury was named in his honor. Summing up his career in the New York Times, Anna Kisselgoff said, “More than anyone else, he elevated choreography in ballet to an independent art. In an age when ballet had been dependent on a synthesis (combination) of spectacle, storytelling, décor, mime, acting and music, and only partly on dancing, George Balanchine insisted that the dance element come first.”