Ballet. Balanchine. The names are practically synonymous. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the former, in the U.S especially, without the prolific efforts of the latter.
It’s also nearly impossible to overstate the importance of Lincoln Kirstein, a wealthy New Englander with a love of the arts. Kirstein provided the framework in which George Balanchine was free to create the innovations for which he is known.
Balanchine (center) with NYCB legends Arthur Mitchell and Suzanne Farrell.
Balanchine was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Jan. 22, 1904. His father was a composer and George seemed likely to follow him into the profession until he bested his own sister in an audition and was accepted to a prestigious dance school.
He studied music in college, but his talents as a dancer and choreographer were undeniable.
Nevertheless, Balanchine was struggling through a rough patch when he met Kirstein. He was broke and near starvation when Kirstein invited him to New York City.
More information on Kirstein himself can be found in the video above, produced by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
The invite was both immediate salvation and a dream come true. It was a lifeline, definitely, and had come just in the nick of time.
But the United States already was on Balanchine’s radar. American dance students, he said, “have spirit and can be touched into fire.” America was his dream and he was ready to risk it all to make it real.
With Balanchine now residing in New York City, he and Kirstein established the School of American Ballet where Balanchine worked directly with dance students and created his first great American work, Serenade.
The School of American Ballet is now part of the Lincoln Center campus (pictured above).
There were years of uncertainty as World War II put most everything on hold. Toward the end of the decade, Balanchine and the recently-named New York City Ballet began making their mark with timeless works such as Firebird, The Nutcracker and Agon.
Russia’s reputation for ballet dominated most opinions. Despite being Russian, Balanchine now was writing for American dancers, and his vision was behind American ballet’s growth and originality.
Balanchine was a classically-trained dancer but he used that training to break the rules rather than hew to them. He created plotless ballets, where the dancing, not story or spectacle, was the entire focus.As a choreographer he combined the rigid steps of classical ballet with movements that were more modern, athletic and explosive. His style paved the way for neoclassical ballet, which brought old and new together.
The Boston Ballet performing Balanchine’s Serenade (2020).
Not everyone approved. Many were put off by Balanchine’s works. One critic dismissed them as cold and plotless. Balanchine’s habit of establishing romantic relationships with or marrying female dancers in his company, a practice he began in Russia, created further opportunities for chaos and resentment.
He’s also blamed for perpetuating a specific body type as “the” ideal for his female dancers: tall and impossibly slender. This model has influenced many dancers to use unhealthy, dangerous methods to achieve it, resulting in a rash of eating disorders throughout the profession.
The majority of his dancers, though, even the ex-wives and lovers, spoke highly of him. He married four times and had one common-law wife, all dancers: Tamara Geva, Alexandra Danilova (never married, together from 1924-1931), Vera Zorina, Maria Tallchief, and Tanaquil LeClercq.
Whatever his faults, though, Balanchine’s innovations as a choreographer ensure his status as one of modern dance’s most prominent originators.
Behold: the pinnacle of ballet both as a dance and an art form.