George Balanchine

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George Balanchine
გიორგი ბალანჩივაძე
George Balanchine (1965).jpg
Balanchine in 1965
Georgiy Melitonovich Balanchivadze

(1904-01-22)January 22, 1904
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
DiedApril 30, 1983(1983-04-30) (aged 79)
New York City, U.S.
Occupation(s)Dancer, choreographer, director
Years active1929–1983
(m. 1921;div. 1926)
(m. 1938;div. 1946)
(m. 1946;ann. 1952)
(m. 1952;div. 1969)
Partner Alexandra Danilova (1926–1933)
Awards Presidential Medal of Freedom, among others (see below)

George Balanchine ( /ˈbælən(t)ʃn,ˌbælənˈ(t)ʃn/ ; [1] born Georgiy Melitonovich Balanchivadze; Russian : Георгий Мелитонович Баланчивадзе; Georgian :გიორგი მელიტონის ძე ბალანჩივაძე; January 22, 1904 (O. S. January 9) – April 30, 1983) was an American ballet choreographer of Georgian origin, recognized as one of the most influential choreographers of the 20th-century. [2] Styled as the father of American ballet, [3] he co-founded the New York City Ballet and remained its artistic director for more than 35 years. [4] His choreography is characterized by plotless ballets with minimal costume and décor, performed to classical and neoclassical music. [5]


Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Balanchine took the standards and technique from his time at the Imperial Ballet School and fused it with other schools of movement that he had adopted during his tenure on Broadway and in Hollywood, creating his signature "neoclassical style". [6] [7]

He was a choreographer known for his musicality; he expressed music with dance and worked extensively with leading composers of his time like Igor Stravinsky. [8] Balanchine was invited to America in 1933 by a young arts patron named Lincoln Kirstein, and together they founded the School of American Ballet in 1934 as well as the New York City Ballet in 1948.

Early life

Balanchine's father Meliton Meliton Balanchivadze, composer from Georgia (Europe).jpg
Balanchine's father Meliton

Balanchine was born Georgiy Melitonovich Balanchivadze in Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire, son of Georgian opera singer and composer Meliton Balanchivadze, one of the founders of the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre and later the culture minister of the short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia, which became independent in 1918 but was later subsumed into the Soviet Union. [9]

The rest of the Georgian side of Balanchine's family consisted largely of artists and soldiers. Little is known of Balanchine's Russian, maternal side. His mother, Meliton's second wife, Maria Nikolayevna Vasilyeva, is said to be the daughter of Nikolai von Almedingen, a German, who later left Russia and abandoned his family, causing Maria to take her mother's name. [10] She was fond of ballet and viewed it as a form of social advancement from the lower reaches of Saint Petersburg society. [10] :23 She was eleven years younger than Meliton and rumored to have been his former housekeeper, although "she had at least some culture in her background" as she could play piano well. [10] The Balanchine mother also worked at a bank. Although she loved ballet, she wished for her son to join the military. This was a difficult topic to enforce in the family because not only was the mother artistic, George's father was also very talented at playing the piano. Many believe that because his father was very invested in the arts, Balanchine's career of being a businessman failed. Balanchine had three other siblings. One of them being Andrei Balanchivadze, who became a well-known Georgian composer like his father.


Early auditions and training

As a child, Balanchine was not particularly interested in ballet, but his mother insisted that he audition with his sister Tamara, who shared her mother's interest in the art. Balanchine's brother Andria Balanchivadze instead followed his father's love for music and became a composer in Soviet Georgia. Tamara's career, however, would be cut short by her death in unknown circumstances as she was trying to escape on a train from besieged Leningrad to Georgia. [10] :248

Based on his audition, during 1913 (at age nine), Balanchine relocated from rural Finland[ clarification needed ] to Saint Petersburg and was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School, principal school of the Imperial Ballet, where he was a student of Pavel Gerdt and Samuil Andrianov (Gerdt's son-in-law). [11]

Balanchine spent the World War I years at the Mariinsky Theater until it closed down in 1917 due to a government decree. Attending ballet here could have been viewed as a convenience to the Balanchivadze family because this is where his father composed music. This theater was transferred to the People's Enlightenment Commissariat and became property of the state. The Theater reopened in 1918, then two years later the theater was called the State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet. He mounted some new and experimental ballets for the Mikhailovsky Theatre in Petrograd. Among them were Le Boeuf sur le toit (1920) by Jean Cocteau and Darius Milhaud, and a scene for Caesar and Cleopatra by George Bernard Shaw.

After graduating in 1921, Balanchine enrolled in the Petrograd Conservatory while working in the corps de ballet at the State Academic Theater for Opera and Ballet (formerly the State Theater of Opera and Ballet and known as the Mariinsky Ballet). His studies at the conservatory included advanced piano, music theory, counterpoint, harmony, and composition. Balanchine graduated from the conservatory in 1923, and danced as a member of the corps until 1924. While still in his teens, Balanchine choreographed his first work, a pas de deux named La Nuit (1920, music by Anton Rubinstein), a piece which the school of directors did not approve of or like. George Balanchine went about his choreography in an experimental way during the evening time. He and his colleagues eventually performed this piece at the State School of Ballet. This was followed by another duet, Enigma, with the dancers in bare feet rather than ballet shoes. While teaching at the Mariinsky Ballet, he met Tamara Geva, his future wife. [12] In 1923, with Geva and fellow dancers, Balanchine formed a small ensemble, the Young Ballet. [13]

Ballets Russes

Young Balanchine, pictured in the 1920s G. Balanchine (young).jpg
Young Balanchine, pictured in the 1920s

In 1924, the Young Ballet managed to obtain a permission to leave Russia and tour around Europe. [13] Balanchine with his wife, Tamara Geva, and several other dancers (Alexandra Danilova, Nicholas Efimov) went to Germany, but all performances in Berlin were met coldly. The Young Ballet had to perform in small cities of the Rhine Province such as Wiesbaden, Bad Ems, and Moselle. Geva wrote later, that in that time they had to dance 'in small dark places, in summer theaters and private ballrooms, in beer gardens and before mental patients'. They could barely afford paying for hotels and often had only tea for meal. [14] In London, they had two weeks of very unsuccessful performances, when the audience met them with dead silence. With expiring visas, they were not welcome in any other European country. They moved to Paris, where there was a large Russian community. At this time, the impresario Sergei Diaghilev invited Balanchine to join the Ballets Russes as a choreographer. [15]

Balanchine was 21 at the time and became the main choreographer for the most famous ballet company. Sergei Diaghilev insisted that Balanchine change his name from Balanchivadze to Balanchine. Diaghilev soon promoted Balanchine to ballet master of the company and encouraged his choreography. Between 1924 and Diaghilev's death in 1929, Balanchine created ten ballets, as well as lesser works. During these years, he worked with composers such as Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, and Maurice Ravel, and artists who designed sets and costumes, such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Rouault, and Henri Matisse, creating new works that combined all the arts. [16]

Apollon musagete, 1928 Ballets Russes Apollon 1928.jpg
Apollon musagète , 1928

Among his new works, during 1928 in Paris, Balanchine premiered Apollon musagète (Apollo and the muses) in a collaboration with Stravinsky; it was one of his most innovative ballets, combining classical ballet and classical Greek myth and images with jazz movement. He described it as "the turning point in my life". [17] Apollo is regarded as the original neoclassical ballet. Apollo brought the male dancer to the forefront, giving him two solos within the ballet. Apollo is known for its minimalism, using simple costumes and sets. This allowed the audience not to be distracted from the movement. Balanchine considered music to be the primary influence on choreography, as opposed to the narrative.

Suffering a serious knee injury, Balanchine had to limit his dancing, effectively ending his performance career. So he decided to focus all his attention on choreography.

After Diaghilev's death, the Ballets Russes went bankrupt. To earn money, Balanchine began to stage dances for Charles B. Cochran's revues and Sir Oswald Stoll's variety shows in London. He was retained by the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen as a guest ballet master. Among his new works for the company were Danses Concertantes , a pure dance piece to music by Stravinsky, and Night Shadow, revived under the title La Sonnambula .

In 1931, with the help of financier Serge Denham, René Blum and Colonel Wassily de Basil formed the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo, [18] a successor to Ballets Russes. The new company hired Leonide Massine and Balanchine as choreographers. Featured dancers included David Lichine and Tatiana Riabouchinska. In 1933, without consulting Blum, Col. de Basil dropped Balanchine after one year [19] – ostensibly because he thought that audiences preferred the works choreographed by Massine. Librettist Boris Kochno was also let go, while dancer Tamara Toumanova (a strong admirer of Balanchine) left the company when Balanchine was fired.

Balanchine and Kochno immediately founded Les Ballets 1933, with Kochno, Diaghilev's former secretary and companion, serving as artistic advisor. The company was financed by Edward James, a British poet and ballet patron. The company lasted only a couple of months during 1933, performing only in Paris and London, when the Great Depression made arts more difficult to fund. Balanchine created several new works, including collaborations with composers Kurt Weill, Darius Milhaud, Henri Sauguet and designer Pavel Tchelitchew.

United States

Architect Philip Johnson designed the New York State Theater to Balanchine's specifications. New York State Theater by David Shankbone.jpg
Architect Philip Johnson designed the New York State Theater to Balanchine's specifications.

Balanchine insisted that his first project in the United States would be to establish a ballet school because he wanted to develop dancers who had strong technique along with his particular style. Compared to his classical training, he thought they could not dance well. With the assistance of Lincoln Kirstein and Edward M.M. Warburg, the School of American Ballet opened to students on January 2, 1934, less than three months after Balanchine arrived in the U.S. Later that year, Balanchine had his students perform in a recital, where they premiered his new work Serenade to music by Tchaikovsky at Woodlands, the Warburg summer estate. The school of American Ballet became and is now a home for dancers of New York City Ballet as well as companies from all over the world.

Between his ballet activities in the 1930s and 1940s, Balanchine choreographed Broadway musicals written by such notables as Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and Vernon Duke. [20] Among them, Balanchine choreographed Rodgers and Hart's On Your Toes in 1936, where his program billing specified "Choreography by George Balanchine" as opposed to the usual billing of "Dances staged by". This marked the first time in Broadway history that a dance-maker received choreography billing for a Broadway musical. [21] On Your Toes featured two ballets: La Princesse Zenobia and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue , in which a tap dancer falls in love with a dance-hall girl. [22] Balanchine's choreography in musicals was unique at the time because it furthered the plot of the story. [23]

Relocation to West Coast

Balanchine in 1942 Portrait of Ringling Circus choreographer George Balanchine.jpg
Balanchine in 1942

Balanchine relocated his company to Hollywood in 1938, where he rented a white two-story house with "Kolya", Nicholas Kopeikine, his "rehearsal pianist and lifelong colleague", [24] on North Fairfax Avenue not far from Hollywood Boulevard. Balanchine created dances for five movies, all of which featured Vera Zorina, whom he met on the set of The Goldwyn Follies and who subsequently became his second wife. He reconvened the company as the American Ballet Caravan and toured with it throughout North and South America, but it folded after several years. From 1944 to 1946, during and after World War II, Balanchine served as resident choreographer for Blum & Massine's new iteration of Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo.

Return to New York

Soon Balanchine formed a new dance company, Ballet Society, again with the generous help of Lincoln Kirstein. He continued to work with contemporary composers such as Paul Hindemith, from whom he commissioned a score in 1940 for The Four Temperaments . First performed on November 20, 1946, this modernist work was one of his early abstract and spare ballets, angular and very different in movement. After several successful performances, the most notable featuring the ballet Orpheus created in collaboration with Stravinsky and sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi, the City of New York offered the company residency at the New York City Center.

In 1954, Balanchine created his version of 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. His other famous ballets created for New York companies include Firebird, Allegro Brilliante, Agon , The Seven Deadly Sins , and Episodes .

Balanchine with Suzanne Farrell in Don Quixote Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine NYWTS.jpg
Balanchine with Suzanne Farrell in Don Quixote

In 1967, Balanchine's ballet Jewels displayed specific characteristics of Balanchine's choreography. The corps de ballet dancers execute rapid footwork and precise movements. The choreography is difficult to execute and all dancers must do their jobs to hold the integrity of the piece. Balanchine's use of musicality can also be seen in this work. His other famous works with New York City Ballet are popular today and are performed in the Lincoln Center by New York City Ballet: Mozartiana , Apollo , Orpheus , and A Midsummer Night's Dream .


In his last years, Balanchine suffered from angina pectoris and underwent heart bypass surgery. [25]

After years of illness, Balanchine died on April 30, 1983, aged 79, in Manhattan from Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, which was diagnosed only after his death. He first showed symptoms during 1978 when he began losing his balance while dancing. As the disease progressed, his equilibrium, eyesight, and hearing deteriorated. By 1982, he was incapacitated. The night of his death, the company went on with its scheduled performance, which included Divertimento No. 15 and Symphony in C at Lincoln Center. [26]

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 ..." In his lifetime he created 465 works. Balanchine extended the traditions of classical ballet. His choreography remains the same to the present day and the School of American Ballet still uses his teaching technique. As one of the 20th century's best-known choreographers, his style and vision of ballet is interesting to many generations of choreographers.

He had a Russian Orthodox funeral, and was interred at the Oakland Cemetery at Sag Harbor, Suffolk County, New York at the same cemetery where Alexandra Danilova was later interred. [27]

Personal life

In 1923, Balanchine married Tamara Geva, a sixteen-year-old dancer. After later parting ways with Geva, he became romantically involved with the ballerina Alexandra Danilova, from approximately 1924 to 1931. As The New York Times described their relationship in its obituary for Danilova: "She and Balanchine left the Soviet Union in 1924... Until 1931, she and Balanchine lived together as husband and wife, although they were never married. Balanchine was still officially married to another dancer, Tamara Geva, and he told Miss Danilova that because his marriage papers had been left behind in Russia, he feared it might be difficult to arrange a legal separation." [28] He married and divorced three more times, all to women who were his dancers: Vera Zorina (1938–1946), Maria Tallchief (1946–1952), and Tanaquil LeClercq (1952–1969). He had no children by any of his marriages and no known offspring from any of his extramarital liaisons.

Biographer and intellectual historian Clive James has argued that Balanchine, despite his creative genius and brilliance as a ballet choreographer, had his darker side. In his Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (2007), James writes that:

the great choreographer ruled the New York City Ballet as a fiefdom, with the 'droit du seigneur' among his privileges. The older he became, the more consuming his love affairs with his young ballerinas ... When [ballerina Suzanne Farrell] fell in love with and married a young dancer, Balanchine dismissed her from the company, thereby injuring her career for a crucial decade. [29]

Legacy and honors

George Balanchine Way in New York NYC, W 63 St.jpg
George Balanchine Way in New York

With his School of American Ballet, New York City Ballet, and 400 choreographed works, Balanchine transformed American dance and created neoclassical ballet, developing a unique style with his dancers highlighted by brilliant speed and attack.

A monument at the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre in Georgia was dedicated in Balanchine's memory. A crater on Mercury was named in his honor.

George Balanchine Way is a segment of West 63rd Street (located between Columbus Avenue and Broadway) in New York City that was renamed in his honor in June 1990.

Playwright Richard Nelson wrote Nikolai and the Others, produced at the Mitzi Newhouse theater at Lincoln Center in 2013 with Michael Cerveris as Balanchine. [30]


Selected choreographed works

Notable students

Over the decades Balanchine shared his artistic insights with several of his students including:

See also

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Further reading