George Balanchine, widely regarded as the foremost contemporary choreographer in the ballet world, arrived in the United States in late 1933 after a successful career throughout Europe.
His journey to the United States was made possible by an invitation from Lincoln Kirstein, a dance enthusiast from Boston who dreamed of establishing an American ballet school and company that could rival the European institutions. Kirstein first met Balanchine in Paris, where he had witnessed a performance by Les Ballets 1933, the company directed by Balanchine at the time. The introduction was made by Romola Nijinsky, the widow of the famous Russian dancer, whom Kirstein had assisted in researching a biography of her late husband.
Their collaboration resulted in the founding of The School of American Ballet in early 1934, which continues to thrive to this day. It later became the training ground for dancers joining the New York City Ballet, a company established by Balanchine and Kirstein in 1948. Balanchine’s first ballet in the United States, Serenade, choreographed in 1934 to Tchaikovsky’s music, was premiered as a workshop performance on a friend’s estate near White Plains, New York.
In 1935, Kirstein and Balanchine formed a touring dance company called the American Ballet. That same year, the Metropolitan Opera invited the company to become its resident ballet, with Balanchine as the ballet master. Although limited funding allowed Balanchine to mount only two fully dance-oriented works during his time with the Met, the productions received popular and critical acclaim. However, Balanchine and the Met parted ways in early 1938, leading him to spend the next few years teaching at the School and working in musical theater and films.
In 1941, he and Kirstein assembled the American Ballet Caravan, sponsored by Nelson Rockefeller, which toured South America and presented Balanchine’s new creations such as Concerto Barocco and Ballet Imperial (later renamed Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2). From 1944 to 1946, Balanchine served as artistic director for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, reviving the company through iconic ballets like Raymonda and La Sonnambula.
In 1946, Balanchine and Kirstein collaborated again to establish Ballet Society, a subscription-only company that introduced New York audiences to new Balanchine works like The Four Temperaments (1946) and Stravinsky’s Renard (1947) and Orpheus (1948).
On October 11, 1948, Morton Baum, chairman of the City Center finance committee, witnessed Ballet Society’s program at the City Center Theater, which included Orpheus, Serenade, and Symphony in C. This experience led Baum to invite the company to join the City Center municipal complex, resulting in the birth of the “New York City Ballet.” Finally, Balanchine had found a permanent home for his talents.
Since then, Balanchine has served as the artistic director of the New York City Ballet, choreographing the majority of the company’s 175 productions. Some of the most notable include The Firebird (1949), Bourrée Fantasque (1949), La Valse (1951), The Nutcracker (his first full-length work for the company), and many more. His deep musical knowledge, acquired through extensive training in piano and musical theory, allowed him to communicate effectively with composers like Igor Stravinsky and translate music into captivating dance movements.
Balanchine’s journey into the world of dance began at a young age. He made his dancing debut at ten and joined the Maryinsky Theatre Ballet Company at seventeen. Balanchine’s abilities as a choreographer became evident when he staged his first work, Enigmas, for the company. However, most of his creative energies during this period were focused on choreographic experiments outside the company.
In 1924, Balanchine embarked on a tour of Western Europe with three other dancers. These dancers caught the attention of impresario Serge Diaghilev, who invited them to audition for his Ballets Russes in Paris. Balanchine’s talent as a choreographer also caught Diaghilev’s eye, resulting in his appointment as ballet master for the company. A knee injury further solidified Balanchine’s commitment to choreography, paving the way for his future artistic achievements.
Balanchine continued his career by choreographing for various ballet companies, working in musical theater, and collaborating with artists across Europe. His path eventually led him back to Paris, where he formed his own company, Les Ballets 1933, collaborating with renowned figures like Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, and Pavel Tchelitchev. It was during this period that Balanchine met Lincoln Kirstein, which ultimately led to his move to the United States.
Balanchine’s creative prowess extended beyond ballet. He also choreographed numerous musical comedies and worked on films, operas, and television productions. His style, described as neoclassic, was a reaction against the prevailing Romantic anticlassical style that emphasized theatricality. Balanchine believed that dance should take center stage and preferred to be seen as a craftsman rather than a creator.
Throughout his illustrious career, Balanchine received numerous honors and awards for his contributions to the arts. His work has left an indelible mark on the world of ballet, and his legacy continues to inspire dancers and audiences alike.
Source: New York City Ballet