George Balanchine (Balanchivadze) (1904-1983)
Of all the names in the dance world, I can't imagine anyone written about more than George Balanchine. He became a legend long before he died. You don't have to like him or his work, but you can't deny that he brought the standards of dance up to a level that had never been seen before, and he created a new audience for ballet. He was certainly a modern day Svengali. If he saw somebody whose talent appealed to him, he could transform her into a star. Many times he even married his protégés.
Balanchine was one of the greatest and most prolific choreographers in ballet history, choreographing at least 300 ballets; he was rivaled in quantity only by Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa.
At the age of nine he started training at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg. According to Tamara Geva, in her autobiography Split Seconds (1972), because young Balanchine's parents lived so far away, he became the ward of Grigory Grigorevich, the person in charge of the school since Tzarist days. During the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Imperial School closed and the students were put out on the street. Balanchine was cut off from his family in the Caucasus, and was taken in to live with Mr. Grigorevich. The school did reopen and Balanchine graduated in 1921. He joined the Soviet State Ballet (later known to most of us as the Kirov).
Upon graduation Balanchine married Geva, a fellow student whom he had met in the ballroom dancing class. Grigorevich disapproved of this marriage, and would refer to Geva in front of Balanchine as "Bulldozer." It hurt Geva that her husband didn't defend her. Geva described her husband as a cross between a poet and a general.
In order to have his choreography seen, Blanchine organized a small company called The Young Ballet, to perform at halturas (bread and butter jobs). At the Maryinsky, Balanchine had been assigned to stage the procession in Rimski-Korsakoff's opera Coq d'Or, and what he devised, although beautiful, shattered tradition. The company tried to re-train him, but he wouldn't conform. His choreography continued to be controversial, so the board at the Maryinsky Theatre dismissed him from the company. They also threatened all of Blanchine's dancers with the same fate if they continued to dance for him.
In 1924, with Vladimir Dimitriev's help, Balanchine, Tamara Geva, Nicholas Efimov, and Alexandra Danilova formed the Soviet State Dancers, and were allowed to tour Germany during the Maryinsky vacation. They decided not to return to Russia, but to defect and go to England. The small company did so poorly in London that they were bought out of their contracts. They then went to Paris in hopes of finding work. Serge Diaghilev heard of this Russian company and sent for them. He hired the four dancers, and also allowed Dimitriev to work for the company. Diaghilev thought the Georgian's name Balanchivadze was too difficult to pronounce and changed it to Balanchine. Diaghilev was immediately impressed with Balanchine's creative ballets and wanted him to choreograph for the opera in Monte Carlo. For the Ballets Russes he created Apollo in 1928 and The Prodigal Son in 1929, which have remained Blanchine's signature pieces to this day. In 1926 Geva divorced him and went to America, and Alexandra Danilova became his "unofficial" wife.
In 1929, while still with the Diaghilev company. he choreographed and danced in Dark Red Roses, the first talking motion picture in England. It was at this time that Balanchine heard of Diaghilev's death, leaving him and the entire Ballets Russes without work.
George Balanchine was luckier than many of his colleagues after Diaghilev's death: because of his past successes he found work as a choreographer in London, Copenhagen, Paris and also for a new company in Monte Carlo under the sponsorship of the Monaco Royal House. Rene Blum and Colonel William de Basil were the impresario and director of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. (In a future Newsletter I will write about the many companies that took the name Ballet Russe -- note the change of the spelling). Balanchine was fired from the Blum - De Basil company because of his unorthodox choreography and was replaced by Leonide Massine. In 1933 Balanchine formed his own company, Les Ballet 1933. It opened to poor reviews in Paris and gave only 20 performances in England.
It was in England that he met his future benefactor, Lincoln Kirstein, a wealthy young American. Kirstein, with his friend Edward M.M.Warburg, invited Balanchine and Vladimir Dimitriev to come to America in order to open a ballet school in Hartford, Conn., far away from the enticements of Broadway. But since the stage at the Hartford Museum was too small for ballet performances Balanchine refused the offer.
Kirstein searched the island of Manhattan until he found an appropriate place. The School of American Ballet (SAB) opened at 59th Street and Madison Avenue on January 1, 1934. Warburg was skeptical of the Russians, and described Dimitriev as having ice water in his veins. He said, "The Russians thought they had found two rich young men with no knowledge of ballet.," and he asked his lawyers (unsuccessfully) to protect him and Kirstein against the Russians before the school was incorporated.
At first there were only adult students, and the school operated in conjunction with Catherine and Dorothy Littlefield, who already had a company in Philadelphia and had been on a European tour. Dorothy taught at SAB. Harold and Lew Christensen were among the students, while their older brother Willam became director of the San Francisco Opera Ballet and did not study at SAB.
During evening classes at SAB, Balanchine, in order to teach performance skills, choreographed an abstract ballet upon his students using Tchiaikowsky's Serenade for Strings; called Serenade; this was his first ballet for American dancers. At the request of Edward Warburg's father, it was first performed in 1934 on the lawn of the Warburg estate in Connecticut. A few months later the group of "four" formed a small company called The American Ballet. It was for this company that Balanchine used, for the first time, an American theme in his ballet Alma Mater.
In 1935 The American Ballet became the ballet company of the Metropolitan Opera Co., but as with the Maryinsky Opera, Balanchine had problems with the management. His dances in Carmen overshadowed the singers. He was able to persuade the Metropolitan to have his dancers do a Stravinsky Festival in 1937, for which he choreographed Card Game.
To keep the dancers employed during the summer, Ballet Caravan was created. Many of the young dancers, including Lew Christensen, William Dollar, Eugene Loring, and Erick Hawkins, had a chance to choreograph for this company. In the spring of 1941 Ballet Caravan and the American Ballet joined forces to tour Latin America under the sponsorship of the State Department. Because of World War II both companies were disbanded after the tour.
Balanchine's energy and creativity allowed him to choreograph 17 Broadway shows, and he was also invited by Samuel Goldwyn to choreograph a number of movies. He choreographed On Your Toes with Tamara Geva and Ray Bolger for Broadway, and then a movie version with Vera Zorina and Eddie Albert.
To Balanchine, entertainment was entertainment. When he was asked in 1941 by the Ringling Bros. Circus to choreograph a ballet for 14 elephants he agreed, and commissioned Stravinsky to write the music for Circus Polka.
Ballet Society, the successor to the American Ballet, was organized in 1946 and gave its first performance at the Central High School of Needle Trades in New York City. They were so successful that in 1948 the company was invited to become a permanent unit of the New York City Center, with the new name of The New York City Ballet.
When Morton Baum, head of the finance committee for the New York City Center, saw Ballet Society perform George Balanchine's Orpheus in 1948, he invited Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine to join the city-supported group. Ballet Society became the New York City Ballet, and the company remained at the City Center for sixteen years.
The opening night of the New York City Ballet (October 1948) at the City Center was an auspicious occasion. The first program consisted of Symphony in C (choreographed to a newly discovered symphony by George Bizet which was first presented as Le Palais de cristal at the Paris Opera), Orpheus, and Concerto Barocco.
At last Balanchine felt secure enough to form the company he had always wanted, with the School of American Ballet to train the dancers. Because Balanchine wanted the audiences to come to see ballets instead of star dancers, he listed his principal dancers in alphabetical order.
In the years that followed, Balanchine created some of his greatest ballets: Scotch Symphony (1952), Western Symphony (1954), Square Dance (1957), and Stars and Stripes (1958), just to name a few. Although he also created story ballets -- Le Baiser de la Fée(1934), Don Quixote (1965), La Sonnambula (1946), and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962) -- most of his ballets were called abstract (plotless). Balanchine's most famous story ballet, The Nutcracker (1954), has become the money-maker of all time. It has been performed every year during the holiday season since its premiere.
I remember that when he moved his school from 59th and Madison to 83rd and Broadway in 1956, many of us thought that he might as well have moved back to Connecticut, since the new school was so far uptown. At that time most of the major schools were within two blocks of 57th Street. The studios at 83rd Street were designed to his specifications. In 1973 SAB was moved to the Juilliard School of Music, which is now located at 65th Street and Broadway.
Balanchine thought ballet was meant to entertain. As I said in the last Newsletter, he even choreographed a ballet for fourteen elephants. He also felt that every opera by Giuseppe Verdi was danceable.
Balanchine married Vera Zorina in 1938 and starred her on Broadway and in the movies. After Zorina he married Maria Tallchief in 1946, and created Orpheus (1948), Firebird (1949), Swan Lake (1951), Scotch Symphony (1952), The Nutcracker (1954), and Allegro Brillante (1956) for her.
After eight years of marriage she got an annulment, because she said the marriage had never been consummated. For Tanaquil LeClerq, his fourth wife (whom he married in 1952) he created La Valze (1951), Bourrée Fantasque (1949) Western Symphony and Ivesiana (both in 1954). Her career ended after she was tragically stricken with polio. Before their divorce was finalized Balanchine became infatuated with his final protégé, Suzanne Farrell, for whom he created many of his last great ballets: Mozartiana (1981), Don Quixote (1965), and Diamonds in Jewels (1967). Balanchine told Ms. Farrell, "You are the other half of my apple."
After Balanchine recovered from a mysterious illness, he continued to work until his death. He died of Jakob-Creutzfeldt syndrome (in animals it is called the mad cow disease), on April 30, 1983. Balanchine's funeral was held in a Russian Orthodox Church and that night the New York City Ballet performed as scheduled.
If you would like more information about Balanchine and the School of American Ballet, you might want to read But First A School by Jennifer Dunning (1985) or Holding On to the Air by Suzanne Farrell, with Toni Bentley (1990). Coming out this year are books written by Allegra Kent, Once a Dancer, and Maria Tallchief's autobiography.
(First published November 1996)
Next: Jean Balon (1676-1739)