George Balanchine

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George Balanchine
Portrait of Ringling Circus choreographer George Balanchine.jpg
Born Georgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze
(1904-01-22)January 22, 1904
St. Petersburg, Russian Empire
Died April 30, 1983(1983-04-30) (aged 79)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Cause of death Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease
Occupation dancer, choreographer, actor, director
Years active 1929–1983
Spouse(s) Tamara Geva (1921–1926; divorced)
Vera Zorina (1938–1946; divorced)
Maria Tallchief (1946–1952; annulled)
Tanaquil LeClercq (1952–1969; divorced)
Awards Presidential Medal of Freedom
full list

George Balanchine (born Giorgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze Russian: Георгий Мелитонович Баланчивадзе; January 22 [O.S. January 9] 1904 – April 30, 1983) was a Russian-born American ballet choreographer. Styled as the father of American ballet, he took the standards and technique from his education at the Imperial Ballet School and fused it with other schools of movement that he had adopted during his tenure as a guest choreographer on Broadway and in Hollywood, creating his signature "neoclassical style".[1][2] 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.[3]

He was invited to America in 1933, by a young arts patron named Lincoln Kirstein who shared Balanchine's attitude regarding the importance of high quality dance training in America and together they founded the School of American Ballet. Along with Kirstein he co-founded the New York City Ballet (NYCB) and remained its Artistic Director until his death.[4]


Georgia and Russia

Balanchine's father Meliton

Balanchine was born Giorgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze in Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire, in the family of noted Georgian opera singer and composer Meliton Balanchivadze, who was one of the founders of the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre and later served as the culture minister of Democratic Republic of Georgia, which became independent in 1918, but was later subsumed into the Soviet Union.[5] The rest of Balanchine's Georgian side of the family comprised largely artists and soldiers. Little is known of Balanchine's Russian, maternal side. His mother, Meliton's second wife, Maria Nikolayevna Vasilyeva, was fond of ballet and viewed it as a form of social advancement from her lower reaches of the St. Petersburg society.[6] 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.[6]

As a child, Balanchine was not particularly interested in ballet, but his mother insisted that young Giorgi audition with his sister Tamara, who shared her mother's interest in the art. George's brother Andria Balanchivadze instead followed his father's love for music and became a well-known composer in what became then Soviet Georgia. Tamara's career, on the other hand, was cut short by her death in unknown circumstances as she was trying to escape on a train from besieged Leningrad to Georgia.[6]

Based on his audition, during 1913 (at age nine) Balanchine relocated from rural Finland 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 (Pavel's son-in-law).[7]

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 during 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). This was followed by another duet, Enigma, with the dancers in bare feet rather than ballet shoes. During 1923, with fellow dancers, Balanchine formed a small ensemble, the Young Ballet.

Ballets Russes

On a 1924 visit to Germany with the Soviet State Dancers, Balanchine, his wife, Tamara Geva, and dancers Alexandra Danilova and Nicholas Efimov fled 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.[7]

Apollo, 1928

Diaghilev soon promoted Balanchine to ballet master of the company and encouraged his choreography. Between 1924 and Diaghilev's death in 1929, Balanchine created nine ballets, as well as lesser works. During these years, he worked with composers such as Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, 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. 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".[8]

Suffering a serious knee injury, Balanchine had to limit his dancing, effectively ending his performance career.

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.

In 1931, with the help from financier Serge Denham, René Blum and Colonel Wassily de Basil formed the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo,[9] 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[10] — 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's) 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.

Balanchine insisted that his first project would be to establish a ballet school because he wanted to develop dancers who had the strong technique and style he wanted. 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 3 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 the Warburg summer estate.

Between his ballet activities in the 1930s and 1940s, Balanchine choreographed for musical theater with such notables as Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and Vernon Duke.[11]

Relocation to West Coast

Balanchine relocated his company to Hollywood during 1938, where he rented a white two-story house with "Kolya", Nicholas Kopeikine, his "rehearsal pianist and lifelong colleague",[12] 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 third 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 1955, 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.

Balanchine with Suzanne Farrell in Don Quixote.
Mstislav Rostropovich (left), George Balanchine (middle) and Yuri Grigorovich


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.[13] In his last years, Balanchine suffered from angina and underwent heart bypass surgery.[14] 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. . .

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.

Personal life

In 1923, Balanchine married Tamara Geva, a sixteen-year-old dancer. After his divorce from Tamara Geva, Balanchine was partnered with Alexandra Danilova from 1926 through 1933. 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 extramarital unions or other liaisons.

Biographer and intellectual historian Clive James observed 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.

Legacy and honors

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

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


Selected Choreographed Works

For Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev

  • Le Chant du Rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale) (1925)
  • Jack in the Box (1926)
  • Pastorale (1926)
  • Barabau (1926)
  • La Chatte (1927)
  • Le Triomphe de Neptune (1927)
  • Apollo (1928)
  • The Prodigal Son (1929)
  • Le Bal (1929)

For Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo

  • Cotillon (1932)
  • Concurrence (1932)
  • Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1932 and 1944)
  • Balustrade (1941)
  • Danses Concertantes (1944 and 1972)
  • Song of Norway (1944)
  • Pas de Deux (Grand adagio) (1945)
  • La Sonnambula (1946)
  • The Night Shadow (1946)
  • Raymonda (1946)

For Les Ballets 1933

  • The Seven Deadly Sins (1933)
  • Errante (1933)
  • Les Songes (1933)
  • Fastes (1933)

For the American Ballet

  • Alma Mater (1934)
  • Les Songes (Dreams) (1934)
  • Mozartiana (1934)
  • Serenade (1935)
  • Errante (1935)
  • Reminiscence (1935)
  • Jeu de cartes (variously, Card Game or The Card Party) (1937)
  • Le Baiser de la Fée (originally titled The Fairy's Kiss) (1937)

For Broadway

  • Ziegfeld Follies of 1936
    • Words without Music: A Surrealist Ballet, a production number for the singing and dancing ensemble
    • Night Flight, a solo for Harriet Hoctor
    • 5 A.M., a number for Josephine Baker and male dancers
  • On Your Toes (1936), music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart; starring Tamara Geva and Ray Bolger
This dramatic ballet served as the climax of this musical production and has subsequently been presented as a stand-alone piece; however, several of the sung numbers in the show featured dance routines as well, notably the title number.
  • Babes in Arms (1937), by Rodgers and Hart
  • I Married an Angel (1938), by Rodgers and Hart; starring Vera Zorina
  • The Boys from Syracuse (1938), by Rodgers and Hart
  • Great Lady (1938), music by Frederick Loewe
  • Keep Off the Grass (1940), a musical revue
  • Lousiana [sic?] Purchase (1940), music and lyrics by Irving Berlin; with William Gaxton and Vera Zorina
  • Cabin in the Sky (1940), music by Vernon Duke, lyrics by John Latouche; starring Ethel Waters and Katherine Dunham, who collaborated with Balanchine on the choreography
  • The Lady Comes Across (1942), by Duke and Latouche; a notable flop
  • Rosalinda (1942), an operetta with music by Johann Strauss
  • The Merry Widow (1943), an operetta with music by Franz Lehár
  • What's Up? (1943), lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe
  • Dream with Music (1944), a musical fantasy starring Vera Zorina
  • Song of Norway (1944), an operetta based on the life and music of Edvard Grieg; Balanchine's most successful Broadway show
  • Mr. Strauss Goes to Boston (1945), another flop
  • The Chocolate Soldier (1947), an operetta with music by Oscar Straus
  • Where's Charley? lyrics and music by Frank Loesser, a long-running show starring Ray Bolger
  • Courtin' Time (1951), music and lyrics by Don Walker and Jack Lawrence
  • House of Flowers (1954), music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Truman Capote and Harold Arlen; starring Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, and Juanita Hall; Balanchine's choreography was rearranged by Herbert Ross before the Broadway opening

For Hollywood

  • The Goldwyn Follies (1938), with Vera Zorina and William Dollar as principal dancers
    • "Romeo and Juliet," with ballet dancers as the Capulets and tap dancers as the Montagues
    • "Water Nymph Ballet," in which Zorina rose from the depths of a pool
  • On Your Toes (1939), the film version of the Broadway show, starring Vera Zorina and Eddie Albert
  • I Was an Adventuress (1940), starring Vera Zorina
  • Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), a wartime morale booster for military troops
    • "That Old Black Magic," sung by Johnny Johnston, danced by Vera Zorina
  • Follow the Boys (1944), with Vera Zorina and George Raft

For American Ballet Caravan

  • Ballet Imperial (later referred to as the Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2) (1941)
  • Concerto Barocco (1941)

For the Ballet del Teatro de Colón

  • Mozart Violin Concerto (1942)

For Ballet Theatre

For Ballet Society

  • The Four Temperaments (1946)
  • L'enfant et Les Sortilèges (The Spellbound Child) (1946)[19]
  • Haieff Divertimento (1947)
  • Symphonie Concertante (1947)
  • Orpheus (1948)

For the Paris Opera Ballet

For Le Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas

  • Pas de Trois Classique (also known as Minkus Pas de Trois) (1948)

For New York City Ballet

For New York City Opera

See also


  1. Life Magazine. Volume 7. New York, NY: Time, Inc., 1984, p. 139.
  2. [1]
  3. "Balanchine", American Masters, PBS, available on DVD.
  4. Joseph Horowitz (2008). Artists in Exile: How Refugees from 20th-century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-074846-X
  5. New York Times article by Anna Kisselgoff, June 29, 2004
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Kendall, Elizabeth. Balanchine & the Lost Muse: Revolution & the Making of a Choreographer. Oxford University Press: 2013, pp. 23, 34, 37-40. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Balanchine_.26_the_Lost_Muse" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Balanchine_.26_the_Lost_Muse" defined multiple times with different content
  7. 7.0 7.1 Joseph Horowitz (2008). Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth-Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts, New York: HarperCollins; ISBN 0-06-074846-X
  8. Fisher (2006), p. 27
  9. Amanda. "Ballets Russes", The Age (17 July 2005)
  10. Homans, Jennifer. "René Blum: Life of a Dance Master," New York Times (July 8, 2011).
  11. For full details of Balanchine's work in musical theater in London, Paris, New York, and Hollywood, see the summary report of Popular Balanchine, a research project of the George Balanchine Foundation, at
  12. Barbara Milberg Fisher, In Balanchine's Company: A Dancer's Memoir, Wesleyan University Press, 2006, p. 30, accessed 24 January 2011
  13. Encyclopædia Britannica; retrieved May 27, 2008.[dead link]
  14. Man and Microbes, pp. 195-96.
  15. "Reply to a parliamentary question" (pdf) (in German). p. 588. Retrieved March 9, 2013.CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "Theater Hall of Fame Adds Nine New Names". New York Times. November 22, 1988.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Theater Hall of Fame members".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. New York Times, June 30, 2003
  19. Balanchine had created ballet sequences for Ravel's opera L'enfant et les sortilèges with singers of the Monte Carlo Opera and dancers from the Ballets Russes for the 1925 Monte Carlo premiere; this is not however listed as a Ballets Russes production.

Further reading

  • Taper, Bernard (1996). George Balanchine: A Biography. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-20639-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Schorer, Suki (1999). On Balanchine Technique. Knopf. ISBN 0-679-45060-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Joseph, Charles M. (2002). Stravinsky and Balanchine, A Journey of Invention. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-08712-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Gottlieb, Robert (2004). George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker. Harper Collins. ISBN 0-06-075070-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Goldner, Nancy (2008). Balanchine Variations. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Goldner, Nancy (2011). More Balanchine Variations. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links