George Balanchine life and biography

George Balanchine picture, image, poster

George Balanchine biography

Date of birth : 1904-01-22
Date of death : 1983-04-30
Birthplace : Saint Petersburg, Russia
Nationality : American-Russian
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2010-07-28
Credited as : Artist and ballet dancer, choregrapher, writer

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George Balanchine, also known asGeorgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze, born January 22, 1904 in Saint Petersburg, Russia - died April 30, 1983 in New York, New York, United States was an American-Russian Arist, Choreographer, Ballet dancer, Dancer, Ballet director and Writer who by the 1960s was generally acknowledged as the world's greatest living choreographer and whose ballets and teaching style have affected generations of students and professionals ever since.

Born Georgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze, Balanchine was one of three children born to Meliton Balanchivadze and Maria Nikolayevna Vassilyeva. His father, a Georgian, was a composer and failed businessman; his Russian mother, a bank employee. When Balanchine was still small, the family moved to Lounatiokki, now in Finland, and there he began piano lessons. Although his parents had planned a military career for him, he was accepted into the Maryinsky Theatre (Imperial Ballet) School in Saint Petersburg at the age of nine, where he received a free education as well as classical ballet instruction. He graduated in 1921 and was admitted to the resident company the Soviet State Ballet, at the same time enrolling in the Petrograd Conservatory of Music to study piano and composition.

When Balanchine was sixteen he created his first choreography, and during the 1920s he prepared a series of programs to showcase his own ballets. He was joined by Tamara Gevergeva (later "Geva"), his first wife, whom he married in 1922, and Alexandra Danilova, with whom he later lived after Geva had left him. By 1923 the group had so outraged the ballet establishment that it eagerly accepted an opportunity to tour Germany for the summer of 1924. That fall, Serge Diaghilev saw the troupe perform, and in December hired it to dance with his Ballets Russes.

As soon as the troupe joined the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev (who renamed Balanchivadze "Balanchine") asked Balanchine if he could create ballets for the opera "very fast." Balanchine complied, and soon became the company ballet master and chief choreographer. In 1925 he created dances for twelve operas and choreographed his first ballet, Le Chant du Rossignol, to music by Igor Stravinsky. In 1928 he created Apollon Musagète (later, Apollo), and in 1929, the year Diaghilev died, Prodigal Son. Both ballets are still considered masterpieces.

Years after, reflecting on the profoundest influences on his artistic life, Balanchine named two. The first was his training at the Maryinsky, where he was taught its "strict discipline … its classicism, the basis of all ballet [and] its … tradition." The second was Diaghilev, from whom "I learned to recognize what was great and valid in art … and to be … an artist."

In 1933 Balanchine formed his own, short-lived troupe, Les Ballets 1933, and that same year he met Lincoln Kirstein, the wealthy son of a Boston family. Kirstein had dreamed of establishing an "American" ballet company and had already seen several of Balanchine's choreographies. Balanchine was interested in working with Kirstein, but insisted "first, a school," to which Kirstein agreed. Balanchine came to New York City on 18 October 1933; the School of American Ballet opened on New Year's Day 1934. Their American Ballet company began in March 1935, but folded in 1938.

During the following decade, Balanchine created dances for musical comedies and Hollywood films and worked in Europe. He married Vera Zorina (born Brigitta Hartwig) on 24 December 1938 and became a U.S. citizen in 1939. He later divorced Zorina and married Maria Tallchief in 1946, the year that he and Kirstein formed the Ballet Society. In 1948 Morton Baum of New York's City Center saw the company, and asked Kirstein: "How would you like the idea of having the Ballet Society become the New York City Ballet?" Thus in 1948 the group was officially renamed and accorded the status of a public institution.

The New York City Ballet (NYCB), at City Center, thrived under Balanchine's artistic direction during the 1950s. He created at least thirty-seven new dances during the decade, including La Valse (1951), The Nutcracker (1954), Western Symphony (1954), Allegro Brillant (1956), Agon (1957), and Stars and Stripes (1958). The school, generally intended to provide a source of new dancers for the company, also flourished, becoming, as Time magazine noted in 1954, "the best and busiest in the U.S."

By the 1960s the reputations of the company, school, and Balanchine personally were firmly established. In a biography of Balanchine, Bernard Taper said that the company was giving an average of 150 performances a year, up from twenty-four during its first year at City Center. In 1964 music critics Rosalyn Krokover and Harold Schonberg wrote that the NYCB now "dominates the scene to the exclusion of any other group." Another critic added in 1966 that the school was "harder to get into than Radcliffe."

The introduction to a 1961 Horizon interview with Balanchine stated that he was already a "choreographer without peer," and in 1964 British dance critic Clive Barnes said that he was "very possibly the most remarkable creative force ballet has ever known." In 1960 Balanchine choreographed Monumentum pro Gesualdo, called in a 1972 Saturday Review article a "major" work that extended "the range, the scope and the style of formal expressive movement." It was compared to Agon, one of his so-called "plotless" ballets, for which he had been frequently criticized over the years. These two works, along with the now famous Apollo, were all set to music by Stravinsky.

Balanchine's choreography was always cradled in the classic ballet style he was taught at the Maryinsky, and the choreographers who most influenced him—Marius Petipa and Kasyan Goleizovsky—came from this tradition, the latter advocating the art of pure dance and exulting in the potential of the human body. Balanchine expanded this concept. "To him the classical technique was not a constriction but a liberation," wrote Taper, and quoted Balanchine as saying: "I would like to show that these bodies of ours … can be beautiful." Unlike his contemporaries Martha Graham and Anthony Tudor, Balanchine did not feel that emotion or story line was the impetus of dance. He made dance itself the center of his ballets, often eschewing even costume and decor to focus more fully on the dancing.

Music, however, was essential, and Balanchine, a fine musician himself, would choreograph a ballet directly on the dancers only after listening to the music and examining its score. Although he loved Mozart, Balanchine favored modern composers, especially Stravinsky, with whom he often worked. He said about Stravinsky, "(M)usic is time.… I couldn't make a ballet without music [because] I am not a creator of time myself.… Stravinsky is."

In 1963 Balanchine made his first ballet Movements for Piano and Orchestra (again Stravinsky) for Suzanne Farrell, with whom he was obsessed. Although he did not believe in the "star" system of ballet (Tallchief, whose marriage to Balanchine was annulled in 1952, would leave in 1965 over this issue), he did choreograph pieces for his current favorites. He wrote Don Quixote, in which he danced the title role opening night, for Farrell in 1965. In 1969 Balanchine divorced his fourth wife, Tanaquil LeClercq, whom he had married on 31 December 1952, in the hope Farrell would marry him. She did not and soon left the company.

On 16 December 1963 the Ford Foundation gave $7,756,750 to support American ballet, and the bulk, to be distributed over about ten years, went to the NYCB, the School of American Ballet, and other companies and schools with Balanchine connections. Not surprisingly, there was an outcry from other choreographers and companies—most notably, the American Ballet Theatre and Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham, and Ted Shawn—who claimed that "true American dance" was being "crucified." In actual fact, this grant focused attention on the financial needs of American dance in general, and several donors soon stepped in to help those not given Ford money.

The Ford Foundation grant also permitted a number of small, regional, Balanchine-related companies to develop into prestigious organizations such as the Boston and Pennsylvania Ballets, to which Balanchine donated some of his masterpieces, including his first American ballet Serenade (1935), for their own repertories. It also allowed the New York school to continue to offer scholarships—a practice begun in 1941 that helped the dancers Tanaquil LeClercq, Jacques d'Amboise, and Edward Villella to attend in the 1940s. Farrell came to the school on a scholarship, and then joined the company in the early 1960s, dancing with d'Amboise, Villella, Tallchief, Erik Bruhn, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Patricia McBride, Arthur Mitchell, and Violette Verdy.

"It's all yours, George. Take it from here," said Philip Johnson, architect for Lincoln Center's New York State Theater. The laconic reply: "Just what I always wanted." This exchange marked the opening night of the $19.3 million theater, considered by many to be the first expressly designed for a choreographer, on 23 April 1964. The theater did indeed contain elements dear to Balanchine's heart—a vast stage with excellent footing, large practice rooms, and good acoustics. Lincoln Center itself grew out of a desire by the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic Society for new buildings, and Kirstein wrote that if "the Met by itself could have built a new home … there would have been no great need…for Lincoln Center." As it turned out, Kirstein and Balanchine were able to nominate their own architect, for whom they were his "single client," even though the theater was to be shared with the New York City Opera. The three principles agreed "to the smallest detail" on their architectural tastes, and Balanchine was an active participant in much of the design, including the floors of the practice studios, which were woven in a system he developed. Since, as Kirstein added, New York at that time had no appropriate space for welcoming heads of state, the promenade and theater interior were designed with great elegance for just such purposes.

Opening night was celebrated with a full-length Midsummer Night's Dream, which Balanchine had first presented in 1962. Balanchine had always imagined a company like the Maryinsky that could present large, elaborate ballets—a vivid contrast to his many spare, uncostumed choreographies—and he later created such dances as Harliquinade (1965), Don Quixote (1965), and Jewels (1967) for the new theater.

In 1969 Jerome Robbins, whom Balanchine had made associate artistic director in 1949, returned to the company as ballet master, having spent over a decade working mostly in musical comedy. More than thirty years before, Balanchine had choreographed Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1936) for Richard Rodgers's On Your Toes, which had integrated classical ballet into musical comedy for the first time, and he produced a new version of Slaughter for the State Theater. It premiered on 2 May 1968, the same day as his Requiem Canticles, created in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The 1970s brought a mix of acclaim and criticism to both company and choreographer. On one hand, some thought his new ballets inferior and the dancing sloppy. On the other, he staged a week of dances, most of them new, for a 1972 Stravinsky Festival, and his company continued to boast many of the finest dancers in the country, now including Gelsey Kirkland, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Peter Martins. By 1979, 400 students were enrolled in the school, where Balanchine himself continued to teach.

A dark, wiry, always dapper man of immense energy, Balanchine suffered his first heart attack in 1978. By 1982 his health was failing quickly, and he entered Roosevelt Hospital in November. He died there of pneumonia brought on by Creutzfelt-Jakob Disease, a rare, fatal brain disorder that is one of the human variants of the so-called "mad cow" disease. Balanchine was devoutly religious, and his huge funeral was held at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign in New York City. He is buried in Sag Harbor, Long Island.

Balanchine's City and Lincoln Center years represented the apogee of ballet in the United States. He raised choreography to an independent art form, and devotees flocked to see his choreography as much as his troupe's extraordinary dancing. In 1973 Deborah Jowitt hailed Balanchine as a "living national treasure." Six years later Walter Terry observed that "after creating more than 100 ballets for the NYCB and its companies … [Balanchine] would now appear to be an American choreographer." Edwin Denby agreed that he was "more than anyone else, the real founder of the American classic style.… He changed the way we look at dance. Very few people in the history of any art have that kind of impact."

The best full-length biography is Bernard Taper, George Balanchine: A Biography (1984). Don McDonagh, George Balanchine (1983), focuses more on his choreographies than his life. There are essays by Lincoln Kirstein in Portrait of Mr. B.: Photographs of George Balanchine (1984), and interviews edited by Francis Mason in I Remember Balanchine: Recollections of the Ballet Master by Those Who Knew Him (1991). Other books of note are Lincoln Kirstein, The New York City Ballet (1973), and Jennifer Dunning, "But First a School": The First Fifty Years of the School of American Ballet (1985). A plethora of journal and newspaper articles have been written about Balanchine. The best of those dealing most specifically about him in the 1960s and after are Ivan Nabokov and Elizabeth Carmichael's interview in Horizon (Jan. 1961): 44–56; Rosalyn Krokover and Harold C. Schonberg, "Ballet in America: One-Man Show?," Harper's Magazine (Sept. 1964): 92–96; Hubert Saal, "Caution: Choreographer at Work," New York Times Magazine (11 Sept. 1966); Lincoln Kirstein, "Balanchine and Stravinsky: The Glorious Undertaking," Dance Magazine (June 1972); Dale Harris, "Balanchine: The End of a Reign?," Saturday Review (15 July 1972); Deborah Jowitt, "Balanchine & Co. at 40, 20 and 10," The New York Times Magazine (11 Nov. 1973); Walter Terry, "Formidable Balanchine: The Long Reign of America's Ballet Master," Saturday Review (29 Sept. 1979); and "Encounters with Balanchine," Dance Magazine (July 1983). Obituaries are in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times (all 1 May 1983), and in Newsweek and Time (both 9 May 1983).

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