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Today's Birthday in Dance: George Balanchine

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george_balanchineHappy Birthday George Balanchine!

Giorgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze (January 22, 1904 – April 30, 1983) was a prolific choreographer, developer of ballet in the United States, and and the co-founder and balletmaster of the New York City Ballet. Balanchine's works are noted for their incredible musicality and thoughtful incorporation of many different art forms. Balanchine's most frequent collaborator was the composer Igor Stravinsky, whose music is incorporated into 39 of his more than 400 ballets. Balanchine also worked with composers Claude Debussy and Darius Milhaud, while the sets and costumes of his ballets have been designed by artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Upon his arrival to the United States, Balanchine established the School of American Ballet, which remains one of the most highly regarded ballet schools in the world.

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via PBS

In 1913, at the age of nine, George Balanchine was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School. However, following the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1917, the school was closed as a symbol of Czarist elitism. The young Balanchine resorted to playing the piano in exchange for food, at cabarets and silent theaters. Eventually, the school reopened with severely limited funding, and Balanchine graduated in 1921. While a student at the Petrograd Conservatory, Balanchine danced as a member of the corps de ballet at the State Academic Theater for Opera and Ballet.

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By 1924, Balanchine had earned a reputation for experimental choreography, including Enigma, a duet performed with bare feet rather than ballet shoes. Facing exile, the young dancer fled for Paris with his wife, Tamara Geva and two other dancers, Alexandra Danilova (later, his second wife) and Nicholas Efimov. During his lifetime, Balachine would be married and divorced five times. In Paris, Balanchine was asked by fellow exile Sergei Diagilev to joined the newly formed Ballets Russes.

Under Diaghilev, Balanchine became the ballet master of the company and went on to choreograph nine ballets, as well as lesser works. During these years, he worked with major composers, such as Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Erik Satie and 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.

In 1928, Balanchine debuted his collaboration with Stravinsky, a ballet combining classical ballet and Greek mythology with jazz movement, called Apollon musagète, Apollo and the Muses. Balanchine described the collaboration as "the turning point in my life".Ballets_Russes_Apollon_1928

Ballets Russes, scene from Apollon musagète.

Dancers: Serge Lifar, Danilova, Chernysheva, Dubrovska, Petrova

After Diaghilev's death in 1929, along with a major knee injury which effectively ended his own dancing career, Balanchine joined the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, where he choreographed three ballets: Cotillon, La Concurrence, and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. His protégée in Monte Carlo was the young Tamara Toumanova, one of the original three "baby ballerinas" that the director had selected from the Russian exile community of Paris.

  

By 1933, Balanchine was the principal choreographer of a struggling dance company which performed in Paris and London. In the midst of the Great Depression, Balanchine created several new works, including collaborations with composers Kurt Weill, Darius Milhaud, and Henri Sauguet, and designer Pavel Tchelitchew. Balanchine was convinced by Lincoln Kirstein, a young American arts patron, to establish a ballet company in the United States.

 

Within three months of his arrival, Balanchine established the School of American Ballet. Later that year, Balanchine had his students play a recital, where they premiered his new work, Serenade to music by Tchaikovsky. It remains a signature work of New York City Ballet.

balanchine4 Time Magazine, January 25, 1954

In the next year, he formed the American Ballet Company, which began performing as the house company for the Metropolitan Opera. Between the 1930s and 40s, Balanchine also choreographed musical theater for dancers like Vernon Duke and Fred Astaire, whom he called "the most interesting, the most inventive, the most elegant dancer of our times... you see a little bit of Astaire in everybody's dancing—- a pause here, a move there. It was all Astaire originally."

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George Balanchine instructing dancer Beryl Grey, via Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

For the next few years, Balanchine moved to Hollywood, where he choreographed for movies, all featuring Vera Zorina, whom he met on the set of The Goldwyn Follies and who subsequently became his third wife. 

 

He eventually returned to New York and established the Ballet Society, which eventually became the New York City Ballet in 1948. In 1955, Balanchine choreographed his version ofThe Nutcracker, in which he played the mime Drosselmeyer. The company has since performed the ballet during each Christmas season.

 

The New York City Ballet was eventually moved to the redesigned New York State Theater (now David H. Koch theater), where Balanchine created large-scale works. For the next few decades, he created and revised nearly forty ballets, including in 1965 a rare foray into the genre of evening-length story ballets, Don Quixote in which he played the title role, opposite Suzanne Farrell.

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Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine dancing in a segment of "Don Quixote" at New York State Theater, via the Library of Congress.

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 Balanchine with Suzanne Farrell

Until the end of his career, Balanchine would create several roles for her. Many dancers, including his former wife Maria Tallchief, quit the company, citing his obsession with Farrell as the reason. Balanchine obtained a Mexican divorce from then-wife Tanaquil LeClercq during this time.

Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins in Chaconne

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George Balanchine raises his arms during a press conference. The New York City Ballet are about to open their first London season in 13 years. (Photo by Ron Case/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


In the summer of 1972, a year after the death of Stravinsky, Balanchine staged another Stravinsky Festival, for which he choreographed several major new works including the "miracle" ballets Stravinsky Violin Concerto and Symphony in Three Movements, both of which premiered on June 18, 1972.

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