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George Balanchine (1904-1983)

By Damien Jack


American ballet has had many inventors, not least among them Catherine Littlefield, the Christensen Brothers, Eugene Loring, Jerome Robbins, and Agnes de Mille. Yet one name stands at the apex of ballet in the United States as both prime mover and most prolific and innovative creator.

George Balanchine.

Heir to the great ballet masters of the past—Noverre, Bournonville, and Petipa—George Balanchine is generally considered the most important ballet choreographer of the 20th century. Through his founding of The School of American Ballet with Lincoln Kirstein in 1934 and of the companies that led to the creation of New York City Ballet in 1948, Balanchine created an American school and style of ballet that was the equal of those of France, Denmark, and Russia.

It was a new American classicism, largely stripped of the “parade and pantomime” of nineteenth-century ballet and marked by Balanchine’s love of American popular culture—of African-American dance, Westerns, Broadway showgirls, and Fred Astaire —with a style characterized by speed, spaciousness, clarity of execution, musicality, and the rhythms of modern American life (Kirstein 141).

Balanchine created over 200 ballets, and choreography for Broadway, vaudeville, and opera stages as well as for film and television—425 works in total. His ballets cover an astonishing range, including narratives (most famously the version of The Nutcracker he created in 1954), shorter poetic or mood pieces (Serenade, 1935; La Valse, 1951), large-scale stage spectacles (Western Symphony, 1954; Stars and Stripes, 1958; Union Jack, 1976), and bravura renditions of Petipa-style classicism (Symphony in C, 1947; Theme and Variations,1947/1960). He remains best known for the series of bold modernist masterpieces he produced primarily during his years at New York City Ballet: Four Temperaments, 1946; Agon, 1957; Episodes, 1959; Movements for Piano and Orchestra, 1963; Stravinsky Violin Concerto 1972; and Kammermusik No 2, 1978. These plotless dances, usually performed in black and white practice clothes against a simple colored cyclorama, are powerful distillations of Balanchine’s idea that “movement in choreography is an end in itself: its only purpose is to create the impression of intensity and beauty” (Balanchine 782). 

Balanchine’s deep and rare understanding of music allowed him to create dense, complex formal explorations of each ballet’s score. He possessed a genius for producing bold dance movement of a seemingly endless richness and variety; yet such was Balanchine’s grounding, his deep understanding of Maryinsky classicism, that his most extreme inventions never seem merely freakish or odd. Every step feels as inevitable as the notes in a Mozart symphony. As historian and critic Jennifer Homans  puts it, “Balanchine’s most classical dances have a radical edge, and his most revolutionary dances were always rooted in classical forms” (526). Rather than simply breaking or shattering the classical style, Balanchine both enlarged and refreshed its language, giving it new and protean form.

Beginnings: 1904-1921

George Balanchine was born in St. Petersburg, Russia on January 22, 1904. Christened Georgi Melitionovich Balanchivadze (Serge Diaghilev twenty years later Gallicized the name), he was the second of three children born to Meliton Balanchivadze, a prominent Georgian composer, and Maria Nikolayevena Vassilyeva, who had a deep love of music and dance. All three children became artists. “We were naturally a musical family,” Balanchine later said. “My brother played the piano, my sister the violin, and from the time I was five years old, I too studied the piano” (746).

In August of 1914, Balanchine was enrolled in the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. At first he was extremely unhappy there. The discipline was strict, and the other students sometimes cruel. As he later remembered it, “I was certain I had no aptitude for dancing and was wasting my time and the Tsar’s money” (746). During his second year at the school his attitude underwent a sudden change:

My first time on stage was in a Tchaikovsky ballet. It was in Sleeping Beauty. I was still a small boy then. I was a cupid, a tiny cupid. It was Petipa’s choreography. I sat down on a golden cage. And suddenly everything opened! A crowd of people, an elegant audience. And the Maryinsky Theater all light blue and gold! And suddenly the orchestra started playing. I sat on the cage in indescribable ecstasy enjoying it all—the music, the theater, and the fact that I was onstage. Thanks to Sleeping Beauty I fell in love with ballet (Volkov 31).

The music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and the choreography of Marius Petipa (1818-1910) became lifelong touchstones for Balanchine. What had previously been meaningless classroom exercises suddenly sprang to life when they were connected with the highly charged world of the theater. After the Sleeping Beauty performance Balanchine threw himself into his studies. Years later the great ballerina Felia Doubrovska (1896-1981) remembered spotting the “little boy who doesn’t miss a thing” watching her and the other company members with eagle eyes as they rehearsed. Balanchine’s great gifts as dancer and choreographer soon became apparent. By 1920 the sixteen-year-old had created, for a school performance, his first recorded piece of choreography, a short pas de deux called La Nuit. Even at this early age, Balanchine, who was to become the master of the pas de deux, played with the conventional form of the duet and experimented with new formulations and extensions of old steps. The fact that La Nuit continued to be performed in Russia long after Balanchine’s departure for the West—Mikhail Baryshnikov recalled seeing the piece performed during his student days—gives us some sense of how distinctive Balanchine’s gifts were even at the very start of his career as a dance maker.

Just as the artistic and social life of St. Petersburg left permanent marks on Balanchine and his art, so did the explosive politics. The years following the Russian Revolution were chaotic, and living conditions harsh. Food was scarce, sometimes impossible to find, and in the winter months fuel for heating was in short supply. When the Bolsheviks closed the school and theater for a brief period, Balanchine went to work as a messenger and as an apprentice to a saddle maker. For a time he accompanied silent films as a pianist—for which he was paid with scraps of food. Starvation undermined Balanchine’s health, leading to his later battle with tuberculosis. The increasing political oppression, censorship, and the Soviets’ gradual turn away from support for experimentation in the arts and toward Socialist realism eventually pushed him to flee the country.

A Musical Education

In 1921 Balanchine graduated with honors and was accepted into the corps de ballet of the former Maryinsky, which now went by the rather more proletarian, post-revolutionary name of the State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet. He soon made a name for himself as a character dancer possessed of speed, bravura style, and strong acting skills, and was especially admired for his performance of the Candy Cane variation in The Nutcracker. At some point between 1919 and 1921, he enrolled as a student at the Petrograd Conservatory of Music, where he studied music theory and continued his piano studies. He also began to compose music. Balanchine’s musical education, which his biographer Bernard Taper has said was “such as no choreographer before has ever had,” would become the envy of his peers (51). It enabled him to make dances that were complex explorations, illustrations, and commentaries on his chosen musical scores; and it made a vast world of sophisticated concert music available to him. Before beginning work on a dance he often produced a piano reduction of the score he was choreographing. He was able to internalize the structure of a musical composition in a way most other choreographers simply could not.

As dance historian Nancy Reynolds has stressed, Balanchine’s understanding of musical structure allowed him to explore a musical score choreographically with great freedom, rather than simply or only following what Stravinsky called the “tyranny of the beat.” Balanchine was able to choreograph “across the bar line, or in counterpoint with the music, or in musical rests, observing inner voices, hidden rhythms, silent downbeats, and pitch contours, to all of which he applied varying accents” (528-529). He was able, as well, to collaborate closely with the living composers he worked with, most famously Igor Stravinsky. In later years he would occasionally step into the pit and conduct the orchestra during performances of his work.

The Russian Avant-Garde and the Young Ballet: 1921-1924

In the early 1920s, Balanchine, still in his teens, became deeply involved in the avant-garde artistic world that briefly blossomed in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Two experimental choreographers, Fedor Lopukhov (1886-1973) and Kasyan Goleizovsky (1892-1970), had a major impact on his development. Balanchine was especially influenced by Lopukhov’s attempts to break away from narrative dance and place music at the heart of balletic construction, as well as by his use of acrobatic and athletic movement. The influences Balanchine came under during this period remained visible throughout his career in the West—in his focus on music and pure dance in ballet construction, in the parallel feet of Apollo (1928), in the complex intertwining of the Agon pas de deux, in the acrobatic contortions seen in Stravinsky Violin Concerto, to name only a few examples. United with Maryinsky classicism this avant-garde spirit of experimentation was the foundation on which Balanchine would later build his American ballet.

Goleizovsky’s Constructivist experiments in extending the classical vocabulary and the example he set as the head of his “avant-garde” dance group inspired Balanchine to found the Young Ballet, in 1922. Made up primarily of Balanchine’s youthful colleagues at the State Ballet, the chamber company performed in cafés, parks, and in the hall of the old State Duma (or parliament) building. Soon the dances Balanchine made for the Young Ballet began drawing appreciative—and sizeable —audiences of actors, artists, intellectuals, and workers. Balanchine and his Young Ballet became the talk of the town.

The more open-minded critics praised Balanchine’s work, but conservative critics railed against it. By 1923 the post-revolutionary artistic renaissance began to meet political resistance. The officials in charge of the former Maryinsky threatened to fire any dancers taking part in Balanchine’s Youth Ballet, and Balanchine was expelled from the theater.

As the political situation grew more oppressive, Balanchine and a few close friends considered other options. “We dreamed of going away,” Balanchine later said, “anywhere, as long as we got away” (Volkov 98). In 1924 Balanchine left for Europe with a carefully, cautiously organized group called the Soviet State Dancers, their ostensible plan to tour German cities during the summer and return to the Soviet Union in the fall. While in Germany, Balanchine and three other dancers—Tamara Geva (Balanchine’s first wife), Alexandra Danilova, and Nicholas Efimov—despite receiving a telegram officially ordering them home, made the fateful decision not to return to the Soviet Union.

From there they traveled to England and an unsuccessful, rag-tag engagement at the Empire Theater, a glamorized vaudeville house in London. Broke and feeling desperate, Balanchine and his comrades made their way to Paris, where the four gifted Russian émigré dancers soon attracted the notice of Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929). An audition was arranged at the home of Diaghilev’s patron and close friend Misia Sert, and all four dancers were asked to join the Ballets Russes.

At the age of twenty, Balanchine was on his way to becoming ballet master of the most famous ballet company in the world.

The Diaghilev Years: 1924-1929

Diaghilev introduced Balanchine to the greatest artists, musicians, and dancers working in Europe, educated him in matters of taste, challenged him, and granted him the freedom and scope to develop as a choreographer. As Balanchine later put it, “the Diaghilev company [was where] I learned to recognize what was great and valid in art, where I acquired the ability and strength to analyze a work of art on its true merits and where, finally, I learned to be on my own, to do what my artistic sense prompted me to do—in short, to be an artist” (753). Years later, in America, Balanchine attempted to give the same education in taste and living to his dancers and choreographers. “He taught you how to live” the New York City Ballet dancer Lourdes Lopez recalled (Garafola 37).

Balanchine created opera-ballets for the Ballets Russes winter season in Monte Carlo, rehearsed the dancers, refurbished the old warhorses in the repertoire, and created new ballets for the company. He made a total of ten ballets during his time with the Ballets Russes, beginning with Le Chant du Rossignol (1925), which marked the start of his extraordinary lifelong association with Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Balanchine would produce a total of thirty-nine works set to Stravinsky scores. Their collaboration really began with Apollon Musagète (1928), now known generally in the English speaking world as Apollo. In Balanchine’s words, of the ballets he made for Diaghilev, Apollo is

. . . the most important of these, certainly the most important for me personally for I regard this ballet as the crucial turning point of my artistic life. . . . Stravinsky’s score for Apollo taught me that a ballet, like his music, must have restraint and discipline. Stravinsky’s music had a wonderful clarity of tone, and I saw that gestures, the basic material of the choreographer, have family relations, like different shades in painting and different tones in music. Some are incompatible with others: one must work within a given frame, consciously, and not dissipate the effect of a ballet with inspirations foreign to the tone or mood one understands it must possess. Apollo depicted Stravinsky’s music visibly (753-754).

More than eight decades after its premiere, Apollo still feels fresh from start to finish, like something newborn or just discovered—highly appropriate to a ballet that is in part about the birth and education of a god. Apollo is often referred to as Balanchine’s first neo-classical ballet, marking the moment when he turned away from a more Romantic style and toward the classicism of Petipa. The ballet has the grandeur of Maryinsky classicism; but it is a modern classicism, human-scaled and stripped of pomposity and fustian. Balanchine seamlessly combines such contemporary innovations as Charleston steps, flat feet, acrobatics, turned-in legs, and jazzy elements drawn from black dance (particularly the thrust forward pelvis that would become a Balanchine trademark) with pure Petipa classicism. Balanchine even made use of positions from Goleizovsky’s avant-garde Soviet dances—a mix of styles that, in hands other than Balanchine’s, might feel odd and anything but classical. Instead, Balanchine’s Apollo creates the sense of an ancient ritual unfolding outside of time. Every step and gesture feels inevitable, in large part because every movement is organically integrated with Stravinsky’s musical structure.

Apollo is Balanchine’s earliest ballet to survive from the Diaghilev period, although he made many changes in the work over the years. The other surviving ballet from this period is Prodigal Son (1929).

Set to a score by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) with décor by Georges Rouault (1871-1958), Prodigal Son takes its story from the biblical parable. Whereas in Apollo dance dominates story, in Prodigal Son the narrative is as important as the dancing. Everything about Prodigal Son makesa bold contrast with Apollo. In place of Apollo’s tender, chaste lyricism, Prodigal Son is expressionistic, hot, and emotional. Init,Balanchine combines classical steps with acrobatics, mime, and poses derived from Byzantine icons. While Apollo is cool and calm, Prodigal contains moments of savage intensity and over-the-top theatricality. The ballet is especially remembered for its sexually charged pas de deux between the Prodigal and the dangerously seductive Siren.

With these two ballets, both masterpieces, Balanchine, at twenty-five, entered a new phase in his creative life. He had a growing reputation as a choreographer and his position as Diaghilev’s ballet master was secure. Then, on August 19, 1929, Diaghilev died in Venice, and his company died with him. Balanchine later described it as the “end [of] the most important and entertaining twenty years of creativity in music and painting and dancing that Europe had seen since the Renaissance” (Balanchine 754).

The Wandering Years: 1929-1933

The members of Diaghilev’s company were dispersed, and Balanchine spent the next years as an itinerant choreographer crisscrossing Europe in search of work. He moved between the world of popular entertainment and the more rarefied world of the ballet, setting a pattern that would continue after his move to the United States when he worked on Broadway and in Hollywood. In the years after Diaghilev’s death he produced choreography for Charles B. Cochran’s musical shows in London’s West End in 1930 and 1931. Again in London, with a company billed as “16 Delightful Balanchine Girls 16,” he created dances for Sir Oswald Stoll’s Variety Shows. There were brief stints as guest Ballet Master at the Royal Danish Ballet and a promising job creating a new ballet at the Paris Opera, cut short when Balanchine fell ill with tuberculosis. Balanchine’s health remained precarious for many years, but he was well enough in 1932 to join Blum and de Basil’s Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo.

Balanchine brought with him to Monte Carlo three remarkable young dancers he had discovered in Paris: Irina Baronova (aged 13), Tamara Toumanova (aged 14), and Tatiana Riabouchinska (aged 15). Collectively they became known as the “Baby Ballerinas” and all three became important stars. Balanchine was often drawn to young dancers, beginning with Alicia Markova, who was thirteen when he created the lead in Le Chant de Rossignol for her. During his years at New York City Ballet Tanaquil Le Clercq, Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell and Darci Kistler all became muse figures for Balanchine while they were still in their teens. Balanchine loved their clean, unmannered dancing. He never tried to efface their individuality but instead sought through his teaching and dance-making to bring forward and nourish each dancer’s special qualities and gifts—a practice he followed with all of his dancers.

Balanchine created three works for Blum and de Basil, each of which featured some combination of the “baby” ballerinas: La Concurrence, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and the much loved dream ballet Cotillion. However, Balanchine found de Basil difficult to work with. He later described de Basil as “an octopus. A crooked octopus, and with bad taste” (Gottlieb 65). In any case, Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo was too caught up in an attempt to revive the lost glamour of Diaghilev’s company to appeal to the forward-looking Balanchine.

Finally, in 1933, he formed his own company: the short-lived Les Ballets 1933, for which he created six new productions including his first version of Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana. Twice during his American career Balanchine returned to this ravishing score. The version he made for New York City Ballet in 1981 was his last great work as a choreographer and a final gift to Suzanne Farrell.         

The financing for Les Ballets 1933 was precarious, and despite the strength and variety of Balanchine’s work and the lavish production designs only two brief seasons in Paris and London took place. In London the company failed to draw a large audience. It was clear Les Ballets 1933 would not live to see 1934. Balanchine’s future in Europe was dim. His health troubles resurfaced. He had few prospects for work that interested him, and the economic and political situation was growing dark.

Lincoln Kirstein and America: 1933-1946

In the audience during the Paris and London seasons of Les Ballets 1933 sat a twenty-six-year-old American named Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996). The wealthy, Boston-bred, Harvard-educated Kirstein fell in love with ballet at an early age—the atmosphere of glamour and artistic experiment that surrounded Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes fuelled what became an obsession. At the age of seventeen he saw the company perform for the first time during a trip to England, and his fate was sealed. “It was exactly as if I had come home to a splendid country for which I knew I had been destined, but which up to that point I could not seem to find” (Taper 148). Kirstein became an aesthete with a mission. An independent, truly American tradition of ballet did not exist in 1933; classical ballet was quite simply a European art form. Kirstein dreamed of creating an American ballet, one with a distinctive American voice—and he had the means, connections, and commitment to make his dream real. With additional financial backing from his Harvard classmate and friend Edward M.M. Warburg, Kirstein had come to Europe in search of a choreographer. Having seen both Apollo and Prodigal Son on a previous trip, he was already familiar with Balanchine’s work. Now Kirstein invited Balanchine to create a company in America, and Balanchine, “feeling he had nothing left to lose at that point in his life,” said yes (Dunning 26).

The two men couldn’t have been more different. Balanchine was supremely self-confident, certain of his gifts and destiny. He was famous for his calm, poised demeanor. He possessed both courage and strength of will strengthened in part by his intense Orthodox faith and by the hardships he had experienced during the revolution. Kirstein, for all his accomplishments, was often insecure and prickly. He suffered through terrible bouts of depression and mental illness. Despite these differences Balanchine and Kirstein committed themselves to what must have seemed at times an utterly impossible project. Over the course of the next fifty years they would together build American ballet’s two greatest institutions, The School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet.

“But First a School”

Famously, it was the school that was established first. Balanchine had watched Diaghilev struggle unsuccessfully to maintain a high level of dancing in his company once he was cut off from the great Russian academies following the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Without a first rate school from which to draw talented and disciplined dancers the company’s dancing was, in Balanchine’s words, a “disaster” (Dunning 39).  He also knew first-hand that the Maryinsky’s connection with the Imperial School was vital to that company’s success. It was exactly this system that Kirstein and Balanchine sought to replicate when they officially opened the doors of The School of American Ballet (SAB) in New York City on January 2, 1934, just three months after Balanchine’s arrival in America. In short order the school was drawing students from around the country. By 1934 a number of American-born dancers who would make their names with Balanchine had already arrived at the school, including William Dollar, Lew Christensen, Ruthanna Boris and the phenomenal Marie-Jeanne. SAB became the cornerstone of the Balanchine enterprise in America: “In 1934 we opened the school here,” Balanchine recalled. “From then on I don’t count. That’s my biography” (Dunning 47).

An American Choreographer: 1934-1948

Two months after the opening of SAB Balanchine clapped his hands after class and told the students: “take rest…we will make some steps” (Gottlieb 77). Those steps became Serenade (1935), the first ballet Balanchine made in the United States and, in the words of Bernard Taper, “the first of any consequence created for American dancers” (156). The students enrolled at SAB in 1934 had for the most part no professional experience, although a number were quite gifted technically. Balanchine overcame the lack of experience by facing it squarely. In doing so he created one of the greatest works in the ballet repertoire. It is a ballet that Balanchine revised over the years and it has gone through many changes both in terms of structure and costuming (originally the women wore short plain tunics); but it remains, along with Symphony in C and the ubiquitous Nutcracker, perhaps his most loved ballet.

He inscribed the very situation he faced in the classroom into the opening tableau of the ballet. It is a stunning moment: the curtain rises on seventeen women in ankle-length tulle skirts—Barbara Karinska’s elegant variation on the Romantic tutu—the whole scene is bathed in a cool blue light, like moonlight. Each dancer stands with one armed raised, a yearning, aspirational gesture. As Tchaikovsky’s music takes wing, they move through a series of simple gestures or poses like students in a classroom and then suddenly to the sounding of a chord, all at once, they move into first position—the elementary position of classical ballet. We are watching a ritual of transformation: a group of young, untried students is being turned into classical dancers. The keynote of the ballet is simplicity, Balanchine is applying the lessons in restraint he learned while making Apollo, but this is a lush, sweeping simplicity rooted in the sweep and rush of Tchaikovsky’s score.

Serenade is now seen as something of a calling card announcing Balanchine’s arrival as an American choreographer. The ballet contains many elements of what we now consider the Balanchine style: “distinguished music as ‘floor,’ absence of star dancers, simple or nonexistent costumes and décor, using the corps de ballet as a full participant, the absence of pretext or plot, the primacy of choreography” (Reynolds 268).

Serenade received its New York premiere on March 1, 1935, on a program that included five other Balanchine ballets. The run marked the New York debut of the American Ballet, the first company formed by Balanchine and Kirstein. An ambitious tour was planned but collapsed after just a few dates when the tour manager absconded with the house receipts. The American Ballet found refuge of a sort from 1935 to 1938 as the resident ballet company at the Metropolitan Opera House but ran afoul of the conservative taste of both management and audience. Balanchine directed a major production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice there in 1936 with striking décor, lighting, and costumes designed by Pavel Tchelitchev (1898-1957). He moved the singers offstage into the pit with the musicians, while his dancers, like Greek vase paintings sprung to life, played out the story onstage. Tchelitchev created a phantasmagorical setting of white and silver tree branches. The underworld was eerily roofed over with the dangling roots of trees that towered “halfway up the stage” (Mason 165). The opera drew cheers from intellectuals, artists, and writers, but was too innovative to please either the dusty Met audiences or the stodgy New York music critics. The reviews were scathing, and the opera was performed only twice. However, as Kirstein proudly put it shortly afterward: 

A few American painters, poets, architects, writers, musicians, actors, and stage-directors on seeing it at both performances have never forgotten it. Take it or leave it, here in 1936 was an attempt towards living theater (33).

A misunderstood masterpiece, Balanchine’s 1936 Orpheus and Eurydice has entered the realm of theatrical legend. It lives on too in George Platt Lynes’s haunting series of photographs of the production that vividly capture the charged eroticism of the choreography. Balanchine would return to the Orpheus legend and to Gluck’s opera repeatedly during the course of his career.        

A Stravinsky festival held at the Met in 1937 was a far more successful undertaking in terms of critical response. It included the American debut of Balanchine’s Apollo with Lew Christensen dancing the lead and two new Balanchine-Stravinsky ballets, Le Baiser de la Fée and Card Game (the score of which had been commissioned for the festival). Stravinsky’s presence as conductor and the festival’s success with both press and audiences were not enough to salvage Balanchine’s relationship with the Metropolitan, and in 1938 he was fired.

Broadway and Hollywood

While still working at the Metropolitan, Balanchine began a parallel career making dances for Broadway shows and revues. During this period he moved between the worlds of popular entertainment and high art with the same ease he had shown in the period after Diaghilev’s death. His first job came in 1935, creating dances for the Ziegfeld Follies—including a long number for Josephine Baker (1906-1975) an old acquaintance from his Paris years. In 1936 he had his first big success with the Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes, for which he demanded and received credit as “choreographer”—a first for a Broadway dance-maker. He went on to design innovative choreography for such hits as Babes in Arms, Cabin in the Sky, The Boys from Syracuse, and Where’s Charlie. He also broke ground for later innovators, including Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins, creating the first “dream ballet” sequence in a show (for Babes in Arms, 1937), and pioneering the integration of dance with storyline. His close collaborators included such important dance figures as the Nicholas Brothers, Ray Bolger, and Katherine Dunham. The influence of tap and jazz dance styles can be seen in a number of Balanchine ballets including Concerto Barocco (1941), The Four Temperaments, and Agon to name only a few. Balanchine’s ballet tribute to the songs of George Gershwin, Who Cares (1970) nostalgically evokes the flavor of his Broadway years as well. And of course the influence of Fred Astaire on Balanchine’s work has often been noted. Although the two never worked together, Balanchine admired Astaire’s work enormously. In her autobiography, Maria Tallchief finds traces of Astaire’s influence in both Theme and Variations and Symphony in C and describes The Four Temperaments with its jazzy elements and forward thrust hips as steeped in “George’s contemplation of Astaire” (Tallchief 84).

Balanchine also found work in Hollywood during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Beginning in 1937 he worked on a series of films for Samuel Goldwyn, all of which starred the glamorous Vera Zorina (1917-2003), who became his wife in 1938. He was able to bring with him to Hollywood a number of the dancers from the American Ballet. Beginning with The Goldwyn Follies (1938) he created a series of fantastical balletic dance sequences designed to highlight Zorina’s otherworldly beauty. Balanchine had worked in film once only once prior to his Hollywood adventure when he created a dance sequence for one of the first feature-length talking films made in Britain, Blood Red Roses (1930), but he quickly mastered the art of making epic dance sequences for the camera by using special effects and composing passages “directly to suit the camera field and the camera angle” (Denby 521). He made dances for four more Hollywood films following The Goldwyn Follies: On Your Toes (1939), I Was an Adventuress (1940), Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), and Follow the Boys (1944).      

Balanchine’s most unexpected foray into popular entertainment came in 1942 when he created The Ballet of the Elephants for Ringling Brother Circus in which the elephants “danced” to a score he commissioned for the occasion—Stravinsky’s Circus Polka.

The South American Tour

In 1941 Balanchine and Kirstein formed a new company called American Ballet Caravan that began a four-month-long good-will tour of South America underwritten by a division of the American State Department headed by Nelson Rockefeller. With war raging in Europe and fears high that the United States would be drawn into the conflict, the Roosevelt Administration embarked on a program to shore up cultural relations between North and South America. Ballet was used to sweeten America’s image abroad. For this tour Balanchine created two of his greatest works: Concerto Barocco and Ballet Imperial (renamed Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1973). Ballet Imperial was a lavish recreation of Maryinsky classicism and the Franco-Russian tradition of Petipa. The ballet’s bravura footwork and lightning-fast jumps and turns for the principals perfectly mirror its glittering Tchaikovsky score. Concerto Barocco, set to Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, is sparer, with fewer fireworks but with sweeping, liquid adagio sections. Both dances dispense with any pretense of plot and both show how adept and innovative Balanchine had become in his use of the corps de ballet. Rather than using the corps in the conventional way, as window dressing for the stars, Balanchine creates a complex conversation among the corps, the ensemble, and the principals—weaving them together in intricate and surprising patterns. In ballet after ballet, from Serenade on, his corps de ballets are not the anonymous dancing phalanxes of tradition, but real individuals playing a major role in the unfolding dance. In Barocco, Balanchine gives the corps de ballet as much to do as he gives the soloists. His restructuring of the relationship between soloists and corps involved a break with the old hierarchies of classical ballet and is one of the most important and influential of Balanchine’s formal innovations.

Denham’s Ballet Russe: 1944-1946

Shortly after the tour ended, America entered the Second World War. Kirstein enlisted in the army, and American Ballet Caravan folded. Balanchine spent the next years (1944-46) working for Serge Denhams’s New York-based Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Energized by the prospect of working once more with a large company of dancers, Balanchine quickly and efficiently revitalized the moribund Ballet Russe. He introduced new productions of Serenade, Baiser de la Fée, Ballet Imperial,and Concerto Barocco to the repertoire and mounted revised, largely new versions of his Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1944) and Mozartiana (1945). The Ballet Russe dancers responded enthusiastically to Balanchine’s coaching and to the new repertoire, which was a drastic departure from the choreographic re-workings of old Diaghilev formulas that had been the company’s bread and butter.    

Balanchine found himself working closely with a number of dancers who had been trained at SAB. The most prominent of these was slim, long-legged Mary Ellen Moylan. She had previously danced in a number of Balanchine works at various venues. Under his careful eye she developed into a dancer who possessed all of the traits—speed, strong attack, musicality, and eloquent but unmannered feet and hands—that would be identified with the “Balanchine ballerina.” The freshness, athleticism, and lack of old-world airs exemplified by Moylan lay at the heart of Balanchine’s new American style. He had been refining this style since the creation of Serenade in 1935. By 1943 Edwin Denby had already spotted these qualities in dancers Balanchine had trained or rehearsed:  “They have an indefinable grace in dancing that seems to come naturally to them, that seems extemporaneous. They look not so much like professionals but like boys and girls dancing” (103). During Balanchine’s first decades in the United States ballet audiences expected to see dancers move with a hyper-theatrical hauteur which was associated with both the European past and the glamour of the Diaghilev era.  Throughout Balanchine’s career both critics and audiences often accused his dancers of coldness, of being anti-theatrical and depersonalized. That today we accept and often expect ballet dancers moving with the unaffected grace described by Denby speaks to the tremendous revolution Balanchine has wrought.

During his Denham Ballet Russe period Balanchine was reunited with Alexandra Danilova. One of the great ballerinas of the century, Danilova was the company’s prima ballerina. She had been a student at the Imperial School with Balanchine and a member of his Young Ballet. Together they had escaped Russia and joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. For a time during the Diaghilev years they lived together in a common law marriage, and Danilova was his muse. It was for her he created the great role of Terpsichore in Apollo. Many years later, at Balanchine’s invitation, Danilova joined the staff of SAB, becoming an influential and much loved teacher. Now, Balanchine made a series of new roles for her in Danses Concertantes (1944) and, most unforgettably, as the sleepwalker in the neo-Gothic Night Shadow (later renamed La Sonnambula) (1946). Drawing on their memories of the old Maryinsky version, the two also mounted a full-scale production of Petipa’s Raymonda (1946) that was in many ways ahead of its time—American audiences still had not developed a taste for evening-length ballets.

Still, Balanchine’s most fateful meeting during this period was with a young up-and-coming member of the company named Maria Tallchief (b. 1925). Tallchief was already attracting attention with her powerful, dramatic dancing. Balanchine spotted her gifts, in particular her potent musicality, and was immediately drawn to her. He became her teacher, mentor, and, in 1946, her husband. Over a period of many years he completely rebuilt and transformed her technique. Under his tutelage she became the foremost ballerina in the United States and the first American-born prima ballerina to be recognized internationally. She created roles in over twenty-five of Balanchine’s ballets, and her great popularity with audiences helped keep New York City Ballet afloat during the company’s financially difficult early years.

On the surface Denham’s Ballet Russe seemed to be a congenial home for Balanchine. The company introduced his work to audiences across the country during its many tours and in 1945 presented a two-evening celebration devoted to his dances. He was also able to stock the company with young American graduates of SAB. However, Balanchine and Denham never quite saw eye to eye. Denham never granted him the title of artistic director, and Balanchine needed and wanted more control over repertoire than Denham would give him. Most of all Balanchine loathed the incessant touring, which made it difficult to maintain the company’s dancing at a high level. Ultimately Balanchine’s aesthetic vision was at odds with Denham’s more commercial and retrograde view, and he left the company in 1946. Fortunately the South American tour had renewed Balanchine’s and Kirstein’s shared commitment to creating a permanent company centered on Balanchine’s choreography and American dancers. When Kirstein returned from the war, the two men would embark on a new venture that would, at last, lead directly to the creation of New York City Ballet.

Ballet Society: 1946-1948

Balanchine’s and Kirstein’s previous attempts at creating a company had to a large extent foundered on exigencies connected with working in the commercial theater, primarily the relentless focus on box-office receipts and the outsized power and interference of theater owners and managers such as those they had encountered during their time at the Metropolitan Opera. Both men felt an extreme distaste for the commercial machinations of promoters, like Sol Hurok, who insisted on bankable stars and conservative crowd-pleasing productions. Then there were the dance critics. John Martin of the New York Times was the most powerful of them, and he had taken a negative view of Balanchine’s endeavors in the United States from the start. For Martin, ifthere were to be an American ballet it could never be the creation of a Russian-born choreographer who practiced what he called “Riviera esthetics” (Taper 162). To reread Martin’s condescending reviews of Balanchine’s masterworks of the 1930s and 1940s is to be left stunned as Apollo, Serenade, Symphony in C, and The Four Temperaments are each in turn casually, waspishly dismissed as uninspired and dull. Martin dogged Balanchine and Kirstein for decades, only coming to recognize Balanchine’s greatness during the New York City Ballet period.

These were a few of the obstacles Balanchine and Kirstein faced when in 1946 they founded Ballet Society. The new venture was designed to subvert the commercial system that had so bedeviled them in the past. It was a membership-only company. Anyone could purchase a subscription, but the idea was to build an audience of high-brow connoisseurs, artists, and intellectuals who appreciated new and challenging work. Critics could attend only if they purchased subscriptions, and they were asked not to review the company’s performances. The plans for Ballet Society were ambitious. While the ballet company would be at the heart of the endeavor there would also be opera productions, concerts, poetry readings, and film screenings. The program for Ballet Society was impractical to say the least, and financially impossible to maintain.          

However, the work Balanchine created for Ballet Society during its two years of existence was, in its emotional range and formal invention, a prelude to the miraculous span of creative activity that took place over the next thirty-five years at New York City Ballet. The most important works Balanchine made for Ballet Society were The Four Temperaments (1946) and Orpheus (1948).

The Four Temperaments is set to Paul Hindemith’s Theme with Four Variations, which had been commissioned by Balanchine years earlier with money he earned from his work on Broadway. As the dance begins a man and a woman stand like twins, side by side in silence. He offers her his hand, and as she accepts it we hear the lush ceremonious strings of Hindemith’s score. The simple clarity of this first gesture is breathtaking. The offering and taking of a hand is one of the fundamental gestures of classical ballet. Balanchine takes that series of movements and, without altering its simplicity, heightens its power and (coupled with the music) makes it dramatic in much the same way he used first position in the opening of Serenade (1935). What follows, however, is a jaw-dropping display of invention and anything but simple—modern, fast, and unprecedented in the way it distorts and reconfigures the language of classical ballet. Throughout The Four Temperaments Balanchine creates novel, astonishing ways of moving through space. Balanchine draws primarily from the classical vocabulary in The Four Temperaments, but many critics also see the influence of American modern dance, of African-American dance styles, Broadway, and Fred Astaire in the ballet’s syncopated “tap-like” steps, asymmetry, out-thrust hips and crumpled bodies (Banes 66-67). But the influences have all been fully absorbed into Balanchine’s own miraculous language.

The ballet is as tightly woven and intricate as a Persian carpet.

From its first performance The Four Temperaments has been recognized as a masterpiece and over time has become one of the most loved of Balanchine’s dances, cherished by audiences, dancers, and critics alike. Time Magazine’s special millennium issue of December 31, 1999, called it the greatest dance of the 20th century, placing it alongside other masterpieces of modernism from Eliot’s The Wasteland and Joyce’s Ulysses to Matisse’s Red Studio.

The collaboration between Balanchine and Stravinsky on Orpheus was perhaps the closest ever between a composer and choreographer. Lincoln Kirstein commissioned the score for Orpheus in 1946 but Balanchine had discussed the ballet with Stravinsky as early as 1945. The two had of course collaborated before, most famously on Apollo, but their working relationship grew closer as they drew up plans for this new ballet. They began working side by side at Stravinsky’s home in Los Angeles, plotting out each scene of the ballet, deciding on the exact length of every section—all before the score the was composed. Stravinsky and Balanchine continued to work together in New York as the ballet took shape, and Stravinsky conducted the premiere. Isamu Noguchi’s décor and costumes, Jean Rosenthal’s lighting, and Balanchine’s choreography all harmonize with Stravinsky’s luminous score to produce an unusually unified work of art.

On the surface Orpheus appears to go against the grain of much of what we think of when we think of a Balanchine ballet. First and foremost, Orpheus is more a dance-ritual, or what today would be termed “dance theater,” than a conventional ballet. It is a dance that tells a story by the great master of non-narrative dance. It is a dance built primarily from long passages of slow movement (and stillness) by a master of speed. It is a dance with few obviously virtuosic steps by the master of balletic virtuosity. The entire work depends less on classical steps than on a modernist vocabulary of mime and gesture. However, it may be that we have a general tendency to make of Balanchine’s work too neat and uniform an oeuvre. We tend to overlook Don Quixote, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Prodigal Son. We tend to remember instead the non-narrative black and white ballets such as The Four Temperaments and Agon. When viewed in proper perspective among the full range of Balanchine’s dances, Orpheus appears less of an oddity even if it sometimes takes his gifts in directions that he chose not to follow up in later work. And it remains the case that among the works that Balanchine made following the end of his collaboration with Tchelitchev, Orpheus stands alone as an example in which décor, costume, and lighting serve as equal partners to dance and music.

Orpheus has an especially important place in the history of the New York City Ballet. Morton Baum, the chief financial executive of the New York City Center for the Arts happened by chance to see Orpheus after wandering into a rehearsal. He was so moved by what he saw on stage that he experienced what he termed an “epiphany.” Indeed, Baum felt compelled following the experience to invite the homeless and financially failing Ballet Society to take up residence at the City Center. Thus was born New York City Ballet (Goldner 24). Isamu Noguchi’s distinctive design for Orpheus’ lyre became the company’s emblem. After fifteen years of struggle Balanchine and Kirstein had at last found a permanent home.

New York City Ballet: 1948-1983

All of Balanchine’s previous training and experience—his early years at the Imperial School and the Maryinsky, the years making dances for Diaghilev, for companies small and large in Europe and America, on Broadway and in Hollywood —culminated in his thirty-five-year reign as ballet master at New York City Ballet. He ruled the company, with assistance from Kirstein and a small dedicated staff, as a benevolent autocrat involved not only in the making of ballets but also in teaching, rehearsing, casting, and planning programs and subscription seasons. No detail of music, lighting or costumes was too small to receive his attention. While the company did present the works of other choreographers, most importantly those of Jerome Robbins, it was Balanchine’s work and reputation that dominated the company. “Nowhere else in the world” wrote John Martin “is there a ballet company that is similarly the creation of a single mind” (Taper 260).

He was unpretentious about his work and status. He rejected Romantic notions of genius and preferred the title of ballet master to that of artistic director, describing himself as a craftsman rather than as an artist. His calm demeanor under difficult circumstances was legendary. As company member Richard Tanner put it: “Balanchine didn’t act like a big star or a great genius. He acted as…a working person who came in and did his job” (Mason 561).

Forty-four years old when Ballet Society morphed into the New York City Ballet,  Balanchine guided the company through its difficult early years. Financing was precarious, performances few, and the audience sometimes so small that the dancers onstage outnumbered the public seated in the auditorium. But the audience soon grew and the company’s performances became important events in New York City’s cultural life. A 1950 tour to Great Britain brought increased recognition at home. “I shall never forget,” wrote Balanchine, “the long engagement the New York City Ballet had at Covent Garden in 1950. It was the longest period up to that time that we had had to dance on any one stage, and when we came back to the City Center the autumn of that year, everyone knew, I believe, that there was no stopping the objectives Lincoln Kirstein and I had set out to accomplish” (656).

Further tours of American cities, Europe and Asia followed, culminating in a 1962 tour of the Soviet Union—a highly emotional homecoming for Balanchine. Grants from the Rockefeller and the Ford Foundations helped put the company and SAB on a firmer financial footing. The school flourished, providing the company with dancers trained to Balanchine’s exacting standards. By 1966, when New York City Ballet moved from City Center to the New York State Theater at the newly built Lincoln Center, Balanchine’s name was becoming synonymous with ballet in America. The Stravinsky Festival of 1972 was a high-water mark for Balanchine. The celebration took place over one week during which thirty-one ballets set to the music of Stravinsky were presented; of these nine were by Balanchine, including Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Symphony in Three Movements and Duo Concertant. Both for the quality of the work presented and the sheer magnitude of the undertaking, the festival put the seal on Balanchine’s reputation. Further festivals dedicated to Ravel (1975) and Tchaikovsky (1981) followed.

Balanchine had built what was arguably the greatest performing arts institution of his time. At the heart of the enterprise was the repertoire he created for the company. Variety had always been a mark of his work, but now he needed to build a diverse repertoire that would please audiences year after year. The variety of the dances he created and of the moods and images he conjured is truly astonishing. He often compared himself to a chef creating a meal—appetizer, main course, and dessert. In the first years of the company’s existence he created dances as different as The Firebird (1949), a showpiece for Tallchief and the company’s first box-office smash; Bourrée Fantastique (1949), a high-energy comic ballet designed as a program “closer”; and the Romantic, doom-laden La Valse (1951). In 1954 with The Nutcracker he returned to his youth at the Maryinsky, recreating many of the dances he remembered from the St. Petersburg production, including the “Candy Cane” variation he had danced so successfully as a young man. In the process he both created an American holiday tradition and helped set New York City Ballet on a firm financial footing. When he turned to the past or paid homage to tradition as in The Nutcracker, Ballet Imperial, Symphony in C, Allegro Brillante (1954), or Donizetti Variations (1960), among many others, he never created a pastiche or stale reconstruction but, instead, made something bold and new. “The past and present seem to happen” in these ballets “at the same time as they do in the drama of personal memory” (Denby 101).

His most radically modernist works, from The Four Temperaments and Agon (1957) through Ivesiana to Episodes (1959) and Stravinsky Violin Concerto (1972), are not only formally ingenious, they are also powerful emotional experiences. Danced in black and white “practice clothes,” without sets and governed by complex, difficult modern music rather than by plot, these dances are stripped-down but also richly textured. We may admire the Agon pas de deux primarily for its formal invention, but it also “touches the imagination with a mysterious expressive message,” all the more powerful for not being clearly spelled out (Denby 522). Both Agon and The Four Temperaments have a rhythmic exuberance that seems distinctly urban and American. While their primary impetus derives from their musical scores, there is something of the sharp energy of New York in both works. It is this energy—and the speed and clarity characteristic of Balanchine style—that dancer Jean-Pierre Bonnefous had in mind when he said, “to dance his ballets I think you have to learn to be part of New York” (Jowitt 255).

Other works Balanchine created for New York City Ballet touch directly on American themes or images. Western Symphony exuberantly links classical ballet with the atmosphere of the old West. Ballerinas and cavaliers become dance hall girls and cowboys. In Square Dance (1957) he introduces a “caller” and something of the formal geometry of square dancing into a classical ballet set to the music of Corelli and Vivaldi. Stars and Stripes is a tongue-in-cheek rendition of 4th-of-July-style patriotism set to Sousa marches.

As Balanchine prepared the company for the shift to the much larger stage at Lincoln Center he began creating dances on a more lavish scale. The dancer Patricia McBride feels he was already thinking about the move when he created the evening-length A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1962(Mason 439).  Following the first season at Lincoln Center in 1964 he created Don Quixote and recreated Petipa’s Harlequinade (both 1965), and in 1967 came the first plotless evening-length ballet, Jewels.

These were also the years in which Suzanne Farrell became a dominant presence both onstage and off. Balanchine fell in love with her and created for her a series of roles that displayed her commanding presence, musicality, and bold, fluid dancing. Don Quixote, the Diamonds section of Jewels, Chaconne (1976), and Vienna Waltzes (1977) all revealed a dancer who could encompass both lush lyricism and off-balance risk taking.

The strength of the entire company was at a peak. Night after night audiences crowded the New York State Theater in the 1960s and 1970s, eager to see the latest Balanchine masterpiece.

Muses and Dancers

“The choreography,” Balanchine once said, “the steps—those don’t mean a thing. Steps are made by a person. It’s the person dancing the steps—that’s what choreography is, not the steps themselves” (Taper 321). It is probable that when Balanchine spoke those words he had a woman in mind. Ballet, he said, “…is a woman” (Gottlieb 201). Over the course of his career he created ballets for many of the twentieth century’s greatest ballerinas. Some became muses. Four of them he married: Tamara Geva, Vera Zorina, Maria Tallchief, and Tanaquil Le Clercq. In her memoirs Danilova (with whom he lived from 1926 to 1933) says, “For most of his career, I think art and romance were all wrapped up together—there was no distinguishing between them” (187). The Balanchine ballerina has been characterized as tall, thin—a greyhound with a cool stage presence. There is no doubt that this type became dominant during the New York City Ballet years. However, the women who became his muses and his archetypal dancers did not present a  uniform picture. Among them were Geva, Danilova, Zorina, Tallchief, Le Clercq, Diana Adams, Allegra Kent, and Farrell.  When one remembers their dancing or sees film of their performances one finds nothing uniform or impersonal about them. What stands out is the tremendous individuality of these women. All of Balanchine’s dancers share a clean, crisp clarity of line, speed, musicality, and an absence of “ballet star” affectations.

The male dancers he worked with shared these traits. During his years in America he created roles for a remarkable group of men who brought a new naturalness and athleticism to the ballet stage; among them were Francisco Moncion, Todd Bolender, Jacques d’Amboise, Edward Villella, Arthur Mitchell, and Peter Martins. Balanchine created a modern American cavalier stripped of fussiness and princely affectations. He trained his male dancers to be as fast and flexible as his women.

He once told Tallchief that he would be best remembered as a teacher.  As she put it, “He was patient. He let a dancer in on the process, allowed her to see what was happening, to feel she was building herself up through what he was asking her to do. He helped dancers establish faith in themselves” (119). His company class was famously challenging, and it was through those classes that he created the dancers he needed for his ballets. One dancer recalled, “he grew as a choreographer as the dancers grew. If he changed Symphony in C or Serenade over the years, it was because the dancers could do more.  He and the dancers developed together” (Mason 357).  The Balanchine style was characterized by, among other things, a distinctive open arabesque, fast footwork, big extensions, and full turnout. In class he often forced the dancers to focus on the simplest elements of training: tendu and the presentation of the foot, plié. His dancers’ mastery of these elements allowed them to move with a stunning strength and ease. When a Balanchine ballerina dances on pointe, it never looks like a stunt but appears natural and unforced. In his ballets there is none of the “step and pose” found in so much earlier ballet choreography; instead the movements flow like music in long sequences and phrases. He wanted every movement, whether fast or slow, to be performed with the greatest possible fullness and energy. Nearly every dancer who worked with him has told of his incredible skill and elegance when demonstrating movement in class or while making a ballet. During his old age he moved with a grace that even his young dancers felt they never could replicate.

Final Years

By 1979 Balanchine’s health was in decline. He suffered from heart disease and failing eye-sight and was beginning to exhibit symptoms of the neurological disease that eventually killed him. A number of the dances he created during this time make both overt and indirect references to death, and it is clear that he was wrestling with feelings about mortality in his last great works, Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze (1980) and Mozartiana (1981). As part of the 1981 Tchaikovsky Festival, Balanchine choreographed the last, “Adagio Lamentoso,” movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony—the Pathétique. Performed twice and never revived, the dance was a ritualized theatrical enactment of Tchaikovsky’s great lament, a requiem complete with Byzantine angels and processions of hooded monks. As the symphony draws to its melancholy close, a boy enters dressed in white and carrying a candle. He stands stage center. As the melody falters and fades in a dying fall, the child extinguishes the candle, plunging the theater into darkness. Balanchine was saying farewell to the art form and the audience he loved. The little boy who stood enraptured on the stage of the Maryinsky at the start of his career had, after so many years, come full circle. 

The dances he created changed the face of ballet in America and across the globe. The institutions he built, The New York City Ballet and the School of America Ballet, have survived his passing. His dances remain the most important and the most loved part of the New York City Ballet repertoire. SAB continues to keep his teaching practices alive, and the school’s graduates fill the ranks of NYCB and of dance companies the world over. His work and his vision of ballet as a modernist twentieth century art form have influenced generations of choreographers from Jerome Robbins to Twyla Tharp, William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon, and Alexi Ratmansky. Several generations of his City Ballet dancers have formed an ever-expanding Balanchine diaspora, founding dance companies and schools from Seattle to Miami and from Kansas City to Washington D.C. Young choreographers either imitate his style or turn against it, but they all grapple with his influence. His ballets, which he once compared to ephemeral butterflies, are performed regularly by companies around the world.

“…We know one very important thing about Balanchine,” said the critic Edwin Denby in 1983, “he changed the way we look at dance. Very few people in the history of any art have that kind of impact” (492).

Several months before his death, Balanchine was presented with the very first copy of Choreography by George Balanchine: A Catalogue of Works.  No other choreographer’s work before or since has been the subject of a true catalogue raisonné.  The book was brought to his hospital room on Christmas Eve, 1982. When the catalogue was presented to Balanchine, he reached out and placed his finger on the image blazoned on its title page. It is the lyre of Orpheus as designed by Pavel Tchelitchev for the fabled production of Gluck’s Orpheus in 1936. After Balanchine’s death, on April 30, 1983, this same image, the lyre of Orpheus, was inscribed on his tombstone.

List of Works Cited

(Balanchine:) Balanchine, George, revised by George Balanchine and Francis Mason.  Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets.  New York: Doubleday, 1977.

(Danilova:)  Danilova, Alexandra.  Choura: the memoirs of Alexandra Danilova.  New York: Knopf, 1986.

(Denby:)  Denby, Edwin, ed. Roger Cornfield and William MacKay.  Dance Writings.  Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1986.

(Dunning:)  Dunning, Jennifer. "But First a School." New York: Viking, 1985.

(Garafola:)  Garafola, Lynn (ed.), with Eric Foner. Dance for a City. New York: Columbia University, 1999.

(Gottlieb:)  Gottlieb, Robert.  George Balanchine: the ballet maker.  New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

(Homans:)  Homans, Jennifer.  Apollo’s Angels: a History of Ballet.  New York: Random House, 2011.

(Jowitt:)  Jowitt, Deborah.  Time and the Dancing Image.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

(Kirstein:)  Kirstein, Lincoln. The New York City Ballet. New York: Knopf, 1973. Text-only reprint, Thirty Years, with added material through 1978. New York: Knopf, 1978.

(Mason:)  Mason, Francis, ed.  I Remember Balanchine: recollections of the ballet master by those who knew him.  New York: Doubleday, 1991.

(Reynolds:)  Reynolds, Nancy and Malcolm McCormick.  No Fixed Points.  Dance in the Twentieth Century.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

(Tallchief:)  Tallchief, Maria, with Larry Kaplan.  Maria Tallchief.  America’s Prima Ballerina.  New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

(Taper:)  Taper, Bernard.  Balanchine, a Biography.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

(Volkov:)  Volkov, Solomon.  Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky: Interviews with George Balanchine.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.


Damien Jack formerly worked in publishing and as a journalist in New York City. He is currently a student at Portland State University in Portland, OR, where he is studying dance history and writing with a focus on 20th century dance.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books and Articles

Balanchine, George.  Choreography by George Balanchine: A Catalogue of Works.  New York: Viking Press, 1984.

Balanchine, George, revised by George Balanchine and Francis Mason.  Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets.  New York: Doubleday, 1977.

Buckle, Richard and John Taras. George Balanchine, Ballet Master: a biography.  New York: Random House, 1988.

Chujoy, Anatole. The New York City Ballet.  New York: Knopf, 1953.

D’Amboise, Jacques.  I Was a Dancer.  A Memoir.  New York: Knopf, 2011.

Danilova, Alexandra.  Choura: the memoirs of Alexandra Danilova.  New York: Knopf, 1986.

Denby, Edwin, ed. Roger Cornfield and William MacKay.  Dance Writings.  Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1986.

Dunning, Jennifer. "But First a School." New York: Viking, 1985.

Duberman, Martin. The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein. New York: Knopf, 2007.

Garafola, Lynn (ed.), with Eric Foner. Dance for a City. New York: Columbia University, 1999.

Garis, Robert.  Following Balanchine.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Goldner, Nancy. Balanchine Variations. Gainesville, Florida: University of Florida Press, 2008.

-----.  More Balanchine Variations.  Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011.

Gottlieb, Robert.  George Balanchine: the ballet maker.  New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

Joseph, Charles M.  Stravinsky & Balanchine: a journey of invention.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Kirstein, Lincoln. The New York City Ballet. New York: Knopf, 1973. Text-only reprint, Thirty Years, with added material through 1978. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Mason, Francis, ed.  I Remember Balanchine: recollections of the ballet master by those who knew him.  New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Reynolds, Nancy and Malcolm McCormick.  No Fixed Points.  Dance in the Twentieth Century.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

-----, intro. Lincoln Kirstein.  Repertory in Review.  New York: Dial Press, 1977.

Schorer, Suki, with Russell Lee.  Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique.  New York: Knopf, 1999.

Tallchief, Maria, with Larry Kaplan.  Maria Tallchief.  America’s Prima Ballerina.  New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Taper, Bernard.  Balanchine, a Biography.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Volkov, Solomon.  Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky: Interviews woith George Balanchine.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Moving Image

The George Balanchine Foundation Video Archives


Balanchine. Prod. Judy Kinberg; Dir. Merrill Brockway. DVD. Kultur, 2004.

Two-part documentary with excerpts of more than thirty Balanchine ballets.

Balanchine Celebration Part One. Prod. Judy Kinberg; Dir. Matthew Diamond. VHS. Nonesuch Records, 1996. Excerpts from Apollo, Scherzo à la Russe (complete), Square Dance, Theme and Variations, Union Jack, Vienna Waltzes, and Walpurgisnacht Ballet. Choreography by George Balanchine.

Balanchine Celebration Part Two. Prod. Judy Kinberg; Dir. Matthew Diamond. VHS. Nonesuch Records, 1996. Excerpts from Agon, Stars and Stripes, Western Symphony, and Who Cares?  Choreography by George Balanchine.

Choreography by Balanchine Part One. Tzigane, Divertimento No. 15 (excerpts), The Four Temperaments. Jewels (excerpts), and Stravinsky Violin Concerto. Prod. Emile Ardolino; Dir. Merrill Brockway. DVD. Nonesuch/Dance in America, 2004.

Choreography by Balanchine Part Two. Prod. Emile Ardolino; Dir. Merrill Brockway. DVD. Nonesuch/Dance in America, 2004. Chaconne (excerpts), Prodigal Son, Ballo della Regina, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Elégie (from Suite No. 3), Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux.

Dancing for Mr. B—Six Balanchine Ballerinas. Dir. Anne Belle. DVD. Nonesuch Records, 2008.  Maria Tallchief, Mary Ellen Moylan, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Merrill Ashley, and Darci Kistler in interviews and brief performance clips.

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Prod. Robert A. Krasnow, Robert Hurwitz; Dir. Emile Ardolino. DVD. Warner Bros. Family Entertainment, 1993.

Jacques d’Amboise: Portrait of a Great American Dancer. Prod. Allan Altman. DVD. Video Artists International (VAI), 2006.

Apollo (complete), Stars and Stripes (excerpt), Filling Station.

Man Who Dances: Edward Villella. Prod. Robert Drew. VHS. Direct Cinema Limited, 1968.

Excerpts from Tarantella, Divertimento Brillante (from Glinkiana), Rubies (from Jewels) (Balanchine).

Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze. Choreography by George Balanchine. Prod. Catherine Tatge; Dir. Merrill Brockway. VHS. Nonesuch Records, 1995.

Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse. Prod. Anne Belle, Catherine Tambini; Dir. Anne Belle, Deborah Dickson. DVD. Seahorse Films, 2001. Excerpts from Apollo, Meditation, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Don Quixote (Balanchine).

Online Resources

New York City Ballet:


The George Balanchine Trust:


Choreography by George Balanchine: A Catalogue of Works.


The George Balanchine Foundation Projects


Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive


Apollo, choreography by Balanchine, music by Stravinsky, with Nikolaj Hübbe and Darcy Kistler (2002).

Concerto Barocco, choreography by George Balanchine (1941), music by Johann Sebastian Bach (music added to video in 2007), with Christiane Bering, Virginia Johnson, and Richard Carter (1956).

Firebird, choreography by George Balanchine (1949), music by Igor Stravinsky (accompaniment by Dianne Chilgren added to video in 1995), (1951).

La Valse, choreography by George Balanchine (1951), music by Maurice Ravel (piano accompaniment by Dianne Chilgren added to video in 1994), (1951).

Lincoln Kirstein bibliography: