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New York City Ballet - More Resources

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New York City Ballet

By Nancy Reynolds

New York City Ballet gave its first performance on October 11, 1948, with three masterpieces by George Balanchine, The Four Temperaments, Orpheus, and Symphony in C.  In October, 2011, it enters its 64th year.  The company performs on its home stage at Lincoln Center for 21 weeks a year, averaging 7 performances weekly.  For the 2011/12 year there are 91 dancers on the roster, employed for 39 weeks, and the repertory may encompass as many as 75 different ballets in a given year.  With such a schedule, the company has become a fact of New York City’s artistic life.  Its presence, like those of such cultural institutions as the Metropolitan Opera, is taken for granted.  This is a remarkable achievement.

These numbers are impressive in themselves, but beyond its sheer survival, New York City Ballet has a special distinction as the house of Balanchine.  For 35 years the company provided him with a living laboratory for the development of his art.  Jerome Robbins also contributed greatly to the artistic profile of the New York City Ballet.

The story of the company’s beginnings is well known.  In 1933, American arts patron Lincoln Kirstein, just 26, was introduced to Balanchine in London and persuaded him to immigrate to America to create a company and a school.  Kirstein was taking an enormous risk; a surer bet would have been for him to approach the best-known choreographer of the day, Léonide Massine, rather than Balanchine; moreover, as is now known from the recent publication of excerpts from Kirstein’s diaries, Balanchine was in extremely poor health (Duberman, esp. Chaps. 10, 13).  Further, Kirstein, although independently wealthy to a degree, by no means had the resources to keep a ballet company afloat on his own.  He had to beg and borrow from his friends and family from the start.

It took Balanchine and Kirstein 15 years to establish a company with some promise of permanence.   In 1948, their small, elitist, and privately funded group, Ballet Society, which presented a mere four programs yearly, became a resident constituent of the New York City Center of Music and Drama and was rechristened New York City Ballet.

During the course of this 15-year journey, for a series of (mostly) temporary troupes, Balanchine created some of his most important works: Serenade (1934), Concerto Barocco (1941), Symphony in C (1947), The Four Temperaments (1946), and Orpheus (1948).  His aesthetic philosophy was apparent from the start.  In the briefest of terms, it was that movement is its own justification.  He also believed that distinguished music was essential and that a dance work did not need plot, decor, or stars.  To produce dancers able to perform the works he envisaged, he trained them to move with speed and energy and to eat up space.  He paid particular attention to quick and precise footwork.  He also demanded lyricism and delicacy according to the occasion.

New York City Ballet almost did not survive.  The first season was made possible only by a loan from Kirstein’s mother.  It was not until Balanchine’s Nutcracker of 1954 that more solid financing was achieved, and that production has been a major money-maker for the company ever since, setting a trend that has been followed throughout the United States.  In 1964, with the move from City Center to the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, with a new board of directors and a dedicated fundraising department, the company began to assume some of the characteristics of an institution that might outlive its founders.

Highlights of the City Center years included Balanchine’s Firebird (1949), showcasing the brilliant dancing of Maria Tallchief; his seminal Agon (1957), a spare work to a partially atonal Stravinsky score (Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky were Balanchine’s favorite composers); revivals of his Diaghilev ballets Prodigal Son (1950) and Apollo (1951); and such “fun” yet substantial pieces as Western Symphony (1954) and Stars and Stripes (1958).  

Like most great artists, Balanchine freely “broke” his own rules.  While continuing, with Episodes (1959), Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1963), Stravinsky Violin Concerto (1972), and Kammermusik (1978), to pursue the “stripped” aesthetic of The Four Temperaments and Agon, as time went on he also created more lavish productions, some multi-act, with costumes, scenery, and plots or themes.  Among these are Liebeslieder Walzer (1960), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962), Jewels (1967), Vienna Waltzes (1977), and Davidsbündlertänze (1980).  He also created a number of bravura display pieces.  A watershed from his late years was the Stravinsky Festival of 1972, during which the company presented 22 new works, four of them masterpieces by Balanchine.  Few choreographers have been as versatile.

Robbins, a young and phenomenally gifted Broadway and ballet choreographer and former dancer with American Ballet Theatre, cast his lot with Balanchine in 1949 and created such important works as The Cage (1951), Afternoon of a Faun (1953), and The Concert (1956).  After an absence, he returned in triumph with Dances at a Gathering (1969), followed by The Goldberg Variations (1971), Glass Pieces (1983), Antique Epigraphs (1984), and a revival of Les Noces (1998), among several others.  Robbins’s creative approach was an excellent foil for that of Balanchine.  His robust choreography, feeling for vernacular movement, and ability to mirror the social concerns of the day brought a different dynamic to the repertory.

On Balanchine’s death in 1983, Robbins was named co-ballet master in chief with Peter Martins, one of the company’s most gallant principal dancers.  Martins became sole director in 1990, and in 1998 Robbins died.  Clearly determined to maintain New York City Ballet’s reputation as a “choreographers’ company,” Martins organized several festivals of new work.  He proved himself a prolific and inventive choreographer, showing a particular affinity for the music of Michael Torke (Ecstatic Orange, 1987; Ash, 1991) and John Adams (Fearful Symmetries, 1990; Hallelujah Junction, 2002).   He also choreographed (or re-choreographed) the classics The Sleeping Beauty (1991) and Swan Lake(1999), and created a new Romeo + Juliet  (2007), thereby, in combination with Balanchine’s multi-act pieces, giving the company a modest “full-length” classical wing.  He boldly commissioned work from a multitude of choreographers, including two considered the present-day leaders in the ballet world, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, as well as work by such choreographers from other dance disciplines as Angelin Preljocaj, William Forsythe, Paul Taylor, Lar Lubovitch, Twyla Tharp, and Susan Stroman.  For the 2000/2001 season, Wheeldon was appointed to the new post of Artist in Residence, which he occupied for 8 years, during which he created two of his strongest and most atmospheric works, Polyphonia (2001) and After the Rain (2005).   Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH (2008) and Namouna: a Grand Divertissement (2010) brought a wholly new, Soviet-tinged sensibility to the repertory.

Under Martins’s direction, New York City Ballet has remained a Balanchine-oriented company.  The master’s works, along with those of Robbins, are programmed regularly every season.  A retrospective of Robbins’s work was held in 1990, and extensive Balanchine “celebrations” were staged in 1993 and 2004.  In 2011, Balanchine “black and white” weeks in New York and Washington were enthusiastically received.  Despite showcasing a wide variety of lively choreographic activity since Balanchine’s death, the company cannot be said to have developed a distinct post-Balanchine profile.  In the view of history, its most important contribution may well be the guardianship of the Balanchine legacy.


Nancy Reynolds, a former member of the New York City Ballet, is director of research at The George Balanchine Foundation, where she conceived and continues to direct the video archives program. Her books include Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet and No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century (co-authored with Malcolm McCormick).

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

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

Costas. Balanchine: Celebrating a Life in Dance. Windsor, Connecticut: Tide-Mark, 2003.

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.

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

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

Gottlieb, Robert. George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

Jowitt, Deborah.  Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2004.

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.

Reynolds, Nancy. Repertory in Review. New York: Dial, 1977.

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

Taper, Bernard.  Balanchine: A Biography.  With a New Epilogue.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Vaill, Amanda.  Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins.  New York: Broadway Books, 2006.

In addition, a number of illustrious New York City Ballet dancers with have written autobiographies, including Jacques d’Amboise, Merrill Ashley, Allegra Kent, Edward Villella, Peter Martins, and Suzanne Farrell.

Online Resources

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List compiled by Nancy Reynolds

New York City Ballet: www.nycballet.com

The Balanchine Catalogue. The George Balanchine Foundation, 2007. www.balanchine.org

The George Balanchine Trust: www.balanchine.com

The Jerome Robbins Foundation: http://jeromerobbins.org

Lincoln Kirstein bibliography: http://www.lincolnkirstein.org

Moving Image

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List compiled by Nancy Reynolds

Accent on the Off Beat. Creation of Jazz (Six Syncopated Movements), music: Wynton Marsalis; choreography: Peter Martins.  Dirs. Susan Froemke, Peter Gelb; Dir. of ballet sequence: Carol Stowe. DVD. Kultur, n.d.

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. 

Bringing Balanchine Back: The Historic Return to Russia.  Dir. Richard Blanshard.  DVD. City Lights Media, 2008.

Brief excerpts from Symphony in Three Movements, Symphony in C, Western Symphony,

Serenade, Agon (choreography by Balanchine); Glass Pieces (choreography by Jerome Robbins);  Hallelujah Junction (choreography by Peter Martins).

Choreography by Balanchine Part OneTzigane, 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

Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About.  Prod., Dir. Judy Kinberg. DVD. Kultur, 2009.

Brief excerpts from several ballets and musical comedy dance numbers by Robbins. 

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

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

NY Export: Opus Jazz.  Choreography by Jerome Robbins.  DVD. Factory 25, 2010.

Peter Martins: A Dancer.  Dir. Jorgen Leth. DVD. Kultur, 1979.

Excerpts from Chaconne, Agon, Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux (Balanchine); Calcium Light Night (Martins), Afternoon of a Faun (Robbins [rehearsal]).

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).